Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Director

 As a writer of crime, I love reading about crime and the history of fighting crime. The fascination of crime is that such acts represent the breakdown of society, if only temporarily. Government can pass all the laws it wants but unless we each abide by the social contract--a belief in fairness and that the rules protect us and apply to everyone--then civilization becomes meaningless. Ultimately, every crime story is then a search for justice and a reason to believe in the social contract. 

So in my interest of writing about crime and the pursuit of law and order, I recently finished The Director: My Years Assisting J. Edgar Hoover by Paul Letersky with Gordon Dillow (Simon & Schuster). As expected, the book provided a lot of insight into the inner workings of the FBI, especially details about its Director, the still controversial J Edgar Hoover. We got the lowdown on his rumored homosexual romance with Clyde Tolson (there wasn't one), his secretary Helen Gandy (as keeper of "the secret files" was in her time one of the most feared personalities in Washington DC), and Hoover's contentious relationships with all the US presidents during his tenure. While Letersky soft-shoes around the excesses of the FBI in terms of operations against political opponents (to include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr) and its involvement in COINTELPRO (government surveillance of American citizens), he does admit the agency's use of "black bag jobs," meaning warrantless searches, breakins, and illegal wire taps--the spice of a good crime novel. By the end of the book, the social contract holds firm, mostly.


Friday, January 27, 2023

Post-Pandemic Outreach

Frankie, here.

Today's post is more to invite discussion than to offer any conclusions I've reach. I'd like to hear any thoughts  you have. I've been thinking -- as my title says --  about what form(s) of outreach I should be engaged in now that a pandemic has upended our lives. In a world in which artificial intelligence was recently  a plot element on a day time drama ("soap opera") with a child's toy used to substitute one voice for another -- or in real life where a robot might roll up to your table and take your order at a restaurant -- the future is here. And much of it is both scary and really cool.

But getting back to my dilemma -- with limited time and budget, I'm trying to reach as large an audience as possible. This time I don't want to wait until the thriller I'm excited about and hope my agent will be able to find a home is ready for release. I want to be proactive. I want to engage with potential readers and build "excitement" so that they are eagerly waiting for the book. Some authors are excellent at doing this. They remain in contact with readers in between books. This time, I want to approach my next book and first standalone with the same professionalism.

I had began to feel comfortable on /Twitter. Then, with the pandemic, I was too depressed by what was happening to go on daily or even weekly and share news or thoughts. Now that I'm ready to go back to Twitter, it is not the same as it once was because of the controversy around the change in ownership. 

I could use TikTok, but I have nothing to do in that space.  I think I would be more comfortable on YouTube, but having a channel is a commitment to having regular content to offer an audience. I would have to have a theme that would make the effort required -- and the technical knowledge I would have to acquire -- worthwhile. 

Or, I could go "old school" and go out in the summer and do some shorter trips to bookstores and libraries. Except gas is expensive -- and by now many readers are accustomed to interacting from the comfort of their home. And it is easier for authors to do a virtual book tour from our own armchairs. All we need to do is book some stone stops on other people's websites. We can hire a comfort to set it all up. I've done that. It was easy. But would  it work as well now with so many people doing tours,

Perhaps the best way to reach out to readers and reach as large as audience as possible for a new book is simply to up my game. To continue to post here and use Twitter to draw an audience to the site for my posts and those of my colleagues. To book a virtual tour on other people's websites when the next book is forthcomiing. I could also start to blog about my research on my website. I could even start putting out a newsletter. I've been planning to do that for years. But I want it to be something that readers will enjoy receiving. I could book more virtual events to supplement the in-person events I might be invited to do or able to book. And continue to attend crime fiction conventions and request panel assignments.

Of course, as always writing the best book possible seems to be the starting place. Now, as even before the pandemic, we all have the option of taking our publication fate into our own hands. We can become independent publishers without the past stigma. Many writers have done exaactly that. So, should I also get my first two manuscripts out of my desk drawer and see if my agent thinks we can sell the revised versions to an editor. Even though I'm a better writer now, would the investment in time be worth the effort if I am not sure my agent could place them. But I could hire an editor and go independent, becoming a "hybrid writer" at least for those two books. I wouldn't even have to update them. They might work even better now because they are almost historicals written at a time when the characters would not have been expected to take out their phones to text or the GPS to get to where they were going. 

I know this matter of outreach  has been a subject discussed across social media. Has anyone reached any conclusions? Thrown up your hands in despair? Hired someone else to do it all or supplement what your publisher done? Found software that allows you to do it all virtually without breaking a sweat? If so, please share.    



Wednesday, January 25, 2023

My Year in Books, 2022

 

by Sybil Johnson

I hope your week is going well. Internet problems at home has forced me to do this post from my local library. The view of the ocean is really nice.

Anyway, it’s time for my annual reading wrap-up.

In 2022 I “consumed” 93 books, 26 fewer than last year. Consumed because it’s a combination of listening to audiobooks and reading. The largest category was mystery/crime at 60%. The majority of those were cozy mysteries at 39%. I continued my reading of Nancy Drew books in order, reading 10 of them last year. These are mostly the 1960s/1970s editions, but I did read a few of the 1930s/40s versions. Mostly the ones where the stories drastically changed. Interesting to see the differences. 20% of the books I read were in the non-fiction category, up from last year.

I listened to 4 audiobooks, 16 fewer than last year. Two of those were books in the Sherlock Holmes in Minnesota mysteries by Larry Millett. I found them to be highly enjoyable stories. The narrator is top-notch on these.

In the cozy mystery category, I’m continuing my trend of reading paranormal cozies, including The Vampire Knitting Club mysteries I started last year. In the non paranormal area, I also love the Lighthouse Library series by Eva Gates aka Vicky Delany. I highly recommend it.

In the historical mystery category, one of my favorites was Execution by S. J. Parris. The story is set in England in the Elizabethan era. There’s a plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne and a death that may or may not be connected. This is not the first book in the series, but the first I’ve read. There was enough of the back story, I didn’t have a problem understanding what was going on.

One of my favorites in the non-fiction category was The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson. I had no idea that fly-tying was such a big thing and could result in a theft from a museum. Another interesting one was Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. This is the book the Netflix series, Mindhunter, is based on. A very interesting read.

If you’re interested in learning how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs, I highly recommend Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners by Bill Manley. It was a nice review for me. I wish I’d had this book when I first started studying Middle Egyptian.

Another great non-fiction book was Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jonnes. It chronicles the building of the Eiffel Tower and the exposition it was a part of. Very, very interesting.

I’ve also gotten into the Sandhamn murder series by Viveca Sten. Originally written in Swedish, I’ve been reading the English translations. I would categorize them as police procedurals set on an island in the archipelago. There’s a Swedish TV series based on these books, which I highly recommend. I watched the episodes through my local library via hoopladigital.

That’s my summary. I’m curious, did you find yourself reading more last year than in previous years? Did you read different things?

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Magic of Best Sellers

 by Charlotte Hinger

The making of bestsellers fascinates me. My wonderful agent, Claire Smith (b.1934-d.1998)  once said publishers couldn't hype a book onto the bestseller list. It took buzz. Buzz is when everyone is talking about (and buying) a book. This year's sensation was Lessons in Chemistry. It isn't a great book. It isn't an important book, but I swear it was the most satisfying book I've read in years. 

I loved it. But why? Without knowing the reason, I bought it in hardcover for two granddaughters. 

Another huge bestseller years ago was a non-fiction book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  I wanted to read this book and tried to get it through the library. Believe it or not, there were already 147 holds on the copy. I wasn't willing to be the 148th in line and ordered it through Amazon. Not only was I willing to pay good money for the Japanese author's slender little instruction manual, I had already listened to it on an audiobook. I had even started folding underwear and my socks vertically and started sorting items for Goodwill by category.

My life is basically the same. I do some things well and some things poorly. I have good days and bad days, but mostly my days are pretty satisfying and on the whole I'm a happy person. I have a lot to be thankful for. The book had some great hints, but the "life-changing magic" seemed to bypass me.

So what in the world happened to make such a simple little book zoom to top of best-seller lists? I think that the author was Japanese lent credibility. We associate Japanese décor with uncluttered simplicity. Simplicity is appealing to those of us who are overburdened with the demands of our stressful societies and our plethora of electronic gadgets.

The book has a serene cover with a blue sky. It promises happiness. Serenity. A perfectly ordered house with everything in its place. There is a compelling narrative. The author, Marie Kondo, started down this decluttering path when she was in kindergarten. At the age of five, she could not wait to get home after school and begin organizing her things. It's her passion. She built a business out of organizing stuff.

She's the ultimate authority and very opinionated. No one else could have written from the same point of view.

But making a fortune from tidying up! Who would have thought?

This is a simple book.

There is a lesson here for beginning novelists who complain that they are stuck in ordinary towns with ordinary uninspiring people. The greatest writers see the stuff of stories right in front of them. It doesn't take great adventures to come up with great fiction. And the same could be said of non-fiction.

I write about Kansas. Go on. Say something. I dare you. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

Twilight Zone and Writing Truths



By Thomas Kies

Anne Serling, daughter of Rod Serling, posted a letter her father wrote to a high school student back in 1961,  It read:

The following comment would best represent how I feel about writing: Write and keep writing. Develop your own style. Respect another writer but never imitate him. Learn patience because it is as necessary as a typewriter—and never be afraid to speak out and say what you believe. This is the function of the writer—to call the truths as he sees them.

Sincerely

Rod Serling

Later on, Serling said, “The writer’s role is to be a menacer of the public’s conscience. He must have a position, a point of view. He must see the arts as a vehicle of social criticism and he must focus the issues of his time.”

When I was a kid, I recall sitting on the couch in my grandparents’ cottage on Waneta Lake in upstate New York watching shows like Ed Sullivan, Lawrence Welk, My Three Sons and Gunsmoke.  But my all-time favorite program was the Twilight Zone.  Rod Serling’s introduction as those surreal images flashed and faded on our screen scared the bejesus out of me.  “You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!”

At the time, I thought those episodes were written and produced just to give viewers the willies.  In reality, they were social commentary. 

In the episode called He’s Alive, a young Dennis Hopper plays a character who is clearly a fascist. He gets guidance from an unseen creature hidden by the shadows.  Eventually, he’s persuaded to kill, but ends up dead himself.  It’s finally revealed that the creature was the spirit of Adolf Hitler. 

Rod Serling's closing monologue warns that while Hitler may be dead, his spirit is kept alive everywhere where bigotry, racism, and white supremacy exists.

In an episode called Number 12 Looks Just Like You, young people are strongly encouraged to undergo a transformation. They have a limited number of features to choose from since in this world, everyone looks very much alike.  The upshot to this is “When everyone is beautiful, no one is.” It's a world that simply doesn't tolerate people who are different. 

In Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, an idyllic neighborhood is suddenly cut off from the rest of the world, power goes out, and there’s no phone, radio, or television service.  Rumors, theories, and false information run rampant, and the neighbors turn into a violent mob. 

Does that sound faintly like January 6th?

I dare say that every episode of Twilight Zone had a message of some kind.  Some were banal and some were daring, especially for the time in which they were written and broadcast. But they all had a truth they were telling.

The point of this blog is that as writers, we not only should be telling a damn good story, but we should let our conscience guide us as well.  I try to do that with my books, and sometimes run afoul of readers.  Not many, but some.  

One of the guidelines Stephen King has about writing, is, “What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all . . . as long as you tell the truth.” 

Friday, January 20, 2023

Superstitions


By Johnny D. Boggs

I just made an emergency run to the grocery.

I was out of blueberries. Had gone days without any. Which explained why this week has been so lousy. 

Sources for magazine assignments blowing me off. Outlining a novel not coming together as I’d hoped. Sentence I just wrote reading like crud.

Here’s my morning ritual: Get up. Let the doggies out and feed the big one. Hit the coffeemaker. Shower. Get dressed. And, most importantly, make myself a smoothie.

The ingredients vary, depending on what’s available. Raspberries. Strawberries. Blackberries. Spinach. Celery. Tomatoes. Oranges. Peach. Grapefruit. Lemon. Chile. Carrots. Apple. Cucumber. Zucchini. Brazil nuts. Protein powder.

And 20 blueberries.

For good luck.

I am not so insecure and insane that I must have a 20-blueberry smoothie when I’m on the road. When I’m home, however, I remain fairly certain that failure to include those 20 blueberries dooms me to a frustrating day at the Mac. That the Kansas City Royals and South Carolina Gamecocks will stink if they’re playing. That the check I’m expecting won’t be in the mail. 

If I happen to have only 23 blueberries left, I’ll likely add the extra three. Maybe.

A 20-blueberry smoothie could be a ritual because I happen to like blueberries, though, as a native of South Carolina, I’m a much bigger fan of peaches. Maybe the specific number is just a tradition. Perhaps it’s comforting.

Or I could be superstitious.

But I have no problem stepping on cracks in sidewalks. I don’t worry if a black cat walks in front of me. Thirteen is just another number. There’s no rabbit’s foot around. I won’t walk under a ladder, but that’s because my dad was a building contractor, and there might be someone on that ladder, or there might be a hammer or a gallon of paint atop the ladder, and I don’t want a carpenter or a hammer falling on my head or being bathed in paint if I accidentally slip and hit that ladder.

When I coached Little League, I would try to wear the same socks, shoes, etc., if we were winning. Once we lost, the mojo was gone and I’d find new duds or wash the luck back into what I had been wearing. I would chastise anyone who started packing up equipment before the game was over.

And I will never step on a foul line.

Superstitions apply to writing, too.

The first book I ever sold was mailed (back when we actually mailed typed manuscripts), per the publisher’s guidelines, in 12-point Monaco. Most people that I run into these days have never even heard of Monaco, but I use it all the time. Well, if a publisher demands 10-point Times New Roman or 14-point Calibri, I’ll try to comply. If I happen to forget, I just think, Hey, Editors, all y’all have to do is hit “Select All,” and change the font and point size, silly.

Then when the editors have a bad day, they have only themselves to blame.



Thursday, January 19, 2023

One Hundred Years Ago Today

My father and mother, 1947

 Donis here. January 19 is a big birthday date in my little corner of the world. Today is my brother-in-law Chris DeWelt's birthday. Happy birthday, Chris! I'm also wishing a happy birthday to my friend Judy Starbuck. But this year is special, because today would be my late father's 100th birthday.

Carl Casey was born at home, in Haskell, Oklahoma, my grandmother's second child after my aunt Lucille. My grandmother told me that the doctor used chloroform on her for her second child, and she was very happy about it. However, she said that when the baby came, her sister Mary, who was attending the birth, said, "Look at them* eyes!" Grandma was alarmed and tried to see what was with the kid's eyes, but she was so groggy from the chloroform that she fell asleep. Turns out my dad was born with his blue eyes wide open, looking around curiously (according to Aunt Mary, not the most reliable of witnesses.)

That wouldn't be out of character, though. My dad was full of life, outgoing, rather boyish, and playful. He was a wonderful daddy for little kids. My grandmother told me that he was "the playing-est kid she ever saw," and he only stopped playing with his friends outside because they all got too old and he couldn't find anybody willing to play with him.

...One year later...

My father didn't live anywhere near long enough to even think about celebrating his 100th birthday. He died of a sudden heart attack in 1967, when he was 44 years old. He left a young wife and 4 children. Our mother was beyond devastated. It colored the rest of her life, though once she managed to live through the early horror of it all, she did a good job of raising the children on her own. My dad was a 19-to-23-year-old Marine posted in the Pacific theatre during WWII, and even if, as far as any of us kids saw, he was a cheerful person, he was also fatalistic about the fragility of life. So even though he died so early, he had so much life insurance and property that my mother never had to work and was able to pay for all of us to go to college. She never remarried, or even dated after he died.

I was a teenager when he died, the eldest. My youngest sibling was 18 months old. He's in his 50s now, and never really knew our father. Even so, my brother notes that he grew up in a sad household. Our dad's death changed the course of all our lives.  I know it's a major reason I write the kind of books I write, set in the time and place they are set - the time and place of my father's family, a time and place he would have been familiar with. 

Carl has been gone much longer than he lived, but his short life was everything to me, my siblings,  all his family, and many other people, as well. So happy birthday in heaven, Daddy. We all still think about you a lot.

______

* I never once heard my grandmother or any of her many siblings use the word "those".

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The power and perils of technology

 This is going to be a short post about the brilliance and frustration of technology. AKA the domino effect. Recently, my family got me a beautiful new Apple Watch in a sophisticated blue colour. As instructed, I connected it to my iPhone and started to explore it and discovered it was lacking some features I wanted. So I hunted around in Apple Support and found I had to upgrade the watch's OS, which I did, and then it was perfect. But it decided to also talk to my laptop, which I hadn't expected. It could turn it on, for example, and it made my phone go dark and put it in bedtime mode after I told the watch when I planned to be in bed.

All this was fine until this week, when Facebook started to go nuts, jumping around whenever I tried to scroll through my feed. Rebooting Safari and even turning off the whole computer didn't help. I upgraded the laptop's OS to the latest. Still no dice. So it was back to the internet, where I found lots of people had complained about FB skipping and there were numerous websites and youtube videos claiming to have fixes. I found the most common ones and did one of those; I cleared the browser's history. I was about to clear all my "caches" as recommended, but was leery of losing a whole lot of data and function.

Then I noticed many posts of FB complaining about the same thing. So I held off on the cache purge. This morning FB seemed to be behaving better, but my calendar reminded me it was my time to post on Type M. I clicked on the link on my banner, then on the little orange icon at the top, which always takes me to the admin page. This time... nothing. It just took me to the blogger main page. Blogger had never heard of me, I didn't have a blog, did I want to create a blog?

I fiddled around with Google accounts and passwords, queried my blog mates and finally got back on the internet, this time finding the Blogger "Help Centre". Here there was a useful link about "Why can't I sign in to my blog?" Essentially I had to be invited back in by the administrator, and once she did that - Thank you, Charlotte!- here I am. Out of Blogger exile. Apparently in clearing my history, I had also erased the crucial connection that allowed me admin access to the blog. 

All of this because Facebook freaked out and I ventured down the treacherous path of trying a DIY fix. Fixing one thing (in fact, it didn't fix it) caused a cascade of other things to go wrong, and I have lost the better part of two days, not to mention considerable hair, trying to figure out how to fix them, instead of writing the erudite blog on storylines which John's post inspired and I had planned. 

So instead you're getting this blog on the daily small frustrations that eat away at our time and creativity. I also wonder what other unpleasant screw-ups are waiting for me that I have yet to discover. Did I inadvertently erase some other crucial piece of information, or is it all the fault of my new Apple Watch, which looks so innocent and pretty displaying the time on my wrist. 

No wonder i like to write my first draft with a pen on yellow pads of paper. 

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Narrative Tension


This week, I want to share a writing activity that I’ve used with students often. It’s one they tell me they return to for review. If you try your hand at this, I hope you might share it with me.


What’s My Back-Story? A Plot-line Activity

Must every story be told in a linear narrative style? No way. Readers want a scene that allows them to figure out the story on their own. So how do we tell stories cinematically? By using scenes to convey the storyline. This allows the writer to use flashback sequences while starting in the middle of the action and continuously pushing the story forward.

Activity: Read the following plot-line and determine which numbers (there are several, after all) at which you could begin.

Carefully consider how you will include the information that came before your starting point? And decide how much of that previous information you need to include.

Write a first- or third-person opening scene (narration and dialogue) beginning at one point on the line and dropping in the necessary previous material as the scene moves forward.



  1. Mary Howard grew up in Readfield, Maine, the daughter of a doctor.
  2. She went to the University of Maine at Orono, where she studied history, graduating with a 3.5 GPA, and met Steven Smith, a political science major, whom she married following graduation.
  3. After graduation and one year of marriage, Mary dutifully helps Steven launch his political career.
  4. Mary, now in her mid-30s, helps Steven becomes a Maine State Legislator and raises their three kids.
  5. Unbeknownst to Mary, Steven begins an affair with a fellow Maine State Legislator.
  6. Mary gets a phone call from an intern in Steven’s office, who tells her of the affair.
  7. Mary confronts Steven. This takes every ounce of courage she has. In 15 years of marriage, she has morphed from the confident, bubbly Mary Howard, to the housewife of powerful Maine State Legislator Steven Smith. As his career has taken off, her identity somehow got lost.
  8. Mary listens as Steven tells her the affair is just “a sideline” that “this is how some political marriages are.”
  9. Mary packs her bags, grabs her kids (now ages 11, 9, and 7), and walks outside, determined to start a new life.
  10. She drives to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place she’s only seen on TV.
  11. In Santa Fe, she enrolls the kids in school, gets a job in a bookstore, and hires attorney Phil Rogers, who is 35 and single.
  12. Mary doesn’t know what to do when Rogers asks her to dinner six months after she’s been in Santa Fe and following what was a surprisingly easy out-of-court settlement with Steven. She wonders what message a date would send to her kids. Would her acceptance tell them that they are all starting over? That it’s okay to move on? Or would they think she’s callus?

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Happy New Year

 

by Sybil Johnson

Happy New Year to everyone! Sorry I didn’t post a couple weeks ago. I was in Seattle visiting family. We didn’t have a power outage, but there was an ice storm that added unwelcome excitement to our time there. Luckily, we flew in on the Thursday before Christmas, which was pretty okay, just a little icy. Then the ice storm hit on Friday, which dropped the temperature significantly and closed down the airport for a bit. So glad we weren’t flying that day. The ice was the thickest I’ve ever seen it, like a pane of glass. Saturday dawned and temps went up into the upper 40s or so and all was well again.

I spent most of December doing stuff around the house, including making roman shades, and ignoring writing. I decided I’d start off January by organizing myself a bit, including going through my Inbox and actually reading things people sent me and filing things away that I wanted to keep. I have a tendency, if I don’t immediately have the time, to keep messages with links to look at later. Only later often doesn’t come.

I found these gems waiting for me in my Inbox. 

  • I discovered that I’d missed my two billion second date. That’s the day I’ve been alive for two billion seconds. The husband sent me a message giving me my 1, 2 and 3 billion second dates. The first was in 1989, the second just this past July 30. Don’t remember why he calculated these, but remember we were both math/computer science or computer science majors so this is the kind of thing we enjoy.
  • Someone I worked with at Xerox long ago sent me some pics from the 1980s. In them was one of me from the early to mid-80s. That’s my best guess, anyway. So here I am at my desk.

  • A friend I study the Coptic language with sent me this interesting article on the Coptic church in the US. There are a number of Coptic churches in the Los Angeles area. I hadn’t noticed them until I started studying Coptic. The language is a liturgical language now, only used in the Coptic Church. That’s the Bohairic dialect. I have been studying the Sahidic dialect. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/coptic-church/555515/
  • Duolingo sent me my statistics for learning Swedish this past year. I did 966 lessons, spending 4226 minutes on them. I spend 5 to 10 minutes a day practicing my Swedish. My grammar is fairly good, but my vocabulary is not that great. But it’s improving.
  • A friend sent me a link to the most haunted houses in the UK. I don’t know what I think of ghosts. Let’s just say that I’m open to the possibility, but I’m not sure I want to go and visit them. I do love ghost movies, though. So, if you want to see some ghosts here’s where you can find them. https://www.historyhit.com/guides/most-haunted-houses-in-the-uk/
  •  And, finally, you can access back issues of Suspense Magazine here.

 I’m not quite done with the clearing out of my Inbox, but getting pretty close. Who knows what else I will find.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Haunted by Books

 by Charlotte Hinger

During the Covid lockdown, I reread some of my all-time favorite books. I was curious, too, as to why they were memorable and so many I've read recently aren't.

Thanks to Amazon it's easy to track down these old books that I've remembered for a lifetime. I still own a lot of them. My interest is more than a nostalgia kick, although I am a nostalgic person. This obsession was stirred up by my whimsical treacherous muse who pointed out that great books depend on great characters.

The books I especially admire were mostly commercial successes, but that was not why they stuck with me. I loved the central character in each one. Also, these characters had a huge heart-wrenching problem worth wresting with.

For that matter, it seems to me the old writing books had a lot more information than the manuals I pick up today. I'm re-reading Maren Elwood's Characters Make Your Story. It's outstanding. It's tough reading and I don't think I understood some of her points until I had written several books.

Elwood insists that characters come from within. Spinning them from thin air doesn't work. You can give a man a quirky car, some semi-handsome physical attributes, a few snarly snappy lines and he will still seem like everyone else's cardboard cut-outs. Ditto for Too Stupid To Live Heroines. You know. The ones who never call for back-up. Or run around saying, "Oh I'll show him!"

Here is a just of a few of these old, old books I'll re-read and why:

Green Dolphin Street--Elizabeth Goudge. It's my all-time favorite whose theme touches a spiritual chord within me. Goudge, has the ability to make unlovable multi-dimensional characters profoundly lovable.

Love Let Me Not Hunger--Paul Gallico. This is a hauntingly beautiful insight into the cloistered world of the circus. Who knew that this society fostered it's own royalty? What I remembered forever and forever was Mr. Albert, the animal trainer. How did Gallico so vividly create such a noble humble old man whose personal story broke my heart?

A Distant Trumpet--by Paul Horgan. A historical novel telling about the Indian wars and the relentless campaign to hunt down the Apaches. And for years, whenever we moved to another town, another library, or even when I was visiting relations, I went to the their library to look up General Alexander Upton Quade. I couldn't believe he wasn't real. After forty years went by, I found out this character was based on the autobiography and writings of General George Crook. Horgan told the‎ story from the Indians' point of view as well as the soldiers'.

Not As a Stranger--Morton Thompson. One of the great all-time medical novels. Not only was it informative, I had such hopes for the protagonist. He was destined to be one of the all-time great doctors.

Five Smooth Stones--Ann Fairbairn. One of the great social novels and one of the few that delved into subtle Northern racism. This was published in 1966 when the Civil Rights Movement was roiling America.

Rebecca--Daphne du Maurier. Need I say more? One of the great classic mysteries, which was the forerunner of the gothic novels. At one time I couldn't get enough of them.

There are some common denominators to all the books I've mentioned. In addition to great characters, they all have great plots. Every single author is a masterful story-teller. And for some reason they are all l-o-n-g.

Will these books still resonate with me forty years later? Of course I won't have forty years, but never mind.




Monday, January 09, 2023

Lights Out! Imagination On!


 By Thomas Kies

Isn’t that when your imagination runs wild?  In the dark?

On New Year’s Eve my wife and I met friends at one of our favorite restaurants on the mainland.  We had a relatively late seating for eight o’clock, but after dinner we thought we’d walk over to the harbor where we could watch the holiday fireworks.  

The stage was set for that evening when fog rolled in from the oceanside and then a steady drizzle fell.  Before we headed over the bridge, we’d heard the fireworks had been canceled due to the incoming inclement weather. 

Not to be deterred, we all convened at a cozy table in the dining room and started our evening with a round of drinks.  Taking our time, we enjoyed conversation, listened to the specials, and gave our server our orders.  Knowing that the dark gloom was just outside, it made the dining area even more congenial.

Until the lights went out. 

Where we live, momentary lapses in power happen on a relatively regular occurrence.  Usually these are only long enough to screw up the clocks and force your computers to reboot.  

This wasn’t one of those times. 

We spent the next twenty minutes speculating what may have caused the outage and how extensive it was. Patrons and servers were consulting phones, searching diligently for information.  

“Was it the wind?”

“There was an accident behind the hospital.”

“A transformer blew downtown.”

“Must be more rolling blackouts.”

The most ominous of the theories was, “Someone shot out the grid.”

Our waitress came out of the kitchen into our dimly lit dining area and announced that they simply couldn’t continue with service under the circumstances.  Our friends decided to stay for another drink but Cindy and I bolted, hoping there was power on our island and I could get to our favorite dive for a pizza before they closed.

The rain was falling, the streets were eerily dark, the stoplights were out, and traffic was building as New Year’s Eve celebrants realized the evening was over and it was time to go home. As we crossed the bridge, aware that there were no lights behind us and only darkness ahead of us on the island, we realized there would be no pizza, no Chinese, no take-out at all.  We’d be foraging for food once we got to the house.

But as I drove, one thought kept intruding upon my thoughts of a cold holiday dinner.  Someone must have shot out the grid.

Such is the mind of a mystery writer…or a paranoid conspiracy theorist.  That’s what we do. We wonder what if? We wonder what if someone actually attacked our power supply like they did on December 3 in Moore County, North Carolina, not far from us, where someone with a rifle shot out two substations and knocked out electricity for 40,000 people for four days? 

I wonder how I can incorporate that into my new book????

The power of imagination.  It’s what keeps writers in front of their laptops and pumping out the prose.

So, my wife finished a salad she found in the refrigerator, and I made peanut and butter sandwiches, and we ate by candlelight in our kitchen.  We listened to fireworks as they went off in our neighborhood sounding like gunshots.  That didn’t quell my nervous imagination.

I found a live feed on my phone beaming images of fireworks displays from around the world that I pulled up at our table. My wife proclaimed that, “Boring.”

Then I found a movie and began to watch it, still chewing on my PJ&J sandwich.  Just before she left to go upstairs to read by candlelight, she told me, “I’m not watching a movie on your damned phone.”

The movie?  War of the Worlds.

Ah…new paranoid thought.  Was the darkness on New Year’s Eve caused by aliens?

In actuality, it was an insulator here on the island that had gone bad.  The salt air wreaks havoc on all manner of things.  We never did get our power back until five in the morning. 

I’m still not convinced it wasn’t aliens.  Such is the power of imagination. 

Friday, January 06, 2023

Favorite Novel Openings

By Johnny D. Boggs

Someone asked: If Peter Cooper’s “Somehow, Johnny Cash is dead” is the best lede to any newspaper article, what’s tops for a novel’s opening.

That’s easy.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” – J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937)

Wait. I forgot Hatchet – the novel that makes every 10-year-old boy want to read. Want to learn how to write for boys? Read Gary Paulsen.

“Brian Robeson stared out the window of the small plane at the endless green northern wilderness below. It was a small plane, a Cessna 406 – a bushplane – and the engine was so loud, so roaring and consuming and loud, that it ruined any chance for conversation.” – Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet (1987)

There. That’s settled.

Except I just remembered …

“To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. …” – Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946)

Wait, I write mostly Westerns so it ought to be …

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” – Charles Portis’s True Grit (1968)

Portis’s ending is spot-on, too.

On the other hand, I’m a fan of mysteries. Like …

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.” – Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929)

And this is coming from a reader who is a bigger fan of Raymond Chandler – and, while I’m on mysteries, William P. McGivern (The Big Heat, Rogue Cop) doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

But, shucks, you can’t go wrong with Mark Twain.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. …” – Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

Oh, I can't diss Dickens.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …” – Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

No, it’s now settled:

“It was a pleasure to burn.” – Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Yep. Settled. Till I think some more.


Thursday, January 05, 2023

Lie Detector

Donis here. To start the New Year off right, last night I watched an episode of American Experience on PBS entitled "Lie Detector", about the development and limitations of the polygraph, or "lie detector", and how United States law enforcement, government, and even businesses came to rely on an unreliable technology. It was a very interesting episode, especially for a crime writer whose books are set in the early 20th century. 

So I'm watching along, all engrossed, when lo and behold, Dr. Frankie Y. Bailey, Type M's own mystery author and professor in the School of Criminal Justice University at Albany (SUNY) pops up as one of their expert commentators. I was wildly impressed and happy to see one of our own nationally recognized for her expertise. ESPECIALLY since at this very moment Frankie's Tell Me Your Story article is up on my own website. Tell Me Your Story is feature I run every month in which I invite authors to share with us how their backgrounds and life experiences have contributed to their writing. Frankie's story is an absolutely fascinating tale of history, mystery, and multiculturalism. 

“Like a butterfly pinned to a board,” she begins. "That’s the first line I can remember writing." 

Oh, that's good!

I highly recommend reading Frankie's story at www.doniscasey.com. The article will be up on the first page of my site for another week, after which you can find all the Tell Me Your Story entries in the site Archives. You'll be enlightened and edified!

I also recommend watching the PBS episode of Lie Detector, an excellent resource for mystery writers. By the way, many years ago, shortly after I was married, my mother told me she could always tell when one of my sisters was lying because "her eyes always flick off to the left." I never forgot that telling piece of information. It brought home to me that the greatest lie detectors ever created are our own mothers.

Happy New Year to all you Dear Readers, and may 2023 bring nothing but good things to you and yours.