Saturday, July 26, 2008

Show Me the Paper

By Pat Browning

Here’s a news story that warms my heart.

Children’s librarian Judith Flint, who is 56 years old and 4-feet, 10-inches tall, faced down five Vermont state police detectives who wanted to seize the library’s public access computers.
According to an Associated Press story, Flint asked the lead detective for a warrant. He said he didn’t need any paper. Flint said, “Show me the paper.”

That librarian would make a great protagonist in a cozy mystery series.

A bench at Wal-Mart is an ideal place for doing character studies, but for story ideas you can’t beat a newspaper. Many writers keep a file of newspaper clippings. To riff on a famous quote attributed to bank robber Willie Sutton, that’s where the ideas are.

John Dunning is best known for his Bookman mysteries, but early in his career his clip file included a story about a circus fire and a little girl whose body was never identified. Dunning wove that into a novel titled DEADLINE. His protagonist is a journalist who pursues such a story, connecting it to the story of an Amish girl who leaves home to become a Rockette in New York City. DEADLINE was nominated for a 1982 Edgar Award (Best Paperback Original Mystery Novel).

The past week saw a glut of news stories that could start a crime writer mumbling, “What if?”

*In Los Angeles, a 100-year-old fig tree in downtown L.A. has been designated a historic-cultural monument. What if – a tornado pulls it right out of the ground and there’s a skeleton buried there?

*Remember the slogan “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”? In Pittsburg, a convicted felon up on federal gun charges argues that the law allows him to keep loaded guns at home for self-defense. Police found seven pistols, three shotguns and five rifles in his private stash. One might ask: Is he expecting a home invasion or World War III?

*In San Francisco, a brewer named Maytag is about to release another barrel of single-malt rye, 13-year-aged Old Potrero Traditional Pot Distilled Hotaling's Whiskey. It’s the only pot-distilled whiskey made in the U.S. and there are only five barrels left. There are so many what-ifs in that story I can’t count them on the fingers of one hand even when I’m sober.

*Here’s one that might have been dreamed up by a writer for “Boston Legal.” A bicycle thief rode the stolen bike onto the North Washington Street Bridge, jumped off the bridge into Boston Harbor, swam to shore, and ran down a harbor walkway before the cops caught him. I’d like to hear James Spader argue that case.

*Or how about the Wiccan in Indiana who ran a three-foot sword into her foot while performing a good luck ritual? The ceremony calls for candles, incense, a full moon and driving a sword into the ground. What if -- a love rival had been standing just a little too close when the sword came down?

*Now that airline service is so unpredictable, a business traveler has created the Mini-Motel for sleeping in airports. For $39.95 you get a little tent, air mattress, pillow, reading light and alarm clock. What a great way to make new friends. Didn’t Tom Hanks star in that movie?

*The story of the week, the month, the year, comes from Belgrade – the capture of
Radovan Karadzic, former Bosnian Serb leader wanted for war crimes but hiding in plain sight since 1998. Karadzic masqueraded as an expert in “human quantum energy,” gave lectures, appeared on TV, and wrote for an alternative medicine magazine. He walked around with a $5 million bounty on his head, but he had business cards and a Web site. He was arrested while waiting for a bus.

There’s a ready-made thriller for a writer like Daniel Silva and his protagonist, Gabriel Allon. And by the bye, MOSCOW RULES, Silva’s latest story of international intrigue, launched this week.

*One more airline story: American Airlines is installing a missile defense system on three of its passenger jets. CNN quotes “experts” who say 500,00 to 700,000 shoulder-fired missiles are abroad in the world, some selling for as little as $5,000. The JetEye defense system works by detecting a heat-seeking missile and firing a laser to divert it.

Makes you want to take the train, doesn’t it? Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Murder on the Orient Express …


Anonymous said...

Well, gee.
Thanks, Pat.
You know I don't like to fly any more, and now when I get on a plane in October for the first time in years I'm going to be frettin' about missiles of all things!
Great Blog!! Don't you love that librarian??!

Unknown said...


Good stuff. I agree with you both about Wal-Mart and the newspaper. But I gotta say, only seven guns? My goodness, I've got way more than that.

I started collecting guns after my editor scolded me for putting a safety on a snubnose .38 in a draft of Alibi On Ice. They don't have safeties. Then I found I liked guns, enjoy shooting them and cleaning them. And of course, we did have a home invasion a few years ago. Everything turned out okay, and the cops caught the three invaders. Luckily, I had a shotgun nearby I'd bought when I thought I'd become the Great White Hunter (changed my mind when my son shot a goose and made me cry.) The shotgun had never been fired and wasn't loaded, but the bad guys didn't know that. The click-clack of a pump shotgun works well in stopping a home invasion.

My editor is a gun collector, and he gave me some guidance and encouragement on what sorts to buy. I also bought videos and ballistics books, so as my editor says, I can sprinkle details like pixie dust. Believe it or not, there's a town in Georgia that mandated every home have a gun in 1985. They haven't had a single violent crime since. In Arizona, guns are quite common; they're part of the western lore. And what with the hordes of illegals pouring over our borders, and car-jackings and home invasions on the rise throughout Southeastern Arizona, not having one handy can be risky. Just last week in Tucson, an illegal attacked two young people at a bus stop with a machete, and then attempted a car-jacking. And it wasn't a bad part of town.

Unknown said...

Oh, BTW, I should mention, I'm not a convicted felon. :<)

Mark W. Danielson said...

It's sad that so many live their lives in fear. Fear of fear of suicide bombers, fear of nuclear meltdowns, and now fear of missile attacks on airliners. The novel "State of Fear" states that fear is a method of control -- that there will always be a state of fear -- call it be bird flu, global warming, weapons of mass destruction -- whatever. But the reality is these potential threats are nothing compared to dying from cancer or in a car accident. The only difference is we accept the later.

The media plays on our fears, just as mystery writers do. The "what if's" make our stories interesting. When it comes to living our lives, it's best to keep fear in perspective. If it's any comfort, the DHL Airbus that was hit by a missile in Iraq landed safely, thanks to the crew's skill and some luck. Airplanes don't explode like in the movies.

While there is risk in everything we do, the odds of dying from a bee sting far outweigh anything that happens in air travel. Somehow, I suspect that tough-as-nails librarian would agree with me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Miz Mud:
Gee, your "blentry" (that's my new acronym, for blog entry) really got me to thinking. As a small town police chief, I am frequently in the news. It's not uncommon for me to open one of our local newspapers and see my name plastered all over the front page. So as a crime fiction author, why am I always racking my brain for new plot lines? Why don't I just write about the three plus years I've been stalked, and sued for 2 million dollars by a local mentally ill retired math professor? Or the reign of terror of a local gang of teenage mutant ninja turtles I put an end to last year, saving our little community from untold property crimes? Or how about the time a citizen brought a struggling, injured wild turkey into our office that she'd just clipped with her car and it almost got loose from her and spurred the sh** out of both me and my records clerk? Damn. I'm going out to the garage to our recycle bin right now, and see what I can dig up!

Anonymous said...

Gee, Miz Mud, your "blentry" (that's my new acronym for "blog entry") really got me thinking. As a small town police chief I am in the newspapers here frequently. So why am I wasting my time as an author, trying to dream up stuff, when all if have to do is glance at the front page of one of our local rags on any given day? What about the story of the local mentally ill retired math professor who has been stalking me for going on four years now, trying his best to ruin my life and my career, and who sued me for two million dollars last year, but got not one single penny? Or the gang of teenage mutant turtles terrorizing the community last summer that I put a stop to? Or how about the time a woman brought a struggling, injured wild turkey into our office that she'd just clipped with her car, and it almost got loose and spurred the sh** out of me and my records clerk? Damn. I'm going out to our recycle bin in the garage right now, and see what I can dig up!

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the double entry, Pat. I mistakenly hit "enter" when I'd finished the first one and it disappeared from the screen, so I wrote it over from scratch. Then, when I published #2, they both appeared! Oh well, maybe my own "blentry" was so good, people should read it twice, hehe.

Doug M.Cummings said...

Okay, I've just decided to give out the Doug Award for favorite blog ever and you guys win it. Absolutely always entertaining and fun.
Ben, the two gun things that my friend, the late Chicago Police Captain Hugh Holton, and I always preached about at seminars and conferences were, "Revolvers don't have safeties!" And "You can't use a silencer on a revolver!" And yet I recently read a top-selling author's book where he had everything right...until the safety appeared on his revolver. And a silencer appeared on a revolver in one episode of the Jessie Stone mini-series...starring NRA Board member Tom Selleck!
Wish we could set up a pistol course for writers!

Jaden Terrell said...

Doug, we have a firearms session at the Killer Nashville conference. We already have an instructor for it this year, but maybe you and Ben could team up to teach it next year (the third weekend in August). We could call it, "Revolvers Don't Have Safeties: What Writers Should Know about Firearms" or some such.

Chester Campbell said...

The Second Amendment Foundation sponsors (I guess they still do) a seminar for writers in Las Vegas each year. I participated back in 2003 when Bouchercon was there. Seems like it lasted three days. Included talks by various experts, plus a day at the firing range where we fired all kinds of weapons. It was called the Firearms and Fiction Seminar.

Anonymous said...


Every time you get home from another exercise in making Rogue River safe for law-abiding citizens -- why don't you just sit down with a tape recorder and make a short story or novel chapter out of it?

Or -- why don't you interview yourself on NetDrag? Writers do that in print all the time -- why not your podcast?

Always glad to be of help --
The Prairie Gal

beccam said...


Now there you go, teaching me something I didn't know. I'd never thought about the silencer on a revolver issue before, but it makes such logical sense. In theory, one could go to the trouble of threading the barrel and fitting a home-made one on, but why go to all that trouble when you can guy a drop-in barrel for a semi-auto, fill out a bunch of paperwork and place an order over the net, assuming you're in one of the states that permits Class III firearms. Tom Selleck with a threaded revolver? Now that's a kick.

Beth, a firearms course for writers would be fun. It addition to hammer-bite and slide-bite as I've mentioned before, there's Garand-Thumb, a multitude of different safeties, and many guns that are safe to carry chambered and some that are not.

Unknown said...

Obviously, the last comment was left by Ben, not Rebecca. She must have been checking her email on my computer.