Monday, January 31, 2011
A Mystery - Update
Back on November 8, 2010, I posted about a strange murder mystery involving a law firm in St. Louis. The post was entitled, A Mystery. There have been some developments I thought I'd share. This past week Thomas Boggs, husband of Beth Boggs and a partner at their law firm, sought a protective order against former partner, Mark Bates, over the bombing that occurred at the Boggs’ home back in October of 2010. Bates was a founding member of Boggs, Boggs, & Bates. He left the firm in 2008 to join another law firm in downtown St. Louis. According to court filings, Thomas Boggs related that he had been informed by law enforcement officials that Bates is the “primary suspect” in the bombing. Boggs further stated that he had been shown surveillance footage of Bates allegedly purchasing lacquer thinner about a week before the explosion. Lacquer thinner cans were reportedly found at the site of the bombing.
At the hearing, Bates stated that he had no ill will toward the Boggs’, yet he took the 5th with respect to questions concerning the bombing. The presiding judge ultimately denied the protective order, maintaining that a single bombing incident, even if a link to Bates could be proven, wasn’t sufficient evidence for a protective order. To get a protective order in Missouri, the petitioner must establish a series or pattern of incidents; a single event isn’t enough. This is unfortunate as I trust protective orders are quite effective in deterring arsonists, bombers, and even murderers. I can only imagine how many would be murderers have been thwarted by the weight of that document Ordering them to Stay Away!
To date, no one has been charged with the bombing as this mystery continues to unfold.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
Friday, January 28, 2011
MY NEW SHOPPING PHILOSOPHY
I’m sure everyone gets emails every day in which someone forwards something they thought was interesting, funny or outrageous. I usually scan them quickly and delete them with a wish the people who sent them had not done so. I have enough trouble keeping up with my important email as it is.
Yesterday, I received one that stopped me and left me thinking. It’s a simple philosophy about a major problem, and I’ve decided to follow the advice offered. Maybe you’ll feel the same.
I won’t copy the entire letter here, but here is enough of it to make the point.
* * * * *
I was in Lowes the other day looking at hose attachments. They were all made in China. The next day I was in Ace Hardware and checked the hose attachments there. They were made in USA.
My grandson likes Hershey's candy. I noticed it is made in Mexico now. I do not buy it any more. My favorite toothpaste, Colgate, is made in Mexico ... Now I have switched to Crest.
I was at Kroger and needed 60 W light bulbs. Right next to the GE brand I normally buy was an off-brand labeled Everyday Value. The GE bulbs cost more and were made in MEXICO. The Everyday Value brand was made by a company in Cleveland, Ohio.
On to another aisle - Bounce Dryer Sheets. Bounce is made in Canada. The Everyday Value brand was less money and MADE IN THE USA! I did laundry yesterday and the dryer sheets performed just like the Bounce Free I have been using for years and at almost half the price!
My challenge to you is to start reading the labels when you shop for everyday things and see what you can find that is made in the USA - the job you save may be your own or your neighbor’s!
* * * * *
Why do so many of our large companies choose to move manufacturing to other countries? You’d think it's because they can produce it for less money. It would seem to follow, then, they would sell it at a lower price. That’s not always true, as the examples above show.
I certainly have nothing against Canada or Mexico. Or Taiwan, India, Korea, or anywhere else on the planet where our goods and services have been “outsourced.” If it provides jobs for people desperately needing them, that’s fine.
I’m not going to rant about global economy, international politics, NAFTA, import/export surcharges or any of that. My new shopping philosophy is very simple:
I’m going to start checking labels closely. If I can buy an equal product made in the USA at an equal or lower price, I’m going to do it.
I hope you'll join me.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
"Stupid is as Stupid Does"
The difference between ignorance and stupidity is more than semantics. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge, whereas stupidity is the inability to apply it. When authors witness stupid acts, they should attempt to determine whether it was caused by ignorance or bad behavior. Realizing the difference may help you develop better characters. Lord knows there’s a daily bounty of cases to draw from.
But rather than lecture on this subject, I’m providing a real example of undesirable human behavior and ask that you identify the location where this incident took place. I will reveal the actual location later in a blog comment. It will be interesting to see if any personal bias influenced your answers. Here we go:
The location: A Wendy’s fast-food restaurant. The Wendy’s staff: All African-American, clean uniforms, working as a team. The disgruntled customers: A husband and wife in their early fifties, casually dressed, both Caucasian. The situation: The couple’s food order was not processed properly.
The play book: The couple approaches the order counter, three burgers in hand, anger in their eyes. The wife, short, stout, with gray streaked hair, says to the manager who came to assist, “None of our orders are right. We’re supposed to have . . .” The manager takes the burgers, inspecting them while listening, goes to the kid making the burgers, and tells him exactly what needs to be done. As their new burgers are being made, the wife continues her squawking, saying, to no one in particular in a tone suggesting superiority, “We should get our money back and go somewhere else!” Too busy hawking the burger-maker, the husband doesn’t acknowledge her. Annoyed, the wife leaves. Within two minutes, the manager hands fresh burgers to the husband with an apology, but rather than speaking, the man casts a cold shoulder and walks away. Shaking my head, I tell the girl who took my order, “I don’t understand why people are so rude.” Wisely, she doesn’t comment. Soon after, my order is complete and I leave to find a seat.
I find a table near the rude couple, not by choice, but rather a lack of available space. Turns out this couple is part of a large group whose primary conversation centers on church. Forgive me from bringing up religion, but this couple’s actions seem to contradict the Golden Rule of treating others as you wish to be treated. Then again, I witness plenty of oxy-morons during my travels. Finishing my meal ends this story with the rude couple still sitting among friends.
Dissecting this scenario, was the Wendy’s order error the result of stupidity, ignorance, or oversight? Well, it can’t be stupidity or ignorance since the second order was made correctly, so that leaves oversight -- probably caused by the large lunch crowd simultaneously ordering from dine-in and drive-through customers. Was the couple’s harsh response the result of stupidity or ignorance? Well, you have to give them credit for recognizing Wendy’s error so it can’t be ignorance, therefore let’s chock it up to stupidity. Like Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Was their rude behavior racially motivated? From my observation, I suspect racial bias played a part.
So, now it’s time for your written test. Based upon the information provided, where do you think this Wendy’s is located? Before you answer, remember that I travel the world for a living, and that stupidity isn’t limited to this country. I will tell you that it didn’t happen in Asia. (You don’t find many rude people there.) I will also tell you that whether or not you answer correctly is irrelevant. Again, I will provide the location in a blog comment a day or two after you’ve had a chance to think it over and guess. But what’s really important about this whole adventure is that authors should always pay attention to human behavior. Doing so will make you better writers.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
by Bill Kirton
Tears are weird. Why does the body have to produce fluid from our eyes when we feel sad? No doubt the scientists could give me a straight answer about it clearing the dirt out of our eyes so that whatever predator killed the person we’re grieving over won’t get us so easily or something. But, like laughing, it's a puzzling physiological manifestation. In fact, bizarrely, it’s its physiological opposite. When we laugh there are lots of little exhalations – as in ‘ha, ha, ha’ – but sobbing involves a succession of intakes of breath.
I don't cry easily. Not for any absurd macho reasons. I wouldn't mind if I cried. I do now and then. But it's the things that provoke the tears that make the reaction even more puzzling. The lump comes into my throat when I hear the pipes and drums, but I think that happens to everyone. There's some visceral thing about the pipes that drags the emotions up out of you. You give them labels such as pride, triumph, defiance but really you’re labelling something that's a bigger, more profound than all of them. If I knew what folk-memory was, I’d be tempted to say they’re something to do with that. But I don’t.
No, I start feeling the tears when I'm watching athletics, for example. As I see winners and losers alike flinging themselves down the home straight, striving, overcoming odds, these are the things that pluck at me. But why? It's just somebody running, for goodness sake. But this is where the pretension kicks in, because I suspect it's just because they’re striving. For those moments, moments towards which they’ve trained, they find structure, meaning, purpose. As I said in my previous blog, I happen to believe that life is absurd. So there’s a certain sort of glory in the fact that they do all those things in the face of that absurdity. It's our old friend Sisyphus again, knowing he's wasting his time but still determined to push the rock back up the hill. I think the athletics-related tears have something to do with the human spirit and hopelessness.
Which brings me to the title of this posting. There's a lot of music (as well as the pipes and drums) that makes me feel sad. But I think the only one which brings a lump to my throat every time is Jarvis Cocker's Common People. It’s the thought of the inequalities that blight our comfortable society, the fact that rich people can pretend to live like common people but opt out when things get unbearable by phoning their dad to take them away from it all. Which further stresses the fact that, for the real common people there's no escape. And yet they tolerate it, some are beaten down and corrupted but many are proud survivors, worth far more than the obscene values society puts on them because of the conditions in which they’re forced to live.
And when the shock jocks and their ilk crow that they should just get a job and pull themselves out of the mire, all that does is confirm that the tears are legitimate. It's about humanity but also about the absence of humanity in these ill-informed bigots.
Well, well, who’d have thought I’d be saying this just because, now and then, these glands in my eyes overflow?
Monday, January 24, 2011
Odd Little Things
Do little things sometimes cause your mind to wander?
Like a few days ago, when a lizard jumped out of my range bag as I reached in to pull out my .22-250 for more break-in work. The last time I'd used the bag was the week before.
And it was the middle of January, when lizards are supposed to be deep underground.
So how did a lizard just slightly larger than a geko get into my range bag in the first place? The question has haunted my thoughts for the last few days. I'd used the bag a week before, but I'd closed it up and latched it after I'd removed my rifle and put it in the safe.
Had the lizard been in there all winter? It was surely too cold for lizards when I packed the bag for the day. So he must have been there for at least a week, maybe moved in the week before when I put the rifle back in the bag. It had been mid-sixties then, marginal for lizards, cold-blooded creatures that they are.
And then I thought, What had he been doing in there? Where did he hide?
Of course, the lizard could have been under the foam rubber. But what if he'd crawled up my barrel while it was still warm the week before? I'd cleaned the rifle at the close of shooting, and sure as shootin' hadn't seen any lizard. Was it possible that Lizzo had climbed down the barrel, enjoying the narrow tolerances as the door of light closed down on him. If so, what if he'd done some business in the barrel of my rifle? Would dried lizard-poop stuck to the barrel cause a pressure bubble when fired, ruining my new gun?
I cleaned the rifle again. Nothing but normal stuff came out, near as I could tell.
These thoughts late at night caused me to think of the Tucson Desert Museum, Arizona's second most popular tourist attraction. The Desert Museum has a cutaway down one tight channel through the rocks. It's sides are cut out and covered with clear plastic, showing the life within. Amazing tunnels, filled with creatures, twisting, curling, with pock marks in the walls, perfect little bowls for collecting water after a rare but hard Arizona rain. Snakes, gophers, pack-rats, lizards, rabbits and even some birds, inhabit these holes. Take three square feet of desert land. You wouldn't believe what's living under those three feet. A life support system that sustains fifteen or more animals, just in the first six feet down. They pop up when they can feel the heat of the sun, about sixty-five degrees, pop back at night, when shadows cool the ground or when they sense predators, who may have come out of the next hole over.
It's like watching an ant farm then blowing it up into a larger frame. In just about twelve feet of Desert Museum channel, I counted six snakes and umpteen other creepy-crawly critters anywhere from just under the soil surface to ten feet or more down.
Hah, and most people think the desert is devoid of life.
So it's possible that the lizard popped up during my range time the week before and hopped into my range bag, which had been left open and had been warmed by the sun. But what did that lizard think when he'd been trapped in there and left in the garage? No wonder he seemed so eager to jump out. And assuming he'd climbed into my bag the week before, he'd no doubt come up from a hole around the range.
Had he somehow found the same hole he'd come out of? Or would he take any hole? I couldn't tell. As soon as the lizard hit the rocks, he was gone. He'd found a hole quickly, but was it the right hole?
I turned around and saw a sign hanging on a pole, warning shooters to be wary of venomous critters -- like rattlesnakes. Guess they could pop out of a nearby hole too some warm day. The young ones are the worst: they don't know any better and pump all their venom into a victim. They can't modulate the flow like the adult rattlers can.
I think I'll be a bit more careful around the range from now on. Bullets may not be the only hazard awaiting the unwary.
And then the next day, I went over to my shooting buddy Dan's house. Dan's begun making ammo, tailoring his concoctions to tested accuracy results of our rifles. I'd never seen ammo made before; I've always bought it in already produced commercial bullets. Don't have to mix gunpowder then; don't have to ream out cartridges, take measurements of case expansion; don't have to ram punch presses through the casings and trim the case lengths that grow through this process.
Dan was measuring powder for our .22-250 and .243 rounds, using an electronic scale and tiny cup, making his adjustments with a tiny steel spoon. Minimalistic adjustments down to a tenth of a grain of powder, a speck so small it looks like dust. He pointed out something to me and looked up, accidently spilling some gun powder onto his kitchen table. I expected the gun powder to be fine, like black sugar, not in tiny charcoal-colored rods that break off when touched.
But then I'd never seen gun powder before except in torn-apart fireworks.
"Damn," he said. He pointed to a little vial. "That's where I put spilled powder."
"Why do you store it?" I asked. He wasn't going to use that powder; it'd been contaminated. "Why don't you just grab a vacuum and sweep it up?"
Dan gave me a look like I was Curly on The Three Stooges. He handed over the plastic container of powder. "Take a whiff, not a big one, don't take it down deep, but just a quick pass."
I did as instructed and recoiled at the ammonia smell. "That's a form of nitro-glycerine," he said. He gave me an ominous look. "You don't vacuum it up."
Dumb me. "Why?" I asked.
Dan's a chemical engineer. He knows this stuff. He gave me another Curly look. "Static electricity. You'll blow yourself up."
Ah. I knew there had to be a reason. And also a reason Dan makes these formulations rather than me. Dan knows what he's doing; I'm a klutz. I'd probably have just swept the spilled gunpowder onto the floor and run it over with the vacuum cleaner, ended up blowing the vacuum and the idiot holding it all over the Sonoran Desert.
Dan was pouring the powder from a one pound container. As I watched him fill one bullet after another, I said, "Does the powder come in larger containers?
"Yeah," he said. "Our next step up will be to buy the four pound container, once we get the mixtures right."
I looked at how large the one pound container was. About the size of a drinking glass. Light stuff, gunpowder. The four pound container be about the size of a jumbo family can of soup. you know, the big 'un, like what you find at Costco or Sam's Club.
"How many bullets will the one pound container make?" I asked.
Dan shrugged. "Lots. I figure each bullet costs maybe fifty cents, all told."
Wow! A box of twenty commercially produced bullets for a .22-250 would cost me about thirty bucks. By having Dan load my bullets, I'd save a dollar a round, and they'd be tailored to my rifle, as opposed to catch as catch can with commercial bullets.
Need I say I offered him a deal: I'd buy the components; he'd make my bullets?
But then my mind wandered again. Always the mystery writer, I guess. "So, anybody can walk into a sporting goods store and buy a pound or four of gun powder and then go to a hardware store, buy some pipe and ends, drill a hole, stuff nails and gunpowder into the pipe, close it up, attach some form of fuse, and have a bomb?"
"Yup," Dan said. "Sorta boggles the mind, doesn't it. Think about all the states that have forms and hoops to jump through for buying ammo, yet nothing for buying gunpowder."
Truly, it boggles the mind.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Friday, January 21, 2011
Seasonal Mysteries by June Shaw
The next most popular season seems to be winter. Why? I imaging it's because winter is a barren time--a period when leaves dry up and fall. Snow and blizzards blanket large parts of the earth. It's an easy time to plant dead bodies in drab nature.
Mysteries are often set in the summer when the sun and its heat saturate humankind, often making tempers flare and individuals miserable. It's pretty easy to imaging those with a violent instinct taking their miseries out on others.
But what about spring? Birth. New beginnings. The flowers and bushes and trees wanted to thrive again. Not a time for killing, although authors sometimes have the snow melting and withdrawing to reveal a dead body.
Do you ever write books involving a certain season? Or have you purchased books to read because of the season in which they take place?
It's been awhile since I did that. How about you?
On the Road Again . . .
I've been on the road for nearly two weeks and will arrive home this afternoon. I've been attempting to write a post for today but various hotel wifi connections refuse to cooperate, and I'm wondering how Mark Danielson accomplishes the feat from hotel rooms around the world. Kudos, Mark.
We've been traveling the nation's central back roads, including the Texas Panhandle, where we've seen an alarming number of abandoned buildings and littered highways. My vote for the trashiest town in the West is Dumas, Texas, where the gutters are filled and roadways are in desperate need of highway cleanup crews. But that's true throughout the region. It seems that littering has come back into vogue. A sign of the times? I hope not.
The Gulf Coast region was socked in with fog, rain, clouds and cold wind as well as muddy ocean waves, and we arrived in Yukon, a suburb of Oklahoma City, just before their latest storm, which left the city paralyzed with glare ice and snow. I'm firmly convinced that climatologists' warnings of global cooling and a mini ice age by the year 2040 is valid. Just ask the residents of the southern states, whom I'm sure will agree.
The entire trip hasn't been depressing and I'll report more on my trip in two weeks when I hope that my words won't keep disappering from the screen.
Signing off from Lamar, Colorado.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Adventures with Author Photos
Some of you may know that the first two books of my Jared McKean series have picked up by The Permanent Press. This means the first book, Racing the Devil, will be reissued (again) in June of 2012 and the second book, A Cup Full of Midnight, will be released in August at the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference. We even have some interest from a few overseas publishers.
It's all very exciting, but there's one bug in the ointment--the author photo.
I don't how the rest of you feel, but for many of us, the author photo moment is a source of great angst. I mean, not only are total strangers going to be judging you--and your book--on the basis of the photo, you also become fair game for articles like this. And this.
I tried to convince the publisher that we didn't need an author photo. I made what I thought were compelling arguments. First, my protagonist is male, which is why we went with a unisex pen name. An obviously feminine photo would defeat the purpose. Second, I don't look like the writer of hardboiled PI novels. I look like a kindergarten teacher--or a special ed teacher, which is what I am--or was. People who see my picture on the back of the book are going to expect a warm, cozy read, which my books are not. They have a warmth to them, but they're far from cozy. A photo of me, I said, would give readers exactly the wrong impression. No one, I said, was going to buy a book because my photo was on it. (Unlike Graham Brown, whose thrillers are exciting and well-written, but who probably sells as many copies because of the photo on the back as for the stories themselves).
My publisher suggested I have an ambiguous photo made, a sort of androgynous look. For a woman who bears a strong resemblance to a fertility goddess, this was quite a challenge, but it seemed like a reasonable compromise. I thought that, since my PI, Jared, has horses, it might work to wear a cowboy hat and maybe an Australian-style duster. If I included the horse, it would draw even more attention away from me.
I went online and looked at dozens and dozens of photographers' websites. After days of searching, I found this guy, Jeff Frazier. You can read his blog here. His photos are wonderful, and he's a delight to work with.
I emailed Jeff and told him what I needed. He seemed intrigued by the challenge, and his prices were reasonable, so we arranged a photo shoot at the pasture where a friend of mine kept two horses. (They're my horses now, but that's another story.)
It was a beautiful fall day, and the pasture was filled with some kind of tall, golden grass that looked like but wasn't wheat. In spite of my near-phobia about cameras, Jeff made the shoot fun and took what seemed like hundreds of photos--some that obscured most of me and some I could use for head shots and other promotional materials. By the time he left, I felt like a movie star.
After my agent, my mom, and several friends had helped me narrow the choices, he sent me two retouched/polished photos, one for the cover and one for a head shot where I don't need to be obscured. The CD with the others is on its way.
Here's what we decided on for the cover. Not so ambiguous, but at least there's a horse to draw attention away from me. That's Pete--short for Peter Pan. Isn't he handsome?
What are your experiences with author photos? Love 'em? Hate 'em? Consider them a necessary evil? Do author photos influence you to buy (or not buy) a book?
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Guilty until proved Innocent
Most, if not all, mystery writers know that eyewitness evidence is highly unreliable. Somehow the message hasn't yet got through to the justice system.
I was just reading about a man in Washington state who has been in prison for 17 years for rape, after being identified by the victim. The Justice Project has been fighting for years to get DNA evidence admitted on appeal. When they finally won a review of the scrapings of skin recovered from the victim's fingernails, the DNA turned out to be that of an unknown person.
Not the man who had been convicted. Not the man who spent 17 years in prison. Not the man who had his life ruined by a case of mistaken identity.
And when he was exonerated and released, he was presented with a bill from the state for $111,000 for child support. The state has no law that compensates for wrongful imprisonment.
If this were a single instance, we might comfortably ignore it. But I'm sure we've all--being interested in criminal matters--read about people on death row who have been cleared of wrong-doing just in time, and those whose appeals have been refused without review of evidence that could clear them.
A majority of the countries of the world have abolished the death penalty. The US is one of the very few "developed" countries that retains and regularly makes use of it, most of the rest for treason only. Last I heard, the number of judicial executions in the US was exceeded only by China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Great company! How many of them were wrongful? We'll never know.
Henry Cecil, who was a barrister, wrote a great short story (which unfortunately I've mislaid) about a vehicle accident that several eyewitnesses agreed was caused by a particular driver in a particular car. The lawyer gradually demolishes them all. At the end, it's revealed--but not in court--that the defendant wasn't even driving the car at the time. He's protecting his pregnant wife. And all those witnesses had claimed to have seen him at the wheel...
Well, as you can tell, the whole subject makes me hot under the collar. After that rant, here's a little light relief:
Quotes from BRITISH NEWSPAPERS
Commenting on a complaint from a Mr. Arthur Purdey about a large gas bill, a spokesman for North West Gas said, 'We agree it was rather high for the time of year. It's possible Mr. Purdey has been charged for the gas used up during the explosion that destroyed his house.'
(The Daily Telegraph)
Police reveal that a woman arrested for shoplifting had a whole salami in her underwear. When asked why, she said it was because she was missing her Italian boyfriend.
(The Manchester Evening News)
Irish police are being handicapped in a search for a stolen van, because they cannot issue a description. It's a Special Branch vehicle and they don't want the public to know what it looks like.
A young girl who was blown out to sea on a set of inflatable teeth was rescued by a man on an inflatable lobster. A coast guard spokesman commented, 'This sort of thing is all too common'.
At the height of the gale, the harbourmaster radioed a coast guard and asked him to estimate the wind speed. He replied he was sorry, but he didn't have a gauge. However, if it was any help, the wind had just blown his Land Rover off the cliff.
( Aberdeen Evening Express)
Mrs. Irene Graham of Thorpe Avenue , Boscombe, delighted the audience with her reminiscence of the German prisoner of war who was sent each week to do her garden. He was repatriated at the end of 1945, she recalled -
'He'd always seemed a nice friendly chap, but when the crocuses came up in the middle of our lawn in February 1946, they spelt out 'Heil Hitler.''
( Bournemouth Evening Echo)
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
On Writing and Dermis
My colleague Earl Staggs stirred quite a discussion last week with a piece about great writing and great writers. There seemed to be a rather general consensus that some people have an innate talent for writing while others don't. Any English teacher would probably agree. The question remained, who decides on the subject of greatness?
"Although Lanier had great ethical earnestness and fervor, he was not a guiding influence in his own time. Fired with the romantic spirit, he came late, in a post-war, unromantic age. He achieved a distinctive manner; but his technique was too refined, his verse somehow lacked vitality, and the more virile Whitman, not Lanier, was to sway and inspire a generation. Yet an unusual interest attaches to him. His letters reveal a pleasing personality and his last years testify to his ambition and fortitude. A recent biographer describes him as fastidious, dreamlike, and high-minded, and makes much of his manliness, his charm, his antagonism to all that he thought despicable, and his courage in the face of poverty."
The Preface to the book contains this statement as part of the authors' explanation of their purpose: "An attempt has been made to present the individual and distinctive literary theories and aims of authors as a basis for interpreting and judging their work."
Which leads me to the conclusion that, at least in the realm of "literature," it's the critics in later generations who decide upon the greatness of writers. In reading some of the comments, it intrigued me how people interpret what writers "really meant," i.e. what they were thinking when they wrote a particular passage or book. I've had the experience of readers reading something into a novel that I had no idea of saying.
It leads me back to the conclusion that each reader comes away with his or her own interpretation of what they read, which, in turn, reflects on how they view the writer. As we learn with agents and editors and publishers, judging a manuscript or a book is a very subjective exercise. It's what causes authors to develop thick skins to survive.
Monday, January 17, 2011
Back in college, I used to daydream about the house and dogs I would one day own. Like many naive college kids, I envisioned vast riches emanating from my B.A. in political science. And in my mind's eye, I had miles and miles of acreage encased by a country estate fence. For dogs, I had an elegant yet capable pack of terriers and hounds befitting the Fox and Hound image I had conjured up from my desk in the back of the classroom. While our current pack bears little resemblance to my college dreams, I now realize that it's actually better suited for us in that it allows us to utilize and even showcase what can only be described as our almost psychic connection to dogs with special needs. I wish there was a way for you to see us in action. We're really quite amazing.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Musings From A Mind That Wanders
As for me, well, it only took a day for me to break the New Year's resolution I promised myself (and announced) in my last MM post. The one about writing tighter etc etc. But I'm trying!
In the "life imitates art" department, this week I lost my cell phone. For any of you who've read my first mystery, Retirement Can Be Murder, you may chuckle at that because a lost cell phone is key to unmasking the murderer. After my initial panic, frantic phone calls, and worries about identity theft -- my e-mail is loaded onto my cell phone, which seemed like a good idea at the time -- I returned to the most likely place I could have dropped it, a local consignment store. I was greeted at the store by all the staff, big grins on their faces, who said in chorus, "Your husband called." Waited a beat. "He found your cell phone." Much laughter. Including some from me. He'd dialed my number and then walked around the house and listened for the ringing. Now, why didn't I think of that? I just may have to re-introduce the cell phone angle in another book. Or...maybe not.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
When it comes to the vagaries of nature, Brazil is particularly blessed. Down here we don't get volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, typhoons or hurricanes.
We get rain.
Or burying them alive in the rubble of their homes.
More than two hundred died.
Some continue to lie in permanent graves among the still-rotting garbage.
In Angra dos Reis, on the other side of Rio, the disaster was similar, but on a much smaller scale. Estimates of deaths don’t exceed forty.
Friday, January 14, 2011
ARE GREAT WRITERS MADE OR BORN?
Most writers, I think, have discussed this question at least once, maybe many times. Were those who produce great writing born with extraordinary strands in their DNA or uncommon neurons among the millions of them in their brain? Or, is the ability to write brilliant prose something that can be taught and learned?
Here’s my take on it. This isn’t new. I wrote it several years ago and like to toss it out every once in a while. Feel free to disagree if you want, argue if you will, call me an idiot with homicidal tendencies. Others have, may they rest in peace.
Remember those "Paint by Number" kits from years ago? Anyone could pick up a brush, put the right color in the right space and produce something called a painting. Would it be great art? Not likely. You can’t produce great art simply by following the numbers.
Two people can tell the same joke. One will leave an audience rolling on the floor in laughter, one will leave them yawning. People will sigh and say, “Some can tell 'em, some can't.” Call it talent, call it a gift. You either have it or you don't.
It’s the same with writing. A lot of people learn the basics of writing and write by the numbers. They take one writing class after another, try one genre after another, one formula after another, and reach a point where they can string words together and tell a story. Can they turn out truly great writing? Very unlikely, unless they had genuine talent to begin with.
Spencer Tracy, legendary actor with a wry sense of humor, used to say when asked how to be an actor, "Learn your lines, say them at the right time, and don't bump into the furniture."
Anyone can do that and be an actor. There's no mistaking, however, those actors born with genuine and immense talent within them. Every once in a while, for example, a Meryl Streep comes along. For her, the furniture moves out of the way.
I believe it's the same with writing. Anyone can learn the basics and produce acceptable, even good writing. To lead readers to tears, rapture, rage or revulsion, however, you must have a special gift. You’re either born with it or you’re not.
When the truly gifted ones sit down to write, they may have to write, rewrite and rewrite again, but eventually, the best words, plots and characters appear, and no one bumps into the furniture.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Interview: Jochem Vandersteen of Sons of Spade
Today's Murderous Musings interview is with Jochem Vandersteen, webmaster of the Sons of Spade review site and author of the Noah Milano stories. Jochem lives in the Netherlands with his wife and baby. He works in IT and writes for Rockportaal, a dutch website about rock music. Sons of Spade is a review site for private detective novels and can be found at http://www.sonsofspade.tk or http://sonsofspade.blogspot.com. I've been reading Jochem's blog for over a year now, and it's a great place to find new authors and learn about new releases from old favorites.
MM: How did you become interested in private detective novels?
Jochem: I think it started with watching Philip Marlowe and Spenser on TV. That got me interested in their novels. I loved the fact that these were intelligent men who stood up for what they believed in. As a young man they were good role models.
MM: Why do you think private detective novels continue to be popular?
Jochem: Although a lot of times debates pop up that say the PI novel is dead, they’re still coming out and we’re still enjoying them. I think they stay popular because they’re such archetypes. They fit in there with knights, superheroes and cowboys. Everybody knows what to expect from them. Also, they’re a great way to tell a good crime story without getting lost in procedural details.
MM: You’ve written one of your own, White Knight Syndrome. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Jochem: Noah Milano, a Los Angeles security specialist is hired to bodyguard a beautiful and rich teenage girl he's drawn into a web of family secrets, homicide and the dangers of falling in love.
It's not easy to be a White Knight in a world filled with betrayal and mob violence but Noah Milano is going to try anyway... even if he has to die doing it...
It's onsale right now from Amazon.com!
MM: What’s your writing process?
Jochem: I spent every minute of the day plotting, coming up with characters. And only a few hours every week writing I’m afraid. If there were only more hours in a day.
MM: Tell us a bit about your character. Who is he? What makes him unique?
Jochem: Noah Milano is the son of a mobster, trying to make amends with a violent past after the death of his mother. He works as a security specialist, but that really means he’s a PI. Or, sometimes, a thug for hire. What makes him unique is that he constantly tries to be different from the violent, selfish man he used to be. It isn’t easy however, because his main job skills are his proficiency in violence and his knowledge of the underworld.
MM: In ways is your character like you?
Jochem: He likes rock music and comic books. He’s got a sense of humour not everybody thinks is funny.
MM: In what ways is he different?
Jochem: He’s better looking, better armed and a hell of a lot tougher.
MM: Will there be other books in the series?
Jochem: Probably not. I put out a collection about him some time ago, though. It’s still available for free when people e-mail me asking for it. Also, I just put out a split novella featuring Noah. It’s also available for free. He’ll be popping up on the web in short stories again soon.
MM: What writers have most influenced your writing?
Jochem: Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker, John Connolly, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Robert Crais, early Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane.
MM: How does your perspective as a Dutch writer influence your work?
Jochem: I don’t know really. I try to give the stories a very USA-feel and I seem to pull that of. I don’t think my perspective is different from the writers in the USA.
MM: What gave you the idea to start the Sons of Spade blog? How did it come to be?
Jochem: I wanted to promote my work, so I created the blog. When I discovered a lot of writers were more than happy to work with me it really took off. It’s a very rewarding way to get to know fellow PI-lovers.
MM: Has the blog opened in any doors for you? If so, in what way?
Jochem: It gave me the opportunity to read a lot of PI novels before they come out, which is really great. Also, some PI writers were nice enough to write introductions to my collection Tough As Leather, which is really cool.
MM: What’s the best part of writing a blog like this?
Jochem: Hearing back from people who love it.
MM: What’s the worst?
Jochem: Not hearing back from people who love it.
MM: How do you find authors to interview?
Jochem: Surfing the web I keep up with new PI writers. Most of them are very happy to be interviewed, eager to promote their work but also very nice people.
MM: Who would your dream interview be with, and why?
Jochem: I’d still like to interview Robert Crais and Dennis Lehane, because they’re big names in the genre and very big inspirations.
MM: Do you prefer to contact writers, or do you want them to contact you? If they have a book they would like you to review, what should they do?
Jochem: I love it when they contact me. If they want books reviewed, be interviewed or whatever they can always write to me at email@example.com.
MM: You’re also involved in the music industry. How do you manage to juggle all your interests and responsibilities?
Jochem: It’s tough. With a family, a fulltime job and a lot of books to read it’s not easy to find enough time. I try to keep my hand in the rock business as well as the crime writing business as well as I can. Mainly it’s just trying to take advantage of every free hour I have.
MM: Is there anything I’ve neglected to ask that you’d like to discuss?
Jochem: Not really. Just a note to all of you people who have anthologies coming out: my short stories have been pretty well received by fellow crime writers and I’m really looking to contribute to more anthologies. So, get in touch with me if you’re thinking about running my stories.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
FedEx flies all kinds of cargo. Animals are among the most interesting. I have flown sea turtles, horses, a variety of birds, and ferrets, and can now add a hippopotamus to that list. This is Tucker’s story. If he could write, he would have painted a sign that read, “Eight Year Old Male Hippo In Need Of New Home”. FedEx came to his rescue, donating their services as a hippotarian gesture to move him from the Topeka Zoo to the San Francisco Zoo. Delivered under perfect flying conditions, Tucker is now busily exploring his new surroundings.
Tucker’s story is as interesting as his journey. Born in captivity at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, he was destined to be relocated to the San Francisco Zoo over a year ago, but the timing wasn’t right. Instead, he was transported to the Topeka Zoo where he met a lovely mate with bountiful proportions. They instantly fell in love and had a baby together on August 21, 2010. But this miracle of birth proved to be Tucker’s downfall, for the Topeka Zoo isn't large enough to accommodate three hippos. One of his handlers told me that while Tucker is very docile, the handlers were concerned that Tucker would inadvertently kill his baby by playing with him. Since the baby needed its momma, papa Tucker was being banished like Adam, except he would leave his Eden with a stock of apples.
Tucker was supposed to have been transported on November 30th, 2010, but this transportation fell through. With winter now in full swing, an appeal was made for FedEx to fly him to San Francisco. On January 6th, 2011, Tucker flew from Kansas City to Memphis, then patiently waited for me and my first officer to fly him to Oakland.
Thanks to good weather, Tucker probably never knew he moved. He was a perfect passenger throughout our entire flight. Had he been upset, we definitely would have known since annoyed jumbo animals tend to bounce airplanes. But Tucker did none of that. Instead, our four thousand pound puppy seemed quite content.
On our initial descent into Oakland, the Oakland Center controller assigned a step-down altitude. To make it easier on Tucker’s ears, we requested a constant descent because of our special cargo. The controller then asked if we had horses on board. Upon hearing it was a hippo, he replied, “Cool.” From then on, we received special handling that never required us to level-off. Tucker’s information was passed from controller to controller to ensure our smooth arrival.
I elected to use the full runway length so our deceleration was gradual. The taxi in went as smoothly as our taxi out. From Oakland, Tucker's crate was transported to San Francisco via flatbed truck. The SF Zoo was very appreciative of FedEx’s service, and I was happy to be among those playing a part in his relocation. Far more people were involved in this operation than I will ever know, but Tucker's transfer was successful because it was a team effort. Now single again, Tucker is free to find a new mate while enjoying California’s moderate climate. San Francisco may not be Disney World, but it’s far better than winter in Topeka. As for FedEx – we again proved that we deliver the world on time.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Absurdity and The Darkness
By Bill Kirton
For this blog to make sense I need first of all to set out my religious or spiritual beliefs. That's easy. I don't have any. I care about people but I’m not impressed by the artificial systems they’ve created in the name of their preferred abstraction. I'm not knocking any specific religion but I’m, saddened by anything which peddles the idea of delayed gratification and thus devalues the present. When people are suffering in this life, promising them that the next one will be better is an abnegation of real responsibilities. I realize that most people reading this will probably disagree with such a position and might not even have read this far. But, however it appears, it's not my intention to alienate them or get into religious debate. I recognize their right to their own opinions, and that their beliefs are as valid as my absence of belief. This is just the background for the main point I want to make.
For me life is absurd – hugely enjoyable but absurd. From my perspective, it has no purpose, point, direction (which definitely doesn’t mean it has no value – quite the contrary). This "now" in which I'm tapping these words out on these keys, has no link with the "now" when you're reading them. Like every other "now", they’re contingent, self-contained. There are those who find such a position impossible; they need to feel that they’re following a path and that there’s a destination. They assume that life without meaning is unbearable, empty. But the reverse is true, it means I see just how precious it is, how lucky I am to have benefited from the accident of birth and how I intend to make the most of it. A melody or a sunset or a kiss doesn’t have to have meaning to make it pleasurable.
But activities such as sports or the arts do have meaning. They follow their own rules, have conclusions, resolutions – they have the good, old-fashioned beginnings, middles and endings. Each symphony, play, novel sets out its themes, its contrasts, then plays them out against or with one another. And the written word brings it all closest to ‘reality’. (This isn’t comparing and contrasting the different art forms – it’s just that words are so definite and relate specifically to our everyday world in a way that musical notes or brush strokes don’t.) And, thanks to that, they give us the illusion of structure, meaning.
Depending on your own position on all this, it may seem self-evident (or rubbish). I’m only bothering to say it all because my novel, The Darkness, (and no, this isn’t a promo for it - see, I haven't even made it a link) made me aware of things that might have been there subconsciously as I was writing the ones which preceded it but which only became evident when it had been finished. That’s because a theme that was there from the start emerged very strongly in this particular novel. So much so that I now know that the whole series will consist of six novels. Four have already been published, another is ready for submission and the plot of the final one is contained in one of my short stories, which I’ll now be able to expand accordingly. I’m not making any great claims to have created a modern Comédie Humaine but there’s (to me anyway) an obvious consistency and progression through the sequence which will lead to an inevitable conclusion.
The beauty (or curse) of not believing in anything, of course, is that when the sequence doesn’t turn out as I’m anticipating it will, these words may return to bite me on the bum (a quaint British expression which I’m not sure you share in the US). That’s the nature of absurdity. My main point, though, is that when we’re creating our fictions we’re taking a time-out from arbitrariness and contingency and, in a corny way, cheating them. We’re making a wee universe in which rules are obeyed, sins are punished (or not) and the final full stop comes where we choose to put it, not at some arbitrary point as we’re crossing the road or eating a pretzel or lying oblivious to the probings of the surgeon’s scalpel. Taken to its logical conclusion, this implies that our best reality is the fictions we enjoy as readers and writers. What a pity that life doesn’t imitate art.