Write Like You Mean it

 

I don’t presume that every visitor to our humble site voted the way I did. If you’ve read my previous posts and/or my work, you probably have a good idea who I cast my ballot for this past presidential election. Nonetheless, the die is cast and at least for the next four years we shall see if the winner is going to deliver on his promises and threats.

But in times like these those moments where you question what it is write as a storyteller. That in some ways I’m jealous when fake news stories on social media sway people. These fictions are propaganda, but not labeled as such. This material is not meant to offer reflection or enlightenment, bsimpsonsut to reinforce pre-existing perceptions and move the needle among the undecided. How do you top that?

The danger then is in feeling the need to redirect your work to make it cynical and didactic, to hit the reader over the head in driving home whatever particular point it is you’re trying to make to get said reader on your side. But then you take a deep breath, pause and collect your thoughts, and once you re-group, understand that what it is you write, be it genre to so-called literate writing, can contribute to broadening the discussion.

Not for nothing those of us who love our pulp stories helped put together Black Pulp and Asian Pulp. Not to be PC, but also acknowledging that for the most part, in the original wild pulp tales of the ‘30s and ‘40s, if people of color were say in a story set in Africa, a black person might be individualized as the gun bearer or the Asian be the villainous Yellow Peril or Dragon Lady. The aforementioned anthologies, and for sure those two examples are among several – the steamfunk novel set in the horror that was the Belgium Congo, Everfair by Nisi Shawl and The Striver’s Row Spy by Jason Overstreet come to mind — was a way to put the background character up front as the adventurer, the aviatrix, the gunslinger, the jungle lord. We can all have a turn playing these iconic characters to fire the imaginations, to have some fun and just maybe plant the seed that diversity isn’t some academic, lefty concept to guilt trip you, but is organic and seamless in the context of enjoyable stories.

In that way I feel renewed to still tell tales of derring-do, of the hardboiled and heartache, of noir and its dark alleys, sometimes with a bit of socio-political content threaded through and sometimes not. But consciously I want to stretch as a writer to put on the page and the stage in your mind, characters of various ethnicities not because I’m all touchy-feely, but because I want to challenge myself and the reader. In my own way counter those false narratives with fiction to hopefully resonate and connect. I’ll also look for ways my work can reach beyond the “Bubble” and into those areas of the rust belt and red states where folks may or may not have an affinity for crime fiction, but not fully indulging. Outreach to those who are hungering for something more than what they hear on AM radio.

I mean hey, VP-elect Mike Pence went to see “Hamilton,” didn’t he? Okay, he got schooled but still. Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the Pulitzer and the Edgar for his novel The Sympathizer, stated in his recent piece in the L.A. Times Book Review section, “Listen to Radicals, Artists,” that sci-fi/futurist writer Ursala K. Le Guin said writers need to be “realists of a larger reality.”

Come on, y’all, let’s get large.

Happy Thanksgiving

That Old Autumn Feeling

tumblr_maiujcqypo1r3sm6co1_500As writers we sometimes feel blessed — or cursed — with a continuing education. Every day we write we are on some learning curve or other, struggling to remember what happened yesterday in the story, where it’s going, what the research says, and how to put the perfect sentence together. The advent of brisk fall weather reminds us of back-to-school, even though most of us haven’t been to actual school for decades. Autumn is a time of endings, but also beginnings. New pencils, new friends and old, clean reams of paper, spotless notebooks ready to be scribbled in: this is autumn.

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This 9/11 we remember the victims of the terrorist attacks as well as honoring the first responders and those who still suffer physical and psychological trauma from that time.  And here’s to us getting out of the Big Muddy to paraphrase Pete Seeger.


On a happier note, I am glad to be attending this year’s Bouchercon in New Orleans doing a couple of panels, celebrating Down & Out Books’ 5th anniversary, and participating in group signings for anthologies I’m in – The Highway Kind, Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, Crime + Music, Occupied Earth and Blood on the Bayou.

Lise McClendon

img_2048Lise is not happy about NOT attending this year’s World Mystery Convention, Bouchercon, in New Orleans. It’s always a blast, a sort of writers high school reunion. So she adds this silly photo from last year’s event in Raleigh, NC, to remember the good times.

Katy and Lise hope there are some big chairs in New Orleans. Because what is a convention without giant seating?! Laissez les bons temps rouler!

This August marked the release of Lise’s newest Bennett Sisters novel, The Things We Said Today. The third full-length novel (there is also a novella) comes two years after the last things-we-said-webone, The Girl in the Empty Dress. To mark the occasion and thank readers she is giving away copies of Blackbird Fly, the first in the series. Click here to get the details. 

The new one finds the five sisters in the Scottish Highlands for the oldest sister’s wedding. But does she even want to get married at the ripe old age of 55? Weather, whisky, and intrigue threaten to shatter the happy day.

Lise also refurbished her website at lisemcclendon.com and would love to hear what you think of it. Also check out how to join her review team. Free books: were two better words ever combined?

J.D. Rhoades

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J.D. (aka Dusty) will also be at Bouchercon in New Orleans this week, September 15-18.  Come by Mardi Gras “D” at 4:30 Thursday for the panel “Telling Lies”, moderated by the extremely funny Johnny Shaw. See if you can separate true stories from lies told by professionals!


He just turned in final edits on a new Jack Keller novel, HELLHOUND ON MY TRAIL. Check out the cover!

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Here is the cover for Kate’s soon to be released 5th Joe Burgess police procedural, Led Astray. Watch for it on Amazon.

In other news, A Good Man with a Dog, the memoir Kate co-wrote with a retired Maine game warden, won second place in the 2016 Public Safety Writers Association annual writing contest.

May your pencils be as sharp as your mind! Happy autumn 🍁🍂

The Mysteries of Fatherhood

Last month my wife Gilda and I had the pleasure to take a brief week-long vacation to Florence, Italy.  Our American friends were already there, having rented an apartment on the south side of the Arno River which bifurcates the historic city and we stayed with them.  As they say, it was a whirlwind tour which involved seeing the famous Statue of David, renting a car to drive to Bologna, Puertomaggiore  and other environs — “Take the second right out of the roundabout.”

“I took the second right.”

“That was the third,” Gilda would point out.

“I can count,” I would insist, “that was the second.”

Fortunately Siri’s calm directions often resolved our navigational problems and allowed us to enjoy our day trips and the food in local cafes.  For even though my wife’s laptop and phone were hidden but nonetheless stolen from the rental, after the thieves busted out the rear window of the hatchback, and getting back to town that night we were locked out of the apartment after yours truly left the keys some damn place, we had a great time

Walking around a section of Florence one day and marveling at the centuries old architecture, the old daily comic strip Dondi flashed in my head.  The kid, Dondi (the photo for this post is a still from the film based on the strip that starred David Janssen – TV’s Richard Diamond, Private Eye, as the G.I), was a button-eyed war orphan who was befriended by an American G.I. in the closing days of World War II.   Man and boy grow close and the soldier turned veteran and his wife adopt Dondi and they live in Midville, U.S.A.  Dondi never aged so as the strip kept going for many years, his past wasn’t alluded to much.  Nowadays, if Dondi was to be updates as a show on the CW, he’d be an Afghan war orphan befriended by a lonely G.I.  We’d start with him as a tough 11 or 12 year old trying to adjust to small town U.S.A., both damaged individuals helping the other heal. Then if the show was renewed, the second year we’d skip ahead five years to Dondi as a troubled but goodhearted hunky teen who must solve the murder of his basketball coach.

Dondi

The Bicycle Thief, which emerged from the Italian neo-realism period of post WWII films, is another example of a relationship between father and sons.  In the film the father is scraping together work in the war ravaged Italy Dondi has escaped.  He gets a job pasting up movie posters but has to have a bike to accomplish the tasks.  He has a bike but had pawned it and his wife gives him their sheets to pawn in back.  Then on the job, the bike gets stolen.  We follow man and son on an odyssey across this rugged landscape of Rome to find his bicycle as each learns something about the other, and we the audience see what war on your doorstep does to a country.

A Better Life, based on a short story by Roger L. Simon (creator of the Moses Wine ex-hippie private eye series) is a kind of modern day version of The Bicycle Thief.  An East L.A. gardener and his teenage son have a strained relationship, what with the kid gravitating toward the gang life and the son embarrassed by his old man’s thankless work.  The two give us a look at Southeast L.A., far from the damn near lily white one percenter enclaves encountered in Entourage, and come to understand one another better as they search for his stolen pick-up truck.

Not to let fathers and daughters off the hook, in Naomi Hirahara’s Gase-Gasa Girl, her retired gardener amateur sleuth Mas Arai travels from Pasadena to New York City to aide his grown married daughter Mari with whom he also has a strained relationship.  As these things happen, Mari’s ex boss’ body is discovered by Mas and he’s drawn into solving the crime while he and his daughter navigate their relationship.

In comics there’s numerous father-daughter super-hero and super-villain relationships and probably one of the most complicated is Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia al Ghul who is Batman’s baby’s mama.  At times father, head of the League of Assassins, and daughter are aligned and at other times she’s trying to off her pops.  Kids.

Happy Father’s Day, y’all.

I’m Not a Panster, I’m a Cooker

 

Miramichi 018.JPGYou all know how it goes. There is a panel of authors sitting before an audience. The presentation is done and now it’s time for Q&A. Once in a while there’s a question that is delightfully quirky or unpredictable, but most times, along with questions about where we get our ideas, someone will want to know whether the writers outline before they write.

The answers will vary. Some of the writers will be serious outliners, the kind who have a detailed, sixty-page outline before they write word one. They are likely the same folks who carefully keep notebooks about each recurring character. Who give their characters birthdays. Who remember that in book two, Uncle Henry and Aunt Rita were feeling estranged from the main character. Who will have carefully noted when their character’s sister burned down the house or shot the neighbor’s dog. They will have a note on the name of that deceased dog so they won’t use it for another dog later in the series. These people, though I long to emulate them, are just too organized.

Others will work from a shorter outline, possibly the one they submitted to a publisher to Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.18.22 PMget another contract. These writers generally know the story they mean to tell, although most will readily admit that the book they end up writing often bears little resemblance to the outline they submitted. Usually, neither the author nor the editors cares when this happens.

Occasionally there are those who admit they start at the end of the book and work backward, making sure that everything that happens leads to that already designed and inevitable ending.

Then there are the pantsers. These are the writers who sit down at the keyboard (formerly Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 12.19.23 PMknown as the typewriter), type Chapter One, and have at it. Many of them will admit that at the end of the writing day or a scene or a chapter, they have no idea what will happen next. For them, much of the joy of writing is in that journey of discovery. It’s in somehow having their creative minds lead them forward into the next chapter. And for pantsers—while they will admit to those moments of despair when they don’t know what to write next and no fluttery little muse is whispering in their ear—this approach generally works.

I am neither an outliner nor a pantser. When I wrote my first mystery—one of the three that reside in a drawer labeled: In the event of my death, burn these—I wrote the pieces I knew. From there, I made an outline of what I needed to write to connect these pieces, and finally, an outline of what needed to still be filled in. I wrote the next in much the same fashion, feeling my way along. Probably following that line that is attributed to many writers including Doctorow that writing is like driving a night. You can only see as far as your headlights but if you keep going, eventually you will get there.

That felt a bit shaky and disorganized, so for the next book, I wrote an outline. Following that outline lasted exactly one chapter. At the end of chapter one, in a book that I had planned to be about real estate and corrupt bankers, a student walks into my protagonist high school teacher’s classroom and says: “You’ve got to help me, Mr. M. I’m in big trouble.” The book became about that trouble.

I’ve lost count, but at book twenty-four or so, I’ve evolved into what I call a cooker. Not meth, thank goodness, but plotting. When an idea comes to me—often only a phrase, or a person in a difficult situation or whatever—I begin the process of wondering. Who is this person? Why is he or she in this situation? What’s in the past that led them here? And once that musing leads to a protagonist and a victim, I wonder about why the victim is dead, what my protagonist’s connection is, and then my mind begins to fill in the details about the crime scene, the clues, the killer, the other suspects, and how it will all be unraveled. I don’t write it down, but I remember it.

During the cooking period, I can get quite lost in my own head. Plot ideas or critiques of what I’ve planned can come flying at me at any time. While driving. In the shower. As I go to sleep and as I’m waking up. During this time, I joke that I should wear a tag like Paddington Bear that reads: Please Look After This Author. Thank You. If Found, Please Return To . . .”

That in-my-head plan can still get knocked awry by a character seizing control—an event that used to scare me but now I embrace. But mostly, I follow the story line I’ve cooked up.

So if I zone out during dinner. If I suddenly get a glazed look in my eyes. If I suddenly whip out my phone and begin typing—please smile indulgently. I’m not being rude. I’m just cooking.

Books, workshops, and more stories

A round-up of author/member activities

Kate Flora reports that her new book (a co-written project) is now out in Good Man with a Dog Cover-2the world: A Good Man with a Dog: A Game Warden’s 25 Years in the Maine Woods by Roger Guay with Kate Clark Flora. Skyhorse Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-5107-0480-0

She also has a short story, Anonymous, in the Malice Domestic collection, Murder Most Conventional.

 

 

44FunkBBGary Phillips has several short stories coming out over the summer and into the fall including his second Decimator Smith story in Black Pulp II (an anthology he co-edited); his first Sherlock Holmes story in Echoes of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Holmesophiles Laurie King and Les Klinger; a car and crime tale in The Highway Kind from Mulholland Books; with the peripatetic Robert Randisi, has his third Silencer (a character who is a homage to 1970s paperback vigilantes) outing in 44 Caliber Funk; and a tale in the Bronze Buckaroo collection that revives the black cowboy character popularized in several 1930s films played by singer-actor Herb Jeffries — who wasn’t any parts black but that’s a story for another time!

Katy Munger is busy conducting a number of special events, workshops, readings, and appearances as part of being named North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for 2016. To read her blog and obtain the latest information on upcoming events as well as how to register for them, please visit the Piedmont Laureate website

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Taffy Cannon is pleased to announced that her nonfiction guide, SibCare: The Trip You Never Planned to Take will be published shortly. This guidebook for people dealing with sibling illness or disability can be previewed at SibCare.org.

 

 

The Bluejay Shaman new coverLise McClendon is finishing editing her next Bennett Sisters novel to be released in August. In the meantime she’s serializing her first mystery, The Bluejay Shaman, on Wattpad, as part of the Smashwords/Wattpad Mystery/Thriller promotion. This novel debuts Jackson Hole art dealer, Alix Thorssen, working in western Montana to clear her brother-in-law, an anthropology professor at the University of Montana, of murder of a New Age seeker. Check it out on Wattpad — it’s free!  In preparation for the new novel subscribers to her newsletter will receive a free e-book copy of Blackbird Fly, the first Bennett Sisters novel. Sign up here.

Lise will again be leading a day-long novel workshop with Deborah Turrell Atkinson at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference on June 22. Details here.

BSL AUDIO CoverThe five Thalia Authors Co-op authors who wrote a novel together as Thalia Filbert— Kate, Katy, Taffy, Gary, and Lise– would like to thank readers who have generously offered their reviews and comments on this unique project. Beat Slay Love: One Chef’s Hunger for Delicious Revenge is still free for Kindle Unlimited readers and as an audiobook for new Audible subscribers. We’d love to hear what you think of it! Write a short review like Martha did:

Tasty novel
By Martha Mon May 5, 2016
As one who has followed cooking shows and loves mysteries, this gave me a wonderful taste of both. There were absolute laugh out loud moments that had my tears flowing! Thank you. Please write another.

 

The Broken Bus, Dead of Night, Gone to Prison Blues

by Taffy Cannon

A funny thing happened on the way to prison.

I awoke at four-thirty in the morning in Southern California’s Tejon Pass and discovered that the bus on which I was riding was no longer moving.

We seemed to be parked on the shoulder, as enormous semi-trucks whooshed by at dizzying speed, often shaking the bus as they hurtled north. The trucks passed in nearly-constant blurs of light and sound, sometimes edging left a bit but often remaining in the far-right lane. That’s the lane trucks habitually use to cross this notorious pass on Interstate 5 through the Tehachapi Mountains, known as the Grapevine. It’s the primary route between Northern and Southern California.

I sat up right away.

Eighteen-wheelers were passing what seemed like inches from my head, the head that had been sleeping peacefully on a pillow propped against the bus window. Okay, maybe not inches. They were probably passing feet away, though you wouldn’t need more than one hand to count how many. And maybe not sleeping peacefully, either. We were, after all, on a bus going to prison in the dead of night.

The other occupants of the bus were mostly the children of women incarcerated in the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, nearly 400 miles north of their San Diego homes. We were participating in the Get on the Bus annual Mother’s Day trip to briefly reunite these kids with their moms in prison. For many this would be their only visit of the year. I’ve written about Get on the Bus previously, and it’s a program dear to my heart. Started by nuns with a prison ministry, it focuses on the youngest and most forgotten victims of crime, children left behind when a lawbreaking mother winds up behind bars. At least one child on our bus had been born in prison.

Chowchilla is midway up the agricultural Central Valley and home to two major prisons, a company town where the product is Corrections. Chowchilla is also remembered as the site of a kidnaping of a busload of children in 1976 by three rich kids. A busload of children. Hmmm.

I’ve participated in Get on the Bus many times, but I’d been mildly queasy about this trip for several days, without any logical reason. Now I had a pretty good idea what had been bothering my subconscious. I could only hope that my earlier anxiety did not also include a next act in this drama, something like the bus exploding after being struck from behind by an eighteen-wheeler going 65 uphill.

What we were told by the bus drivers and what I could overhear was not reassuring. One of the alternators had gone out, they told us, and they hoped to get a push start from the tow truck they kept calling. The truck was taking its sweet time showing up and was based seven miles north, or maybe fifteen south. There might also be a bus that could come up from San Diego (or, ideally, someplace closer) if the push-start didn’t work, but there was no indication that alternate transportation was being arranged. It was all disturbingly vague and the semis just kept roaring by, shaking us over and over again.

Also, nobody seemed terribly sure where we were.

Three green-and-white highway signs stretched across the road too far ahead for any of us to read them, taunting with the prospect of civilization and help. My phone locator showed us just south of 138, the Lancaster Highway, and the general consensus seemed to be that we were somewhere around Gorman. Landmarks were no help, however, since it was pitch black except for the lights on the passing trucks.

It never occurred to me until much later that we might have stopped on the side of  a precipice, though I found it very disconcerting when we coasted downhill a bit to edge slightly farther onto the extremely narrow shoulder. But I did spend a lot of time figuring out the best and fastest way to get everybody off the bus in a hurry should we need to. Like when some trucker drifted absentmindedly and smashed a semi into the bus’s rear end.

Once the engine was going again, the drivers told us, we would get to Chowchilla with no trouble. Absolutely. Guaranteed. Furthermore, the braking system was entirely unaffected by this problem, so going down the far side of the pass—a much steeper grade than the incline where we were now stuck—would be no problem.

Time passed.

Mercifully unaware of our predicament, most of the kids on the bus slept soundly through it all. The adults accompanying them—mostly caretaker grandmothers—sat upright, wide awake and calm, with the dignified resignation of people who learned a long time ago that they have very little control over their lives.

More time passed.

The sun began to rise, briefly bathing the surrounding hills in soft rosy light. Alas, that soft rosy light revealed other issues that I hadn’t noticed when we boarded the bus at 1:30 am. The rest room, for instance. Previous travelers had crammed the toilet cavity full of tissue, so the toilet was unusable, though on the plus side it didn’t smell too bad. The rest of the bus was filthy and strewn with trash. When I pulled down my tray table, a wad of garbage fell out. And the seats themselves had basketball-like protuberances in the lumbar area.

We served the now-awakening passengers brown-bag breakfasts we had brought, and after a couple hours—yes! a couple of hours—the tow truck showed up. It was a pretty good-sized vehicle, but not remotely capable of pushing a bus full of people uphill, much less fast enough to push-start its engines. I’ve owned Volkswagens, and I know about push-starting. You want to be pointing downhill with a tail wind.

Once the mechanic began performing last rites on the engine, the official call for a replacement bus went out. Around then, we also learned that we weren’t the only Get on the Bus vehicle having engine trouble. Another one was broken down seven miles ahead of us. Or maybe fifteen behind. (You know, by the home base for the tow truck.) We plotted how to cram everybody into the replacement bus.

And where, you may be wondering, were the police during the three hours that this bus full of sleeping children teetered by the side of a mountain pass as the goods of America roared past to market?

The Highway Patrol, responsible for Interstate traffic in California, showed up just as the second bus arrived. Three hours after our abrupt stop.  It was never clear why they hadn’t come a whole lot sooner, or when they learned there was a broken-down bus filled with children and grandmothers in the Grapevine. That bus, come to think of it, had anonymous black windows and might well have been filled with cadres of terrorists.

When the replacement bus arrived, suddenly everything was all a-scurry. We emptied the dead bus down to the bottle of hand sanitizer we’d duct-taped to the wall of the nasty rest room, and transferred everything and everybody onto Bus #2. This bus turned out to be clean and comfortable, featured a working engine, and didn’t even need to be shared with the other broken-down bus passengers. I’m not sure what happened to them. Maybe they hitch-hiked.

Did I mention that it was raining on and off through the entire trip? At one point the wipers on Bus #2 shut themselves off during a torrential downpour, but Replacement Driver stopped for gas and made a mechanical adjustment to the wipers, which behaved for the rest of the trip.

*****

Our prison visit was the customary fusion of heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Our group of volunteers had originally been slated to arrive first and was assigned to take informal group portraits as mementos for both inmates and family. We actually arrived last, but slid into the second shift of the photo booth operation. I shot dozens of pictures against two backdrops that tantalized with desert and garden scenes unknown here behind the miles of razor wire, and I loved every minute of it. These pictures would be all that remained at day’s end—sometimes posed seriously, sometimes clowning, always brimming with an agonizing blend of joy and loss.

And then it was time to leave, as always too soon. We boarded the bus and headed south into our own realities while the mothers we had visited were strip-searched and locked back in their cells.

*****

We stopped for a fast-food dinner just north of the Grapevine, and I noticed that southbound traffic appeared sluggish as it began the climb. Still, it was Friday afternoon and I’d just learned that even Fresno has rush hour traffic, so I didn’t pay too much attention as I turned my phone on for the first time since sunrise.

I stopped cold at a Google News headline announcing that the Grapevine had been closed mid-day in both directions, following a flash flood and mudslide. Flash flood! Mudslide! Two more potential problems I’d never thought of in the dead of night as we waited for the tow truck and the bus and the Highway Patrol and maybe also Godot.

But by now we were back on I-5 and climbing, albeit slowly. And if we were going to be detoured off the Interstate there wasn’t much we could do about it anyway.

The northbound lanes across the median were eerily empty, with occasional maintenance vehicles pushing around rocks and debris, and stretches showing giant wet brush marks on the pavement where previous work was complete. Up ahead, we saw northbound traffic being routed off the road at Highway 138, the same Lancaster Highway exit near where we’d stopped fifteen hours earlier.

Moments after we passed the first of the stalled northbound traffic waiting to head out onto its lengthy high desert detour, the bus driver turned and pointed.

“That’s your bus over there,” he said. And by golly, it was.

It’s been almost two weeks now. I hope somebody has finally gotten around to moving it, or at least to checking it for terrorists.