Thursday, November 19, 2015

An Untrustworthy Woman

As a young man of about 40, single, and in possession (of as much debt as) good fortune, I took a wife. Not long thereafter, my father said to my new bride, "Yeah, we tried to find Marie's sister, but we never could." This was a bit of a shock to me as for 40 years, I'd thought my mother, Marie, was an only child like myself. But no, it seems she had a sister, and my grandfather, a Greek ne'er do well, whom I like to call Kouros of Athens (Kούρος της Αθήνας), abandoned Marie and my grandmother, took the sister, and was never heard from again.
That's about all I found out. Some years later, my dad had died, and my mother suffered from dementia, and couldn't shed any more light on what became my family mystery. I did find among Mom's papers a birth certificate for an Esther Kouros, strangely on the same day as Mother's birthday, but a year or two earlier.
Fast forward to a couple years ago and I'm taking a class with the inimitable Con Lehane who assigned a writing exercise, the purpose of which I forget, to compose a story that explains a family mystery. I didn't spend too long on it, but I wrote, "An Untrustworthy Woman," a little under 700 words.
This fall, I ran across "Shotgun Honey," which publishes flash fiction in the crime mode and limited to 700 words. Why not? I says to myself. I dusted my Untrustworthy Woman off, and why not indeed, said Shotgun Honey. The result is that An Untrustworthy Woman is now live and a free read online.

If you stop by, I hope you enjoy it, and please feel free to leave feedback with Honey, or comment below.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A story has to know where it is in time and place

That's a quote, (or as near as my notes come to one), from my instructor in Literary Detective Fiction at the Catamaran Conference, John Straley. He lives in Sitka, Alaska, and seems to be big on ecology and the environment. With John, it's not just a "shave the whales," thing, though his wife Jan is a marine biologist and the two of them have a non-fiction book coming out, something along the lines of Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska: Ed Ricketts and the Wave Shock that Forged the Coast. No, the point I was heading for is that John thinks ecology is about place and all good writing should come from place, setting. Character is influenced by and should all be rooted in the setting. Plot should be based in landscape.
John's latest crime novels are with Soho Press, which publishes crime in foreign locales (such as Cara Black's Paris mysteries), and nothing seems more foreign to me than Alaska. In Sitka, they have 200 inches of rain a year. Last Oct., John says, they had 30 inches of rain--an inch a day. I asked him if that was just rain, or precipitation, and he said "Rain. It doesn't snow much in Sitka." As a writer, John's fine with the rain. "In the rain, surfaces are shiny, poppy, and vivid."
Straley doesn't think that crime writers should be disrespected because of their genre. "The crime genre can be just as psychologically rich as anything else. It just has to be revealed in action."

I read The Big Both Ways before going to the conference. It's a good novel and John's a fine writer. I liked the '30s setting and the backdrop of labor unrest and violence.
Photo of John in Pebble Beach by the Blogger: 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Karen Joy Fowler--Food for Thought

Our guest the first night at the Catamaran Lit Conference in Pebble Beach was Karen Joy Fowler, whom some of you may know as the author of The Jane Austen Book Club. Or famous these last couple years as the author of We Are All completely beside Ourselves. She was charming and fun. Someone asked her about writing groups or critique groups, and she had somewhat contradictory thoughts. One, she loves her group and would never quit it. And two, she doesn't take much of their feedback and recommends you ignore most of the feedback or advice you get. Karen thinks that if the critique is of any value, it will immediately resonate with you. You'll say, "Oh, yeah. That's right. You're on to something there." And if it doesn't, leave it. It's probably not worthwhile. 
It sounded like her group was quite contentious--someone threw a chair through a window--which makes me thankful my group is online. :-) Regrets? She wishes she didn't read the work of other members of the group aloud in a bad Swedish accent.

She closed with the following advice: "You can't go wrong setting a scene in your story or book in a miniature golf course." It's silly, it's common, it's blue collar. She particularly likes the idea of putting at the anthill like hole. You know, like a cone with a hole at the top, where your ball might not make it up the hill, or might overshoot and end up further away than where you started.   
Writers and their metaphors.  

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Easter Egg Hunt

I was reading "Howling at the Moon," a Black Mask story by my Facebook friend Paul Marks when I came across the villain's name "Bud Traven."

Bud Traven? I thought. As in "B. Traven?" I asked Paul about it.

"It's an Easter Egg," he said. "A little something extra for folks in the know." For B. Traven is the mysterious author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

I have put an Easter Egg of sorts in my newest story, "Courvoisier and Coca Tea." I say "of sorts," because it's a bit more esoteric, and I don't expect many folks to spot it. But if you're well-versed in the noir tradition, you might. So I'll post this challenge and say, find the hidden egg in "C & CT" and send me a note. If you're the first to find it, you'll receive a suitable prize, along the lines of an autographed copy of the Sept./Oct. 2015 Ellery Queen in which the story appears, but if that's not suitable, (if you already have a copy for instance), maybe we can get together for a couple glasses of wine. My treat.

Hint: my egg is related to one of the classics of the noir genre. Send your guess to

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Development of a Story


I went in and out of Peru in 1984. It was quick. I left no traces. I loved it. I attributed my clean sneak to reading the South American Handbook and heeding the warnings.
I was a single man then, and I met two single dames, fellow travelers. Libby and Maureen, a tall brunette and a short blonde. Both were swell. We were all on separate tours, but our character arcs were interwoven. I'd spend time with one in Lima, another in Arequipa, and so on. The girls were never in the same town, but there was usually one where I was.
I had some wonderful moments rattling along on the train through the Urubamba River Valley. I spent the night at the sanctuary hotel in Machu Picchu, back before it was a Belmond property. Ran into a little trouble in Arequipa, but nobody got hurt.
When I returned to the Black Lizard Lounge, I tried to write a short atmospheric travel vignette about it. I thought it was a decent first piece in an engaging voice. But no one wanted to publish my short travel vignette, no matter how atmospheric. I held on to it in here, where writers hold on to their stories.
I began to write private eye fiction in 2005. I decided to revamp the Peru travel piece--weave it into a noir tale. That version flopped, derailed by an online writing workshop when something I wrote garnered this feedback (true quote): "That really got my hackles up!" And that comment degenerated into an online thread of two-weeks duration entitled "Nipples." "It was chilly that morning in Cusco," I told them. They didn't want to hear it.
Well, thanks to EQMM, I began to have a little success with my series private eye character, Frank Swiver. I showed Frank the Peru material.
"OK, I'll do it," he said.
"This is just the old version. You haven't even seen your role yet. I haven't written your lines."
"Doesn't matter," said Frank, putting out his Camel in my Tommy Bahama ashtray. "I like the dame in it."
Frank's always been a rogue, and he recognized a rogue-ish part when he glammed onto one. So I wrote the story for Frank.
Going through the material again helped me get some things clear in my mind. Like an ending, and a less muddled middle. Frank really straightened the story out for me.
I thought it was swell stuff now. I showed it to a few old pals as a sanity check. The pals "got" the story, and seemed to sincerely like it, too. I showed it to three writers. The writers unanimously condemned it.
Writer 1: "Your p.i. has lost his moral compass."
Writer 2: "He has no moral compass."
Writer 3: "We hate your protagonist. We'll never read another Frank Swiver story."
That didn't move Frank. "Hey, I did what the client asked, didn't I? It's a job."
"I'm taking you off the case, shamus," I said.
"You can't do that."
You can let your characters take you all over the map in a story, but you can't let them tell you what to write. I took Frank off the case. But now, who to give it to? There weren't many dicks in my bag of dramatis personae. I reached in and pulled out a Basque-American from Boise, Igor Oxtoa. Igor'd been working the other end of Post Street from Frank for a couple years, and was ready for prime time. 
Frank has had some good fortune with the women in my stories. But Igor has never had any luck with dames. He's shorter, stockier, and just not a smooth operator, like Frank. But that added a new dimension to the seduction. It was fun writing, but more importantly I think folks could be more sympathetic with Igor than they were with Frank.
I sent it in to EQMM last August. "Too much explicit sex," was the reply. D'uh. I knew that! I don't know what I was thinking, sending an R-rated piece to Ellery Queen. All I can figure is brain fade.
"What if I take out the explicit sex? Would you read it again?" Yes!
I sent off the PG-13 version. EQMM came back, "You need to cut back on the drug use."
"What do you mean? I quit years ago."
"In the story, bright boy."
Arrrgh! There is a murder, a stabbing, and an unnatural death from a train, but cocaine smuggling is the crime that drives this tale. It was tough to clean up the coke and keep the story line on track. The interesting thing though about working with Janet Hutchings, each time after I made requested changes, I had a better story, with pace, tone, dramatic scenes and a fine balance. Best of all Igor and the rest of the cast were giving me 100%. The little Basque was a natural. He took to the scenes like a llama takes to the Inca Trail.
Intended result: EQMM and I finally agreed on a story, "Courvoisier and Coca Tea," and it will appear in the Sept. / Oct. double issue as the Black Mask feature.
Unintended consequences: my wife has planned a family trip for us to Peru in July.
We get questions all the time here at the Black Lizard Lounge. "That's quite a story. How long did it take you to write it?"
Let's see, I started in 1985, so about 20 years, I guess. I wasn't working on it the whole time though . . .


Monday, April 13, 2015

Corsican Vendetta Knives, Frank Swiver, Pulp Fiction

Read an interview w/ me about Frank Swiver and my pulp fiction on the Dead Guns Press blog -- visit, then select the link "e-zine," click on Smoking Room.