Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Year in Review


Holiday greetings from Castle Schadenfreude! This past summer marked a return to more normal activities after the worst of the covid pandemic, so of course The Beloved Spouse™ and I both got it. The rest of the year was mostly quite nice. Here are the highlights.


·       January

o   Spent a few days in a lovely house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina owned by Corky’s niece and her husband. January is a slow rental month, so they let us stay for free. We had a very relaxing few days, highlighted by lunch with Mark and Ruth Sharpe Bergin.

o   My short story, “The Box,” appeared in Mystery Tribune magazine.

·       February

o   We are retired and old enough to know not to go out in February.

·       March

o   The Suffolk Mystery Author’s Festival was virtual again this year. I moderated a panel and we’re both looking forward to attending in person in 2023.

·       April

o   Attended the Left Coast Crime conference in Albuquerque. NM. (I mention the state so no one confuses it with any other Albuquerques.) We saw several friends, found some great Detroit-style pizza, and I snared a panel.

o   Spent a week with The Sole Heir in New Orleans. Highlights included a swamp tour on an air boat, the World War II Museum (parts of it; we’ll be back), invigorating walks in Audubon Park, a trip to the zoo, and, as always, great food.

·       May

o   I joined our neighborhood Homeowners’ board, a decision I’ll live to regret. (Frankly, I regret it already, but someone has to do it.)

·       June

o   Back to New Orleans for The Sole Heir’s graduation from her residency at Tulane, and to help pack the truck for her move to Florida. She’s a bona fide doctor now.

·       July

o   Down & Out Books released the seventh Penns River book, White Out..

o   A brief tour of North Carolina and southern Virginia which included

§  Reading for a Noir at the Bar event in Hillsborough NC.

§  A day touring Williamsburg VA.

§  Another reading, this time for Noir at the Voir in Midlothian VA

§  We’ve reached the age where we don’t buy many souvenirs, as the house is full already. All we brought back this time was covid, which stowed away, taking up so little space we didn’t know we had it until we’d been home a couple of days.

·       August

o   The covid wasn’t too bad, but the post-infection fatigue kept us pretty well stationary through the month.

·       September

o   Re-established our confidence about being in the world again.

·       October

o   Attended the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference in Columbia MD. Saw a lot of old friends; I hosted Noir at the Bar, moderated one panel, and sat on two others.

o   Back to Hillsborough to attend the Halloween Noir at the Bar.

·       November

o   Mostly we gave thanks for getting through everything else in good shape.

·       December

o   Spent Christmas in Tampa with The Sole Heir. Alas, we missed The Sole Son-in-Law except for one day, as he was deployed for a couple of weeks.


In more general, non-date-specific news:

·       We’re both in good shape with no major heart, lung, or cognitive issues. My vision remains stable.

·       We both started to not just talk about regular exercise but do it.

·       The Sole graduated from her residency and passed her boards for certification. (Not the homeowners’ board Dana belongs to. These are people who know what they’re doing.) She may be close to an exciting career opportunity; we hope to have details next year. The Sole Son-in-Law is a lieutenant in the Coast Guard and a helicopter pilot. You might have seen him on the news in September, or at least his chopper, as among his tasks was evacuating people from Sanibel Island after the hurricane.


Summing up, TBS and I had a pretty good year, albeit with a few bumps. We hope this past trip around the sun has been at least as good for all of you, and the next trip brings more of the same.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Fall's Favorite Reads


A bit of a slump in my fall reading. I read about as much as usual but didn’t love as many books as I do in a typical quarter. Those I did like, I liked a lot.


The Glitter Dome, Joseph Wambaugh. Not close to my favorite Wambaugh but he’s so good it still makes the list. Why is it not my favorite? It had all the things I love about him, but it reads to me as if he was trying to outdo himself. It’s a little like my feeling about Quentin Tarantino, that somewhere along the way he decided he’d rather make Quentin Tarantino movies than good movies. This reads like Wambaugh decided to write a Wambaugh novel without just letting it be a Wambaugh novel. The difference between Wambaugh and Tarantino is that Wambaugh gets away with it.


Life’s Work, David Milch. An honest and unflinching memoir of one of the great TV writers of our time. Milch studied with Robert Penn Warren at Yale and broke into television with Hill Street Blues; his first script won a Humanitas Prize. He went on to create several other shows, most notably NYPD Blue and Deadwood. It’s a fascinating story, though an uncomfortable read, of how a man’s demons can not only inspire great art but also interfere with it. Highly recommended for Milch fans and those who want to understand some of what drives a writer.


The Ride-Along, Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway. One graveyard patrol shift with a cop and a skeptical citizen who may or may not have her own agenda. The book examines current policing controversies in detail and from multiple angles. Both collaborators are former cops with open-minded evaluations of the profession. The only way it might have been better was if one of the writers was actually a civilian with the same issues with law enforcement the civilian in the book has. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest of current police issues.


Big Maria, Johnny Shaw. Like reading a novelization of a good Shane Black movie, except set in the desert. On an Army artillery range. Picture Harry Dean Stanton (when he was alive), Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water, Yellowstone), and maybe Alan Ritchson (Reacher) looking for gold hidden in the Big Maria mine, now somewhere in the Chocolate Mountains and meeting an AWOL soldier, a starving cougar, war games, artillery practice, and an exploding burro. No one combines action and humor better than Shaw.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The West Wing

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I recently watched The West Wing start to finish. She saw the show in its original airing; I had seen only a handful of random episodes. The thoughts brought to mind could fill multiple posts if expanded on, so I’ll use bullets to cherry pick what sticks most with me. Please leave a comment if you’d like more of a discussion of any aspect, including things I do not mention here.


·       Let’s start with an acknowledgement: it’s network television at its best. I didn’t find it the mind-blowing event I remember hearing about at the time (two good friends named their dog Bartlet), but there are likely good reasons for that:

o   It’s been twenty years. We’ve seen a lot of groundbreaking stuff since then.

o   Much of the show aired during the presidency of George W. Bush. A lot of liberals thought Jed Bartlet was the president they deserved.

·       The acting is wonderful throughout. I can’t say who I thought did the best job. Even bit player guest stars were outstanding.

·       Much of that has to do with the words they were given to say. Even after Aaron Sorkin left the show and the plots weren’t always as tight, the dialog sparkled.

·       The production values were incredible. I don’t know what the West Wing actually looks like, but if it doesn’t look like this, it should.

·       Helen Santos was a wonderful character to show how an everywoman would react to being thrust into the spotlight, especially after she becomes First Lady-elect and sees the staff arrayed for her.

·       It was refreshing to see a character (Bartlet) faced with so many “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” scenarios and how he pulled his advisers together to find some sort of resolution, however imperfect or unpleasant.

·       In general, the show does a great job of not wasting time on conversations when the result is obvious. On the other hand, there were occasions where it looked like the missing scene would have been a bastard to write so the writer allowed your imagination to fill the gap.

·       It’s one of the most depressing shows I’ve ever seen.

o   So many things that were hot topics then still haven’t changed: gun control, abortion, magically curative tax cuts, etc.

o   Much of what has changed went the wrong direction: polarization, January 6, politics as blood sport.

o   Even the good guys, notably Josh and Toby, are less interested in doing good than they are in winning. Their arrogance can be stultifying. Sure, they’re fictional characters serving a dramatic narrative, but a lot of people with intimate knowledge of such things vouched for the show’s insider authenticity.

·       Jed Bartlet’s heart may be in the right place, but he’s a pedantic, often condescending know-it-all who doesn’t think rules should apply to him, and I don’t mean because he’s president; because he’s Josiah Bartlet.

·       The character that Abby Bartlet reminds me most of is Carmela Soprano. In Abby’s defense, she has led a remarkable life of her own with a sterling reputation as a doctor. On the other hand, no one elected her to anything. The level of fealty she expects from the White House staff is unbecoming, and she, too, doesn’t see why the rules everyone else lives by should apply to her.

·       The shows wander during the Santos-Vinick election campaign. The debate episode is a wasted hour that would have been far more interesting if we saw how the campaign staffs reacted off-stage in real time.


In the end, many of my complaints are quibbles, but the compliments are wholehearted and sincere. As we neared the end, part of me was ready to get to it, but another part couldn’t wait to see what happened and how they’d show it.


It’s too bad streaming services weren’t a big deal then. The Santos presidency and the problems faced by the first minority president would have made a great series, especially as it would have preceded the Obama Administration. (The final episode aired May 14, 2006.)

Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Work in Progress, uh, Progresses

 The rewrite is going well; I hope to finish this week. (Editor’s Note: It may be complete by the time this posts.) I made noticeable changes in several places. Some cuts, some additions, some rewording. All told it’s much better than what I started with.


It’s still not done.


While I take more care with the rewrite than I did with the rough draft, it’s still a right brain exercise. I make decisions, but putting those decisions into effect are creative choices that sometimes require writing a passage as if I had not already written it. (And some should not have been. Jesus. What was I thinking?)


That’s fine, as the prevailing sentiment and sensibility for the rewrite is Dennis Lehane’s dictum, which resides in large print to the immediate left of my writing chair:




No one cares what the rewrite looks like, because no one but me is ever going to see it. No one cares what I changed or left the same because no one will ever see the original rough draft, either. At this point, no one cares what I do or how I do it. The key is to get it done. The rate that felt comfortable to me is 2,000 words a day, broken up into two 1,000-word sessions. That moves the chains without burning me out.


I’m taking the holidays off. When the edit begins in January the mantra will something else I have in plain sight to my left, this morsel from Wes Anderson’s movie The French Express:


Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.


That’s when the minutiae come in. Can I say this in seven words instead of nine? Should this be one sentence or two? Do I need that comma? Does this sound like something that character would say? Is that simile good enough? Is it a reach I’d be better off without?


The rough draft is the ore; the rewrite produced the iron. The edit will refine it into steel.



Thursday, December 1, 2022

Things All Writers Should Beware


Gabino Iglesias is a writer, professor, book reviewer, editor, and translator living in Austin, TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been translated into five languages, optioned for film, nominated to the Bram Stoker Award and the Locus Award and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the San Francisco Chronicle, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, and other venues. He's been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice, the Newfound Prose Prize, the Splatterpunk Awards, and PANK Magazine's Big Book Contest. He teaches creative writing at SNHU's online MFA program and runs a series of low-cost writing workshops.


He and I have not met in person, but we follow each other on Facebook and (for the time being) Twitter. Even his casual comments are worth listening to, and you should pay close attention when he takes the time to spell something out.


The following list of things to beware when submitting to magazines and anthologies (or agents and publishers, for that matter) appeared in Twitter a little while ago and are worth the time of every writer, even if only for validation.


1. Unless you can buy food and pay rent with exposure wherever you live, focus on paying anthologies. There are some situations—charity anthologies, tributes, etc—where this rule can be ignored.


2. Any editor or publisher that asks you to pay to be in a book is a predatory asshole. Tell those people to go die in a tire fire. A real professional editor will never ask a writer to pay their way into an anthology. The money goes to you, not the other way around.


3. Just like you should never pay to be in an anthology, working with a professional publisher means that they will not ask you to pay for a cover, editing, proofreading, formatting, or layout. A real press takes care of all that, which is why sometimes small payments are okay.


4. Covers matter, and anyone who tells you otherwise is someone you don’t want to work with. If the cover is trash, there’s a chance they also don’t care much about what goes into the book.


5. If you’re reading a submission call and find a dozen typos and a few misspelled words, forget about it and move on. Your aim should be to always work with professionals who care about what they put out there.


6. Read submission calls carefully and follow the guidelines. Don't send in stuff you know isn't a fit. You want to work with professionals, and sometimes that starts with you behaving like one.


7. If you are ever in doubt about a publisher or editor, reach out to someone who’s been around the block a few times. Ask questions. Most of the writers who have been in the game for a while are willing to help new authors stay safe and make the right decisions.


8. I know this one is tough, but your desire to see your name in print should not blind you from the things happening around you. An editor or publisher who works with racists, bigots, or sexual harassers is not someone you want to work with. If it is, that says a lot about you.


9. Get a contract and read it carefully. Promises are for religious stuff and to help dying folks shove off this mortal coil in peace, not for business. Get things in writing and know what you're getting into.


10. Don't be afraid because big names are attached to a project or because lots of writers are submitting. Do your best, but do it. Submit. Try. Keep at it.


11. Lastly, don't take rejections personally. I've been rejected by strangers and friends alike. I've had to reject NYT bestsellers because their story wasn't a good fit. And remember: all editors have different tastes and rejections are invitations to send your stuff elsewhere.



Thursday, November 24, 2022

Happy Anniversary to The Beloved Spouse


Today The Beloved Spouse™ and I celebrate our thirteenth wedding anniversary. We were actually married November 27, 2009, the day after Thanksgiving. (Certainly not Black Friday for us.) We were both working then, and my parents came for the holiday. We had them, the Sole Heir, and the future Sole Son-in-Law available, so we rounded everyone up on a day no one had anything planned. We knew we’d be off work the day after Thanksgiving forever, so we stuck with that as the day of celebration.


No one knew we had this planned. My parents routinely spent Thanksgiving with us, and we told TSH we had a surprise for them she’d enjoy seeing. The celebrant arrived mid-afternoon, dressed in medieval garb, and asked if anyone wanted to get married. TBS and I looked at each other and said we had a box of marriage stuff in the basement, we’d get it. The box contained

·       T-shirts for everyone, labeled Bride, Groom, Father, Mother, and Daughter. (We didn’t know Zack was coming or we’d have had one for him.)

·       Heads on sticks of my brother’s family (and their dog), plus two close friends who we knew would appreciate the event and intent.

·       Our vows (aka Wedding Script), which leaned heavily on Monty Python and the Holy Grail and appear in their entirety below.


HEATHER (celebrant)


Dearly beloved,


I know this was unexpected, so I will be brief.


(Allow scroll to fall open. It’s about four feet long.)


We are gathered here today on this not quite so solemn as some might have it occasion because when one heart exhibits migratory behavior toward another, it’s a force of nature, and not a question of where it grips it. Corky and Dana have married before. The marriages fell over and sank into the swamp. They tried again. Those marriages burned down, fell over, and sank into the swamp. So here they are, having learned from experience and lived as married in all but name (nudge, nudge, say no more) to build the strongest marriage in all the kingdom.



Now, to make things legitimate, please recite the vows each of you has chosen especially for each other to mark this solemn occasion.




I, Corky, take you, Dana, as my lawfully wedded husband. I promise to at least consider bringing a lasagna when coming from the basement, and not to turn you into a newt, even though you’re sure to get better. I pledge not to undertake, nor even to suggest, any home improvement projects for at least one year, unless I think of a really good one. Maybe a shrubbery. One that looks nice. Not too expensive. Maybe two of them, place one slightly higher, so you get a two-level effect with a path through the middle. I shall feed the squirrels only in times of most dire famine, to prevent them growing into the most foul-tempered rodents you ever laid eyes on, with big, pointy teeth that will do you a treat.




I, Dana, take you, Corky, as my lawfully wedded wife, in this ceremony crafted to our own particular—uh—uh—








Idiom, to share in my great tracts of land in a very real, and legally binding sense. I promise never to make you live in a self-perpetuating autocracy, but in a an anarco-syndicalist commune. We shall take it in turns to be a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting. Soft dirt shall not tempt me, even when I find unidentified and previously unannounced vegetables in my dinner, and I shall not say “Ni!” to you unless strenuously provoked.





The rings, please.




I give you this ring as a symbol of my love for you. Wear it and think of me and know that I will always love you.




And now, to symbolize the coming together of these two hearts, and to culminate this eccentric performance, the rings shall be placed on each other’s fingers simultaneously. Corky, Dana, clasp the rings in your right hands, and extend the fourth finger of the left. Place the rings on your new spouse’s finger when I am at the count of three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number counted, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt I not count, neither count two, excepting then that I proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number of three, being the third number, be reached, then slide the ring onto the waiting finger of your beloved’s hand to consummate the marriage as much as can be done in a public setting.










No, Three!






(DANA and CORKY slide rings on.)


And now shalt we go forth to feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and large—




Skip down a bit.




Ummm, yes, right here.


What has been joined here today let no man put asunder, lest the Lord blow him to tiny bits, in His mercy. You may kiss the bride.


So here we are, thirteen years later. (Give or take a day or so.) I have never been happier, nor do I expect to be, though I’d get over it if the Pirates won one more World Series before I shuffle off my mortal coil.



Thursday, November 17, 2022


 I began the second draft of the new Nick Forte novel last week after taking time off to let things ferment. As expected, the first day was a bit of a haul, what with getting back into the rhythm of writing and refreshing my memory. I still got 1,000 words in, and they seem like pretty good words. At least they’re all in the dictionary.


My “second drafts” are no longer edits; they’re re-writes. I split the screen, place the first draft on top and retype everything into a window at the bottom. Some passages transfer verbatim. Some change dramatically. Some get left out altogether, while entire new passages are added. This is the third book I’ve done this way and I like how it’s working out.


A few things jumped out at me in the early stages:


·       Forte’s world has changed dramatically since Bad Samaritan. I needed to get this information out right away, so I used a story originally written for another character to show how things were with Nick. I was happy with it – even read an abridged version for Noir at the Voir in July – but realized as I finished the expanded rewrite that it's not right for this book, as its open-ended conclusion leads into a story other than the one I’m working on now. The good news is

o   I caught it early.

o   I now have the foundation of another good story in mind.

·       I’m doing much better with the PI voice than I did the first time. The rough draft wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t as rich as I like Forte’s voice. My edits typically cut words to make the book tighter. In a rewrite I’m more willing to add bits here and there to make Forte’s voice distinct from what I established for Penns River.

·       Rewriting instead of editing also frees me to add small bits that better set up what’s coming. I work from an outline and while I know what’s going to happen later, I don’t know how it’s going to happen. For the rewrite I do.


Rewrites are the most relaxing part of my writing process. First drafts are heavy lifting. Editing and polishing are not as tough, but there’s pressure to get as much right as possible so the process doesn’t drag on. Beginning the rewrite, I have the whole story and I know a good solid edit is on the way, so I can indulge myself. The plan is for there to be one edit after the rewrite, then let the book sit for several weeks before launching into my polishing process, after which I’ll get to type “THE END” at the bottom and move onto the next project.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Veterans Day


Today is Veterans Day. As a veteran, my preference is that no one make a big fuss over it (though the free sandwiches at Mission BBQ and wings at Hooters are much appreciated), but take a moment to reflect why we have veterans and what we can do to make their service worthwhile.


What follows is a repost of what appeared on this blog on Veterans Day, 2015.


My father was drafted during the Korean War and was sent to Germany to patrol the border near Fulda, where Soviet tanks would have to come in the event of an invasion. World War III did not break out while he was there. Thousands of guys had similar jobs during the Cold War. He did what they asked him to do, and he came home. No heroism was expected of him and no heroic circumstances presented themselves. He, and thousands like him in many ways helped us from needing heroes; they served and did what was asked of them.


Last year my brother and his two daughters (21 and 19 at the time) flew in from Colorado to visit my parents in the Pennsylvania house my brother and I grew up. Old photograph albums came out the girls had never seen. Events were described they had no idea about. They were fascinated.


The next week Dad wrote them a letter and made a copy to send to me. Here is that letter, in his words.


I served in the 7th Army, 14th Armored Cavalry patrolling the East-West German borders during 1953 – 54. Our base was located near Bad Hersfeld, right off the German Autobahn. Regimental HQ was in Fulda, located about 50 km northeast of Frankfurt on the Rhine River.


A range of mountains runs north-south through Germany and the only place where Russia could mount a tank invasion was the flat terrain through the mountains at Fulda, called the Fulda Gap in General Patton’s autobiography on the war.


Great Britain patrolled the northern sector to the North Sea. U.S. had the most vulnerable sector at Fulda and France patrolled the southern and western sectors.


We patrolled the border from Erfurt on the north to Bad Kissingen in the south. Fulda was in the center. (Regimental HQ.) Hersfeld was the northern leg, where the Autobahn crossed the border, which was a 10 meter plowed strip. A small barbed-wire fence was centered in the plowed ground. Every place a road or lane went through the strip there was a barricade policed by Russian and East German soldiers in a 30-foot machinegun tower on larger crossings.


I was a scout section chief and in charge of a patrol to check crossings on a 12-hour shift. After dark, you set up a listening post. Any invasion would be by armored vehicles and you can hear them for miles.


A patrol consisted of a radio jeep with driver and patrol leader (me) and a machinegun jeep with a mounted machinegun and 50 pounds of explosives, a driver, a co-driver, and machinegunner; five in all.


We had to radio our position every half hour. If we missed two consecutive reports HQ would send someone to find us. There were some dead radio spots where we couldn’t transmit because of the mountainous terrain. If we missed one report, we headed for high ground so we wouldn’t miss the second one.


My patrol leader was a Sergeant First Class who had been in Germany for ten years and spoke fluent German. He was also an alky. I was his driver and after I knew the process, he would stop at a German gasthaus (bar) and tell me to pick him up later, so after one year I was essentially running the patrols.


In late ’54 I went to the regimental NCO Academy at Fulda for 12 weeks as a PFC. I graduated as Honor Student and was given a raise in grade.


In October 1954 I was promoted to Staff Sergeant and was the fair-haired man in camp. Any time the 7th Army sent a rep to check our readiness, I was the first one to be interviewed. Buck private in February 1953 to Staff Sergeant in October 1954.


In late ’54 my platoon commander was transferred to Regimental HQ and wanted me to transfer with him but I would have had to re-up for four more years (with a $10,000 bonus).


Sorry I got sidetracked but your mother had said how much the girls enjoyed the photo albums. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to expound on some of the pics because I had a very interesting military career and I’m very proud of it.


Thanks for listening.

Love to all




If the East Germans/Russians crossed the border, our mission was to alert the 2nd Armored Division, stationed near Frankfurt and set our first line of defense: the Rhine River.


The patrol’s mission was to alert HQ and blow up any bridges, railroad tracks – anything vital as we retreated to base, then Frankfurt.


The 14th Armored cavalry was the first line of defense in Europe during the Cold War. We were the eyes and ears of the 7th Army.


Armored vehicles are very restricted in vision and maneuverability. A scout squad would be the eyes and ears of tanks and had to lead any tanks on the move, check weight restrictions on roads and bridges, etc.


Please excuse an old man for his memories when he was young and vital.





In his note he sent me along with my copy of the letter, he wrote: I have the Zippo lighter I was awarded by General Hodges as I graduated as honor student from NCO Academy. I planned to show it to the girls last week but never got to it. He hasn’t smoked in at least forty years.


My father died on Thanksgiving weekend, 2017. I still have the Zippo.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Reward to Bullshit Curve Redux


A few weeks ago I wrote about yet another bowl of shit writers sometimes have to swallow. The comments, both here and elsewhere, were positive, and I was happy people seemed to take the post in the spirit in which it was intended.


That was near the end of September. I spent August with covid and its after-effects, and September began with having to cancel out of Bouchercon and enduring less than professional treatment from [magazine name redacted]. The nadir of a trough, so to speak.


October was better.


So much better it started a day early, at the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference that began September 30. I moderated a panel that was well-received by both the audience and the panelists, then wrapped up the day’s festivities by hosting Noir at the Bar. A solid panel on Saturday led to Sunday morning’s discussion of hard-boiled writing that was one of the two best panels I’ve ever been on. I can’t imagine a conference going better for me.


That roll continued through the month. I received good comments on “The Box” and White Out, as well as demonstrations of respect on other levels


On the downside, October also brought news that a writer I respect a great deal is pulling the pin on his writing, while another is refocusing his efforts on craft and away from business. Both expressed feelings not dissimilar to what I posted about in September.


This leads to a logical question: when is enough enough? In 2010 I wrote a post called The Reward to Bullshit Curve; MBAs call it Return on Investment (ROI). Everyone uses it. Teachers, plumbers, writers, doctors, cops, astronauts, ditch diggers, spouses. Everyone. The curve has a simple definition: at some point the bullshit we have to put up with in any activity may overcome the rewards we receive from that activity. When it does, it’s time to move on.


Here it is, for reference. (I reversed the axes from the original. I like this one better.)

 (Editor’s Note: The “curve” is a straight line. The man’s an even worse artist than he is a writer.)


Reward has both relative and practical definitions. With a job, money is a key component, though it should not be the only element under consideration. As a writer, money is obviously not what keeps me going, so there must be something else.


Everything we do falls somewhere along the curve, even leisure activities. There are times The Beloved Spouse™ and I would love to be 1500 miles away in a matter of a few hours, but what do we have to endure to get there? Parking at the airport, going through security, getting on the plane half an hour early, hoping we don’t have to pee because airplane bathrooms barely allow room for my size 12s between the door and the toilet, several hours’ confinement to an inadequately sized seat, waiting for luggage that may never arrive, arranging the transportation at the destination, all with the realization we’re going to have to do all this again to get home. The bar for what constitutes acceptable reward for that level of bullshit would set an Olympic pole vault record. It’s not that we’ll never fly again, but there has to be an extraordinarily good reason.


Does that mean we never make those trips? Hell no. We drive. It might take three days, but we stop when we want, eat where we want, see sights if we want; our transportation and luggage are always with us. We take turns driving, and we can laugh and joke without worrying about the person in the next seat. True, we’re not driving to San Diego for Bouchercon next year, but anyplace east of the Rocky Mountains is fair game.


Anything one does regularly spends time above or below the Curve. There may be extended periods on one side or the other, because sometimes life is a bowl of cherries and sometimes it’s just one vile fucking task after another. If you find you’re spending too much of your time doing something – anything – under the line, it may be time to divest yourself of that part of your life. If you find you’re consistently above it, well, then, good on ya. Please do me one favor:


Never take it for granted.




Thursday, October 27, 2022

August was PI Immersion Month. What Did I Learn?

 I want to try something different with the Penns River series, which will require time to research if I am to do it justice. I also have a couple of stories I’ve been wanting to write about my Chicago-based professional investigator, Nick Forte. No thought needed, right? Write a PI novel.


Easier said than done. I had an outline I liked, fleshed it out, and got to work, but things weren’t jelling as they had been for the Penns River books. The writing didn’t flow and the voice wasn’t what I wanted.  I considered re-reading a couple of Forte novels until it occurred to me that I should read someone good instead.


I dedicated the month of August to reading nothing but PI novels. The list included Ace Atkins (writing a Spenser novel), James Lee Burke, Reed Farrel Coleman, Robert Crais, Dashiell Hammett, Declan Hughes, Dennis Lehane, John McFetridge, Bill Rapp, and Mickey Spillane. (I’d read James Crumley and Robert B. Parker only a few months ago; I did not read any Raymond Chandler for reasons I’ll go into later.)


Here are the primary takeaways:

·       I had forgotten how much I love PI stories. This exercise reminded me of that.

·       Elmore Leonard didn’t write PI fiction, but good PI fiction holds one of his rules in high regard. Very little of what I read sounded like writing. The best PI fiction is a conversation, albeit one-sided, between the narrator PI and the reader.

·       First person is the preferred point of view for a good reason. Not only does it work best as a conversation, it allows the narrator’s mind to wander without sounding too much like an authorial intrusion. After all, he is the author.

·       Along these lines, define the protagonist by what he notices and passes onto the reader. Or doesn’t.

·       Wise-ass comments and snark in narrative and description are not only allowable, they’re desirable, assuming the observations are in character for the detective. (They are in Forte’s case.)

·       A lot of things have to happen off-stage. One person can’t know as much as an entire police department, no matter how small the department.

·       Real-life detectives have no more privileges than you or I, but half the fun of writing PIs is letting him get away with things. Within reason.

·       Even though the reader lives in the narrator’s head, dialog still carries the story. I was bogged down writing a chapter in which Forte interacted with no one. The chapter dragged on to the point where I made a few notes and left it for the rewrite. A couple of weeks ago I figured a way to insert more dialog and rewrote it. The chapter still needs work, but it’s much better, and tighter.


I’m sure a couple of questions came to mind as you read the above:


1. Where are the woman writers?

With a couple of exceptions, I specifically picked authors whose voices, at least in their PI fiction, were similar to, or had affected, mine. Laura Lippmann, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretzky are great writers, but not indicative of Forte’s voice. That’s no slight to the talent of those, and other, women. They just weren’t what I needed at the time.


2. Where’s Raymond Chandler? (I told you I’d get to him.)

Chandler is, as much as any single writer, the reason I wanted to write these kinds of stories. Over time my tastes have evolved toward the leaner writing of Hammett. I noticed this even as I was reading the impressive list of authors above. There were times when the back of my mind wished they would just get on with it.


So what’s the end result? Even if I had learned nothing, I had a ball during what was a difficult month for me. (Covid and post-infection fatigue kept me pretty much housebound for the month.) I will work more PI fiction into my reading regimen as time goes on. Most important, this exercise reminded me of why I love to read and write PI stories, much as a brief stint in a local concert band rekindled my love of playing the trumpet by reminding me why I wanted to be a musician in the first place.


It also put this book back on track. It will be different from the earlier Forte efforts in many ways, but that’s a good thing. A series either evolves or becomes stagnant. No one can say in advance how any evolution will work out, but at least I know now it won’t be stagnant.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Beau Johnson, Author of Old Man Rider

 No one has guested in this blog more than Beau Johnson. (Editor’s Note: He did not research this, at all, but it sounds right.) There’s a reason for this: he’s a great interview. His new book, Old Man Rider, drops this week and I’m delighted to have Beau back to talk about Rider, cheeses, and life in general. (Mostly cheese.)


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back, Beau. It’s always a pleasure to have you here on the blog. The new collection is Old Man Rider. What’s Bishop Rider up to now?

Beau Johnson: Hi Dana!  As ever, thanks for lifting the ban and having me back! As for Rider and what he’s up to now—if I'm honest, the answer remains the rest of his life. The stories within the pages of Old Man Rider harken back to the beginning of Bishop’s struggle (A Better Kind of Hate), then fast forwarding to his end (All of Them to Burn), and if I’m honest again, many of the stories in-between (The Big Machine Eats and Brand New Dark).


OBAAT: It’s been five years since you were first here to discuss A Better Kind of Hate, the collection in which Bishop Rider debuted. Since then you’ve written close to a hundred Rider stories. Has he changed over the years? If so, how? If not, what keeps him on the same path through all the trials he’s faced?

BJ: He’s still as angry as ever, and that pretty much has been his defining point throughout his life-–the very thing which has kept him on the path. So no, he hasn’t changed all that much.  Down some body parts, sure, but I believe that’s par for the course with a character such as Rider. 


OBAAT: Back in 2017 I asked “Where did [Bishop Rider] come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?” You replied “I'm pretty far removed from Bishop Rider. He's combination of many things, but anger is the thing which drives him most. Call him Frank Castle. Call him Charles Bronson. Call him a man who is trying to save himself by saving others.” That’s a good description of his character, but it doesn’t really answer the question of where in your imagination he came from. So, give it up before I taunt you with cheese.

BJ: Ha! Well, it was his sister, April Rider, who came first.  Me having a picture in my mind of six men in masks and her life ending because of them. This is how Rider was truly born.  He’s a response, really, to an image I had almost fifteen years ago. Oh how the time flies!


OBAAT: How did you come up with the name “Bishop Rider?” It’s not bizarre, though it is unusual, and it’s a great name for such a character. I sometimes drop in homages to book or movie characters when naming minor players in a book. For example, I once named my head of investigations for the Chicago Crime Commission after an FBI agent made notable thorugh his efforts to bring down the Chicago Outfit, and the Western I never finished has a couple of variations of names from The Wild Bunch included. Was anything like that involved in Bishop Rider’s gestation, or did you pull names from the phone book? (Naming characters always fascinates me.)

BJ: You ever see the movie ALIENS? Anyway, the android played by Lance Henricksen, he’s where Rider’s first name came from. Unfortunately, I have no such story for his last name save I knew there would always be an i and never a y.


OBAAT: Last month you tweeted “I’ve been told going shirtless and misting myself in baby oil may—may—help me sell more books. We’ll see what I can come up with.” How’d that work out for you?

BJ: Ha! Yeah, that happened over on the Facebook. I keep things pretty PG in my promos, though, so such a misting was never really in play. Also: third nipple. (I kid. I kid.)


OBAAT: You published your first book five years ago. Now that you’re a literary veteran, what about being a writer has surprised you the most?

BJ: How hard it remains. How new obstacles appear. How perfect strangers will champion you more than your own family and friends ninety-five percent of the time.  That there are more people rooting for your success than your failure but that apathy is rampant regardless and I will no longer keep my head in the sand about such things. Also: editors are your friend.


OBAAT: The quintessential final question for any interview: Understanding each meal may be our last, what’s the most recent cheese you ate, and how was it chosen.

BJ: Marble, baby.  And only because we were out of Havarti! Thanks again, Dana.  For having me.  Fun was had!


And not just by Beau. Buddy, you’re always welcome here.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity 2022 - Part Two

 (Last week’s post covered the first half of my experience at this year’s Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference, held September 30 – October 2 in Columbia MD. Today we’ll look at the second half of the conference.)


They put me back to work right after lunch on Saturday. Kelli A. Harmon led Chris Bauer, William Donahue, Lanny Larcinese, and me though Dark and Dirty Bits: Writing Thrills, Chills and Toe Curling Squeals. Mostly we looked at the similarities and differences between thrillers and horror. Kelli made an excellent executive decision by adding Chris Bauer at the last minute, as he writes in both genres. It was a good panel that showed these two genres may have more in common that most people think; much of the difference is in the presentation.


In From Script to Screen, Adam Meyer led a discussion of screenwriting tips and horror stories that I wish I had a recording of. Everyone agreed that what you need to have appear on screen (location, sets, period, action, etc.) affects costs, and cost determines how likely it is your project sees the light of day.


Kathryn O’Sullivan – screenplay descriptions need to suit the tone (comedy, suspense, etc.). You’re writing for the producer’s readers. Link one scene to the next to keep them turning pages. You want them to read it in one sitting.


Adam Meyer – when reading notes, look for the note behind the note. What they tell you is a problem may be due to something else that doesn’t set it up properly.


Kathryn O’Sullivan said to be mindful of punctuation in dialog. Actors will read it almost like musical notation, and that no line of dialog should be more then twelve words long. Let the actor act. Give no more stage direction than necessary.


Vonnie Winslow Crist and Kelli A. Harmon then gave a master class on how to write for, and be accepted into, anthologies. I had a hard time keeping up with all the good stuff here, but I’ll give it a shot.


If an editor rejected your story, look for another element in it that may qualify for a different anthology.


If a market accepts reprints, send them one. Use your new pieces for those that require them.


For themed anthologies, pick the angle no one else will think of.



“Hardboiled” was the panel name, and, as usual, Austin Camacho brought out the best in all his panelists, even me. (Patrick Hyde and Lane Stone needed far less help.) This was one of my two favorite panels of all time and I truly wish it had been recorded so I could have a copy. I can’t take notes when I’m as actively engaged as I am on panels, so you’ll have to take my word for it.


C3 2022 concluded (for me) with Allie Marie leading Mark Bergin, Bruce Robert Coffin, and Wayland Smith on a discussion of police procedurals. As you know, I’m a procedural junkie, so this fascinated me start to finish. Here are some examples of why:


Panelists’ pet peeves:

Mark Bergin – cops never do any paperwork

Bruce Robert Coffin – having a social life when working a homicide. Describe the cop’s social life through what he’s missing.

Wayland Smith – fights over jurisdiction are much more likely to be about getting rid of a case. (Think THE WIRE, Season 2)


Who gets it right?

Wayland Smith – Barney Miller, NYPD Blue

Bruce Robert Coffin – Michael Connelly (shows differences between experienced and new cops), Joseph Wambaugh

Mark Bergin – Wambaugh, Bruce Coffin

Allie Marie – Adam-12 (admittedly dated but shows the bond between partners), Cagney & Lacey


Who gets it wrong?

Mark Bergin – the cop who gets out of the car and charges his gun, maybe more than once.

Bruce Robert Coffin – All the CSI shows. Cops still break most cases by talking to people.

Wayland Smith – any show where they get anything useful from a surveillance camera. Ring cameras can be good, depending on the installer.


Bruce Robert Coffin – each crime scene should have one way in and one way out.


Wayland Smith – best way to keep unnecessary personnel off a crime scene is to have a cop stand at the entrance with a clipboard, taking everyone’s name and telling them they have to file a supplementary report if they cross the line.


A poorly written report can damage an investigation. Multiple cops and supervisors will go over them and an officer can be recalled from home to fix something found inadequate by a supervisor, as no one can edit another officer’s report once it’s filed.


Factual omissions and errors can occur due to workload and divided attention.


Reports may be on paper or computer. Depends on the department.


*  *  *


And then The Beloved Spouse™ and I went home and napped.


This was my eighth C3, and the best yet. We’re already looking forward to next year, September 8 – 10 in Columbia MD.