Friday, October 31, 2014

On Tuesday You Can Take the Wheel, Or Not

Tuesday I'm going to do it again.

For more years than I can remember now I've been a sworn-in poll worker for the Hunterdon County Board of Elections, one of those folks who signs you in and points you to the proper voting machine, maybe helps you out if you have trouble with it. We happy few, we band of sisters and occasional brothers.

It's something of an ordeal. We must show up at the firehouse at five fifteen on Tuesday morning, set the machines up, and lay out the paperwork to be ready for the first voter by six o'clock, when the polls open. With a short break for lunch we must remain at our stations until after eight that evening, when the polls close and we shut down the machines and pack up the election results to be sent to the county.

But it's something of a treat as well. The pay is generous for this sort of thing, way more than I'd get for serving on a jury. Best of all I get to see people I don't run into from one year to the next, sometimes hear what their children are doing, sometimes note with pleasure that they seem healthier and more prosperous than they did the year before, sometime helping their now grown-up children to cast their first ballots. Now and then people who were perfectly fine the year before appear in wheelchairs, or showing signs of dementia, or so blind that they require help in the booth. Still they drag themselves to the firehouse to vote.

Making it possible for people to vote, making it as easy and pleasant as we can for them to vote, is regarded by the poll-workers as a sacred duty necessary to the support of democracy. I'm serious about that. We are all serious about that. Not all of the voters are as clear about what they're doing there as we are.

On Tuesday, as you surely know, the hotly-contested mid-term elections will be taking place. The outcome is important to the future of the country, to your future. We all know the clowns are running the circus. They are your clowns. You have three more days to read your sample ballot, research the issues and find out where your candidates stand. If you haven't done this by Tuesday, don't show up at the polls the way you'd go to brush your teeth, because it's good for you, or it's an annual ritual, or it's your civic duty. Stay home. Let the people who know better than you do run your life.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Thursday, October 30, 2014

You're Done. Now the Work Starts

Photo Credit: Jim Nedelka

This is the way I’d always envisioned the writer’s life. 
And you get to live it . . .    
for about one month after your book’s published. You get to chat about your book with mystery readers on guest blogs, talk about it on library panels with famous writers, and show up at bookstores where people have come to see you, listen to you read, ask you questions about your book, and laugh at your jokes (your friends in the audience will even laugh at the ones they’ve heard too many times before).

Then you have to get back to writing.

After the interruptions in my routine, pleasant as they have been, it’s been hard to settle back in fully. 

Among writers, we have a word for this: procrastination.



Wallace Stroby, Mistina Bates and I laughing at something Dennis Tafoya said at a
library panel in Chatham NJ. At the unseen end of the table, also laughing, is Dave White, Derringer Award-winning author of the Jackson Donne series. Sorry, Dave, but I chose this particular shot because it's a great picture of me.
Photo Credit: Rob Daniher


But I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. And about some of the questions I’ve been asked in the last month from new writers trying to sell their first books.

If you're not a writer, let me quickly explain the process. When you’re trying to get a book published, you generally need an agent. So you send a pitch letter, making your book sound as scrumptious as possible. If your pitch letter sparks interest, you’re asked to submit sample chapters. This part of an author’s life is known as Pure Hell. You will generally be rejected. And the rejection letters won’t necessarily help you figure out what might be wrong with the book. “Love the villain; the story’s not quite there yet.” “Terrific tale; villain needs some work.”

And once you’ve been rejected by an agent, that door is generally closed for that particular book.

Soooooo... If you’re a new writer, and you’re thinking about sending out that just-finished first book, here are a few random thoughts for your consideration from a woman whose first book took more than 10 years to "finish": 


1.  Your book isn’t finished, not unless you’re on draft 240. So, let’s move on to #2.
2. Write the best book you can. Okay, okay, I can hear you go, “Well, duh.” But sometimes, new writers are under the impression that “a lot of books out there just aren’t that good.” This is dangerous thought. You’ll convince yourself that doing less than your best will be enough. It isn’t.
3. Kill off your extras before they kill your plot. Don’t make the reader keep track of too many characters, and I say this as a recovering characteraholic. Ah, the sweet lure of just one more new voice in the story. But before you know it, you’ve got 20 characters, all necessary to the plot. And don’t introduce more than 3 at the same time. Even Rex Stout couldn’t pull that off — see The League of Frightened Men, Chapter 5. So, how do you keep yourself in line?
4. Put your characters in a line-up. Keep a detailed file. Don’t wing this; write it down. You might think you'll recall all the details about them because they’re so precious to you. But you won’t. List them, describe them, and include the descriptions you used in the book so you can remove repetitions later on. (This will also help you if your book turns into a series. You never have to scramble to recall how you described a continuing character in previous books.) Set down their motives, opportunities, and their contribution to the mystery. You’ll have a clearer picture of which characters can be combined, and which suspects aren't necessary and can be bumped off (the page). 
5. Don’t try to play journalist. Think long and hard before adding a plot element or character that would require quoting portions of news articles. Even excellent writers have terrible trouble pulling off writing like a journalist. 
6. Sing out, Louise. Read your chapters out loud. And read them like you’re telling an intriguing story, not reciting the Gettysburg Address in fifth grade. You’ll discover where the momentum breaks down, where your interest flags. You’ll find places where the rhythm is off. If your heroine is sweeping diva-style across a room, the prose flow will be much different than if she’s crawling through a pitch-black house, looking for a way out before the killer finds her. Read in the voices of your characters — even if you don’t perform them very well. Nobody has to hear you reading. But don't assume that just because you watch Downton Abbey you can write a British character. Vet dialog with people who actually come from the place whose syntax you’re trying to mimic.
7. Write the best book you can. Sometimes, we have to be reminded. 

Thank you, Michael Connelly, for making that so clear to me in the very first writing symposium I ever attended. In the end, it’s about the writing.

I think I’ll get back to that now.


At Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, being introduced by manager Ian Kern.
Photo Credit: Mariann Moery


REMINDER: At Goodreads, there's still time to register to win a signed copy of NO BROKEN HEARTS: Enter to Win a Copy. Goodreads uses an algorithm to select the winners, on October 31, which takes the selection pressure off the writer. 





Wednesday, October 29, 2014

War of the Worlds: the Day Orson Welles Said “Boo!”

“…you don’t play murder with soft words.” — Orson Welles, 31 October 1938





Tomorrow will be the 76th anniversary of the infamous The Mercury Theatre's dramatization of H.G. Wells’s story War of the Worlds.  Social scientists and historians are still studying and postulating on what exactly happened in its aftermath and its meaning when it comes to mass hysteria.



A bit of background:  the world was on tenterhooks on 30 October 1938.  Nazi saber rattling had reached fever pitch.  People over the world were focused on a crisis in Munich.  Everybody was worried.   

Radio broadcasts had only recently begun interrupting normal programming to report what we would call “breaking news.”  Having just endured the privation and pain of the Great Depression, listeners across the United States were just getting used to sudden, staccato reports of dire happenings in Europe.

The American radio audience was primed for bad news

Then came CBS's broadcast of War of the Worlds.



And there is no doubt that the writer Howard E. Koch, the producer John Houseman, and the director Orson Welles sought to capitalize on prevailing conditions to ramp up the impact of their little Halloween hoax.  They used the names of actual people and told a story that sounded (sort of) like a report of actual, ongoing events.

On the other hand, they did announce—at the beginning, twice during the course of the broadcast, and at its end—that they were acting out a play based on H.G. Wells’s fiction.  Also, given the supposed “real-time” nature of the broadcast, the willing suspension of disbelief would have to have been at higher than fever pitch for people to believe, even in those simpler times, that all the events reported could have taken place in 62 minutes.



Certain habits of radio listeners played into their gullibility.  The Mercury Theatre ordinarily garnered only about two percent of the radio audience.  The Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen  got the big bulk of the eardrums.  But about twelve minutes into that hyper-popular variety show—that featured a ventriloquist on the radio, by the way—they announced a musical performance by a rather dull ensemble.  Quite a few people got up from their easy chairs and twisted their dials to CBS just in time to catch the scary part of the Mercury broadcast, having missed the disclaimer at the beginning.  The dimmer brains among those latecomers were the ones who were duped into thinking  they were listening to an actual report.  Some of them raised a ruckus.




Pretty much immediately after the show signed off the air, the cops invaded the studio, network employees collected all the scripts and records, and the print press corps took over the story.  The next day, which was Halloween, newspapers across the country blared headlines about how the Mercury show had caused widespread panic.  And, on that October 31st, Orson Welles was forced to meet reporters and apologize to the nation for its overreaction to his joke.




For a long while people believed the reports of widespread panic in the wake of the show.  Recent analysis, however, has come to a different conclusion.   American University media historian  W. Joseph Campbell and many sociologists have reinvestigated actual events and found no evidence of panicked crowds in the streets.  Slate Magazine ran an article last year on the 75th anniversary that concluded, “Almost no one was fooled.” 

So what were all those news headlines about?  Well, you see, in the 1930’s a real war raged between newspapers and radio for dominance in news reporting and in garnering the bulk of advertising dollars.  In an attempt to discredit radio, newspapers greatly exaggerated the dimensions of public’s panic.  It seems now that  all those banner headlines were really meant to characterize radio news as an unreliable upstart medium.

Orson Welles took the blame.

For your listening pleasure, here is a link to the actual broadcast:



And here is the adorable young Orson apologizing on the following day:





Happy Halloween from---


Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, October 27, 2014

Dame Agatha and the Orient Express


I believe Agatha Christie has some kind of honorary British title. Dame, I think it is. Not dame like in a hardboiled crime novel, but Dame like Duchess and Duke and all that peerage kind of stuff. And her characters in Murder on the Orient Express have the same type of Upstairs-Downstairs-Masterpiece-Theatre-stiff-upper-lip-tea-time-dress-for-dinner kind of feel to them as the word “Dame.”

1934. Murder on the Orient Express. Great, maybe the best, of candidates for best novel of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, between the wars. A champion detective, Hercule Poirot, solves a locked-room (OK, locked train car, trapped in snow in the Balkans) murder, using only his mighty wits.

We discover each clue as Poirot does, and we race him to the completion of the puzzle of who killed Mr. Ratchett. The inspector solves the crime with good old armchair detection, all done in his slightly preening little head, armed only with his observational skill and knowledge of human nature, and he comes to a stunning conclusion.

It’s great fun, and if you can figure it out before Poirot, my hat (which men wore then, along with spats and garters) is off to you. This mystery is a great by-the-fire kind of read, perhaps in a big old study with a lot of dead animals on the wall and those bookcases that reach so high you have to use that silly kind of sliding ladder to access them all.

I’ve been reading up on detective fiction (including the wonderful PD James’s Talking about Detective Fiction) and all of the books I’ve perused talk about how detectives use observation and inductive (as opposed to deductive, or reasoning from general principles, like in Aristotelian Scholasticism) reasoning, sometimes known also as the Scientific Method. Poirot claims to be the most scientific of detectives, a master of that sainted method. Of course, the distinction between inductive and deductive can be misleading, as general principles are built on particular observations, and you can’t make an individual observation without relying on some general principles, as we will soon see.

Poirot bases most of his conclusions on his vaunted knowledge of humankind. He “types” people according to their temperaments based on racial and national stereotypes. Pretty contemptible today, but perhaps not so at the time. It is kind of amusing in retrospect, quaint, if you forget about the racial theories of people like Hitler and what they led to.

Some of his observations include the one wherein he opines that the killer of Ratchett could not be British, but could very well be an Italian, because knife killings are somehow more passionate than those done with pistols, and the Brits are famously reserved while the Italians are wildly intemperate and operatic. This all reminds me of that Simon and Garfunkel song “It’s all Happening at the Zoo”:

Monkeys stand for honesty
Giraffes are insincere
And the elephants are kindly but they’re dumb
Orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages
And the zookeeper is very fond of rum
Zebras are reactionary
Antelopes are missionaries
Pigeons plot in secrecy
Hamsters turn on frequently…

It’s kind of racist, kind of reactionary, kind of imperialist, smacks of the ancient regimes, but it is fun. Yes, it is wrong to assume that the group habits and temperament of a people will accurately predict behaviors of individuals (the British guy does stab Ratchett), but it is part of the fun, as is the extreme luxury the passengers travel in as they idly wander across Europe looking for novel ways to spend their money, as is the way Poirot has to sit down and have a good meal before he starts questioning the travelers, as is the way Christie depicts the Americans as crude, boorish, obsessed with making a buck, and ostentatious (once you’ve made a bundle you are supposed to make believe you don’t have all that much, I guess). It’s like a game of Clue in motion across the savage Balkans with a bunch of passengers who can literally and figuratively afford to ignore the unpleasant realities outside their compartment windows. A part of me would like to live that way, I guess, and I got a vicarious thrill out of the decadent lives of the pilgrims on their pilgrimage back from the trip to the decadent East, on their way to Calais, and finally home, where I guess they can look forward to London fog and kidney pie.

[Spoiler Alert! — ed.]

Christie seems to be poking gentle fun at the detective genre itself when Poirot reveals that the whole plot to kill Ratchett (aka Casetti, a child kidnapper and murderer modeled on Bruno Hauptmann, who killed the Lindbergh baby even as Christie was writing this book) was a massive conspiracy, and that all thirteen passengers stabbed the despicable man once each. The serial child kidnapper is apparently a criminal that the British felt could only exist and operate in America, and who could only be avenged in Europe. I can’t imagine too many people beat Poirot to the intellectual punch on this one: it is like a game of Clue where the murder is committed not only by Colonel Mustard, but also Professor Plum, and Mr. Green and Mrs. White and Miss Scarlett and Mrs. Peacock, each of whom then provides the others with phony alibis and tries to throw Poirot off by planting phony clues, clues which the brilliant Poirot knows enough to take as clues to the conspiracy itself.

Ingenious fun, and clever enough, if you are willing to suspend disbelief. I was, and I was fooled. The fact that it is announced early on that the “Orient” trains are never full in winter, and then suddenly it is, should have alerted me, but I missed it. You can’t say Christie doesn’t play fair. And Poirot even provides a kind of extra-legal justice when he allows that there is another possible solution to the crime, and that he will provide that one to the authorities and let all thirteen of them walk. Implicit in this is the realization that evidence can be ambiguous, allowing for more than one interpretation, and the sainted scientific method is not infallible, and I liked the way Christie allows for that even as she astounds us with Poirot’s prodigious cerebrations.

The old monarchical and imperial world order was crumbling in the 30’s. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were defunct, Russia had undergone a convulsive revolution, and the empires of England and France would be superseded by the American one after the next war. But for a moment in time, I could imagine being among the idle rich, being one of the idle rich, a world traveler with nothing better to do then spend my money on gimcracks and nothing worse to worry about than missing my boat at Calais. The whole thing made me think of Downton Abbey, a time and place brought about by imperialism, racism, exploitation, and the idea of the white man’s burden, to be sure, but one that provided for a lot of glorious fun for a lucky few. A genuine, if somewhat guilty (and aren’t those the most fun?) pleasure for a rainy afternoon by the fire.

Certainly British gentlemen of that time and place thought that their nobility was the cause of all their money, and not the other way around, and of course that is bullshit. And it’s a pernicious way of thinking, rewarding the exploiter and blaming his victims, but what a sweet daydream to imagine it is true, and you are one of the chosen and special few, the cream that rises to the top. What if you could be some character in an Austen or Thackeray novel, both gentry and genteel? Heady stuff.

It’s a kind of grand illusion, then, that Christie pulls off in grand style, convincing us in the very idea of nobility, and the idea of the noble man, the brilliant detective Poirot, the magical man for whom no crime is too difficult to solve, as long as he has a good meal and a good smoke and a couple of hours to just sit and use his outsized Age of Enlightenment mind.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Grandmother, the Orioles and the Colts

No this will not be a brief essay about my paternal’s grandmother’s love of animals. It is an account of her idiosyncratic thinking about Baltimore sports teams. I have been thinking of her lately because the Royals just swept the Orioles so the Orioles will not be in the World Series this year.

For you youngsters in the audience, the Colts used to be a Baltimore football team. To this day I have trouble pronouncing the word Indianapolis when it proceeds Colts. I am very happy that the Baltimore team is called the Ravens because it gives a literary flavor to the Baltimore aviary, but I have yet to get used to the idea that the Colts are elsewhere.

I digress.

My paternal grandmother was outspoken about everything and indifferent about nothing. Her visits to our family home were alarming because they were always unannounced and years apart. My father grew up in Baltimore but some years later my grandmother moved to Texas and took much of the rest of the family with her.

I would be calmly reading a book (in whatever town we happened to be living in at at the time) when I would hear a tapping not at my chamber door but on a window. My grandmother would be waving wildly. Once in the house, accompanied by my diminutive grandfather and a couple of cousins, she would hold forth, frequently on sports. I would listen, but not challenge her interpretation of wins and losses.

Her view was simple. Baltimore teams won because they were brilliant. When they lost it was because they had been induced to throw games.

I understood her feeling about the Orioles. Was there a ball Brooks Robinson couldn’t catch? And yes, Boog Powell and Frank Robinson were brilliant, but could any team win every game? I would give her skeptical looks, but would return to the book I was reading while she regaled my father and whomever else would listen about the natural superiority of Baltimore sports teams.

My grandmother’s ire was raised most dramatically after the Baltimore Colts lost to the New York Jets in Superbowl III. I don’t recall how soon after this loss she made a surprise visit to our home, but she was still wound up about Johnny Unitas being defeated by Joe Namath.

The adults in the room must have been uninterested in arguing with her about the game because suddenly I, who knew nothing about sports and cared less, found myself catechized thusly:

Who’s the best quarterback in football?

Johnny Unitas.

Who has the smartest mouth in football?

Joe Namath.

How could the New York Jets defeat the Baltimore Colts?

They played a better game.

NOOOOO!!

How could the New York Jets defeat the Baltimore Colts?

The Colts threw the game.

Exactly!

She turned to my father. “See, even a child could tell that something was fishy.”

This would be the last time I would give in so easily to my grandmother. In the years to come the discussions would be about politics, a subject about which I did care, and another sort of game would be joined.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson