Friday, January 31, 2014

Groping for the Zeitgeist

I see that today is the last day of January 2014. Have I gotten with the program? I can't say. I have dated no checks January 2013 by mistake. I look out the frost-covered windows at the snowy yard and say, yes, it's winter. So to that extent I'm properly oriented. I open the morning paper and see the latest political scandals and say, yes, that figures, that agrees with my worldview, particularly after three days of bingeing on old seasons of The Good Wife. So you could say that I sort of know what's going on.

Of course I know what's going on. I'm on Facebook, for heaven's sake. Are the puppies and kittens not still cute? Are the politicians not still making themselves ridiculous? Are my friends' books not still getting regularly published, to the joy of readers everywhere? Are the celebrities not enraging doctors with their weird diets and home-made facelifts?

And yet. As I fold up the paper, gulp down the last of my second cup of coffee, and close the window on Facebook, as I boot Word and gaze at the blank screen, I find that I have nothing to write.

Part of the problem is that I never really got over the bronchitis of last month. I still can't breathe well enough to go back to the church choir. Either from a general feeling of unfitness or as a result of the drugs I'm taking I feel detached from reality. Nothing compels my attention. I should finish Bucker Dudley, so that the three people who read the first chapters might know how it ends, but somehow I've become too balled up in the disastrous Niagara campaign to move forward (almost like General Wilkinson himself, may he rot, the bounder.)

Here's an idea. I might pick a fight with somebody. Wilkinson, that reprehensible scoundrel, is dead, as are all his legitimate heirs, if any, so he won't be fighting with me any time soon. But Congressman Michael Grimm. Most likely I would be safe from his most aggressive impulses, since there's no balcony here for him to throw me off of, and even he can figure out that breaking an old lady in two would reflect no particular credit on him. The famous tape where he threatens the newsman has subtitles, in case you can't hear what he's saying. Why not substitute other subtitles, the way people do in the famous Hitler video? I could have a lot of fun with that, work up enough energy to get back to my writing.

It might even go viral, engage the Hive Mind. I could get with the zeitgeist. Here goes.

(Later.) I have been somehow stripped of my powers. None of my video software is working, not on the Mac, not on the PC. See, this is the sort of thing I'm complaining about, or trying not to complain about. One by one the systems fail. Anyway here's the original video, in the unlikely event that you missed it. The reporter tries to ask Congressman Grimm in a perfectly mild-mannered way what was up with his campaign finance scandal and the Congressman offers to kill him. Big tough marine. Boo-yah. I'm going to have to ask you to imagine the new subtitles, where Grimm asserts that he's wearing his big boy pants now and offers to show the reporter that he has Batman on his bottom. Because I'm not able right now to edit this &%$#! video.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Thursday, January 30, 2014

My Favorite Part of Writing

This will be a very quick blog today. I’ve been working on the copyedited version of the manuscript for my next book (No Broken Hearts), which comes out in the fall. 

Promised her first screen credit in years, my 1940s heroine, script doctor Lauren Atwill, is promptly loaned out by Marathon Studios to second-tier Epic Pictures. And she's not one bit happy about it. She's sure that her boss is so superstitious he wants to test the grapevine rumor that when she shows up, dead bodies do too. And he wants to test it on somebody else's studio lot. When she's offered the chance to turn a famous, scandalous novel into a film, things start to look up. Till she finds another body. 

The copyediting is my favorite part of being a writer. The book is done; any gaping holes in the plot, rambling prose, or characters who've outstayed their welcome have been addressed in the 15 (or 100) rounds of self-review and the review by my editor, who finds the umpteen things I didn’t notice. 

Gentle reader, in the copyediting phase, you get gentle notes about possible contradictions, redundancies, and the fact that three days have gone by in your story, and it’s still Sunday. 

I just have to make gentle fixes. It’s the most stress-free time in writing.

Of course, now that I’m not preoccupied with writing the book after this one, I’ve noticed it’s *@^#% COLD

We’ve rarely been above 20 degrees this month, and that’s without wind chill. The nights are below zero. Okay, I know, Minnesota, that’s a balmy day for you, but we ain’t used to it here in New Jersey. Just what my face needs, windburn.

But in New Jersey, we do have our ways of dealing with cold. If it’s cold where you are — and if you’re just about anywhere in the US, it is — this might be what you need.

This is a terrific recipe I found years ago, and I wish I could recall where. I often make batches at the holidays and give them to friends.

Hot Buttered Rum 
You can cut the recipe in half, or give half the roll to a friend

1 pound brown sugar
½ lb butter slightly softened (not margarine)
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp vanilla

Blend all ingredients in a food processor or mixer (the butter needs to be softer if you use a hand mixer). Make a long roll of the batter, like those freezer cookies that you slice and bake. Place the roll into a freezer bag, then put it into another freezer bag. Store in the freezer.

To make a drink, slice off 2-3 TBS of the batter (or more if you like sweeter drinks) with a sharp knife and place into a tall mug. Add a shot of good dark rum. Then add very hot water and stir. Top with a small dollop of butter, if desired.

This batter will last you at least through the winter. Or if you're a writer, through the rest of the week. 


Sheila York

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Day I Met Pete Seeger

I don’t remember the date, but the event is as clear as yesterday. 

A little background:  Constitution Island lies in the Hudson River between The US Military Academy at West Point and Garrison, New York.  The famous iron chain that was stretched across the Hudson during the Revolutionary War went from West Point to the island.

In the nineteenth century, Susan and Anna Warner owned the island and lived there.  Susan wrote a book called The Wide, Wide World, which was second on the century’s best-seller list, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Anna wrote the words to the hymn “Jesus Loves Me.”  When the sisters died, they left the property to West Point.  These days it is a historic site, administered by a nonprofit organization but still with strong ties to the US Military Academy.

When my friend Col. (ret.) William A. McIntosh was still on the faculty at the Point, he took charge, one year, of the annual fundraiser for the foundation.  It was held in the officers’ mess at West Point.  As the guest of honor, Bill chose Pete Seeger, the Hudson River’s greatest champion.  Pete brought along his banjo.

Bill invited me and my husband David to the event—fully aware of our pacifist politics.  We sat at a table with the members of the English and Art Departments and their spouses, surrounded by tables of the all the rest of the West Point big brass.

Bill introduced us to Pete.  That was thrill enough for us, two who had been life-long admirers and frequent attendees at his concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Then came the BEST part.  After singing a few tunes for the crowd—mostly sea chanteys as I recall, Pete launched into a sing-along.  He announced that he had chosen a tune that was easy to sing and that he was pretty certain all of us knew: the Doxology.  You know—the hymn that begins, “Praise God from all blessings flow…”

He told us that he had composed new lyrics to it and proceeded to teach the assembled crowd his words so that we could sing it with him.  (With a little effort I found the lyrics on the internet.)  Here are a few of the verses.

“Sing peace between the grass and trees
Between the continents and the seas
Between the lion and the lamb
Between young Ivan and young Sam

Between the white, black, red and brown
Between the wilderness and town
Sing peace between the near and far
'Tween Allah and the six-pointed star

The fish that swim, the birds that fly
The deepest seas, the stars on high
Bear witness now that you and I
Sing! Peace on earth and sea and sky.”

Pete sang the whole song through.  Then he concentrated on the last verse.  He sang a line and invited us all to repeat it.  Then, the next line.   Repeating so we could get the words right.

Once we had gotten the words down, he had us rehearse some harmony:  The tenors only. Then the Baritones.  The sopranos.  Then the altos.  Just the men.  Just the women.  Then everyone again.

Over and over, to the accompaniment of his five-string banjo, Pete got the faculty of the country’s premier military college to sing his song about peace.

My heart sings now, just thinking about what he did that night and how fortunate I was to be there.

Rest in Peace, Pete Seeger.

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, January 26, 2014

I Get Ideas

Richie Narvaez Takes Helm of MWA/NY

Richie follows a truly distinguished line of New York MWA Presidents since 2000… Barry Zeman, Andy Peck, Bob Knightly, Jane Cleland, Chris Grabenstein, Alafair Burke, Rosemary Harris and Patricia King. As recent Chair of the Member Events Committee, he is familiar with what makes the wheels go round in this professional group.

A native of Brooklyn, he has worked as a journalist, teacher, and college professor. An award-winning short story writer, he brings a new and exciting voice to the organization.

Welcome to Crime Writer's Chronicle, President Narvaez!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

I do some of my best writing in the shower. This apparently is true for many people. There are scientific reasons for this, involving dopamine, the symbolism of water, and whatever they put into Irish Spring.

But that’s not very good advice for a writer. You’ll get visited by a great new story premise, the sentence wording that’s been worrying for weeks, and plots for a trilogy — all before you’ve soaped your naughty bits. And what do you do then? Use waterproof ink or intricate soap carving. You rush out, of course, and try to get it down before it disappears, and hope that your wet hands don’t make your inspiration indecipherable.

Ideas, it seems, often sneak up on us like the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who: not when we’re looking. Like love, death, and relatives, they like to show up when we don’t expect them to. I have found myself thunderstruck by entire stories while rushing for the train, preparing to teach a class, getting a haircut. Oh, this inspiration is a lovely thing when it happens — and when I can capture that thunder. But that is only a small part of writing. For the most part, most writing is grunt work: Sit, write.

I have endeavored to be the stereotypical writer who writes in bars, notebook out, pens aplenty, awaiting the call of the Muse amidst the heady company of Jack and Daniels and Sam and Adams. But when I have tried this at my favorite bar in Manhattan — it’s called Shade, come by some Friday night and let’s hang — the next new beer often comes before the next new idea, and then after a while I’m not trying to write, I’m just trying to remember my name. Indeed, ideas are like the prettiest girls in class. They do not respond well when you throw yourselves at them.

Sit, write. The ideas may come like subway cars, late and overcrowded. But you will still appreciate them.

After that, of course. comes more work, the real craft. That sitting with your mise en place, the legal pad or at the keyboard — that is just the churning it out, the piling on of the clay, the putting on the table of all the tiny model airplane parts. All the real writing happens later, when you edit, revise add this, delete that, and make something beautiful out of that Messerschmitt.

And then is possible the time will come, a sad moment, when that miraculous idea — which encountered you in the shower, at the dentist’s, or just before you slipped into dreamland — has to be cut out because it no longer fits with the rest. Be grateful for its time with you. You’ll always have the shower.

Richie Narvaez

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Crime Writers Break Bad

Okay, folks, here we are, the bloggers of the Crime Writers Chronicle, starring at last in our own thriller, plotted by our own Annamaria Alfieri. Tired of writing for peanuts, or, in Stephanie's case, reading for nothing, we have put our brilliant, evil minds together to create perfect crimes. These we have been selling to imperfect criminals, who are not as smart as we are but who will carry out our plans and give us money.


As our story opens, the Crime Writers are meeting at a restaurant on Lexington Avenue, to celebrate their first year of actual crime and to divide up the swag from their latest adventure, a hit on a Brinks truck full of diamonds. Bob's scruples were the hardest to overcome, since he is a retired police officer and a practicing lawyer. Also he didn't want to be played by George Clooney. But when he saw how much loot was involved he agreed to go along with the plan.

They lean in to the middle of the table and stretch out their hands as Kate distributes each one's share of diamonds with a kitchen measuring cup. "…and three-quarters of a cup for you," she says to Sheila, who happily tucks the glittering double-handful in her purse. So much for that. With sighs of satisfaction the Crime Writers settle back in their chairs.

"To the Brinks job," Sheila says, raising her glass of Champagne.

"The Brinks job," the others say.  They clink glasses.

Thelma adds, "Oh, by the way, I talked to the nicest FBI man this morning. He wanted to know all about our involvement in the Brinks Job. He was so charming that I told him everything."

Kate is horrified. "What! You ratted us out! I suppose you spilled your guts about the Wells-Fargo caper, too, and the Lufthansa heist!"

Thelma says, "It's going to be all right, not to worry. The FBI man  says we can have immunity from prosecution if we tell him everything we did and everyone we sold our plots to."

Annamaria shakes her head. "But that means we have to roll over on Rip Snorter. He'll kill us."

"Speak of the devil," Stephanie says. All eyes fly to the front window. Sure enough, the evil sociopathic Snorter is standing outside watching them. He bares his teeth in an evil leer. "He knows," Stephanie says. "He's after us."

Rip Snorter
Quicker than thought the intrepid writers rush out the back entrance and jump into Sheila York's fast little roadster. But Snorter and his henchmen are right behind them. What follows is a riveting and compelling car chase. Pedestrians jump up the walls of skyscrapers. Trucks crash into buses. Taxis are wrecked.The climax features the most spectacular car crash in movie history. In the end our heroes escape, though they are forced to return the diamonds to Brinks. Rip Snorter, badly injured, is carried away to Bellevue Hospital.

The news media goes mad. The Crime Writers become folk heroes, agents fight over them, and publishers claw each other for the right to publish their books.  The rights to their true-crime story are bought by the Weinstein Brothers. The mild mannered Crime Writers get a $2 million movie deal. They are hired to write the screenplay, which wins an Oscar. The Crime Writers share custody of the Oscar, a month at this one's house, a month at that.

With keen anticipation the Crime Writers show up at the Edgar banquet, expecting to receive the Edgar for that year's best screenplay as well, recognition from their own. Their hopes are dashed when the award goes to an Englishman nobody ever heard of.

Mysterious Englishman collecting our Edgar

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Leighton Gage's Legacy Novel: The Ways of Evil Men

I am doing something I ordinarily would never do.  Posting a piece here that I have already posted on another blog.  When you read this, you will understand why.  Leighton Gage was a very dear friend, an extraordinarily generous colleague, and a truly splendid writer.  His last work (words it pains me to write) launched yesterday.  His friends are doing everything we can to promote it.  The Ways of Evil Men is about the plight of Brazilian indians who are mysteriously dying.  Leighton's stories all bring out injustices in modern-day Brazil, but without ever preaching or distracting the reader from a suspenseful story.  You will love his work.  Buy his book.  And please help us spread the word by sharing this post.  Thank you for your help.  Leighton deserves it.

Annamaria Alfieri 

There are cultures where the people believe that when a person dies, his soul becomes a star in the sky.  I was tempted to say “primitive cultures,” but I thought better of it.  “Primitive” in such a context sounds almost pejorative.  But of all the things I have heard or been taught about what happens to a soul after the person dies, imagining it turning into a star is the loveliest, the most comforting, the most inspiring.

This past year we lost our beloved Leighton, but he left behind a book that arrives tomorrow.  And it comes with a star.

I am sure the book will earn many stars from readers, but the one I have in mind is the one The Ways of Evil Men earned from Publisher’s Weekly.  Their starred review, a prize not given lightly, said: "The late Gage (1942–2013) weaves an engaging plot and psychologically complex characters together with a sharp-edged social commentary on the Brazilian class system; his voice will be greatly missed in the crime fiction community."

The publisher’s description of the story is pure Leighton:
“Thirty-nine natives have recently dropped dead of mysterious causes. Given the tense relationship between the Awana tribe and the white townsfolk nearby, Jade Calmon, ParĂ¡'s sole government-sponsored advocate for the native population, immediately suspects foul play and takes the two remaining Awana—a father and his eight-year-old son—into her custody. But when the father is discovered holding a bloody machete next to the body of a village big-shot, just before Silva's arrival, the plot thickens. Why would a peaceful man who doesn't believe in alcohol turn into a drunken killer.”

This coming June and July, the world’s eyes will be on Brazil when the World Cup competition takes place there.  Between now and then, what I hope for is that Leighton’s legacy book will be widely read and that the star of his talent will shine even more brightly than ever before.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Confessions of a Memoirist

Mike Welch is back with us as a guest blogger. We both studied with Marion Roach Smith of the Troy Arts Center, whom he describes as his mentor and whom I know as an extraordinary teacher of Memoir and a superb writer. Her latest is The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non Standardized Text for Writing & Life. I like Mike's candid meditation on Craft. And so would Marion.
—Robert Knightly

I’ve been writing the same book for fifteen years. A memoir. Fifteen years is a long time to stay with anything, and I suppose it demonstrates a kind of endurance to have done so, although one might say it also demonstrates a lack of faith in ever being able to get it just right. And I am not out of my twenties yet, in the narrative, and so, at this rate, if I die in my real life at 90, I will still only be in middle age on the page.

I am a pretty run-of-the mill kind of guy. I am not famous, and have no kind of special claim on the imagination—certainly not the kinds of claims a lot of memoirists make, claims to the bizarre and the grotesque, the abject and the pitiful, or even the heroic and the saintly. Even if the claim is to be grounding universal human experience in the particularities of my life, and even if I believe that all writing is autobiographical, even fiction—even then it is an audacious act, or at least one of great faith, to write about oneself.

It has the quality of mystery, does it not? I mean, I know what happened to me, or at least I know what I remember, and how I remember it, but what did it all mean? I wonder if my existence means all that much.

There were two big obstacles in my way when I started writing about myself: I didn’t have much faith in my ability to do so, and I had lived an unexamined life. I had not thought much about my life, had not reflected on where I had been, and certainly not on where I was going. Oh, I had ruminated a lot on my faults, especially those I felt shameful, but mostly I had lived an emotional and psychological hand-to-mouth existence, striving with all my might to hold on to whatever peace and sanity I could find. Being a depressive and writing a memoir are two things that don’t go readily together, at least for me.

Depressives are insecure, uncertain, or at least that is the way I have experienced depression. And growing up in a household where I was vigorously ridiculed or rigorously ignored didn’t help my self-esteem. So I habitually second-guess myself, and can become so self-conscious that I feel like I am floating above myself, giving commentary on all that I do, the kind of running commentary a drill sergeant might give a raw recruit who can’t grunt out the push-ups or hit the target on the rifle range. So I worry all the time that what I write is bullshit, and should be burned.

On the other hand, there is something about writing that is safer than real-time, face to face social interaction, the kind I find so excruciating and that I so often feel like I have made a terrible hash of. When you write, you can keep going until you get it right. I can go up to a beautiful girl and captivate her on the page, or imagine I am, and if I am writing fiction, I can have the kind of conversation and relationship I want vicariously, through some character that is at least partially me. A textual relationship, which may not be as satisfying as a sexual one, but doesn’t transmit anxiety or guilt.

I don’t feel the urge to write, and yet I do write, just like I exercise and brush my teeth, finding it sometimes exhilarating, sometimes agonizing, and most of the time just plain hard work. I enjoy having written more than I enjoy writing, enjoy the satisfaction of having created something pleasing. Making some kind of connection, and perhaps having done it exceptionally well, proven that there is something-- this one thing-- at which I have talent.

I have no illusion that my memoir is going to illuminate some great truth, or that it will somehow make the depression itself fade away as I become more “in-touch” with myself. Depressives are painfully self-aware, painfully alive to the real miseries that existence has to offer, and contemplating the self can just be a way to drive yourself deeper into your cave. I don’t think it will make me a better person. I’m not going to become like Scrooge on Christmas morning; indeed, in my version , Scrooge pays for little Tiny Tim to get fixed up at some fancy clinic, and as the boy is leaving, stepping out into the bright sunlight with two good legs for the first time, a truck hops the curb and runs him over. A Memoir should entertain and instruct, I think, but find some practitioners of the form write primarily to prop up their self-delusions.

I guess if we were going to take the Freudian approach to things, you might say I write to make my father less suicidal and my mother less homicidal. To make them both realize that, yes, I am in the fucking metaphorical room, that attention must be paid me, like to Willy Loman, yes, attention must be paid.

Words are always bouncing around in my head. Bits of lyric, lines from movies, poems, novels, and I am always struck by the way that something as evanescent as words can have such an everlasting effect. I love to go out and wrangle a bunch of words and pen them together into a sentence. Did you ever hear that Bob Dylan song Subterranean Homesick Blues? Legend has it that when asked what it meant, Dylan said “I don’t know, I just wrote it.” I know what he means.

And reading—there is something so benign, so safe, about reading. If I can read, or watch TV, I feel safe, because these are solitary activities, where I found safety as a kid. They take you away to a better world, and they are partaken of in this world often in a hiding place, or at least a solitary one. One of my favorite times was when I woke up deep in the night and couldn’t go back to sleep. I would go downstairs and turn on the TV really low, and I would be safe, all the dangers in my house asleep, and I would drift off into other times and places, worlds I could observe from a safe remove. I thought if stories could be my oases, why not write them myself, create my own? My own writing has to be something I would want to read, or it’s no good.
The process? I find I don’t spend all that much time at the blank screen, but I do a lot of thinking, a lot of gathering of scraps of dialogue or observation, a lot of research. When I am writing about a topic, it is much on my mind, and I hope that whatever goes on in my conscious mind is occurring because my unconscious is trying to wrestle the topic to ground. I also carry a notebook in which I am forever scribbling.

Sometimes, though, I just have to sit and write. . Even if I don’t bring anything with me to the blank page, I find that writing begets writing. You sit and put something down , anything, and then see what it connects to. And what that new thing connects to. Because it is true, I believe, that everything is connected. You may start someplace far away from the territory you want to visit, but never fear, you will eventually get to where you should go.

I don’t, however, like to edit. I am not one of those geniuses for whom pages and pages of sterling prose come immediately off the pen., but I find the process of editing exhausting, no fun. What I enjoy is flying along, seeing if the next thing I put down really sings, hoping to play my keyboard like Johnny B Goode plays his guitar—just like ringin’ a bell.

I’m not a rock star or former President. Nothing amazing has happened to me. My mentor, my writing teacher Marion Roach Smith, says that there is no such thing as an ordinary life, that all lives are extraordinary, and that you have to write extraordinarily well in order to relate that to your readers. Your particular story should partake in the universally human, so that your readers will recognize you as another player in our human drama. And there needs to be change, even transcendence or epiphany in your story, for another to want to read you.

The public has a fascination with the spectacular, and so James Frey lied about his addiction and jail time. Dirty pool to be sure, but I know the impulse that drove him. Maybe Marion is right (I hope she is) and the ordinary life can be rendered in ways that are compelling. I hang on to that when I am tempted to dramatize and exaggerate my tale. It’s funny, this impulse to write a Song of Myself that will keep readers up nights reading, that shows an ordinary guy like myself can have a life worth reading about. But I want to write it in a way that shows I am an exceptional writer, an exceptional thinker, an exceptional poet. Even funnier, this urge to be special is quite ordinary.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Bus Story: AM Version

Yes, it’s time to ride the bus again.

When I rode the bus to work in the mornings, I shared it with 7 or 8 people who worked at a sheltered workshop. They had cognitive or emotional difficulties. Some of them remained in the sheltered workshops and others were able to get jobs in the community.

My favorite of these passengers was Stan. Stan was the embodiment of ebullience.

His conversation was filled with stories of outings with his family and on his own. His favorite weekly ritual was a bus trip to the local mall where he had lunch. I was never sure what he ate as an entree, but dessert was always a do-it-yourself sundae and 6 cups of coffee.

One morning Stan got on the bus and sat next to me.

“This weekend I made up six new words.”

“And definitions?” I asked.

The light in his eyes dimmed and he was speechless. I felt wretched.

“Well, it must take a quite a while to come up with definitions,” I offered.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said. And joy unrestrained was restored.

Stan had a relationship of sorts with Liz, another workshop client. Liz was taciturn. She said little and she spoke only to Stan.

“Tea bag!” she bellowed one morning.

I was so startled that the novel I was reading was suddenly airborne and it was only with great luck that I caught it before it hit the floor.

I looked across the aisle to see Stan silently giving Liz a teabag. Liz was also silent and moved to the back of the bus. Every morning Liz would demand her teabag and Stan would supply it. This little ritual occurred morning after morning.

At one point I had flu for a few days and so missed work. When I returned to the bus things had changed. Stan seemed downcast. He did not so much as nod a greeting.

Liz got on the bus at her stop.

“Tea bag.”

Stan stared at his lap.

“Tea bag. Tea bag. Tea bag. Tea bag. TEA BAG!”

Stan stared at his lap.

Liz finally gave up and moved to her seat toward the back of the bus. When the bus stopped at the workshop, Stan was off in a flash.

“I missed something,” I said to Jim, the bus driver.

“Well, it goes something like this. Stan told me that Liz stole his wallet and wasn’t even especially subtle about it. She denied she stole it and that’s where things stand. And you know how Stan is. He just believes the best of everybody, even Liz.”

“And you think he’s wrong.”

“I think he’s lucky she didn’t cut out his heart and eat it as a snack.”

The next day, having grown immune to the morning drama, I returned to reading my novel. Stan bounded onto the bus.

“Good morning!” he said.

When Liz got on the bus, she went right to Stan.

“Tea bag.”

Stan handed over the tea bag and Liz moved to the back of the bus.

After they got off the bus, I turned to Jim.

“So what do you think changed?” I asked.

“Oh, Steph, Stan isn’t like you and me. He forgives.”

©  2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, January 17, 2014

Divorce Dutch Style

My eighth great grandmother on the Gallison side, one Anneke Adriaens, was divorced in 1664. One seldom heard of such things in those days. But her first husband, Aert Pietersen Tack, was something of a hound and a wastrel. A scholar named Tyler Holman has taken the time to translate a big pile of court papers out of the Dutch so that I might see for myself all the people he owed money to back in New Amsterdam, mostly in beaver pelt equivalents, bushels of wheat, and peas, and all the hired men he cheated out of their pay. Anneke herself was no milktoast. At different times she was brought up on charges for physically attacking one of her neighbors and calling another a whore. The judge always let her off with a stern lecture to stop disturbing the peace.

But one day it came to light that Aert was keeping another wife.

About that time he took off for parts unknown, leaving so many debts that Anneke was forced to sell the farm and all the cows and horses. She turned for comfort to Jacobus Jansen VanEtten, the hired man, my eighth great grandfather. They wanted to be married. She went to court and applied for a divorce. Here's the judgement:

…Anneke Adriaens, his lawful wife, has requested of your honors letters of divorce and permission to marry another person, whereupon, before consenting thereto, the fiscal was ordered on July 31st last to have the aforesaid Aert Pietersen Tack summoned three times by the ringing of the bell to appear in person to hear and to answer, if he can, such complaint and demand as the injured party and the fiscal as her attorney shall make, which summons not only was proclaimed by the beating of the drum in the village of New Haerlem, and whereas nevertheless Aert Pietersen Tack failed to appear and remains contumacious, finding himself unable to defend, justify or purge himself…

(All that beating of drums and ringing of bells failed to cause Aert to appear. Nobody knew where he was. Some said he had gone back to Holland.)

…therefore, the fiscal, nomine offiocii, concludes that the first wife, Anneke Adriaens, must be granted letters of divorce and permission to marry another man, and furthermore that the fiscal and all other officers of justice should be authorized to arrest the defendant, Aert Pietersen Tack, and to confine him here in a proper place of detention, to be taken to the place where it is customary to execute justice, in order to be severely flogged with rods, having two distaffs above his head, and further to be branded with two marks on his back and to be banished from this province. Done at Fort Amsterdam, the 21st of August, 1664.

How do you like them apples? Severely flogged with rods. Branded with marks on his back. Needless to say, Aert declined to turn up and accept his Dutch divorce, preferring to stay in the old country with his new wife. He was never seen again in New Amsterdam. But, I don't know, there's something oddly satisfying about the old Dutch way of doing things. Forget your restraining orders. Forget your alimony awards. Forget your custody agreements. Just keep those flogging rods ready, keep those branding irons hot. That's a divorce a woman could live with.

©  2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Heresy: Movies Better Than the Book

I am jumping on the CWC movie-talk bandwagon, and I am about to blaspheme.  You can yell at me in the comments section.

There are few movies that can touch the book on which they are based for sheer story pleasure.  No movie will ever really capture David Copperfield or The French Lieutenant’s Woman on film, though some have tried.

There are some exceptions, however. When embroiled in such dinner-table discussion, I have from time to time pointed to a few (very few, I admit), where the movie made from the book is really better than the book.  Here are three that I think fit that description:

Gone With the Wind

I am starting with the most controversial example, hoping you will calm down before you get to the comments section.   When I was contemplating writing my first historical novel, I had in mind a war-torn romance in the late nineteenth century.  (The book turned out to be a mystery and my second published novel Invisible Country.)  I figured I could learn a lot by going back to the grandmother of all such stories, Margaret Mitchell’s ever-popular American Civil War epic.  After all, “my war” began just as hers ended.  I had loved her book when I read it as a twelve year old.  So I bought a copy.

Of course, by then, I had seen the motion picture many times, and truth to tell, the movie too, in some ways, had lost its gloss for me.  My problems with the movie, though, had to do with the story, not with the production.  I just did NOT get Scarlett’s infatuation with Ashley Wilkes.  As a grown up, I had a hard time believing that a woman whose innards were anything like mine would hang on to her teenage infatuation with the pale Ashley when Rhett was hers.  Oh, I know she came to her senses eventually, but REALLY?  I was not sure whether that problem had to do with the casting or with what was in the book.

Anyway, I cracked the book expecting to find it better than the movie and also to be able to study it as a great example of how I should write my story.  Instead,  I found great disappointment.  For one thing, the whole Ashley vs. Rhett issue was just as jejune in the book.  Worse then that, I could draw lines across the pages to demarcate the fiction from the history.  Two and half pages of story, a page and half of history, four pages of story, three pages of history.   It was choppy.  That and the character of Scarlett as she appears on the page were enough send me running back to the movie.  On top of which, the book is MUCH more racist than the movie—the brave men who founded the Ku Klux Klan, the nasty descriptions of uppity blacks, the lovely blacks who had the decency to continue to act like slaves.  OY! as we say in New York.  It is only the wonderful actors in the movie who make any of the characters more than stick figures.  And you get a chance to see Clark Gable and Hattie Mcdaniel.

Marjorie Morningstar

It is also the acting that makes the difference in this flick of Herman Wouk’s novel about a girl who wants to be an actress.  I read the book before the movie came out.  For me, the actors so enhanced their characters and added to so much depth to the experience that the movie trumped the book.  Wouk is a wonderful writer.  In fact, his WWII novel, The Winds of War is the polar opposite of Gone With the Wind when it comes to how history should be woven into fiction.  Anyone who aspires to write a historical novel should read it with a screwdriver and wrench to try to figure out how he did it.  It is masterful.

Margery Morningstar is, on the other hand, a good but not a great book.  It’s a better movie, thanks to Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly, and the totally brilliant Ed Winn.


The book is certainly a page turner.   But it reads like a screenplay, completely bare bones.  I admit that I could not put it down until I finished it, but then I would have forgotten all about it if it hadn’t been for Steven Spielberg’s terrifying film and especially the nuanced performance by Roy Scheider—one of the most underrated actors in history.

I promise to listen respectfully to your rejections of my opinions.

 Annamaria Alfieri  

Monday, January 13, 2014

Homicidal Humor

Susan Sundwall is a veteran freelancer, blogger and mystery writer. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and newly adopted stray cat, Sister Agnes. Her first Minnie Markwood Mystery, The Red Shoelace Killer, is available at Amazon, Untreed Reads, Barnes and Noble and from the publisher, Mainly Murder Press. Visit her blog at and chime in if you’re so inclined. 

Okay, the first thing that comes to mind when you find out someone has been murdered is probably not a comedic moment from an old Seinfeld episode. No, you’re more likely to draw back in horror, mouth open, nothing coming out, and then, for weeks, there are nightmares with you in the starring role – victim of the week. Not a single thing funny about it.

So imagine my dilemma when I wrote my mystery, The Red Shoelace Killer, (hilarious title, huh?) and called it a comic-cozy. Nothing in the title even hints at humor so I really had to put my nose to the grindstone to make my definition true. Add to the mix that a cozy is restricted in ways an all out brawl of a crime novel isn’t. Meaning?

Well, it means I won’t be using foul language, or graphic sex scenes or anatomically specific gooey guts violence. But that kind of fits in with my prudish nature anyway (oops – a brief moment of “coming out” there). You see, I know about foul language but prefer a good old Yosemite Sam cuss – ya ring tailed varmint – to copious use of the F-bomb (or any other consonant bomb that’s out there). I know about graphic sex. Been there, done that, three kids. And I’ve watched enough CSI through my fingers to know about gooey guts and all the “splorking” sounds you hear when brains hit the wall. Alas, I don’t visit any of these themes in my books. So now you’re thinking, “Huh, then how could it possibly be any good?” Right? That’s what you’re thinking, I just know it.

Pay attention, Lucy’s going to do some ‘splainin.

You have to do it with characters. Fun, quixotic, fully animated, and slightly dysfunctional characters. My protagonist, Minnie Markwood, is plump, old fashioned and just a whisker away from Social Security. Great. Now you’re thinking boring, boomer, chick lit. Hang on. I thought the same thing. Then I realized if my Boomer Babe had a youthful element for balance, it could only be a good thing. So I gave her a sidekick, Rashawna. She’s Minnie’s bubble headed, twenty-one-year-old ex-swimsuit model, co-worker. And I gave Bubble Head a boyfriend, Joel. Now, if that isn’t a dynamic trio destined for the New York Times bestseller list I don’t know what is.

The humor enters subtly when we experience these characters reactions to a horrible murder. The kind of reaction any ordinary, trying to pay the bills and keep the weight off, kind of person you probably are. And with a couple of degrees of separation from said horrible murder a brief relief moment intercedes when those reactions are shown.

For instance, while contemplating the nature of a killer, Minnie muses, “A killer doesn’t usually ask someone to accompany him to his killling ground, for heaven’s sake. Usually he stuffs your face full of old chloroform rags, and bam, you're toast in the trunk.”

Or Rashawna, brow furrowed, trying to understand someone using a red shoelace as a murder weapon. “Who would buy them, anyway? Like who and why?” Rashawna asked, palms up. The tone of her voice screamed fashion police.

Of course, once you’ve got your homicidal humor all figured out, you must weave it into a compelling plot and then, the penultimate challenge, sell it. From inception to acceptance can be a long, rough road. It took Minnie and me almost ten years. She started out older than me but by the time I sold her she was a few years younger. I had to revise – a lot. I endured many critiques (my mother did not like it so much – God rest her soul). I was crushed with each rejection one of which was a third of a sheet from a yellow legal pad stating “you write with facility” but they were no longer publishing fiction. Sheesh. They had it for a year. And who got the other two thirds of the pad? A staff member needing something to wrap a leftover tuna sandwich?

I’ll compare the course to publication to the course of true love. In your carefully examined life you look at all the possible suitors for your talents; NASA, llama whispering school, water polo training, and it comes down to this. You’re a writer, plain and simple. You have stories to tell,and by Sam, you’re going to set your cap for all those readers out there. And if you choose to add some homicidal humor as part of the deal, I’m right there with you, honey.

© 2014 Susan Sundwall

Sunday, January 12, 2014

No Easy Year

Welcome to Al Ashforth…

I'd met Al at many MWA-NY functions. Thought he was a cool cat, enigmatic, a still waters run deep kind of guy .But little did I know - til I read his highly acclaimed The Rendition, which recently was voted by the illustrious Military Writers Society of America as one of the year's best books in the Thriller/Mystery category!

Al has a distinguished academic, military and writing career. He advises writers: "Think about your topic before you sit down to write… our conscious minds seem to present and define problems for us, but our subconscious minds do the hard work."

For his bio of Thomas Henry Huxley, Al did much of his research at the Imperial College in London. Then St. Martin's Press published
Murder After the Fact. Both books are available through Amazon.

Recent publications also include "One Person's Clutter" in
Kwik Krimes, "Bad for Business" in Hardboiled Magazine, "Incident in Kabul" in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and "His Times Square Princess" in Crime Square, a Vantage Point Anthology.

Other credits include a Doctorate, university level teaching, news reporting for two NY newspapers. He also trained NATO Officers for the German Military Academy, was an instructor at the 10th Group Special Forces Headquarters in Bad Tolz and, as a military contractor, served tours in Bosnia, Macedonia, Germany, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Al's thoughts on his recent book The Rendition: " Renditions... are becoming more significant politically... the most famous was the operation to take out Osama bin Laden. I don't think we have felt the last of the reverberations that will follow as a result of that rendition…"

I've taken the liberty of including a recent definition on the term here: "Rendition is the practice of sending a foreign criminal or terrorist suspect covertly to be interrogated in a country with less vigorous regulations for the humane treatment of prisoners."

I believe you will find Al's comments below of great interest.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

It has not been an easy year for the author of No Easy Day.

According to a recent issue of the Army Times, Pentagon officials are still considering legal action against former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette for writing a book describing his part in the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. Although Mr. Bissonnette’s book, No Easy Day, was published by Dutton over a year ago, on September 11, 2012, legal action continues to be threatened.

But hopefully, none will be undertaken.

I found the Army Times article mildly surprising because, as time goes on, it’s beginning to seem less and less likely that Mr. Bissonnette will go to jail, or even to trial. Since Mr. Bissonnette has gone through the difficult training required of all SEALs and participated in thirty deployments, his patriotism can hardly be questioned, and I doubt that a jury would convict him of knowingly revealing information harmful to the United States. He might then only face civil litigation for violating the confidentiality agreement he signed in 2007, which required him to let the Pentagon review anything he’d written prior to publication.

One reason he might not have wanted to submit his book to the Pentagon was the experience of Lt. Colonel Anthony Shaffer. Shortly before publication of Operation Dark Heart, Colonel Shaffer’s account of his work as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, the government bought up 9,500 copies of the book and destroyed them. Certainly Dutton, Mr. Bissonnette’s publisher, was happier publishing No Easy Day, rather than destroying it. The book is reported to have sold well over 500,000 copies.

Despite No Easy Day’s commercial success and the fact that Mr. Bissonnette has provided a truly valuable account of an important military action, this last year has probably not been an entirely pleasant time for him. It has to be more than mildly disturbing to know that, as the newspaper article states, a number of Pentagon officials continue to be “ticked off” and would like to see him deprived of his royalties and maybe even behind bars.

For his part Mr. Bissonnette contends that he abided by his agreement when his publisher vetted the book and found no information that would be harmful to the United States. The government contends that in No Easy Day, which he published under the pen name Mark Owen, Mr. Bissonnette may have leaked classified information. It also maintains that only the government can determine what is or is not harmful to our country. But since information does not arrive with the label “classified,” it is not easy for anyone—a writer, a publisher, or even the government—to know exactly what should be classified and what should not be. And because “classification” is a largely arbitrary process, many people feel the government inclines to overuse the “classified” label.

Whatever some Pentagon officials may think, the mood of our country now is to give Mr. Bissonnette the benefit of the doubt. Having read the book, I have to agree with Mr. Bissonnette and his publisher. I can’t see that any of the information contained in the book has been harmful to the United States. And since so many other people have been talking freely about the raid, it would seem logical, and even desirable, to hear about the raid from someone who actually took part in it.

Among the people who have talked openly about the bin Laden raid are members of the SEAL brass who have provided information about what happened to Hollywood, specifically to Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, who made the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Another is President Obama, who reported bin Laden’s death the day following the raid and who described the raid during the last election campaign as one of the significant accomplishments of his first term in office. Yet another information source was the White House itself, with many officials over an extended period leaking facts about the capture of Osama bin Laden to the press. Unfortunately, one of the leaks has led to the arrest and imprisonment of Dr. Shakil Afridi for having helped determine the whereabouts of bin Laden. Dr. Afridi’s role in the bin Laden rendition should definitely have remained classified—with a capital “C”.

Yet another reason, and perhaps the most significant one, not to take action against Mr. Bissonnette is the widely held belief among members of the American public that the government reveals much too little regarding what’s happening in the War on Terror. Many Americans feel that, as citizens of a democracy, they are entitled to know much more of what’s going on overseas than they are being told.

To me, it seems incredible that despite these many mitigating circumstances there continue to be DOD officials who maintain that Mr. Bissonnette is “in material breach of his confidentiality agreement” and should be hauled into court.
Maybe Mr. Bissonnette should have done what authors of espionage thrillers do—fictionalize. In No Easy Day Mr. Bissonnette hardly deviates from describing his career as a SEAL, beginning with the intense training he received and then moving through the various deployments he was involved in. The final nine chapters deal with the raid on Abbottabad. He hardly ever mentions people apart from his fellow SEALs, but what he could have provided, along with the accounts of his training, is a detailed description of a master terrorist. The terrorist could be an individual whose career spans decades and who is suspected of being behind some of the bloodiest and most gruesome terror attacks perpetrated since 9/11. To make him seem menacing, he could be known by the name of a particularly ferocious animal—not a jackal, lion or tiger since they’re been used—but perhaps a wolverine or a puma.

Since novels are primarily about people and their relationships, Mr. Bissonnette could have introduced early on in the story a young woman who loves the hero but who feels his career is too dangerous for a man who wants to be a husband and father. When she asks him to make a choice between her and his SEAL career, he decides, reluctantly, to resign and get married.

However, just as he is about to announce his retirement he receives a summons from his team’s master chief to a top secret meeting in a secure conference room on a North Carolina military installation. At this meeting The Wolverine or Puma is described in terms that would fit Osama bin Laden, and the CIA reveals it has located the master terrorist living at a small city in Pakistan.

Since the hero knows this is the mission he’s been training for all his life, he changes his mind about resigning from the service. Something else Mr. Bissonnette could have imagined are tensions within the SEAL team’s ranks. He could have built suspense by describing other problems. At some point, for example, the SEALs could begin to fear the plans for the mission have leaked and the terrorist knows they’re coming. During the landing, besides the downdraft which caused the helicopter to crash, they could encounter other problems. Maybe the Pakistani Army could show up at the moment of their arrival, guns blazing. Maybe his hero could have been wounded and subsequently nursed back to health by an attractive nurse who replaces his original girlfriend in his affections.

Like most people, I like happy endings.

While large portions of such a book would have been fiction, most details of the story would have been accurate. For some readers separating the facts from the fiction could have been a challenging undertaking. If Mr. Bissonnette had written a fictional account of a rendition aimed at capturing a prominent and influential terrorist hiding in Pakistan, he would have been joining the legions of writers who write about espionage within a fictional framework—and he would probably not have to worry about DoD officials threatening to haul him into court.

Washington D.C. has more than its share of leakers, and certain details of the bin Laden raid which have been divulged should never have been divulged. This information was revealed, not by Mr. Bissonnette or members of SEAL Team 6, but by government and military officials for their own reasons. Although I can understand the Pentagon’s initial unhappiness with the book’s publication, I now find the continuing unhappiness with Mr. Bissonnette to be an overreaction. Mr. Bissonnette, who in writing No Easy Day made a genuine effort not to reveal any information that might be damaging to the United States, has provided the public with a faithful and historically valuable account of what happened during the fateful early morning hours of May 1, 2011, in Abbottabad.

© 2014 Albert Ashforth