Monday, September 29, 2014

What’s Wrong with Tom Ripley, and Why Does He Get Away with Murder?

Tom Ripley is a murderer, and a murderer who shows very little compunction about murdering. He needs to murder, after all, to get what he wants, and what he wants is more important than anyone’s life. So he kills Dickie Greenleaf and Freddie Miles. Brutally.

So he must be crazy, right? I mean, a killing for revenge or a killing done in a white hot rage could be committed by a sane person, but killing to increase your social standing and to acquire some money (which is always good for your social standing—just ask the Kennedys—the money, not the killing, that is) in such a cold, premeditated way must be the act of someone unhinged, right?

Well, we want to believe that. We want to believe that anyone like Tom Ripley, a nice polite boy, a young man on the fringes of polite and gilded society, could not be a murderer (which is perhaps why he gets away with it).

Patricia Highsmith, in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, gives us a type of character so amoral and calculating that society should be barring its collective door against him at night. But instead we worry about home invasions and mad bombers and the like. Ripley is more like an Enron executive, a congenial (except when he is killing, or disgusted, like when he sees women’s underwear. Who couldn’t like women’s underwear, I’d like to know? But more of that later) and even sometimes charismatic fellow type who thinks the money in your pocket is really his money, somehow wrongly displaced from his pocket, and therefore money he is duty bound to liberate from you and return to its rightful owner—him.

But even Ripley, a protean character, Zelig-like, a shape shifter, a chameleon, so studied in his appearance at every moment, becoming whatever furthers his aims with a practiced and perfect spontaneity, slips sometimes. Having killed Dickie so he could be Dickie, to masquerade around Europe and live off Dickie’s trust fund, and then having reverted to the Ripley character (even as himself he is playing a character) when his forgeries on Greenleaf’s bank account have made it uncomfortable being Dickie, he is asked by Detective McCarron whether Dickie could have been the one who killed Miles (whom Ripley has killed for discovering Ripley’s impersonation of Greenleaf), and Ripley responds no and then explains: “Because there was no reason to kill him—at least no reason that I know of.” And McCarron responds (who wouldn’t), “People usually say, because so and so wasn’t the type to kill anybody.” But McCarron doesn’t seem to ever cotton to the idea that Ripley is a sociopath, a psychopath, and potentially a stock broker or investment banker (just kidding there, kind of).

And think of that. No reason that he knows of! As if having a reason to want to kill someone is all you need to do the killing, even though society is based on the premise that we are not going to kill everyone we have a reason to kill. If we did that, I would be guilty of killing many times a day. Just today I would have killed a telemarketer that interrupted my dinner and a supervisor at work who mouthed so many platitudes and clichés in a meeting that some people were actually near comatose by the time it ended.

As much as we may protest all the killing he does, Ripley’s urge to change his identity is a particularly American one. Isn’t Highsmith’s tale an inversion of the classic American Tale? We can see Ripley as an inverted Ben Franklin. Franklin who created a new American character in his autobiography, the American who gets by on pluck and God-given luck, as Ripley gets by on not those but on deception and homicide. Still, wasn’t America often the place where the conmen and horse stealers came to in order to escape the law in Europe? And weren’t you always able to go West and change your name when the elixir you served up in your traveling show killed some babies? Just re-create yourself, Tom, like the way that George Bush transformed himself from a dissolute coke-head into a religious zealot bent on eliminating the middle class.

So what, I ask again, is Ripley’s major malfunction? I mean, let’s assume that he is crazy (it will make us all feel better if we do, which is really why he gets away with it, because we have a need to believe social appearances are real, that all these centuries of civilization have made us civilized, that they, and us, are not capable of casual atrocity), and that craziness has a reason (another comforting thought)—then why?

Maybe it is because he is raised by cold and ridiculing Aunt Dottie, who reminds him often that he is unwanted and a sissy, and that she is somehow eligible for sainthood for taking the time and money and effort to raise him. That could be it. We hope. There are always lots of psychological theories floating around out there, and they get recycled every so often, changing like each year’s styles. Freud thought cold mothering caused schizophrenia. Bruno Bettelheim thought it caused autism. No answers to Ripley there. We might say some of Ripley’s fascination with Greenleaf is repressed homosexual longing, which is perhaps why, in the book’s most excruciating scene, Dickie finds Ripley trying on Dickie’s clothes and practicing being Dickie, and why Ripley finds Margie Sherwood’s panties and bra (Dickie’s quasi-girlfriend, and Ripley’s rival) so revolting. Ripley never comes out, even to himself. Then again, maybe there is nothing to come out to. Margie might be right in saying that he has no sexuality at all.

Another type of disorder, fashionable lately, is borderline personality disorder. Borderlines have a fragile grandiosity, and can’t form close relationships. They don’t manage to take any solace from the continuity of relationships, and every bit of conflict to them seems like the destruction of a relationship, as if its history of goodwill and friendship never existed in the first place. Borderlines also perform what is called splitting. They alternately see people as angels or demons, never becoming able to see people as combinations of both good and bad. Ripley certainly seems to suffer from these symptoms, as his deification and demonization of Dickie proves, along with his highs where he thinks of himself as the brightest and the most cultured guy going, and his lows where he feels like a clown shilling to a disrespecting crowd. And speaking of highs and lows—maybe he is manic depressive. Or suffers from anti-social personality disorder (that seems a no brainer, as the most anti-social thing you can do is murder).

Theories, theories, blah, blah, blah. Theories would reduce the three-dimensional character Highsmith has created to a type, a cardboard representation of someone who comes across on the page as so flesh and blood that he could be sitting next to you (plotting your demise). Maybe he is psychotic, or sociopathic (I was never sure what the difference was, although psychotic seems somehow worse). What does it matter? The chilling thing is that he is so calculating, so false, so completely lacking in spontaneous and true feeling. And the worst of it is that he is not different from us in kind, but only in degree. Who among us does not have a series of masks he or she wears as they navigate through the circles of hell, I mean society? Don’t tell me you don’t.

And so Tom gets away with it. No Columbo to come to the rescue. No great deduction, no analysis of effects leading back inexorably to some inevitable cause. In fact, one of the other chilling things about the book is the way that Ripley finds so many ways to spin the facts of the case to make himself seem like an innocent bystander. The comfort we might feel from a Holmesian critique of the evidence goes out the window. All is muddiness and obscurity, infinite narratives to account for infinitely tangled evidence.

Otto Penzler, editor of numerous Crime Fiction anthologies, made a distinction between hard-boiled detective and noir fiction. In hard-boiled detective fiction, the private eye lives in a debased world of moral dissolution, but is himself moral. In noir, all the characters are immoral, or amoral, are all losers, slaves to their passions, their desire to get away from their grimy world and their grimy selves, and all come to a bad end.
Ripley is amoral and a loser, I think, and even he thinks so , I would posit, at least sometimes, as in his fictional description of his alter ego Dickie’s demise: “He was a very ordinary young man who liked to think he was extraordinary— [his suicide] was because he realized certain failures in himself.”

But Highsmith departs from the noir formula in that Dickie walks away from all he has done without a scratch. It’s enough to make you never trust nice young men again.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Cab Story

One day I left my office and hailed a cab to take me to the PATCO speedline that runs from Center City Philadelphia to Lindenwold, NJ. Many cabdrivers these days stick to chatting to friends via Blue Tooth, but my cabdriver actually talked to me.

“Are you going to Atlantic City?”

“No, I live in New Jersey.”

“What brings you to Center City?”

“I work here.”

“WHAT? At YOUR age and in YOUR condition you WORK?”

Now I do walk with 2 canes and I am a bit slow, but I cover the waterfront.

Before I could respond he added, “You are independent lady. You do not live off government.”

Now this is a sore point for me. If a woman on welfare gets extra food stamp money, she’s a “welfare queen.” Banks that get bailed out are never said to be “living off the government.” But this would be a long argument for a short cab ride and I don’t like to anger a stranger when I’m riding in his moving vehicle.

“How old are you madam? How many hours do you work?”

I was too tired to think of a clever way to evade these questions so I just answered.

“I’m 58. (This happened several years ago) I work a full 40 hour week.”

Pretty soon he was talking to someone in a foreign language. I did not understand the language he spoke but he mentioned “58” and “40 hours.” He was enormously animated.

As I left the cab he said, “It is an honor to assist such a person as yourself.”

“Does that mean a free cab ride? I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m an entrepreneur.”

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, September 26, 2014

Hot-Cha: Covers for your Romance Novels

I may be the last one to hear about this site, or not. If you write romance, though, or sexy hard-boiled, and you self-publish, you can get intriguing covers from this guy Jimmy Thomas, a handsome, well-built model who runs his own romance cover business. He's having a sale this week. Can you imagine? The sale ends today, though. Sadly, I don't get anything out of promoting his stuff other than the satisfaction of staring at pictures of a handsome, well-built model.

I bought one of Mr. Thomas's pictures to use as a cover for my perennial chestnut, THE BODICE RIP'T.  I'm all set now to self-publish the thing. All I have to do is finish writing it.

Here are some other pictures from Mr. Thomas's website. You'll notice that the examples I put up all have watermarks. To buy them for yourself, sans watermark, go to the site:

I wouldn't call this one "Regency" so much. I'm sure that people in the Regency period wore way more underwear than this. Pink dresses are pretty, though.

And here's some plain beefcake. Don't know what's up with the handcuffs. You can make that story up yourself.

And lest we forget we're crime writers, here's a hardboiled detective cover. There are plenty of others, with and without guns.

Check out the site for many more thrills, some of which are a bit too spicy for a family blog. Just remember, if you select one of these pictures for a cover for your book, be sure that the fonts you use for your title and author name are high-contrast and plenty big enough to read. Not all of us can see as well as we used to.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Look, Then a Book

My new Lauren Atwill adventure, NO BROKEN HEARTS, has just been published!

For about six more weeks, my life will be frenzied, as I squeeze in writing guest-blogs, throwing a launch party, visiting bookstores, and preparing for conventions and library events to promote the book, while feverishly trying to finish the next book. 

Kind of what I dreamed about since I was a kid. Of course, in my kid-dreams, I had a secretary who’d take care of the schedule and just point me in the right direction. 

At Goodreads, I’m giving away 20 signed copies of NO BROKEN HEARTS: Enter to Win a CopyPlease put your name in the hat, as it were. Goodreads uses an algorithm to select the winners, on October 31, which takes the selection pressure off the writer. Whew.

Readers often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”

I say, “If I knew, I’d have more and better.”

Writers rarely know where inspiration comes from. We understand, sometimes, how to create conditions conducive to leaps of imagination. But then sometimes we’re driving aside the maniacs on the Garden State, thinking about nothing except getting home alive, and suddenly we know how to fix that hole in our plot. How does this happen? We really don’t know.

When I started NO BROKEN HEARTS, I had a (really) vague idea of a story that would involve my amateur sleuth/screenwriter Lauren being loaned out to a second-rate studio by the major studio with which she's just signed a contract for her first screen credit in years. Start with something that would make her really angry! Conflict on page 1!

Then, as I do in all my books, I take a Hollywood scandal (from any era), imagine it into the 1940s and wonder, “How can I make this even worse?”

The scandal in NO BROKEN HEARTS is a Hollywood rumor from the Golden Age that a legendary male star (whose name I won’t repeat because I doubt this story) once accidentally killed someone and his studio paid off an underling to confess and serve manslaughter time for considerations of money and employment afterwards. How could this be made worse? How far would a studio really go to protect a star? Would they cover up a murder? Of course, Lauren would find the body, and be told to go along with the studio’s story. If she doesn’t, nobody would believe her.  And she’d be blackballed. And maybe she really doesn’t think the star did it because of something she saw at the scene. And then the real killer could realize he left a trail and come after her.

Yeah, that would make things worse.

Next, I looked through pictures, for ideas for settings, clothing, period details for the book, but mostly to pull me back into the 1940s and excite me about traveling there again. Pictures open the door to my imagination much more powerfully than music (which works wonders for many other writers).

I flipped through my files, searched favorite web sites, and the pages of books.

And then, there it was.

This is Ronald Coleman, an actor from the Golden Age of film whom I deeply admire. But I had totally forgotten this picture. From it, I began to develop the fictional star Lauren has had a crush on since she was a girl. She finally gets the chance to write for him, and then it all falls apart in a brutal killing that could cost Lauren her career, and maybe her life, too.

Inspiration and its partner, enthusiasm, won’t write your book for you. But sometimes one thing, one thing smoothes the path in such a happy way.

If you’ve never seen Ronald Coleman’s work, I recommend the classic 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda. Based on the wildly popular book by Anthony Hope, it has so many rapturous traits of 19th c. romances – malevolent scheming, wild coincidence, and outrageous twists. (And Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a villain bonus!) 

The charming but blasé Rudolph (Coleman), traveling through the kingdom of Ruritania, notices some odd glances in his direction. It turns out he bears a startling resemblance to the soon-to-be-crowned king. Wouldn’t you know it, an other-side-of-the-blanket birth has led to these men being near twins!! When the real king is kidnapped to allow another to claim the throne, loyalists convince Rudolph to impersonate the king. 

The kidnappers can’t very well say, “Hey, that’s not the king! We stole the king!” 

In the end, Rudolph has turned hero and rescued the king, but not before falling in love with his doppleganger's betrothed, played by Madeleine Carroll. The last scene between these lovers-who-can-never-be . . . 

Well, you should see for yourself.

Copyright Sheila York 2014

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The First of Fall

Summer is over.  As expected, the September weather here in New York has been just splendid—bright days, perfect temperature, cool nights.  Nothing to complain about.

Except that now the daylight will dwindle away.  The cold will come.  It’s the wrong side of winter for me.  It’s no surprise that Seasonal Affective Disorder is abbreviated SAD. 

We will soon need ways to cheer up.  What better cure than dancing!  So I present here cheering performances.  If you get the end-of-year blues, log on to these.  They are sure to make you smile.

My first two choices are pretty obvious, but nonetheless surefire hits.

First Fred, but not with not with Ginger Rogers.  In this case it’s Eleanor Powell.   Rival studio contracts kept Hollywood’s two best dancers apart until they  finally got to team up in 1940.

And then Travolta!

Here a great favorite you may not have seen.  Did you know the mega-talented Christopher Walken could do this?

And speaking of fall, can you fathom why Gene Kelly didn’t?

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sex and the Hard-Boiled Private Eye

A woman friend of mine once read a story I’d written and gently made the observation that one of my female characters was less a real member of the fair sex than a male fantasy. I’m not the only male writer to have this complaint leveled at him. Both Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, progenitors of the hardboiled private eye genre, paint women characters who are scheming, devious, untrustworthy, manipulative and dangerous. And they are all smoking hot, too. A male fantasy, or a nightmare, female sexuality in these writer’s hands becomes perhaps the most polluted and corrupt thing in a polluted and corrupt world. And while all the women in these books (and movies, for that matter) are really hot—Ida Lupino, Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman type hot—the guys can get away with ugly mugs like the one on Humphrey Bogart.

My question is this: are these writers, or at least their protagonists, misogynists or merely misanthropists? That is, is all mankind corrupt, and female-kind just corrupt in its own particular way? Do the characters of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade fail to connect in any meaningful way with humanity in general or women in particular? Or, finally, is it just the city that is corrupt and corrupting, and there is somewhere sunlit and green where men and women can live in a kind of prelapsarian innocence?

Of course, you might say that all this started when Eve tricked Adam into eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (or was it Good and Evil? I can never remember, but I’ll bet you a woman could tell you). She had more smarts than her hubby, and it wasn’t that hard to fool the good-natured but dimwitted fellow. And I am sure Eve was pretty hot, and Adam knew that the marital strife not complying would cause just wasn’t worth not biting into the silly piece of fruit (or so he thought).

I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that the femme fatale is less a reality than an expression of male fears about the power of female sexuality which, left to run riot, we all know, would lead to the destruction of civilization. But again the question asserts itself: Are Chandler and Hammett misogynists? Are Marlowe and Sam Spade?

Sexuality of all kinds in both these authors’ hands becomes grotesque and dangerous. In THE BIG SLEEP, a homosexual liaison is all mixed up in the main plotting, and Marlowe refers to it as disgusting. In THE MALTESE FALCON, Spade describes Cairo (Peter Lorre in the movie), a swarthy “Levantine” who apparently has a pederastic relationship with the gunsel Wilmer, as effete and debauched, walking with mincing steps and lisping, as if his sexuality was mixed up with the East, with heathen religions and Communism and barbarism and was even more degraded and degrading than the ugly night-time San Francisco the characters chase each other around in. Gutman, or the Fatman (Sidney Greenstreet in the movie), is an asexual glutton whose appetites are for everything but sex, as if he was some kind of sex addict that sublimated all that lust into the desire for bon bons and that Maltese Falcon.

In THE LONG GOODBYE, Marlowe has the chance for a relationship with Linda Lorring, but he turns it down. Not because he thinks she is evil, but because he doesn’t think that men and women can really have relationships that last. He says to her, in response to her asking him if he has something against marriage: “for two people in a hundred it’s wonderful. The rest just work at it. After twenty years all the guy has left is a workbench in the garage.” So much for romance.

The only male “friend” Marlowe has in THE BIG SLEEP or THE LONG GOODBYE is Bernie Ohls, and the fact that Ohls is a cop means they can never truly be friends without compromising each other. And so Marlowe is completely alone. I don’t know if you can say that Chandler believes that men and women are equally venal, as he only has one female character in either novel who has any redeeming qualities at all—Vivien Sternwood and Linda Lorring–and both of them are a bit vain and spoiled and certainly manipulative. Then again, Marlowe is pretty manipulative too. I do think you can say that both Marlowe and Spade believe that men and women can’t ever stay together beyond that initial rush of passion–love being like a high fever that finally passes, only to leave you scarred with children and mortgage payments. The ephemeral nature of passion, and the fact that their differences outweigh any commonalities that might exist, cause men and women to remain forever apart (except when they have sex, which is the only time they manage to cooperate about anything).

Spade is unlike Marlowe in that he has both a partner and a secretary. His partner, Archer, is a bad apple and is killed by Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale, and Spade does not miss him, especially since he has been bedding Archer’s wife. It’s interesting that Spade does not take the proper measure of Archer and instead gets involved in a partnership with him. Especially since Spade is such a sharp guy, always a step ahead of everyone. So much for male friendship. Spade has made himself a “sap” for another man, in a way, but he knows enough not to trust O’Shaughnessy.

O’Shaughnessy beds Spade, or the other way around, as each one hopes to learn something from the other. Things even get a little kinky, as in the scene where Spade, not sure whether O’Shaughnessy has stolen a hundred dollars, makes her strip naked to prove she hasn’t. She claims to be humiliated, but you get the sense that she is hoping her bare flesh will help her to manipulate him. In the end, while it may have been true that as each one played the other each one also hoped that what they had could be real, Spade out maneuvers the femme fatale and sends her up for the murder of Archer. He tells her that maybe he fell for her, but he has to stick up for Archer, and that he won’t be a sap for her, and he echoes Marlowe when he describes what he thinks relationships between men and women consist of: [suppose I’m nuts about you] “What of it? Maybe next month I won’t be. I’ve been through it all before. When it lasted that long.”

The closest relationship Spade has is with his secretary Effie Perrine, who is steadfast and loyal, but who is described as boyish, and says of Mrs. Archer, “You know I think she’s a louse, but I’d be a louse too if it would give me a body like hers.” She gives it to Spade straight, and she is the only one he is honest with. She is the first one we encounter in the novel, and her conversation with Spade ends it. She had been hoping that O’Shaughnessy was innocent, and that for once Spade’s cynicism would not be confirmed, but of course it is not: “So much for your woman’s intuition….she did kill Miles, angel.” And Effie, seeing in the paper that Spade has turned her over to the police, says: “I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”

In THE MALTESE FALCON, THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE it sometimes seems that it is not men or women who are to blame for the gender war, but sexuality itself. At other times, both Chandler and Hammett seem like founding members of the HE-MAN woman haters club. Now if only someone would write a novel where the detective falls in love with a good girl who is also hot. Or at least warm.

And I’m only half kidding when I say that. The mistrust of women be Spade and Marlowe comes off as seeming, in the end, as kind of adolescent. Women are some exotic and dangerous species to be bedded but never trusted. And with that approach, if you can really pull it off, you may never get played for a sap, but you end up alone. If anyone has Effie Perrine’s number, could you give it to me?

c © 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Crime Fiction and a Lovely Antique Carousel

I first encountered Richard Brawer, our talented neighbor in New Jersey, when I read his delightful crime novel, Murder Goes Round and Round, a vivid tale about an antique carousel in a dying resort town in his home state and the murder caused by its sale.

As we corresponded about this book, I invited him to be a guest on our group blog and asked him to tell us about his writing methods. Hope you enjoy his thoughts on modern publishing and his own writing career.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw, who adores carousels…

How e-books have changed the publishing industry

Before e-books, the only books we could read were the ones the big publishers “chose” for us to read. Those books were selected by the publisher based on the publisher’s idea of what the greatest number of readers would like—in other words, prospective sales.

Now, with e-book self-publishing, writers can not only explore many topics, but they can write what they like. If an author can’t find an interested publisher, so be it. His book will still be available to those who like the subject.

Of course there is a downside to e-publishing. Some books are not well written. But many e-books are so inexpensive—some are even free—that you won’t lose much sleep if you don’t like a book.

On the upside readers have found some wonderful new authors.

My journey as an author, and my inspiration

Becoming a writer was the last thing I thought I would ever do, but I was an avid reader and always had a questioning mind and a vivid imagination. One day I read a newspaper article about a child who was born with a brain impairment. The father refused to take him home from the hospital. I immediately wondered: Who was this man? What happened to the child? Where was the mother? The answers to these questions turned into my first book in 1994, The Nurse Wore Black.

I followed that with Diamonds are for Stealing, based on a newspaper article about a jewelry store robbery where the store owner pulled a gun and shot at the robber, killing his wife instead. Yeah, right, an accident!

Murder on the Links came from yet another news story about stock market manipulation.

These three mysteries are a series with detective David Nance. I rewrote them, modernizing them with cell phones and computers, and put them on Amazon KDP in one volume titled Murder at the Jersey Shore. (The Nurse Wore Black was re-titled Secrets can be Deadly. The other titles remained the same.)

In Murder Goes Round and Round, the sale of a million-dollar antique carousel in a decaying resort town is the motive for murder. Except for the murder, this story is pretty factual. The carousel in the decaying resort actually existed. The owner needed the money and sold it at auction. The town wanted to buy it but couldn’t come up with the money. There was a lot of animosity because the town was attempting a comeback and wanted to use the carousel as a draw. I added the murder part.

Silk Legacy resulted from lectures on the silk industry in Paterson, NJ, in the early twentieth century. My grandparents immigrated to Paterson. I wanted to see what it was like back then. As I listened, a plot quickly developed in my mind about a domineering silk industrialist, his progressive, suffragist wife and his radical unionist brother. Although this is historical fiction it has also been called a tumultuous love story by more than one reviewer.

My best-received book, The Nano Experiment, with 71 reviews, came from a screen play my daughter wrote. Her plot was about an African-American man wrongly convicted and sentenced to be executed. When she couldn’t sell the script I asked her if I could write a book with that plot using a female protagonist, as there are many black starlets looking for a leading role. Once I changed to a female protagonist the book took on a life of its own. The only thing that remained the same was the plot.

The inspiration for my latest novel, Love’s Sweet Sorrow, a romantic suspense novel, came from yet another newspaper story about arms smuggling. The plot quickly developed in my mind, but I was having trouble creating the female character. All my novels have a strong woman to challenge a somewhat rash protagonist. Then I read about a town twenty minutes north that was having an Octoberfest. The town was founded in the 1660s. The county historical society was giving tours of the historic buildings including a Quaker meeting house. Since one of my hobbies was researching local history, I went. The lectures and brochures handed out by the Quakers gave rise to my strong female character.

So you see inspiration can come from anywhere.

My books were published by micro to mid-size publishers. I am now on my fourth publisher because two of them went out of business and a third voluntarily closed when one of the partners passed away. I re-acquired the rights to all my books and put them on Amazon KDP.

Why KDP and not another publisher? First, I could not find a publisher that wanted to take on already published books. As to self publishing, since they were old books, I did not want to spend money to self publish in both e-book and trade paperback.

Formatting for an e-book was easy. There are a number of sites on the internet explaining how. After I reformatted I uploaded the books on both Barnes and Nobles’ Nook and Amazon Kindle. I quickly found the books selling ten to one Kindle to Nook. At that point I made the decision to take the books off Nook and keep them solely on Kindle, because Amazon pays a higher royalty if an author gives them exclusivity.

Constructing my novels

I will admit I am a rather haphazard writer. First I devise a plot. Second I come up with an ending. I have to have something to write toward.

With the plot and the ending figured out I create my protagonist, antagonist and the protagonist’s love interest.

Then I write an exciting opening chapter, putting the protagonist in jeopardy immediately.

I do not outline the whole book. I only make quick notes for a couple of chapters at a time—this happens, that happens and what conflicts my character will face in those chapters. One chapter leads to the next and also leads to minor characters.

As to minor characters, this is where my haphazard writing comes in. I don’t know who the minor characters will be until I come to a point in the book where I need one. Then I create the character. However I do not want them to come out of the blue. I go back and introduce the minor character innocuously in a conversation between two other characters. Then when he or she is fully on scene the reader will know a little about him or her.

I do not write directly to the ending. I try to take the reader on a journey like a gyrating stock market. There are many ups, downs and setbacks.

What I learned from my writing experiences

Don’t give up if you have a setback either in your writing or your search for a publisher. Writing, like everything else, comes from doing. It is rare that an author’s first novel becomes a best seller. For example John Grisham’s early novel, Time to Kill, was not a best seller when it came out, yet for me it was one of his best books. After his later books came out, that one became a hit and was made into a movie.

After graduation from the University of Florida and a six month basic training tour in the National Guard, Richard Brawer worked for 35 years in the textile and retail industries. Always an avid reader, he began writing mystery, suspense and historical fiction novels in 1994. When not writing, he spends his time exploring local history. He has two married daughters and lives in New Jersey with his wife. Read more about Richard Brawer and his books at his website:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Posting About Nothing

I'm at a loss for something to write about today.

Can't write about politics, because I have taken a sacred oath not to. Anyway I have no views on politics right now, other than, "Eeuch." That won't fill a column.

Can't write about family stuff because I just don't write about family stuff. If I did, I would tell you that Harold and I drove to a charming beach house in Harvey Cedars last Sunday to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of my eldest son. Outside, the surf was crashing and the sea grass newly planted on the dunes was waving in the breeze. My daughter-in-law put on a wonderful spread, baked ziti, roasted sausage and peppers, crispy rolls. One of my granddaughters brought two of the most deliciously decadent cakes I've ever tasted. I saw relatives I hadn't seen in years. I met family connections I hadn't ever met. There was a baby running around. Everyone seemed prosperous and healthy. It was great.

One of my son's half-brothers made me a very pretty speech about how thankful he was that we—his adoptive mother and I, as well as the adoptive mothers of the other twenty or so half-siblings—had given them homes when their birth mothers couldn't take care of them, and I treasure his remarks. I've always seen myself as something of a failure where my adopted boys are concerned. I'll take all the compliments I can get.

If it were a novel there would have been undercurrents at the party, perhaps simmering feuds that might have led to hurt feelings or outbursts of violence. Fortunately for all of us it was real life. Which I hardly ever write about.

And so I have nothing to write about today, nor am I starting to write my memoirs. In fact, I'm not writing much of anything these days. What I'm about to do is go down to Rojo's and have a coffee with Harold. Maybe I'll write about Lambertville later on. Or murders. Something.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Travel Journal: August/September 2014

Perhaps it is because writing is such an all-encompassing activity for me.  Or maybe when I am traveling, I am too busy taking in everything to find the energy to write it down as it happens.  Whatever the reason, I am a dismal failure at keeping a comprehensive travel journal.  My intentions are good.  I never travel without a journal to write in.  But what gets into it are just snippets.

On my recent trip, I brought along the safari journal that has gone with me to Africa three times now.  Here is a lot of what made it into the book this time around.

20 August 2014
On the way to JFK.  The Carmel Car driver is Chinese and listens to a radio station that plays only songs by Beyoncé or Chinese groups that imitate her style.  We get through the Midtown Tunnel in fine time, but the traffic is thick on the Queens side.  The driver takes Queens Boulevard as the quickest way to airport—certainly more scenic than the Long Island Expressway.  Along our route, we pass the Boca Juniors Restaurant, named for a Buenos Aires soccer team.  One of the killers in my 1945 mystery set in Argentina—Blood Tango—was a fan.  A couple of miles later, we pass the Argentine Tango restaurant.  In between there was the King David Sushi Bar.  A little further on is a storefront that houses a combination pharmacy and psychic reader’s parlor.

I know little of the borough of Queens other than the airports, but I brag about it all time.  150 languages are spoken here, a fact that speaks volumes about the diversity of my peaceable city.

21 August 2014

The trip from New York was long and with many delays.  Arrival at Nairobi Airport just before midnight of day two.  It’s a madhouse, with two off-schedule jumbo jets arriving at the same time and disgorging their polyglot passengers and several tons of motley luggage.  I had reserved a hotel for the night of the 21st , but it is the wee hours of the 22nd before I get there.  The driver who picks me up at the airport is named Edgar.  It is close to 2:30 AM before I get to bed.  I have no idea what time it is back in New York.  And I don’t want to know.

22 August 2014

After a few hours’ sleep and a buffet breakfast, the driver I reserved—Patrick—picks me up and takes me to the Karen Blixen Museum.  Young, delightful Lucy is my enthusiastic and well-informed guide.  A high point for me is seeing Karen’s beautiful portraits of her African friends.  I never knew she was a painter as well as a writer.

Lunch at a nearby historic building, now the restaurant and guesthouse, Tamambo.  In the garden under a blooming jacaranda tree.  The food is good, but not great, and I am not used to eating alone in such places.

Very amused to find there are many Italians here.  One family of six, including two children whose sweet voices speaking la lingua float over to me on the soft Kenyan highland breeze.  Then, a couple in their fifties with their perfect chic in safari colors could not have been anything but Italian—a judgment confirmed when they spoke while passing my table.  Three couples arrive—very casual, not so beautifully turned out—but something in their way of walking—nonchalant, tinged generously with confidence just short of arrogance—tells me who they are.  And, yes, the first word I hear one of the say is “Allora.”  Untranslatable—“well, well” sort of, but not only that.  “So?” when it is pronounced as two syllables.

The chicken dish was okay.  The bread pudding scrumptious and mirabile dictu! REALLY good espresso.

Ah, that’s why there are so many Italians here.  They heard the place has good coffee.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, September 15, 2014

Our Enduring Fascination with Sherlock Holmes

I was sitting around the other night, smoking cocaine and playing my violin and, finally, after those got boring, watching Benedict Cumberbatch portraying the great detective Sherlock Holmes on my computer. Few fictional characters have managed to exert such a hold on the public imagination as the eccentric detective. Well more than a century later, we have Holmes’s progeny running around all over the TV screen, descendants as different in their quirks as Monk and House, but who still share the monomaniacal desire to solve the puzzle of man, for “the proper study of man is man,” as Holmes himself says in A Study in Scarlet. From just before the turn of the 20th century until past the turn of the 21st the great Holmes has loomed large in the imagination. Why?

Great fictional characters are supposed to be both timeless and universal. Holmes has been translated into every language on earth, practically, and has been portrayed by everyone from Christopher Plummer to Basil Rathbone, even Robert Downey Jr., Holmes’s brother Mycroft has had his own movie (Mel Brooks’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother).

It is inarguable that the man with the deerstalker hat, pipe and magnifying glass has endured (even his customary accoutrements have displayed a staying power in the public imagination). So why has his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, been condemned to the status of second-rate writer, a scribbler of sensational tales, a genre writer, a boys’ adventure writer (a condemnation Jack London and Joseph Conrad get sometimes, too), someone who transformed the Victorian Penny Dreadful , which as literature was surely dreadful, into mass literature as literarily tasty as cotton candy, and about as nourishing?

And so, the two-headed question I ask in this piece—why has Holmes endured, and does Doyle deserve more credit for the creation of the famous detective? Indeed, if the reason he has endured is because Holmes is excellent literature, then Doyle does indeed deserve that credit.

Part of the backlash, I am sure, comes from the very fact of Holmes’s popularity. Stephen King has suffered from the same treatment—to a critical elite, anyone that popular can’t be good, which is a kind of oblique swipe at the average Joe, who would rather read a ripping good yarn than some postmodern meditation, or rather rumination, about the life of the mind, in a self-reflective stream of consciousness that contemplates literature more than it is literature.

Everyone loves plot, mystery, murder and puzzles, action, mayhem, intrigue, and danger. So why is it
seen as an over-indulgence to indulge in these things at all? Does real literature have to be character-driven and, for that matter, are not Holmes and Watson fully realized characters? They are not cardboard or two dimensional, not to me. And not to an adoring public. Holmes’s utter uniqueness, and Watson’s capable Everyman, are drawn vividly enough to have stayed popular down all the ladder of years.

Ironically, although Holmes is drawn with depth, it is his shallowness that is so fully depicted. As Watson says in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes has no knowledge of Philosophy, Literature, Astronomy or Politics (apparently the curriculum for a learned man in those days, a gentleman), but has an immense knowledge of sensational literature, Anatomy, chemistry, and knows “every detail of every horror perpetrated in this century.”

Watson exists as the Everyman, a good and capable and ordinary fellow, but one who is damaged by war and sickness and loneliness, and who sits by the proverbial fire with Holmes in their little outpost just beyond the community of man. Holmes can’t make himself part of that community, or does not care to, and Watson no longer knows how to.

And so we have our two heroes, each one perfectly suited to the other, down to the not inconsiderable detail that Watson plays Boswell to Holmes’s Johnson. We can be fascinated along with Watson at the sheer megalomania of the man, and long for Watson to achieve the real affection from him that Watson hopelessly yearns for (even after getting married, Watson is forever dropping by to see Holmes and getting happily tangled up in another case).

If Holmes were around today, he would be diagnosed as anti-social, or at least asocial, possibly as autistic, and Watson as having PTSD and depression. Holmes forms no other close ties than with Watson, and Watson tells the reader he has no one in London. When the plot is not thickening, when the game is not afoot, Watson morosely examines what he considers his failed life, and Holmes seeks solace in the violin and cocaine. It is the thrill of the hunt that brings these two disaffected souls back to life.

Doyle lived in a time of great upheaval. In his lifetime he witnessed industrialization and urbanization, the rise of modernism in the arts, jazz, the Great War, the criminalization of drugs and homosexuality, the rise of the Police Force, the Union Movement, the passage of Queen Victoria into history, the gradual destruction of the peerage’s control of England and, on the Continent, political violence and the explosion of printed material in the form of periodicals, newspapers and books.

It was an exciting but frightening time, and Doyle manages to play on people’s fears about change. Xenophobia, the city as a place filled with barbaric, godless foreigners, and also as a place of conmen and organized crime, prostitution, swarthy anarchists, grifters and hucksters and flim-flam men, pimps, opium dens and, most frightening of all, secret societies—all these are portrayed as great threats to the good old British Gentleman’s Code that had supposedly built the empire. Man was no longer connected to the land, he was a wage slave, women turned to prostitution to survive in the metropolis, no one’s word was good anymore, and the city was a place of anomie, of alienation, of danger and despair. Like Chandler’s Los Angeles, London is a night-time place even in the day, physically and morally polluted, and the danger is all the more frightening for lurking in that darkness.

The city is a place of deception, of disguise, of the excesses of civilization, of man as far away from the Garden as one could possibly get. It is no coincidence that Doyle has Holmes continually wearing disguises, for in the city there is always something malevolent lurking under a thin and cheap veneer of goodness.

And who is there to save us from all this, who will keep the Empire safe for patriots and gentlemen, but Sherlock Holmes? Holmes is, luckily for us, on the side of good, although that is not his motivation for solving crimes. It is ego and the need to solve puzzles that drives him. One shudders to think what Holmes would become had he turned his mind to crime, but we have our dear Watson to save us from that. He and Holmes are saved from themselves by one another, and they live a life of grim fairy tale adventure in the evil city, always equal to the Moriarty’s of the world, and we live vicariously through them and are glad to not be them.

If some of Doyle’s characters are less than fully realized, that can’t be said about the duo. And what author is above using stock characters? The storytelling power of the buddy tale is not lost on Doyle, either, as he follows in a lineage that includes King Arthur and Lancelot, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, and many more.

If Doyle is heavy on plot, if his villains are one-dimensional, if he is sentimental, so what? Aristotle himself privileged plot over character, and Doyle knew that character was best revealed in action, through plot. And he knew both what scares us and thrills us (anyone who has ever ridden a rollercoaster knows how closely related these two things are). So what if his prose was purple? Someone said that the purpose of literature is to entertain and instruct. Well, Doyle goes heavy on the entertainment, and light on the educating. Again, so what? There is literature in a well-articulated vision, in the skillful rendering of the famous friendship, in the believable eccentricity of Holmes. If the plots are somewhat outlandish, if Holmes deductions are far-fetched and fanciful, I don’t mind. If Middlemarch and Proust are heavy literary nourishment, weighty and serious, some of what is called literature is just self-important and starchy, not real sustenance. While Holmes is lighter fare, it has an appeal and an art all its own, and Doyle, in creating timeless characters we still love, is a genuine literary talent.

Mike Welch