clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Even Money Bet

I like characters without an even money bet: they haven't got a fair chance.

I like to see that piece right at the opening. I like it when we the readers know that the game is rigged long before the character resigns themselves to this fact.

Where I grew up, the local constabulary consisted of a three man sheriff's crew, a sheriff,  and a state trooper who lived in the county. That's it.

There is always the idea that rural sheriffs are like Andy Griffiths in Mayberry: didn't wear a gun. I can tell you my sheriff wore a gun and when there was sheriff business to do, those guns were out and pointed at you.

The policy was to apologize for the weapon but keep it pointed at trouble.

Anyway, I don't like that policy as a writer because it doesn't give enough chance for things to go wrong and this week, I'm all about things going wrong. I'm a bag of trouble just out throwing it around my protagonists living room. I hope it works.

To that end, a little revision. I don't think my example from the other night is quite what I'd like to represent as an example of current posturing. With that, I revise for the things we readers know will downhill by starting with small problems right off the bat.


Bill inherited the worst eighty in the county. Cows won't eat scrub. Crops won't grow in clay. Bill ran for sheriff after Betty left for Hays, and won. Luck runs in threes like that.
He swore and started down the drive for Harry's house opposite his own. Grass crunched with frost under his boots down the strip between the ruts. Harry never married and occasionally pointed out his sixty years of good fortune to Bill. He'd probably do it again now. 
Bill didn't have a chance to knock.
"What are you up to this early on a Sunday?" Harry filled the kitchen door. The crumbling concrete steps  under Bill put Harry two feet above eye-level. 
"I know you're up, Harry. The light's been on for a good hour." 
 "Two," Harry said. " I'm no bag of bones to be lying in the bed." 
"Well, I could use a little more of it." 
 "Which is exactly my question."
 Harry crossed his arms behind the bib of his overalls he'd scrubbed within an inch of their color. Bill noticed Harry was shaved, too. He frowned, more. 
 "Piece of shit again." Bill gestured with a thumb sideways.  
Harry waited. He had his price.  
"Somebody in the creek. Dead."  
 "I didna' think that he'd be swimming in this frost." 
"It isn't a 'he', Harry." Bill squinted east towards the dead Bronco. "Can you hurry?" 
"The body'll still be there,"  Harry said already starting down the steps. He smelled of soap, bacon, and coffee as he passed close.
Bill wished he'd found socks before slipping on his boots. The frost damp was seeping in on him. 
He wished Harry would have offered coffee. He closed his eyes and just wished.
"Who is it?" Harry called back while heading to the tractor's shed.
 Bill swore in a whisper. He never won at cribbage, either.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pocket Water

In fly fishing, we call this "pocket water." That's a wonderful turn of a phrase.

This sort of water can hold surprisingly large fish. It holds small fish, too.

These little feeders can be quite cool when spring fed and the pools can hold large trout who have made their way up towards the cooler and more heavily oxygenated water.

A nice 12" brown trout in a little pool like this makes it all worthwhile.

I'm focusing on language tonight. That's something I think all of us love to do but it gets lost sometimes in the pressure of plot and characterization.

I love the local language of villages. I think of phrases like "son of a buck" and "nevercould."  The first is sort of a civilized expression of exasperation. The second is a type of admission that something is beyond the speaker.

"How'd that horse you bought from Smithson work out? He turn into a cutter?"
"Seventeen hundred dollars worth."

I have a story in which the speech the protagonist uses to let us know his mind is the delicate balance of the story's immersion. I break the trance, I lose the story.

I'm working on it.

I'm not willing to see it turn nevercould.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Never Still Water

At left, the St. Francis dam near Los Angeles in 1928.

This dam broke that year, killed 600 people, and ended William Mulholland's career. He'd inspected the dam less than a day before it completely let go.

Water will find its way. There is no such thing as still water when time is considered.

I'm searching for conflict. I've a pile of stories which could benefit from secondary arcs of conflict within the confines of their narrow banks. One plot arc will not do for publication.

I've spent a bit of time tuning the "Bullshit Detector" of late (a Hemingway term). I'm growing much better at observing the failures in my drafts without casting internal doubt on my ability to repair the faults.

It is easy for the observation of failures to become paralyzing.

I know.

The mythical bullshit detector is that item of equipment a writer must have on hand which finds the weakest parts of one's own works and allows them to be objectively appraised and repaired without impairing the writer's appraisal of their own talent or acumen

It's too damn easy to read something and think "this sucks"  meaning instead "I suck." A properly calibrated bullshit detector offers critical feedback to the writer without drawing into question the writer's ability.

Critique groups? Yes, these should do it as well. Too often they don't.

In the end, the writer has to perform much of the same function themselves. No one likes submitting work that requires obvious revision.

I'm working on it lately. No one likes to get caught up in a flood.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Tight Lines

It's a fly fishing saying; "Tight lines."

Seems to work for writers, too.

In sailing, we say "under load" to mean a tight line. Not the same thing at all.

As a child in an occupied state, I recall a truck driving around with a large steel pole protruding vertically from the front bumper specifically to defeat "tight lines" -  lengths of thin wire strung across the road to decapitate passengers. The trucks patrolled to keep these sort of elements from injuring the civilians. Liberty: not a universally welcome ideal.

I'm writing shorts and "tight lines" are the ideal. There is a lot of casual writing that just will not do in a short. Every sentence has to pull at least its weight. A story full of sentences which only pull their weight are in a special class: unpublished.

In a good short - meaning one an editor said was good enough to print in his/her fee-to-read journal - most sentences have to do double duty. They have to do their job and part of the job of the one next to them.

If it all works well, at the end there is a whole landscape panorama of story in the reader created from a few brief slides snapped from the window of a moving car.

Something isn't clear to the reader from the staging of the dialogue and interaction? Well, a touch of exposition might work in a novel; but, it absolutely will not do in a publishable short.

I'm not a fan of Stephen King's novels.

I've read his stuff. I respect his accomplishments. I'm just not moved by most of  his long-form fiction.

I read one of his short stories first when I was in seventh grade.

"The Mangler."

This is an excellent short story and I believe it is in the short story that Mr. King excels. Maybe it is that I find his shorts so well crafted that his long form fails to deliver on the beauty I might otherwise expect of his work.

I don't want to see anything Scorsese paints either. I want to see his movie.

I've become lazy in working on the last two of my own long-form fiction drafts. My language in them is inexact and I am getting by on approximations rather than the precision the craft demands.

I love the short-story.

I know I must produce novels for commercial success. I am lucky in that I've no audience at all now. Lucky because I can work on seeding that audience. I can justify working on crime shorts of my own flavor.

If I were pulling the wagon as content mule and tied to a contract while trying to avoid the fate of cast-off mid-lister, then I could not spare the effort.

As it is, I can work on shorts and smile and be pleased that I'll have them in submission and soon, in print.

I'll be able to tell an agent I have published X and Y and Z in Fine Publication  while Exhalted Editor has encouraged me to submit future works to her journal via a hand-written rejections offering advice on future treatments ("hey kid: if you're going to submit work that stinks like this, please do so on 17"x 34" used fish wrap so that my intern staff can recognize its quality immediately and give it the treatment it deserves.")

Alice Munro winning the Nobel in literature did a bit for my ego this spring ... so there's that. Short story is an art form.

I've toyed with regret over not pursuing my writing as passionately as I could have - maybe - when I was younger. Without a couple of movie deals and the one-in-a-million commercial best-seller, I wouldn't be eating nearly as well.

But then, I'm spending my Friday night in my library with my foxhound working on a short story.

I'm pretty happy. Lou's chewing a bone and he seems pretty happy.

Now, better prose.

Take a wrap and tighten your lines, too.

Tight lines land more fish.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Call in the Night

At left, the sort of fellow outside my window calling in the night.

I'm thinking today of how things start. I'm thinking of the initiator - the instigator.

My life is filled with things starting immediately after the ringing of a telephone. It isn't good news. That telephone rings, something has gone completely to shit somewhere.

I suspect that our current world is trending that way. Social media and texting suffices for most of the informal conveyance of good news. It's a boy! I got the job! Kirsten was accepted!

Bad news is delivered in a more personal means. The worst? "Doctor wants to see you."

Doctor never wants to see you to say "awesome work-up. You're healthy as a bull moose!"

It doesn't work as well on the page, does it? 

The whole telephone ringing in the middle of the night, the fumbling on the nightstand, now the ubiquitous "who is that?" glance. There's too much delay without the advantage of heightened tension.

I like to begin these sorts of scenes after the phone call.

I hate having a lone character. I try and always put someone with them so there is a reason to talk. Sure, there's the conversation with the dog or the internal dialogue. Confession: I hate internal dialogue of more then five words. Hate it. I've stopped reading novels for it.

If a writer cannot contrive to set some rational being for the character to speak to so that we know their thoughts and the emotional relevance of their feelings, then I've no time for them. I want to see the story - not have the bloody thing told to me.

So, reaction tot eh news is important to the reader. I think it is more important than the news itself because we experience a story through the character. Telling you "the goose died" in text and having Aunt Sally find out and go on a homicidal tear of giblet revenge is entirely different.

The point is, I'm not sure the call is the thing. I'm trying to write out such scenes and have some other more nuanced revelation of facts. We learn there was a body in the creek not from a one-sided telephone conversation with Sheriff Bill.

We learn it when Bill has to walk across the road and have his neighbor Harry (old bachelor farmer) give him a jump at 7:30 on a Sunday morning.

"What are you up to this early on a Sunday?" Harry stood inside the kitchen filling the door. The steep steps Bill stood on put Harry two feet above eye-level.
 "I know you're up, Harry. The light's been on for a good hour."
"Two," Harry said. " I'm no bag of bones to be lying in the bed."
"Well, I could use a little more of it." 
"Which is exactly my question."  
Harry crossed his arms behind the bib of his overalls scrubbed within an inch of their color. Bill noticed Harry was shaved, too. He frowned, more. 
"Piece of shit again." Bill gestured with a thumb sideways. 
Harry waited. He had his price and like Satan himself, it had to be paid. 
"Somebody in the creek. Dead." 
 "I didna' think that he'd be swimming in this frost." 
"It isn't a 'he', Harry." Bill looked across the road towards the dead Bronco. "Can you hurry?" 
"The body'll still be there,"  Harry said already starting down the steps. He smelled of soap, bacon, and coffee as he passed close.  
Bill swore and wished he'd put socks on before slipping on his boots.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

We Meet Again

Once again, we play our dangerous games.

I love the stories where we think we know the crime and then, we find out we didn't know the crime.

Gene Hackman played in a movie like that about fifteen years ago: Heist. David Mamet directed it and the work is wonderful.

I like criminals doing crime stuff.

I like twists and turns and where black becomes white then bleeds red all over the ground.

I don't mind violence if it contributes to the story. I just need the story.

I need to write more stories where the good guys are bad guys. There just aren't enough of those to go around.

Your move.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hard to Live With

At left, a small mess of pens from Morguefile. Small mess.

For those of you who are writers, you wish your mess of pens was this small.

Today, hug everyone in the family and thank them for putting up with your antics. I'm not joking.

We are hard to live with. Didn't know that? You haven't been at it long enough. Go write something now, penmonkey! (penmonkey - courtesy Chuck Wendig

We're usually messy.

We might not be filthy swine but we still leave stuff around.

"Those are notes!"
"Those clippings are for research"
"Sorry about the pen in my pocket that went through the wash."

When we don't think we're messy, we're excessively fastidious about our organization scheme. That leads to wandering the house saying things like "Where are my glasses?" and "I left that somewhere?" and the golden oldie "Who moved my X?!"

Try that last one with an air of indignation. Helps jog the old memory, doesn't it?

My favorite thing a writer says? 

"I forgot."

Sure, you don't do any of these things. You never look up at your kid after they told you half of what they had to say and wonder "How long has Julie been there?"

I get the occasional report of talking-in-my-sleep. Luckily, my spouse has pretty thick skin so outbursts of "I'll have him shoot the bastard" in my sleep does seem completely normal.

So, because we live in our heads inside worlds of our own crafting, we do tend to not recognize when our actions stand out glaringly to those who live with us.

For those of us writing crime, it can be worse. We can be oblivious bastards with a strange social perspective not shared by friends and family.

You know you've been at a friend's party and found yourself looking at the fireplace wondering how to stuff a body up there.

Admit it. You know you've thought of it!

Look. We're not right. In Bill Murray's words: "There is something very very wrong with us." [ Stripes] What's worse? Everybody we live with knows it. E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y.

Does your housekeeper panic if there is a sketch of the murder scene (how far the head rolled mattered to the solution ... pretty cool - really. ) on the kitchen counter? No. She's seen you create worse.

The collection of rubber rats, sharks and alligators ("body disposal units") on the windowsill of your office make it pretty clear you are not quite right.

Oh, the little soaps fashioned like amputated dolls hands in the bathroom off the library are even worse.

Hug the ones who live with you tonight.

You don't have to say anything at all. No jailhouse confessionals. No pangs of guilt. No monologuing (my grandkids love that from The Incridebles and no, I'm not that old. We started family early the old fashioned way: before we could afford them).

Hug them and say thanks.

They'll know what you mean.

Even the dog.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


At left, a not very good picture of a garbage truck. Turns out, finding a free picture of a garbage truck is harder than you think. I'm glad for this one from Morguefile.

My process begins by deciding on a crime. Murder, extortion, arson, whatever.

I work out the crime's premise, the likely characters I want to cast in the story, their motivations, unresolved conflicts, past attitudes and experiences which intrude on the present, all of it. I am the god of my realm and I have to know the story in order to give the small delicate pieces of it to my reader.

What has bothered my for decades is the almost casual treatment of the corpse in crime fiction. Somebody gets killed and the body is either ignored with no real consequence or it is hauled away by the proper authorities who are efficient and go about the work with blinders on to our protagonist's involvement.

Try walking under the "police line" tape at a real murder. See where that gets you.

Anyway, the body is a problem. You do crime. You make a corpse. Most of the time, we need that corpse to go away.

Cities like Detroit have problems dealing with the volume of bodies. It can take hours to get rid of the corpse. Fine. That's "through the proper channels."

What about not going through proper channels.

I'm getting very interested in a Crow - a guy who cleans up after the crime. Sure, I have problems with the angles. Somebody shooting their spouse wouldn't call the Crow.

Secret Agent Man would - but that's not all that interesting to me right now.

I'm rolling over the ideas of the guy who works for a living getting rid of the body. Pulp Fiction had Winston Wolfe. He was a glamour boy.

What about the workaday fellow who legitimately knows where the bodies are buried?

There is something there in it and I'm not quite sure of the approach but it keeps coming back to me every couple months. There has to be an angle for me with a character that I can live with for a while.

He's a special sort of person. Maybe it isn't a guy.

Thursday is trash day in my neighborhood. Wave at the guys when you see them.

They work hard, do an honest job, and get rid of the bodies ...maybe.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


At left, a raven. I don't know what to say about the cactus but it was a free picture from Morguefile so I'm grateful.

I received a reminder from the MWA today that my pro-rated dues are due (associate membership meaning : not professionally qualified).

It's a good rate at $50 but then, I could subscribe to a couple more magazines for that.

I wanted to qualify for MWA this year professionally but now I'm trying just to have a good story out on submission by Christmas. I've something new I like and so I'm working it up.

I'm all for professional associations; but, this year I'm going to pass on MWA until I can be "professional."  I don't feel the offset from last year's membership fees I paid.

So, cry on raven for you do not call to me.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Below the Surface

Elizabeth Spann Craig has a great piece on her blog today about pre-writing. You can read it here.

I was thinking about the preparation phase of writing a story. I'd like to say that after I get my - ducks - in a row that all is easy.

It isn't.

I struggle my way through every choice because writing is, after all, a series of choices.

The appositive? Keep or drop? The extra word in a compound modifier? Will me reader understand if I let it fall? The twist? Always the twist. Does the story's end make the beginning work? Does the beginning make the ending work?

You get the idea.

The whole business is duck-on-water. There is some frantic paddling going on right out of sight of the reader.

So, is the beginning the hard part? I'd like to say so but for me, "the story" is the hard part. The whole damn thing.

Work I want to show someone doesn't come easily.

Why do I do it?

I am unable not to do it. That's ultimately how it comes about. I am unable to not do it.

Doing it well - that's the product of habit, devotion, study, effort, and discipline. Those things I blow off with all too much frequency.

Writing - even badly composed notes about stories? I cannot stop.

It's a type of mental illness. If you have it, then you have my sympathy.

Go get some therapy. Write something.

And keep paddling else you'll sink.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Together Again

You have no idea how hard it is to find a free picture of pie and ice cream.

I'm working on a story for my crime duo. I wrote an introduction for the characters recently that I liked.

Now, we have all sorts of crime fighting - or at least detecting - couples. Tons. I'll mention one of the worst: McMillen and Wife. Oh yea. Height of 70's sexist bleed over. She didn't even get billing as a person - just a role. "Wife."

Anyway, why not a crime duo?

I'm treading those waters. I've known several unsavory coppers who made criminals look like good guys. That's how I'll write the stories.

Off to do some of that business now. All it takes is the right inspiration for success. Mine came after dinner.

Nothing wrong with that.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why, Of Course ...

I shot his dog.

It's a writer's punchline bit of advice. One by one the author removes all the protagonist's friends. Everyone he could turn to for help or advice, I remove.

When the protagonist has nothing left to depend on outside of himself but his dog, shoot the dog.

Revelation and transformation don't come easy. Late night infomercials don't do it.

You won't get rich with no money down. Dr. Phil won't solve the fact that you're an asshole. ( I'm speaking metaphorically here. I wouldn't want to suggest that writers are self-involved assholes. Completely against type).

The story form matters. Is the plot an Odyssey?  The they move along physically as they move along emotionally. You must include both aspects for the reader to stay involved.

Don't make just a Bing and Bob "road" picture. Give  us The Road.

Back to it, inkypaws.

Oh my friend above?

Outlived his peers. That's a helluva penance for a survivor. How do you think he feels about it?

Write it down.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Good Soft Night

Close the windows.

I love to write in the rain. Coffee. Ink.

I type and transcribe anytime but I like to compose text in the rain.

I'm from a dry place. The children's rhyme "rain rain go away..." - well, we don't teach the kids that where I'm from.

It might stop raining in June and not rain again until September. I've seen it. I've seen the prairie afire horizon to horizon from dry lightening.

I like the rain. I like my meadows. I like my woods. It's wet here and I like that fine.

The raindrops are fat ink splatters on my windows.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Running Away from the Pen

There's a song lyric I enjoy which goes ...

"Standin' on the corner
and his lips could reach the pavement
and he's been hidin' from his razor.
Is he not an awful sight?" A. Stewart , "Take Her In Your Arms."

I've been running from the pen.

I have to blow up a couple hundred pages because I've been stupid and daft. I have to fix it. Wrongly voiced, poorly plotted (not moving fast enough), and generally uninteresting beyond the premise.

The premise isn't enough. There. I admit it. The premise isn't enough.

So, I'm going to call this a "bad draft" and write the short I have in my head then come back and fix this pile of bile.

I don't like to do things I do not do well. Hardly unique in that, I know.

So, off to a little story based on the Odyssey. Bing would call it a "road picture." Bob would call it a "paycheck."

So, it is what it is. I made a big error. I pushed through and followed the section (first third) to completion and ...gasp. It stinks. The best characters are the tangential encounters. How sad is that?

If you put the razor next to your skin and the cut feels good, join the company. We enjoy hurting ourselves a little too much sometimes. Our best work comes when we're least happy.

Have a cup of loathing with me and we'll write something good now.

I shave with the lights off. Not a trick for amateurs.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Great Doors

At left, a revolving door from Morguefile.

The door itself stands out to me in the crime and suspense genre.

There is the iconic image of the hand-lettered nameplate on a frosted glass door for Archer and Spade or  Marlow and a million others.

There's the tension in the story when the detective slowly opens the door and we know from his caution that trouble waits inside.

There's the unexpected body behind the door when the detective searches the apartment.

There's the unanticipated gun when the door opens on our protagonist.

No other genre puts so much emphasis on such a simple everyday item.

My door? For the money, it's the revolving door. At night and in the glare of the too bright lobby lights, you can't quite tell who is coming through until they are already in your midst. I like that.

I suspect the illusion for me comes from the curtain on Carson where the guests would sneak out from the side. All of a sudden: boom, the guest.

I like the revolving door. I like the antagonist to walk in it just when we're about to put the story down for the night. I like the hotel staff caught-up in the story as our point-of-view characters.

I like not quite knowing what the revolving door is going to let in from the night.

You might double-check your doors tonight. There is crime writing afoot.

Do some.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Shining Light

A dim bulb.

I have power as of last night. Much rejoicing.

We had a storm last week. I live in a secluded pocket neighborhood and occasionally pay a price for the comfortable retreat.

When a big storm knocks out power, I'm tail-end-charlie on the restore list.

I've lived without reliable power for a large part of my life. When wind storms blew out the lines as a boy, I read. The ranch had television only rarely (I saw a very fuzzy _Camelot_  one Christmas and thought I could do without ever seeing it again). In town was different though the power went out with enough frequency that we had our own assigned flashlights.

I did fine this round though it is time to join the "generator club."

I'm toying with a story where  young man is the night manager of a hotel and a woman walks in carrying an Uzi.

I published an earlier draft here which was derided for the confusion over language which was poorly chosen. I believe I have eliminated that little bit in the story now.

I need to finish what I am working on to work on something fun again: short story. Do you ever feel that way?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Power outage

Storm last night. Power outage. I make this entry on emergency backup.

I'm going to a coffee shop and create the unified outline ( mine is in three pieces and that doesn't work as well as you think).

Tomorrow, a book festival in town which is always fun.

What is a gym membership for if not to provide backup ?

Hope the day is full of progress for you. It will be for me. Enforced focus on ....(dramatic organ chords) ... The WIP.

Off now.

####entry composed by chimpanzee on ipad. Excuse the obvious errors. Subtle ones are however legit.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

As If in a Dream

Another forgotten god.

What happens to the old ones? Do they become sand and stone upon the roads?

I've been away in the land of other dreams for a bit. I have now returned.

I took a nap today which features those distorted scenes which normally come only in fever. When I awoke, I knew I wanted to finish the work with which I am struggling.

I knew I wanted to finish it before I took the nap. I just didn't want to toil into the night without the glory of accomplishment, recognition, or acclaim.

Then, the glory isn't why I came to this particular brand of madness.

So, it is off to the land of finishers.

I've got an extra ticket. Come along with me. Wear good boots. The path is filled with rubble.