Posts Tagged With: mystery

Why Genre Writing Matters

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Yesterday i spent a long drive down to Burlington, Wisconsin to play a board game with some old friends. Now, by old, i mean we aren’t old. Older than we were, for sure. But time’s a funny thing. You don’t see it passing, it just does and one day you’re 40 and you haven’t seen those people you grew up with for 20 years or so, but even that time… weird though it is… evaporates as soon as you are in a basement with dice in your hand playing a board game. Just like you used to do.

But this isn’t really about that. Maybe i’ll hold that one off for later.

This is about the writer i heard on the news radio station i was listening to on the way down there. I don’t remember her name, but i can tell you she’s a shakespearean professor of english and she writes Romance. From the sound of things she makes a freaking KILLING at it too. Note – this is also not a promotional ad for all budding writers to run out and scribble some romance for the sake of riches.

Anyway, she chatted a little about the killing she was making at it and most importantly how those in her profession – her literary colleagues – were oblivious to it. They were completely unaware that her professor salary was dwarfed in the extreme by the small fortune she was raking in for writing pulpy bodice rippers. Well. Ain’t that just the shit?

I grew up with Genre writing. I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought Genre writing was called books. But i poured through The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I graduated, slowly, to horror through Stephen King and then to… ahhh… this is fun… The Dragonlance Chronicles by Weis and Hickman. I was so damned envious when one of my friends scored a signed copy of Dragons of… something. I read them all. Then i soaked in Sci Fi for a while – Heinlein, Card, and then…

Neuromancer. I’ll be honest. Neuromancer broke my brain. The prose. Hell, i didn’t even really know what prose was at the time but i knew this was something different. For a while, William Gibson became my god and everything became Cyberpunk. Everything. And it was a delight. The world was complicated. Fast. Beautiful like moonlight on a heap of discarded computer parts or neon glinting on gutter junk.

Somewhere along the way, though, i stopped.

But that’s not a tragedy. There is more to the world than Genre fiction. I don’t regret for a second falling in love with Steinbeck or Hemingway or Austen or Fitzgerald. I would be an utter idiot for not falling for it. It’s beautiful, amazing stuff and it’s expanded my brain further than i think Genre fiction would have been able to. Plus, and this is really it, i burned out on Genre. It became harder and harder to find GOOD books in fantasy or Sci Fi. So much of it just seemed the same. It wasn’t the sort of hell i ever expected but it did suck.

The point of all this autobiographical blah blah is that there is still something to Genre fiction. There’s a reason so many people still read and love it and frankly, i think i got it. I got the bug again. And here it is – here’s the big secret that i think is worth telling. Shhhh… don’t let too many people know.

Genre fiction brings you hope.

There. There it is. That’s the secret.

I was watching Tomorrowland with George Clooney or as my friend and i like to call him Eyorhay Kloonay. It’s not a bad little film. Flashy. Fun. But one part stuck with me. The main character is sitting in school through a series of montages of her classes as she’s being bombarded with the negative reality of the world she lives in – war, famine, global warming, starvation, etc. Her hand is perpetually up and perpetually ignored. Finally, at the end of the montage, the teacher allows her to ask her question. What is her question?

How do we fix it?

Okay. And that’s pretty genius. Cuz here we are and the world seems like it’s falling apart around our shoulders and everything sucks and people are getting stupider and blathering bullshit everywhere we look and it gets really depressing when you see glaciers calve off and ice shelfs fall into the sea and everyone is all like ‘lalalalalalaaaaa!!! Let’s fucking PARTAY!’

But Genre fiction… It asks the question. How are you going to fix it? It ennobles the idiotic savage. How many sci-fi stories have inspired new scientists? Neil Degrasse Tyson has indicated that it’s inspired him. How many fantasy stories have made activists of kids who have gotten inculcated into the concept of evil. They WANT to be heroes. Maybe it’s not the only thing, but start them young on something… and miracles are possible.

Hell start em old. Start them whenever. In Mysteries, terrible crimes get solved in a way they so rarely do when we see all the blood splashed all over the news. In fantasy, we fight evil and we win. In sci fi we explore and face our fears of the unknown. In romance we find love in spite of terrible obstacles.

We fucking need these things. Particularly now when the world DOES seem so horrible. We need to believe in doing the right thing, being brave, exploring. The challenges are HUGE and… well.. this is just my opinion but the only damned thing that is going to save our asses against the ever-yawning void of the banality of tragic indifference is an ascendancy of imagination.

Remember that part of Lord of the Rings when Gandalf is talking about the ephemeral nature of hope? Yeah. That. Right there. How many kids read that and said: Fuck yeah. That’s going to be me some day. I’m going to stand in front of the Witch King of Angmar and though he’s going to rend me to ribbons, it’s where i need to stand. How many looked into the stars and saw themselves in a spaceship scudding among them?

Genre fiction spits in the face of the impossible. It eats it for breakfast and poops out rainbows. And hell… we can’t go wrong when it teaches us that you can stand with a dwarf and an elf and battle a freaking dragon. A. FREAKING. DRAGON. It says: yeah… i know these people are weird, different, different races that i don’t really understand but right now, these are the crew that are going to battle THAT big fricking dragon so i don’t give one god damn that one’s short and the other has pointy ears.

So, yeah. We need it. And i’m happy to write it. I want to do it as well as i know how because i WANT some kid to read it and be like ‘hell yeah. This is what justice is all about. This is what friendship is all about. This is what i’m looking to create in MY life.’

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Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

It’s Here! It’s Here! The NaNo has arrived – Week One

For a few weeks now I’ve been building up to this NaNo thing, right? Telling you all about my prep or lack thereof – in lurid and exaggerated detail and all that stuff. I’m sure it was very amusing and stuff. But all that fun aside it is now upon us. Bam. Just like that. Did i panic? Did i lose my marbles and go screaming into the night? Did I hide under the covers? Nay! I did not. I stood tall and proud and joined the fray like a true damned hero.

Okay. So I may have peed my pants just a little.

NaNo launched at Midnight last thursday. If you were up at that hour you probably felt the furious tapping of hundreds of thousands of keyboards all over the world. It probably sounded like a herd of pygmy goats. I was up. One of those little tappings was my own. Mine. My precious. I did 2000 words that first night which is off to a pretty nifty start if i do say so myself. And yes i did panic just a wee bit in the small hours before kickoff. I got that little nervous jitter in my chest that niggled at me and filled me with self-doubt. But then it started and it was all like “you got this?” and the steely eyed missile man inside glared down and said in his best Clint Eastwood impression: “Yeah. I got this.”Clint

Three days later and I’ve crested the 10,000 mark and things are still going strong. I think. Honestly, I wouldn’t know as I’m terrified of looking back at what I’ve already written. It feels like its working pretty well but almost immediately something popped up in the story that I didn’t expect: Meg sorta fell for the Los Angeles Cop she met in the opening chapter. It had been in my mind that that might happen, but I figured ‘it’s Meg, we’re talking about. The chances of that are fairly slim.’ and then it happened. That’s characters for you. You never can quite tell what they’re going to do until they do it and Meg is particularly that way. I love her a lot but it’s a ride writing her. Most of the time i just feel like I’m following along.

And once again I’m struck with what a weird magical mystery writing is and that’s what NaNo is really all about in my opinion. If there is one thing I want all NaNo participants to find it’s that word count doesn’t matter. Yeah, it’s great to have goals. It’s a moment of great joy when you hit that 50,000 and kick on the Queen and go strutting around your minuscule monastic cell but that’s secondary to all the moments in between. LIke everything else in life the journey is the destination. Don’t forget the little things. Like when you’re just writing along, grinding away and suddenly the giant puzzle pieces drop out of the sky and fill the landscape and you have that first gasp that everything might actually work out. Or that moment when you suddenly see your scene so well that you can hear the seagulls in the air and feel the breeze. You might not be able to write it but you know it and you know it’s there when you need it.

Those are the great moments. That’s why this is a blast and why NaNo is so cool. Not everyone is going to have those moments. You can’t engineer or create them. They just happen. You can read every pro writer tip out there and soak in hundreds of hours worth of boring lectures and never have that moment. But then one day you’ll be writing along – maybe in the middle of a word sprint and BAM! Like you just ran into something with your face and liked it.

I’ve been hearing an awful lot lately about how hard writing is and how you need to respect it and how it’s hard work and it will twist you into knots and no true writer can say they are a true writer until they learn to hate it just a little. Personally I think that’s bullshit. You’ve caught someone trying to make themselves sound more respectable because ‘who doesn’t hate their job a little every now and then? I’d be an asshole if I said the truth – that this is the only damned thing I have ever wanted to do and when it’s working its like angels singing.’ Are there rough times? Sure. But whatever.

Let’s put it this way: I remember the playgrounds of my youth. I remember transforming a pile of old tires into a tank, or a horse out on the open plain, the swings were like flying, that weird collection of splintery beams and chains was a pirate ship, or the back of a dragon. I remember nothing being what it was. Everything changed dramatically with the power of invention and imagination. Writing is the playground. A piece of paper or a blank screen turning into forests, space dragons, the Santa Monica Pier, the bridge of a starship. It’s the place where your own personal memory meets the kid in the adult – your imagination makes alchemy happen and it’s magic. But in order to let that magic happen, in order for NaNo to really live up to its full potential – you need to get that ego out of the way and just learn to surf the resurgent wave that is that resurrected little kid fighting it’s way back into the adult.

Anyway. That’s Day three of Nano. Now i’m heading back at it. Rig and Meg are about to interview an elderly criminal. This is going to be fun.

Post Script – Last week i wrote a teleplay involving Castle working through NaNo while trying to solve a case. As soon as i figure out a way to share it here i will. In the mean time, drop a line and ask about it or share ideas on how i might be able to share it. Cuz i’ve got nothing.

 

 

 

Categories: Meg Brown Mysteries, Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Right writing

You’ve probably popped in here to get my long-awaited words of wisdom on plot. Yeah, sorry to disappoint but that post has been delayed yet again. Just think how insightful it will be when I actually do get around to it though! Nope. This one is about getting it right. That’s pretty much the be-all-end-all of what you’re writing. Write right. Hemingway once said something about it. His idea when he sat down to his little moleskine notebooks was to write one true sentence. Tim O’Brien took that theme a little further in his section on war stories in The Things They Carried. Buddhism has hammered it into maxims that I am constantly forgetting: right speech, right thought, and then I lose track.

Write right.

I know what you’re probably going to say: “But, dude. I write about vampires and stuff.” I don’t care. Get it right. You can’t possibly tell me that your four hundred year old bloodsucker is perfectly fine with taking his senior year over again for the three hundredth time. That’s the trick.

Now here’s the extra crispy corollary to that trick: You Will Fail. Actually You Must Fail. One of the most charming and amazing thing about reading Hemingway, to me anyway, was how his characters failed so beautifully. If you’ve read A Moveable Feast it isn’t too hard to see how Hem himself failed gloriously. It takes an amazing amount of talent to wrap your most painful failure between two covers and publish it posthumously. What a jerk. Failure, after all, is its own amazing truth. It’s right, in other words.

Now, not content to stick completely to one topic I’ll tell you why this is so important. See, I spent a good long time farting around with my writing: plonking out little stories where and when they’d strike me. I was sort of aimless. Y’know? Just putting words on the page, whipping up some characters with some stuff and throwing them in a blender and seeing what came out. It wasn’t a lot of fun, actually, but it was writing and that enabled me to call myself A Writer. Yes. In caps. Just like that. A Writer can scribble away for hours in coffee shops. A Writer has an opinion on books that you must listen to because he’s A Writer.

Uh huh.

The thing is, I kind of cracked my mind a few years ago and after that just cranking out any old story wasn’t good enough. I wanted to write the stories that I actually felt and frankly I wasn’t really feeling any of them. I could make it look like I did and – just to polish my own beret – some of them were pretty good. So once I got my head back together I started working on stuff again. At first it was simple little stuff. The Short Man. Just a little story about a detective trying to find a killer. But it fit. And it fit well. It might not have been terrific but it fit well. And it was a hint of something that was… yep you guessed it. Right.

Now I’m not saying that it was true. In fact, I really didn’t know shit about writing mysteries. Truth be told I still don’t. I really don’t think anybody does. Mysteries are messy, which is why writers are constantly reinventing them and why defense attorneys are still so mighty popular. You put a guy on the floor with holes in him. How did he get that way? Yep. Sounds simple enough and for some writers that’s where it stops. Intrepid hero finds the bad guy and saves the day. But it’s never that simple as any attorney – prosecuting or defense will tell you. Heck it’s not that simple for a detective. Stand yourself in front of a witness who has every reason in the world to tell you what happened to the dead guy and have them lie to you. You know they’re lying. Why in god’s name are they lying? And that’s just one aspect of an investigation, right?

Well that’s what I mean by getting it right.

After a while with my detective I realized that I could make this thing sing. Maybe you don’t see it if you’ve read them, but – again being honest here – I don’t care. I feel it. I can see the potential and I want to get it better, why? Well it’s simple. But before I get to that let me hop back one more little step to explain something else about me.

I tend to yell at the tv a lot. And the radio in my car. Which I foolishly keep on the news. That should tell you something about the dire state of musical radio in Milwaukee that I’d rather listen to the news. One of the things I yell most often (a running theme of my rants of which my cats are avid listeners) is that none of it is actually helpful. In fact, it’s the opposite of helpful. Which is hurtful. Thanks. I know. I’m getting to that. And lately I’ve been feeling that way about fiction and TV too. I grew up in a time where… well… they created characters like Magnum, Indiana Jones, Han Solo. We were outside until dark when we could be and hated rainy days because it meant being forced to play boardgames with your brother or *Gasp* share your toys with them. Which meant sharing your world. Yikes. The Horror. I know you’ve heard all this claptrap halcyon days shit before. I won’t bore you with it. But my point is that it was – hell – it is good to look at guys like Magnum, who always tried to do the right thing, and want to be that guy some day.

We now live in a world that loves to believe its much more complicated. Somehow we’ve come to believe that we’re deeper, wiser, more intricate. Fact is, it’s the same world but we’re sorely lacking in folks to help guide us through it. That, I believe, is what makes us think it’s a lot more complicated. It makes us feel better that our problems are bigger than us. We’re helpless little waifs in a dangerous, wolf infested world. But it’s really a damned lie. It’s the same world only more people are out there shouting wolf all over the place and keeping our heads spinning. Yes. There are wolves. There always are but it’s getting a little hard these days to tell a wolf from a poodle and while you’re waiting for some gibbering head to tell you which is which your sheep are all gone.

And that’s where I pull this long segue back to writing. I figured I could do it right. Right by me and right by the world I wanted to help make by writing. I wanted good people. I wanted people who worked hard to be good, honest, right, true. Sure Meg’s a smarmy wise-cracking detective but I know there is some part of her that believes in the good she’s doing. But that’s not to say she’s a starry-eyed upholder of the red white and blue. No, she’s seen far too much for that, and so have we, but that doesn’t give us the permission to be exhausted by it. That’s what I mean about right. Write right. Write true and keep in mind the world you want to create, a world you may feel is slipping by the wayside. Meg’s my avatar to hold back the crap i yell at on the TV.

So that’s what I’m doing and some folks are going to say ‘that’s not realistic. Realistic is gritty, dirty, putting a jaundiced eye on the ugly things in the world and not flinching.’ I say that’s bullshit. People flinch. They should flinch. They should turn away from the awful things in the world. Witness doesn’t mean staring vacantly at the terrible. It means being human – being affected. It means you didn’t want to see but you did and now you’re just a little bit haunted by it. I’m not interested in being presented with the realistic on a silver platter. What sort of horrible platter is that anyway? ‘here folks, it’s a yummy four course dinner of pain and suffering, get used to it because tomorrow you get more of the same until you insist it’s steak tartar.’ Screw that. Resist the awful. But be right and true.

Now I’m not saying ‘go forth, minion writers and create an army of captain america’s to fight the demons that plague us.’ Nope. I guess I mean: unless you’re ready and able to stand over a slaughterhouse without batting an eyelash don’t pretend that the slaughter is just okey-dokey, or that ‘hey, this is really going to be an awesome motivator for my main character’. Unless you’re willing to chat with the devil and shake his hand don’t pretend you are. Write what you feel and make it true. If it pisses you off enough to yell at your television, put that into your characters, your plot, your settings but work really hard to be true to them too. Seek that authenticity if you can. If you write about firefighters get out there and talk to some. If you write about soldiers, find some. If you write about housewives, etc. Take whatever they tell you and put it through your own experiences. How do YOU feel about this or that. That’s what I’ve been preaching about with the seminar’s I’ve written about and the TV Shows i bitch about.

Think about why you’re writing. Ooh. There’s another eightfold path thing! Right action. If you’re motivated by adoring fans and people being dazzled by your riches and awesomeness please try to think deeper about what you’re doing. You are creating worlds. You’re creating readers. You’re creating the taste by which you’ll be enjoyed. Someone famous said that. Byron maybe?

Shelley once said ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Sad thing about that is we’re doing about a good a job of it as the actual legislators of the world.

If you ask yourself the question ‘why am I writing this’ and the answer is ‘cuz buff dudes with swords are cool’. Try again. You can still have fun but make it matter. Trust me: its way better when it actually matters. It’s even more fun.

Oh yeah, and Fail – but make it worth failing at.

Categories: Deep Thoughts, Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quick post about something potentially awesome

So, in lieu of my regular thursday post, I played a lot of Civilization V. This is what writers do when the great idea they had for a blog post two days ago wasn’t written down properly and the brain went on its merry way. I’m sure you’ll all be very pleased to note that I managed to get the Empire of Boudicca into the industrial age and she’s currently wiping the floor (culturally and economically) of all the other poser empires.

But I started to feel guilty. It happens. AND I managed to recover a few of the thoughts I had for the actual subject of this blog. No… I’m not going to write about them now but I think the upcoming REAL mystery blog will deal with the subject of Plot (namely my specific thoughts on plot or why I don’t much like it.) But for the moment – and I hope it’s not too late – I have some news.

I received in my email this morning an invitation to a webinar held by Derek Pacifico, who gives the terrific and oft mentioned Mystery Writers Workshops all over the country. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you haven’t taken one of these weekend classes, do. They’re fantastic and I owe much of my writing to his insights and knowledge.

This particular webinar is being held by the International Screenwriters Association and it’s entitled Signs of Death, Wounds and Autopsies for Crime Writers. The registration fee is 55 and I’m guessing it’s worth every penny. You’d better believe I’d be taking the webinar if I wasn’t already obligated to attend my cousin’s 40th Birthday Party. Obligation sounds little harsh. I’m honored to go. It’ll be fun. What’s not to like? The Great Lake Michigan, boats, birthdays. I’d say Beer and Brats but both are pretty much off-limits for me these days.

Anyway. If this section of the seminar is anything like what I took in the workshop it’s definitely worth it and will help you hammer out or at least think about those autopsy scenes you know you’re going to have to write at some point. So check it out and stop back here and tell me all about it because I’d love to know.

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Longmire – The Cold Dish

ar124708363646529I know. I’ve already talked about this on an earlier Blog. But I’m getting close to finishing it and I honestly can’t wait to download or even buy the next one. First, let me let you in on a little secret: I’m not a downloadable books fan. Don’t all gasp at once. I know I publish on digital and all that but really, my big signal of ultimate triumph will be when I stop into the local bookstore (if there are such things in the future) and am able to pick up a copy of my own book. I’ve resigned myself to downloading because my bookshelves just can’t take anymore. I don’t have many bookshelves to begin with, and the ones I do have hate me. Thus, every once in a while I download a book rather than buying it.

That is, unless it’s something I really like.

The Cold Dish is one of those I wish I’d bought from the book store.

You might have seen the show. It’s a terrific show, really. The plot and the stories are something, the scenery is amazing, but the acting is terrific. You might have read the blog post I put up a while ago that had something to do with acting. I don’t want to rehash it. But basically you know when an actor has really slipped into the skin of someone else. You can see it. They know how to blink in character. Longmire is one of those shows where you really feel like they know their business and I’m hooked.

But that doesn’t tell you much about the book. The book is a different critter altogether. It’s the rare gift of a mystery/thriller that is as pretty to read as it is compelling. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’ve been searching for with the sort of scintillating paragraphs and sentences that make you believe that Genre can be art. Too often we resign ourselves to the mediocre and fun. Don’t get me wrong. It is fun. But it’s also very well written and delivered with the sort of attention to detail that makes me sing with envy. Craig Johnson knows his subject and just the right (write?) english to put on it to make it sound practically perfect:

He had opened the passenger-side door, and i was looking through the holes in the floorboards at the melting snow. Part of the dashboard was turquoise, part of it was white, and the large mic of an antiquated citizens’ band radio was bolted to the front edge over the shift lever. There was a shifter; a transfer-case lever; a worn, white steering wheel; and an unending number of chrome handles and knobs guaranteed to dislocate, jab, or stove anything that might come in contact. Most of the windows were cracked, and there were no seat belts. At the top of the antenna, even though there was no radio, perched a little, dirty-white Styrofoam ball that read CAPTAIN AMERICA. “It’s gonna break down.”

“It is not going to break down. Get in, I am getting cold.”

His breath was clouding inside of the glass, and i looked down at the heater box, which was taped together with duct tape. “As i recall, the heater in this thing, among other things, doesn’t work.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more gorgeous description of a truck on its last legs in my life. It’s the sort of thing that I take as a personal challenge and I love it. From a strictly writing perspective, it’s like slipping on an old, well-oiled, baseball glove and finding it still fits at the exact moment someone drops a battered baseball into it. See? It’s intoxicating. It makes you want to write, and write better. And that’s nothing compared to the description of the Cheyenne Haunted Death Gun: A Sharps rifle from a hundred years ago that is haunted and reappears a number of times throughout the book in just beautiful ways.

So.

You can sit there on the sofa and watch Longmire – and I recommend you do – or you can read the poetry of it. For me, the words are every bit as beautiful as the mythical landscape they inhabit; particularly considering the show is actually filmed in New Mexico and not Wyoming.

Johnson’s characters are vivid and expertly wrought. Again, I just stagger at the skill in creating these beasts, men, indians, italian smart mouthed Philadelphia cops. I curse him for writing them so well. I study the pages. I soak it in like good poetry or the crisp warm air of the Montana fly stream I once fished on. Yeah. That’s right, Johnson. I curse you. I shake my fist. You bastard. You’ve got me hooked.

The literary Longmire is a much more wry, self-deprecating character than the tough old sod you see on the show and it’s better for it. Robert Taylor does a terrific job on the show – it’s in the eyes; the way they aren’t always certain, the way they try – and sometimes fail – at looking like the strong hardened law man. It’s his way at reaching through the script to the soft, somewhat floundering Longmire of the novel and I appreciate it. But I have to admit I love the interior thoughts of the literary character, dubious, skeptical, funny, and capable in spite of himself. He’s a modern western law man and Craig Johnson doesn’t skimp on the thing that I find irresistible in a Mystery: humor. If you’ve read any of the Meg stories you know I can’t really live without it and find it sorely lacking in way too much of it.

Katee Sackhoff (who I confess I loved as Starbuck in BSG) is a true gem here. I’ve got to say, in spite of the radical change in hair color – she nails Vic Moretti. Somehow, though, because her character is a little more in the background of this novel she makes even more of an impact. I could go on and on. I should stop somewhere. I don’t want to. I want to buy a copy of this book for every brave soul who’s weathered the storms of the blogosphere and made it this far. But I can’t. Cuz I’m poor. Buy more copies of my Meg series and maybe I’ll give out a free copy of Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish.

That’s it in a nutshell. Go read this book. Do what I did – pour yourself through the entire first season on Netflix and then read this book. Read it. Now. And then – when you’re all done – drive out west to the Beartooth mountains to a little place named Cameron, Montana. There you will find a bar. Leave five dollars on the bar and tell them i owe them. Head one more mile west, hang a Left and take the road till you get to the Lee Metcalf wilderness area. Head up the creek and don’t get eaten by a bear. Read the next book in the series there.

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Great Mystery Writers Conference Hunt 2013

So, if you’re a writer and you’ve been at it a while – floundering about like a wounded fish in the desert – you’ve probably heard the bit about writers conferences. I know i have. It usually goes something like this: ‘oh yeah. Query letters by the dozens. Hundreds. But really what broke it for me was the (insert writers conference here) conference in (random city name). That’s where i met my agent and best friend and editor par excellence.’

Yep. I’ve heard that one a few times now and believe me, I’ve listened. It’s hard not to when all the writers you talk to are talking about how terrific Pitchfest was. I wasn’t there. I wouldn’t know. But it does sound like a blast doesn’t it? Like speed dating for desperate screenwriters. I’m really hoping to go some day. Naturally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for my friends to get great six figure deals and lift their hinterland dwelling comrade out of the muck and mire of southeastern Wisconsin. Don’t tell me to stop holding my breath. I will hold it until I pass out. Watch me.

So… what’s a writers conference?

I bet you were expecting me to tell you weren’t you?

Nope. I was actually asking. I’m curious. I have no idea. But I will, dagnabbit, because I’m going. It’s just a matter of where and when.

You see I want to take that next step. Self publishing is grand and all. It’s better, in my opinion, than not publishing at all. (That said I’ve met some very nice people who have opted not to publish and I give them all the props I can, whenever I can. It’s just that, for me, the opportunity to have more people enjoy the fruits of your labors is worth it.) The point is that it really is only going to carry you so far unless you are as fantastic at marketing as you are at writing. I don’t often find that’s the case though. There are some monster marketers out there. People I would hire in a second to write and promote my stuff. But just being honest here, I wouldn’t read their books. It’s nothing personal. There’s some things I’m into and some I’m not. But I appreciate what they do, the work that goes into it and I can certainly appreciate the mad skills they have at promo-ing their own work. (A skill that I seem to lack)

Everything I read and almost everyone I have met have all said the same thing: get thee to a writers conference. Query letters are great, but there is nothing better for your chances than meeting, greeting, being sociable. If you’ve ever had the miserable experience of sending out resume’s into the void you probably know what I mean. Don’t you just feel like if someone gave you that sit down chance you could knock them off their feet? I always do. And that’s what we want, isn’t it? The foot in the door. Give me one foot and I’ll take the lobby and once I take the lobby it’ll be like The Matrix (the original – not those godawful sequels that I try to pretend don’t exist)

Okay. I might be exaggerating. But basically that’s the idea. But really it’s more than that. I don’t think it’s really going to do you any good to be a perfect mercenary about the experience. Learn. That’s the big thing. It’s served me well in almost every situation and as writers it’s got to be tattooed on the inside of your eyelids. If you’re not learning you’re probably soaking in the steam bath of your own ego and that ain’t good.

So if you’re going to go to a writers conference, do me a favor and don’t go thinking your brilliance will radiate from you, blinding agents, fellow writers, publishers. Go thinking you’re going to learn something and see what you learn. Be a spy in the house of words. That’s what I’m going to do. When I go. I’m excited.

So then there’s still the issue of what is a writers conference. Well… when I find out you’ll know. Personally I sort of like to think of it like GenCon which i went to a lot as a young lad. I like to think it’s chock full of weirdos dressed – poorly – as their favorite authors and editors. I like to think of hallways crammed with bespectacled guys, maybe a little older than the old GenCon days, but still decked out in Metallica tee shirts, rolling saving throws vs Contract Negotiation Overload, plotting tactics on graph paper towards the treasure of a best seller list. No, you say? Wouldn’t it be fun though? Maybe GWAR would show up.

Hey. A guy can dream…

Tomorrow i’ll upload a bunch of links to potential conferences for all of you. It’s going to take a little while to research them which is why I’m not doing it now.

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Umm… Yeah. I got nothin.

So i was trying to come up with an amazingly clever title for tonight’s blog post and that’s what I came up with. Brilliant, don’t you think? Me neither. Titling things has never been my strong suit. In fact, as far as suits go, more than a few moths have nibbled the hell out of it.

So how am I doing? Oh wonderful. Just peachy. Discovered what may be a gluten intolerance. Yay me. Which means I’m exceptionally paranoid about everything I eat now. That’s always lovely. But I can work it into the writing of course. Now I know what those old Kings must have felt like when they stared out at their amazing banquet and thought “Oh dear god, it’s all POISON!!!” So many things can come out of that sort of thing: I can be the crazy middle-aged man squinting at the labels and reading everything. I can be the cat lady rifling through the produce section, carefully prodding each and every fresh vegetable like it’s a suspect in her kidney disease. Oh so many things. If only I could get over the anxiety of something dramatically WRONG going on in my body.

But that’s not why you’re here are you? You’re waiting for the few pearls of wisdom. Heh. Like I said. I got nothin. I haven’t even been working on my own stuff as much as I’d like because the gluten thing apparently messes with your head. Bet you didn’t know that did you? Oh yeah. You get all foggy headed like you’re hungover or still drunk – but not in a good way. So you look at a draft and have to read it three or four times. And then when you try to type something it all comes out terrible.

So in lieu of my usual writerly advice I have a few of my other things:

Killing Floor by Lee Child. The first of the Jack Reacher series. I saw the movie recently and though it wasn’t STRICTLY mystery it did have that nice aspect to it. They don’t generally make Mystery movies much any more. But this really had the whodunit vibe to it which I liked. So I gave the book a shot. There’s something I like about Child’s writing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. He’s a professional. Economy of line, terse but vivid descriptions, it all works very well in the sort of gruff, fast and loose mystery/thriller style he works in. That said, Reacher isn’t exactly the savviest or most observant detective I’ve ever read. I don’t want to get into it too much for those who are going to read it but lets just say he misses a few very big things that I don’t think he should have missed.

As far as characters go, Reacher is a lot of fun – if not entirely unique. I really enjoyed it and was reading it at a breakneck pace for me, but Reacher was a little vanilla. Blues aficionado, womanizing, meh. Been there, read that. And yet it’s STILL a lot of fun. I highly recommend it. If you like a nice tight, action packed mystery thriller I don’t think you could do much better. But be aware that it does have a few glaring flaws: the sort of thing that will have you yelling at the book much like I tend to yell at my television screen.

On to the next thing: Motive – What is it about other countries that can do cop shows better than we can? I call it the Beatles effect. America synthesizes country and rockabilly and blues and jazz and makes rock and roll. Rock and roll flies across the pond where the Beatles and the Stones throw a few more interesting ingredients in and then ship it back over as something brand new and totally irresistible. The Beatles Effect. Which is why we have the Stieg Larssons, the Tana French’s, etc. What does this have to do with the new show Motive? Well… The characters aren’t the dour type for starters. They appear to actually investigate rather than blunder their way into a conviction. You can actually WATCH them make conclusions based on evidence and it didn’t come from a fancy computer. Is it perfect? Heh. Not by a long shot. But it’s better than we’ve been getting lately.

Truth be told I was flipping channels at the time so I didn’t get to watch the whole thing but I was impressed. Not over the moon, but impressed. Sometimes I think we cling to the tried and true a little bit too much around here. Sure there are different things happening – that’s pretty much why I got into this mystery stuff to begin with – but most of the time we plot out similar mysteries with similar characters doing similar things and solving similar crimes in similar ways. Reacher is a good case in point as much as I enjoyed it. I need my characters to be alive. They must have their quirks. No one, except REALLY boring people are so by the numbers. Figure out what color socks these characters are wearing. Anything. Everybody has something. Celebrate the difference.

That’s why I ended up liking Motive even though I didn’t expect much from it. The characters have something. I know it sounds weird but the lead male character has strange hair and a beard! Weird right? And the female character doesn’t always look like you just shot her dog! And has a sense of humor! And they actually detect! With their eyes! Good lord I don’t even remember the last time I watched an American based crime show where the clue didn’t come from a computer. Okay. I will admit there was that part in the very beginning of tonights show where the lead detective ‘discovered’ the wallet and lifted it off the body. But I’m going to let it slide. Everybody does that. Someday I’m going to write a mystery where the detective is standing around the body waiting for the ME to show up and they’re stuck in traffic for hours. Wouldn’t that be fun? “No. We can’t ‘roll’ the body. No we can’t fish the wallet out of their pocket for an ID. For all we know right now we have a perfectly live person with several dozen holes in them, completely unable to move for some reason.” In the mean time I’ll suffer through one little evil for something different.

Well. That’s all I’ve got. Like I said it wasn’t much. If there is a pearl of wisdom in here somewhere it’s ‘figure out what color socks your character is wearing.’ It’s important. I’ve said it before but you have to know those things. If you ever get stuck with a character, or ‘blocked’ as you call it, watch them brush their teeth. Go into their medicine cabinet. But please don’t skimp on the details. I don’t even care if you don’t eve write those details. Just make sure you know them. Hemingway said something like that once. I think.

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He’s Baaaaaaackkkkk – dun dun dunnnnnnn….

Sorry about the absence. I know y’all have just been screeching and screaming without me. But i’m back. I scrapped the idea of doing stuff on the weekends and it’s officially back to thursday for the regular mystery blog, provided my cats don’t object. They are currently objecting. To heck with them.

Another good reason i’ve been gone is i was undergoing some unpleasantness. I’m not going to go into the unpleasantness. You can imagine whatever. Personally i think James Patterson was poisoning me. Or maybe the cast and crew for Golden Boy. But i’m back now. Patterson – you’ve failed. Golden Boy – guess who gets the last laugh? Me! Cuz you’re cancelled! Muahahahaha!!!! You will not be police commissioner of New York by the time you’re thirty two you dreadful little cleft chin twit!!!!

In other news Mystery and Procedural TV fans, CSI New York is dead too. Who killed it? I’m sure some lab tech will show up any second now with the lab results. five…four…three…two… ah here it is. Apparently toxic levels of insufferabilisis was discovered in it’s viewer intake valve which caused a massive seizure of the whocares muscle, basically paralyzing the victim until it expired from dryness and boredom.

Let the new season of nausea begin!

First we have the first entry into ‘reality tv mystery’. Yeah. You knew it had to happen sometime. I don’t even remember what the show was called. I only know i ain’t watching it. Basically it looks like a dinner mystery. Only on TV. Oh joy. Second we have Motive which is all about… well… Motive apparently. Who cares about Motive in a homicide? That’s right. No one. But i’m a little intrigued by this one because the lead character seems a little spunky and frankly we’ve had such a dry white season of dour plodding investigators in TV Crime Drama i’m willing to give almost anything a chance. In better news though, Major Crimes is due to make a return. Which is fabulous. You want to write character, watch that show. Honestly. It may not have all the reality that you’re looking for but the assortment of the cast is really terrific and well acted.

But seeing as we have a show called motive… let’s talk a little about it shall we?

Yeah. No one cares about motive. Personally, when I’m writing a mystery the first thing I like to do is figure out the motive. And then throw it in the trash. The only time I didn’t (and even then I tried really hard to shy away from it) was Too Much Peace of Mind (Meg Brown Mystery #2) So long as we don’t give a fig about motive we can talk about the REAL motive. What is the damned story about? That’s motive. That’s the thing you’re going to reach for and pour everything through. Writerly types call it theme. I call it the reason you chose to write that story.

I’m going to be honest here. I usually have no idea what the story is about until the draft is finished and I’m editing it. Then, all of a sudden, I’m reading along and it hits me. I LOVE it when that happens. It’s like hitting a vein of gold. A vein of gold that your characters usually spent the whole first draft screaming and waving at you and trying to point out. My characters love it too. I can almost hear them sigh with exhausted relief from the pages.

Finding the motive is the key to setting up the first rewrite or edit in my opinion. If you haven’t found it, seriously consider throwing the thing in the trash. Or get your head examined. In preemptive answer to the writerly types who protest and say ‘Theme!’: I hate theme. Every time I think -or see- the word in any of the books ‘on writing’ it fills me with confusion. The rare times I’ve tried to start writing with a ‘theme’ it’s gone terrifically wrong – like a twisted awful train wreck that claims the lives of all my characters. Nay, I say. I like to start with motive. Not the motive of the killer or killers, about which I sometimes stumble into, but my motive.

Writing stories is a poetical exploration of your own psyche, which is just a fancy way of saying you’re trying to tell yourself something that you don’t know how to say out loud. You might think of it like a parable for your skull. When done right it becomes a parable for other people’s skulls too, and fertilizer. I don’t like it much when a story has a point, per se, or when it leads you to a ‘moral’ of the story. I prefer it when I can look into the rusting beer cans in the quarry and find a diamond rattling within. Joyce’s Dubliners follows this sort of model and of those stories The Dead is pretty much the be all end all. Damn thing broke my heart the first time I read it and I’m still haunted by Michael Furey standing in the snow. But I’d be damned if I could tell anyone what it’s about, nor would I want to.

I like to think of story in terms of poetry. Sure I write Genre fiction, specifically Mystery, but I tend to think that’s the perfect thing for finding your own motives. Poetry, like a homicide scene, concerns itself with trapped moments. Mystery follows details and what do we know about details? Yeah. That old chestnut. My happiest moments in writing come from those little details – a smell, a very specific sight, something found, something discovered. Like a diamond in a rusted beer can at the bottom of a quarry. How did it get there? You get a rare chance to be metaphoric and to blow up metaphor at the same time, you get to turn over the stones in your head and that’s what your own motive will do. Knowing it will help you search those paragraphs for the things you didn’t even know you were putting there. Once you know your motive for writing a story you can make the thing pop.

Okay. In all fairness to those of you who’ve read it: The Ice Cage had a lot of killers motive in it. Meg does figure out why Northcutt was murdered, but there were many reasons. The trick was to put the killer – or killers – in the room with the victim at the time of the murder. Something I’m sure you’ve heard about all the time on cop shows both real and imagined. The ‘timeline’.

Nope. Figure out why YOU’RE writing it, then hone that, bury it, let it stew like kimchee.

Well that’s all I’ve got right now. Oh. One last little thing. If you were hoping to find any more Murp Day teasers coming up, they’ve been postponed. I have been working on them – obsessing over them is really more accurate – but i think i am going to try to polish the novel they are related to before letting them seep out. If you’re REALLY curious as to what happens with Nate and Bobby at the stadium just send me a comment and we’ll see what we can do about your curiosity.

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Murp Day – Zero Hour (September 8, 2012)

miller_park_photo_wallpaper

The batter swung hard and connected clean, sending a shot through the gap between first and second base that yanked the stadium from a three inning stupor. They were primed by an early autumn chill, cold beer, and hot bratwurst, and briefly murmured their approval with a hum that rose through the ball park only to fizzle as the runner tagged first.

Nate glanced left and saw Cheryl still gazing at her phone, paging through texts for what seemed like the fifteenth time in the last hour. Bobby mentioned she’d been a little distracted lately, since her last boyfriend cheated on her. Of course he also mentioned that she was about as much fun as an ass full of carpet tacks even when she wasn’t distracted. It was one of those things that made him think twice about accepting, but of course that was the whole philosophical predicament of the wing man, wasn’t it? From the last few hours of personal experience, Bobby had been generous with his lackluster praise. It could have been worse. She could’ve tried to talk to him.

She sighed and glanced up at the game like a fourteen year old with a penchant for with theatrical disgust. When she didn’t see anything she liked she dropped her nose right back down. Bobby’s date, Emily, looked past him to shoot an ineffectual scowl at the side of her friends head, then refocused apologetically on him.

“So did you catch the guy?”

“Hmm?” Nate was so engaged with the right center field single, he’d forgotten he was in the middle of a story.

“The convenience store guy?”

He swallowed a molten chunk of bratwurst to clear his throat.

“Oh right. Rabbit fast. Luckily, Bobby’s got Antelope in him or something. He kept after him all the way, like a gazelle, while we were all driving around like it was a parade.”

He sipped his beer as the next batter connected. The ball popped straight into the air and briefly disappeared in the window of clear blue autumn sky between the edges of the retractable roof. He didn’t even need to see the pitcher and catcher below to know it would be an easy out.

“You caught him, Bobby?” She was pretty in an earnest, Midwestern, way – freckles, longish hair, just a little too much makeup artfully applied – but there was just something about her that told him she wasn’t really Bobby’s type. If you’d asked him, though, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you what that was. In fact, he really didn’t have any idea what Bobby’s type would be. If he had to guess he would have said A Cowgirl or Calamity Jane.

Bobby chuckled.

“Not exactly. I’m ninja fast and all but this guy was like an NFL running back and… Well…”

Bobby was not a big guy. Not by a long shot. In a different part of the country his height and temperament would have made him a great rodeo cowboy: short, wiry and tenacious as hell.

“What did you do?”

“Well my plan, such as it was,” Bobby continued. “was to run him until he fell down and then tase the shit out of him.”

He glanced at Nate with his crooked grin.

“The rest of us in the cars were supposed to help.”

“Supposed to.”

The guy in question robbed a 24 hour convenience store the night before. The first officers on the scene thought they had him but he split straight through them, stiff arming one into the parking lot before dashing into the neat rows of post-war bungalow houses behind the store. The stiff-armed cop sucked wind into his radio to call for backup. Bobby was the other one. He picked himself up and immediately gave chase.

Nate and his partner, Paris, pulled up only seconds later and caught the two of them in the headlights of their cruiser. For five blocks they watched the suspect juke like a pro, weaving through alleys, cutting the lanes between houses, hurtling gardens and garbage cans with only little Bobby Lester chasing him while they tried to maneuver into better position. The minute they thought they had it, the suspect would make a quick check and change direction like he was being operated by a bored child god playing a video game. The guy easily had a hundred pounds on Lester. From the view from the squad car it looked like a chihuahua chasing a Rottweiler. Once or twice Paris – who was driving – nearly hit little Bobby when they tried to cut them off but he was nimble in addition to being quick, and slid out of the way before becoming a good ornament.

Nate propped his door open to get ready for foot pursuit. Paris laughed gleefully.

“Look it im! Fast as a fucking cheetah!”

“Which one?”

“Our suspect. He’s like Ahman Green fast.”

“So what would that make Bobby?”

“Umm…” Paris yanked the wheel and sped to the next corner. “Willie Mays? Except he’s not black.”

The suspect and his uniformed blue shadow shot from a gap between the houses and flashed through the lights of the squad car.

“Guess it doesn’t quite fit then.” Nate watched them pass and shoved his door a little wider but the guy cut back and away, right in the direction he’d already come from. There wasn’t much else to do but slam shut again and get ready for next time.

“Robin Yount?”

Robin was a hall of fame shortstop for the local baseball team, the Milwaukee Brewers. Nate grew up idolizing him. In the full summer of his youth, Robin was arguably the fastest guy he knew – and it was an argument he had often – sometimes ending with a playful but brutally serious brawl.

“Robin was a bit taller.” He said as they raced down the street till Paris could crank a quick u-turn. Nate leaned out of the car again. “But you’re getting closer. Same color hair at least.”

Paris hit the gas and bashed a garbage can out of the way with the front bumper. They were coming up again and both men flashed so quickly through their headlights they were like deer on a lonely midnight country road. The suspect swung his head around, checking the distance between him and the oncoming squad car, then hurdled a pile of trash at the side of a crumbling garage and was gone. Bobby was just two steps behind. He was grinning and laughing as the pale headlights caught him. Nate could hear him cackling through his open door, giddy like a kid on the first day of summer.

“But you did get him right?” Emily said, bringing him back to the present. She took two large gulps from her small but expensive beer. Her eyes were wide. The next batter took a hard swing and missed completely.

“Sort of.” Nate grinned.

“They had a little help.”

“They? But weren’t you?…”

“Mmm… That’s where it gets a little complicated. You have to remember, we’ve got three or four squads that took the call and this guy was just stupid fast. So the radio is lighting up with location reports of people coming in to the chase, where they are and all that. And of course you’re trying to keep your eyes on the guy, not hit anything and figure out where’s the best place to bail or cut him off. Meantime he’s cutting lightning through people’s backyards and Bobby’s the only one REALLY on his ass. If he slips or something this guy is gone. Anyway. In all the confusion no one caught this patrolman from district two coming in. He’s not even with our district. Just some guy heading to central who decides he’s in position to take up pursuit.”

“The human wall.” Bobby added as the batter swung on and missed again.

“Right. I didn’t catch his name though.”

“Me neither. But if you look close enough his name plate might still be etched into my forehead.”

“The guy was huge. We’re talking Sasquatch huge.”

“Not that big, Nate. Just about your height actually.”

“But like two of me across.”

“Maybe one and a half.”

“I’m trying to tell a story here. A little hyperbole goes a long way.”

“Now you’re just making up words.”

“Anyway. So me and Paris make another circuit around the houses, back to the block we’d just come from and we’re cruising pretty fast to catch up, thinking they’re going to pop through again. Just like they’d done five times before. And we pull up to the spot where we expect them to be coming from but they don’t. I look at Paris and he looks at me and we’re both just dumb. Goofy dumb. Like this.”

Nate made his best dribbling idiot face to illustrate. He’d been told by his ex-girlfriend that it was a pretty good likeness of his usual expression.

“So we both bail, lights and guns out… That whole thing. I’m radioing a broken pursuit and location when I hear this little squeaking coming from one of those gaps between the houses.”

“I don’t squeak…” Bobby grinned. “Usually.”

The batter swung a third time and got a healthy chunk of it. Nate watched it pop and sail away. From his angle it was hard to tell if it had the distance or not and he could feel the anticipation pulling him to the edge of his seat just a little. The rest of the crowd was snared in the same spell, holding their breath to see if the ball had enough. Their voices rose in a tuneless chorus like rain getting heavier on a tin roof. Outfielders drifted back, necks arched and eyes fixed on the sky. They backpedaled to the outfield track when one reached up casually and snatched the ball out of the sky where it seemed to be waiting for him. The crowd went quiet like someone pulled a switch.

“So now I’m thinking something is really wrong. I come running down the alley, gun drawn and see this huge wriggling shadow. The yard had one of those backyard motion sensitive light things so all I can see is this huge silhouette. I mean it looks like something out of nightmares. Like three or four big garbage bags full of live cats or something. I swap out the gun for the taser and I’m just about to zap when I see Bobby’s scrawny little hand shoot out of the pile and wave at me and he’s squeaking, literally squeaking ‘he’s a cop! He’s a cop!'”

“Frystack! That was the guys name. A beast. I should know. He was on top of me. All 800 pounds of him.”

“Yeah. So basically the moral of the story is we had a shrimp NFL kicker chasing a running back and both of them got squashed by a Defensive lineman. I swear, I thought we were going to have to requisition a spatula to scrape him off the sidewalk.”

“Me too. It’s not even funny. I thought I was going to die. Those dude’s were HEAVY. You ever have a whale on top of you?”

“Yes.” Emily said with a sly grin. Bobby’s eyes got wider and a smile crawled across his face. “Remember Eddie Carlton?”

“Fast Eddie? Really? I? Em…? Really?” Bobby stammered, grinning and shaking his head.

“Hey. He was sweet.”

“He was a guy, Em. That was high school. Sweetness was all he had going for him.”

“Well it worked. We dated for like a year after school.”

“Ugh. Fast Eddie. That sly, massive shit.”

“Well… he was that.” Emily’s smile died with the obvious ending of the memory that she didn’t need to share.

“We found out later that the guy only got two packages of twinkles.” Nate inserted awkwardly.

“Yeah. We found out because they were still in his sweatshirt. They exploded all over my uniform. We get the guy cuffed and this Frystack guy comes up and scoops some of the filling off my shirt and he gives me this huge grin, winks at me and says “evidence”. Then he pops it in his mouth.”

Bobby mimicked the whole thing, including the grin. Nate didn’t see it at the time but he figured it was a pretty good likeness. He even pulled his head into his neck a little to simulate the huge cops thick neck.

Emily cackled. Her laugh was startlingly sharp and jagged and it cut the nice stadium hum, making him jump a little. He flicked a glance past her at Bobby who grinned and rolled his eyes behind her back. Nate couldn’t help but laugh. Luckily, Emily seemed to think he was just laughing with her at his own story.

The next batter dug into the dirt and Nate felt one of those terrible gaps of quiet opening between strangers. Emily seemed to wait for one of them to say something else but they were both clearly at a loss. It nervously obligated him to fill it. He looked down at the batter for something clever to say but the Batter wasn’t obliging.

Of all people, Cheryl stepped in to help.

“Hey Em. I gotta go to the bathroom.” She didn’t pry her dull eyes from the cell phone when she said it. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who she was texting and why it required a bathroom consultation.

“So go then.” Emily shot back feigning distraction with a sudden interest in baseball. It won points from the guys. Most women they knew took those sorts of bathroom calls as duty.

“Come with me.”

Nate didn’t have to see it to know that she’d bounced a disdainful expression off his cheek. He was well past the point of caring about it.

“We can go at the end of the inning. I don’t have to go yet.”

“Don’t be a bitch. You don’t even like baseball.”

“Now who’s being the bitch? For fucks sake, Cheryl. Have some class.” She shoved herself from her seat, and glared again at her friend who still hadn’t extracted her attention from the device. “Pardon me, Bobby, but I have to go drown my shitty friend in a toilet. Could you get me another beer?”

“Sure.”

“Get me one too?” Cheryl shoved past them, not glancing up.

“Fat chance.” Bobby muttered after they’d gotten out of earshot.

“Ain’t she a piece of work?” Nate sighed.

“Which one?”

“Emily doesn’t seem so bad.”

“Nah. She’s okay. We swung from different trees in school. But still… I don’t know. There’s just something about her… She seems to like you though. We could always swap – I could murder Cheryl and you could date Emily.”

“Ehn. Not my type either, Bobby.”

“Well… At least we get a game out of it I suppose. When was the last time we were at the ball park?”

“Last week.”

“When was the last time we were at the ball park NOT in uniform?”

The batter swung wide and the ball socked home in the catchers glove. He always loved that sound, even the feel of it. Back in the long ago, Nate had been a pretty decent ball player – nothing outstanding – but he put his heart into it and connected on some deep spiritual level with all of it: the smell of hot dogs in brine, the crack of the bat, the quiet of the field, the way the ball felt when it found leather. He’d blown out an ankle in college which ended his playing, though he still managed a spot on the District Softball team when time allowed it.

The pitcher sank into his stance, checked the runner at first who was itchy with all of the waiting. He took a long lead off, more than he should have given his speed – but the pitcher didn’t worry over it. The guy was taking more than he could chew, practically offering himself up as the next out even if the batter hit it. The pitcher shook off a few signals before nodding and starting his wind up. Just before he finished the arc the runner committed. Nate watched, and on some level felt, the spray of dirt fly from the runners cleats. It was still stored somewhere in his muscle memory. He felt his legs tense up and the toes of his feet crunch harder into the concrete. To him, there was nothing like baseball. The only thing that came close was the scent of the city through a squad car window in the summer time, the distant thumping chaos of one of the many lakefront music festivals or the lurking foot patrol on the lake shore as the fourth of July fireworks lit up the skyline.

The batter connected again. He could tell by the tinny sound that it wasn’t solid – an easy pop fly. The outfielders meandered under it, not even giving enough respect to make the effort and the infielders were already heading in to the dug out.

That was the moment Nate thought he’d gone blind.

The ball was still in flight. Much much later, when finally turning into the precinct for some badly needed rack time, he would have the opportunity to discuss it and they would all collectively come up with much the same thing: a sound like an overloaded transformer followed by a bright flash. But it wasn’t a single bright flash. It was hundreds of brilliant, eye searing flashes all at the exact same instant, as if hooked to a timer.

Unfortunately for Nate, and most of the ballpark, one of those bright flashes came from the outfielder just under the ball. They were staring right at him when he seemed to turninto white hot light.

He got his hands up to his face only after the flash subsided. He shut his eyes tight but ghost images of the flashes were leopard spotted everywhere on the inside of his eyelids. There were so many he was afraid of opening them for fear there would be nothing to see – just never ending blankness.

“Jesus! What the hell was that?” He yelled. Already the sound of the crowd was increasing. They weren’t panicked yet. He hoped they wouldn’t be – maybe it was just some sort of electrical malfunction – but something was telling him that wasn’t the case at all.

“Can’t see, Nate.” Bobby said. “Don’t know. Wasn’t a bomb. Flashbangs maybe? Can you see?”

“No bang, Bobby. Sounded like a transformer blowing.”

He blinked a few times, trying to soften the spots. Then he heard the first scream. It hooked his attention automatically even though the great blind spot obliterated whatever was directly in front of him. There was another scream, and then another. Out of his periphery he could see movement on the far side of the stadium.

“This doesn’t sound good, Nate. Can you see?” Bobby said again.

“Still mostly spots. Every time I try to look all I see is spots.”

“Me too. Try using your periphery. Look away.”

He could see it – it was as though someone had thrown stones into a calm stream of people. They were rippling away from each other evenly, some ripples crashing into others and rising up, all rushing away from central spots in the stands. It almost looked like a new form of cheer, an adaptation of the old tried and true ‘wave’ only with much more panic and screaming.

Someone reeled back into him. He shoved back reflexively but his brain was already telling him it wouldn’t help. If he didn’t do something quick or join the crowd he would be quickly crushed. He’d done crowd control before and knew that crowds were organisms. They responded to stimuli but they responded in unison, without thought or consideration. Fear spread like a virus and resisted all rationality. He felt it creep into him, clutching at his heart and stopping up his thought as thoroughly as a clogged artery stops blood.

Far out on the other side of the field, another ripple went out. At first it was almost pretty: slow and concerned and almost rhythmic. But then it got faster, frantic. He saw people jammed up onto the backs of others, arms up, legs churning. He saw one person fall and get devoured by the gnashing legs of those behind them, desperate, unknowing. The trampled obstacle only serving to trip others who spilled down the sides of the great bowl of the stands like ghastly, tiny, people-shaped grains of sand.

“Pull your legs up, Bobby!” He yelled against the stampede which was already pushing against him. “Pull up and hold tight! Don’t move! Cover up!”

He didn’t know if Bobby could hear him or not. He didn’t even know if it was the right thing to do, but it seemed right plus it would let him get at the ankle pistol he carried.

“Did you bring a piece?” He yelled.

Already, the stream had started to shove past him. It was like being in a lane between herds of passing buffalo. They hammered him repeatedly in the shoulder.

“Got it!” Bobby yelled.

They crammed past him but he didn’t look up. He kept tucked, and tried to prop his feet up onto the seat but it wasn’t much use. Nothing he did would get them to stop hitting him. They grunted and yelled unintelligibly at each other but no one could hear – they were beyond the capacity for listening. The sounds of panic was in him too, chipping away at his sense and rationality. The only thing that helped was keeping his head down and his eyes shut firmly against it.

I’m going to die. I’m going to die. His brain whimpered. Get up and run. Get up and run.

But there was a cooler, almost malicious voice in there too and it told him he’d already made his choice. Whatever came he would live or die right where he was. He’d survive or he wouldn’t.

And that part was right. Whatever happened, he was not getting up. The force of the crowd was too strong. They’d become a solid string of heavy, churning bodies: a single destructive entity without no mind guiding it. They pounded like crashing surf towards what they hoped was the exit. Away from danger. A mob didn’t need to see or know danger to know it was present. It just abided by the will of it’s own sustaining fury and used terror as fuel until it was exhausted in rage, distance or death. Nate made a decision to oppose the mob. He hoped to live through it and see the other side of it, but hope was all he had left.

He vaguely heard Bobby yell something but he couldn’t make out what it was.

“See it?” He heard. But there was more to it than that. Moments ago he thought he was going blind but now going deaf seemed more likely. The crowd bellowed like cattle. ‘Move’ and ‘go’ were frantic mantra’s that sounded more like animals in a herd than any language he remembered. Someone stepped on his back, and then another. It would have kicked him into the stream of people in front had there been any space. As it was it just put his head in position to be bludgeoned by knees and desperate fists, unaware he was even there. He felt himself teetering on the seat sideways and threw his arm out to the armrest to steady himself. One more good pop to the side of the head or a boot to his neck would be all it would take. Any second now.

In the seat Cheryl vacated he heard a solid crack, almost like – but entirely unlike – the crack of a baseball bat against a ball when it gets all of it. Someone in Cheryl’s seat screamed helplessly into his ear but he couldn’t risk picking his head up from his knees to look. Then there was another crack, this one much more sickly and wet sounding. From a bad memory of a bad accident he remembered the sound. It was the sound his brothers arm made when it hit the tree while they were sledding. He’d never wanted to feel that helpless again but here it was, and it was somehow even worse.

“Bobby! Gun! We’ve got to get them off of us!”

Bobby must have heard because the gun went off. At this point it didn’t even matter if Bobby hit anyone. They could fix all of that later, when – and if – they were still alive. The gun went off again. And then again. And instantly there was a break in the stream. He poked his head up and opened his eyes a little, in time to see shocked people tumbling over the metal tombstone teeth of the seats away from him. He didn’t spend a second worrying about them. He knew they would be broken, limbs off kilter, shattered, but he could only do something about that if he was still alive.

He glanced left to where the scream came from. The crowd was thinning, leaving he and Bobby in it’s wake but there was also a woman, in her early fifties maybe, at a strange angle in Cheryl’s seat. She was staring at him with horror, fear and pain, her face upside down. She was crying and she could see the waning panic being slowly replaced with unbelievable pain. He looked down at her. Her leg had been swept along by the crowd and was at a horrible angle with bright bone poking through a horrendous gash.

He watched her lips move.

“Help. Me.” She choked.

In his right ear he could still hear the thunder of the stampede, finally making it to the exit and getting clogged there. People would die in there. He was sure of it. But there was almost nothing he could do about it right now. His brain was rapidly shifting to triage mode.

“We’re going to get you out of here, ma’am. Just sit tight. Try to keep calm.”

“Help.” She mouthed again.

“Bobby?” He glanced right. Bobby was already standing. He looked almost unharmed. Maybe a little tussled but he figured his own much larger form had shielded his friend from much of the abuse. Bobby had his cell phone and was trying to dial with the gun still in his hand. He was staring at the crush of people trying to get into the exit tunnel.

“Can’t get through, Nate. Got no signal. What are we going to do about them?” He pointed at the crush.

“Nothing we can do, Bobby. Not from here and here is where we stay. We’ve got to help the people we can help. You get me? Keep trying the station. When you get through tell them there’s been an incident at the stadium and we need support.”

“Got it.”

“You see any security anywhere?”

They both looked around the stadium. Down below, on the field, ball players from both teams seemed to be cautiously converging on something in the outfield. Many of them had bats in hand. He scanned around and spotted a few of the yellow shirted event security standing around, pointing and yelling at each other.

“There’s a few. Go talk to them. Get them organized.” He told Bobby.

“Got it.”

The woman clenched his arm hard, her nails digging in, unconscious in her sense of pain. He glanced at her again, wincing and noticing a thin stream of blood trickle down his arm. He grabbed her hand to pry it loose.

“We’re going to get you out of here. Just stay…”

But his voice trailed off as he saw something beyond her in the stands.

It was a good thirty feet away.

At first, he thought it was a bear. Insofar as that made no sense whatsoever, it made perfect sense. What else could so completely panic a whole baseball stadium? It was easily as big as a bear, huge in the shoulders, and seemed to be trying to crawl up the stadium seats by grappling the back rests with it’s feet on the seats. But it was the feet that gave him pause. They were in boots.

Nate blinked, unsure of what he was seeing. Maybe they were still stung from the flash, or maybe he’d gotten hit or something. What he was seeing was clearly not a bear. Not unless bears had somehow become a strange shade of turquoise and wore shoes and… a shirt? That was a shirt wasn’t it? It couldn’t be.

He closed his eyes and shook his head out, like they do in cartoons when someone’s taken a particularly nasty jolt to the head. The way his brother did when he thought he was being funny. When he opened them again the blue, shirt wearing bear was still there. It clambered up another row, gazing around, it’s huge head swiveling on an ursine neck. It turned, glaring at him. It’s expression was oddly human – snarling and bear-like – but somehow human. It’s eyes locked on his in fear, rage, and confusion.

Nate reached for his gun.

The thing stood up on the seat, ripping out the seat back as though tearing a sheet of paper from a book, then flung it out behind him where it sailed out onto the baseball diamond like a strangely shaped frisbee. It curled its huge head back till it was pointing at the retractable roof and howled into the open mouth of the perfect blue autumn sky.

Nate had never heard a more mournful sound in his whole life. It was the sound hearts make when they’re breaking.

Categories: Fiction, Mystery, The Stonemaidens Cup Series, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Few Little Things

So i started a new job job to replace the craptacular old job which sucked my life away and made me hate. It’s been almost a full week at this new job and i haven’t thrown up my hands in total disgust so we’re off to a good start. Unfortunately, this means I haven’t been writing as much as I would like. I’ve dropped from five hand written pages a day to barely two. Which sucks to say the least. Someday I will be out of this mess and making money from the writing and the writing alone, but for the time being I’m just a slob like you – trying to get a few pen strokes and homicides in when the sun goes down.

That said I’ve got a few quick little things that have nothing to do with my new job, about which you care not at all. Firstly, after Derek Pacifico’s terrific comment on a previous blog (Golden Blah) I’ve been thinking a lot about the things that are wrong with tv cop shows. I probably don’t get as irritated as a former homicide detective with them, but if you read last weeks post I’m sure not happy with them either. If you haven’t read his comment and it didn’t get you thinking, take a hike. There’s a terrific grain of awesome there. Why hasn’t a cop show been done like the West Wing? I mean, if we’re being honest: it’s a great format for it. I was just watching The First 48 – which I try to grab as much as I can of (mostly for the things I don’t know I’m noticing) and I had to wonder – aloud – why they try to cram two cases into one episode? Even before that I was wondering why things couldn’t be a little more free-form in homicide shows? Why do we need two (or even three) action packed, thrilling mysteries per episode? What was it about The West Wing – and the incredible Lincoln – that kept us sitting in our seats? Legislation is not generally fun and yet we got used to – and enjoyed – watching people think on-screen. You don’t think of munching down popcorn while watching Congress deliberate. Unless you’re thinking of using it as ammunition, of course. But somehow, just for a little while, it became amazing – something different.

Then, of course, there is the issue of all the victims being pretty, middle-aged, rich people. And then there is the amazing jump cut moments where the detective marches in and says ‘the lab reports came back and…’ in record time. Yep. Something about this paradigm really has to change or we’re going to still be sitting here – 30 years from now – realizing we’ve actually been watching the exact same show for 60 years or more.

And then there’s the issue of Boston’s Finest. I don’t know if you’ve watched it yet or not. You probably should (for the things you don’t know you’re noticing.) I think TNT made a huge mistake putting it next to Southland. I was pretty happy with Southland for a long time. It wasn’t bad. It dealt with cops living lives outside of being cops – which they don’t do much of anywhere else. Putting it next to actual cops in a well narrated show just shows the Southland guys for the actors they are and it doesn’t stack up well.

The most memorable moment from last night’s Boston Finest wasn’t the riveting chase scenes or the ‘go-gettum-ness’. It was the warrant being served and the woman who it was being served on refusing to come to the door. If you watched you probably know what I’m talking about. A 48-year-old convicted criminal without her dentures in, standing behind the door trying to convince the cops that she is, in fact, ‘under 18’ and her mother isn’t home. Now I’d like to think I’m a pretty good writer. I can make shit up and try my damnedest to convince you that that shit doesn’t stink. But I can honestly admit that I never would have come up with something like that. Of course I don’t find that a hindrance. As Eastwood once said somewhere “a man’s got to know his limitations.” I think that may have been one of the Dirty Harry movies. I’m trying to treat it as a knock on the door of the imagination and an invitation for it to come out.

So that’s what I’ve got burbling around my brain right now. How do you put all that in a stew and get a good cop show? How do you make all that into a good book? I don’t know. I’m working on it. I’d like to see what you do with it. All I really know for sure is that its a big big genre. Much larger than folks give it credit for and it would permit something like a West Wing. It doesn’t have to cram one homicide, a chase scene and a gun battle into a single episode. It could hinge it’s drama entirely on a blink, a single spatter of blood, it could help you notice the things you didn’t know you’re noticing. It could be interesting, informative, dramatic, and even have that ‘truth’ that genre writers are predisposed to avoid but literary writers are supposed to drive at with all their superfluous artistry.

Categories: Mystery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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