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Friday, June 30, 2017

Believable Fantasy

I learned years ago from Lester del Ray that the secret to writing good fantasy is to make certain it relates to what we know about our own world. Readers must be able to identify with the material in such a way that they recognize and believe the core truths of the storytelling. It doesn't matter if you are writing epic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, dark urban fantasy, comic fantasy, or something else altogether, there has to be truth in the material. Otherwise readers are going to have a tough time suspending disbelief long enough to stay interested.

Terry Brooks, Sometimes The Magic Works, 2003

Memoirists Are Liars

Perhaps all memoirists lie. We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours. We write about our life, not to see it as it was, but to see it as we wish others might see it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our life through their eyes, not ours.

Andre Acimen in Writers on Writing, edited by John Darnton, 2001 

Mark Twain and His Typewriter

     Mark Twain loved gadgets and would buy the latest thing when it came out. When typewriters hit the market, he was among the first to buy one for the then outrageous price of $125 (more than $2,150 in today's money.) Twain was also the first author ever to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher. It was 1833 and the book was Life on the Mississippi. 

     Twain used the "hunt and peck" typing method. He didn't know the touch-typing system of using all the fingers. Nobody did, because it wouldn't be invented for another quarter century. Twain eventually traded his Remington typewriter for a $12 saddle.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type To Be a Writer, 2003 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Novelists Criticizing The Work of Other Novelists

     Novelists are not remotely wary of criticizing one another's work in private; they do it all the time. Only when they're asked to commit their shoptalk to print do they grow reticent. A hardy few are prepared to engage tough-mindedly with the works of their peers….

     Most fiction writers end up deciding that discretion is the greater part of critical valor. Some recuse themselves from reviewing any contemporary fiction at all. Others review only those novels they can praise in good faith. Still others adopt a tactful, discursive reviewing style that allows them to write about books they don't rate without actually copping to an opinion.

     Before we rebuke these writers for their intellectual cowardice, we ought to acknowledge the genuine difficulty of the task they shirk. The literary world is tiny. The subgroup represented by novelists is even tinier. If you're an author who regularly reviews other authors, the chances of running into a person whose novel you have criticized are fairly high….It may not be the worst thing in the world to find yourself side by side at a cocktail party with the angry man whose work you described as mediocre in last Sunday's paper, but the threat of such encounter is not a great spur to critical honesty. [If you're interested in literary courage, read B. R. Myers' book Reader's Manifesto where he rips apart several so-called literary giants. A great book and a wonderful read.]

Zoe Heller, The New York Times Book Review, September 8, 2013


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

O.J. Simpson: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Some writers of letters and a lot of kids don't seem to care if I'm guilty or innocent. They just want to believe in me….When I speak to kids, I say that you have to accept responsibility for your own actions…I say to everybody that if I had committed this crime, I would have had to take responsibility for my actions….

O.J. Simpson, I Want to Tell You, 1994 [Letter to a young fan following his arrest for double murder.]

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Stephen King on Fear

How many things are we afraid of? We're afraid to turn off the lights when our hands are wet. We're afraid to stick a knife into the toaster to get the stuck English muffin without unplugging it first. We're afraid of what the doctor may tell us when the physical exam is over; when the airplane suddenly takes a great unearthly lurch in midair. We're afraid that the oil may run out, that the good air will run out, the good water, the good life. When the daughter promised to be in by eleven and it's now quarter past twelve and sleet is spatting against the window like dry sand, we sit and pretend to watch Johnny Carson and look occasionally at the mute telephone and we feel the emotion...that makes a stealthy ruin of the thinking process.

Stephen King, Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, 2000

Monday, June 26, 2017

Crime in England

Only one Western country can say today that it doesn't have organized crime and that's England. They have crime there, spectacular crimes like bank holdups, train robberies, stuff like that. Gambling has been knocked off by being legalized, prostitution has been knocked-off--it's not legal but they don't bother you--and the government's narcotics program has taken most of the profit out of that. England has a very tough legal system to beat. They have uniformity of laws. There is no such thing as a law in London and another law in Manchester--each law is for the entire country. And finally, over there, from the time you are arrested to the day you go to trial, it's never more than three or four weeks.

Joey (with Dave Fisher), Joey The Hitman, 2002

The Problem With Young Writers

     Though everybody is talented and original, often it does not break through for a long time. People are too scared, too self-conscious, too proud, too shy. They have been taught too many things about construction, plot, unity, mass and coherence….

     Another trouble with writers in the first twenty years is an anxiety to be effective, to impress people. They write pretentiously. It is so hard not to do this. That was my trouble.

     For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting. It was a regular horror to read them again. Of course they did not sell either, not one of them.

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, originally published in 1938 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Fear of Kids: Are Teachers Losing Their Minds?

Marie Waltherr-Willard's Fear of Kids

     Marie Waltherr-Willard, a Spanish/French teacher, began teaching French in 1976 at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2009, after 33 years at the high school, the language teacher was transferred against her wishes to a middle-school where she had to teach 7th and 8th graders Spanish. The move took place after the high school French program went online.

     In the middle of the 2010-2011 school year, Waltherr-Willard abruptly retired and began receiving her monthly pension payments based on an annual retirement income of $70,000. In June 2012, the retired teacher filed a federal lawsuit against the school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her disability: a pathological fear of young children, a phobia she said had been diagnosed in 1991.  The former teacher claimed that by forcing her to teach middle-schoolers, her employers had discriminated against her by refusing to recognize and take into consideration her disability. The plaintiff's attorney claimed that, as a result of her forced early retirement, his client lost $100,000 in potential income.

     According to the plaintiff, being around middle-school school kids had shot her blood pressure up to stroke levels. Moreover, the little buggers pushed her into a state of general anxiety, mental anguish, and gastrointestinal illness. The civil trial was scheduled for February 2014.

     A U.S. District Court judge dismissed Waltherr-Willard's ridiculous lawsuit in June 2014. In February 2015, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that decision. (Lawsuits like this remind us there are too many lawyers.)

The Red Pen Alert: Abusive Grading

     The idea that marking up a student's test or homework with red ink upsets kids who don't appreciate criticism, isn't new. (Ever since Mister Rogers started telling children that they were all extremely special, most of them can't handle the sad truth that 90 percent of us, on a good day, are ordinary.) Since 2008, hundreds of schools across the country have replaced the insidious red grading pencils and pens with writing instruments that produce colors that are less aggressive and mean. (I can't imagine a kid who got an F on a test feeling better about himself because the F is written in a nice shade of blue.)

     Education researchers at the University of Colorado published a study that confirmed the theory that marking up a kid's work in red as opposed to more neutral colors caused unnecessary anger and embarrassment. Red ink splashed all over a paper supposedly makes the lousy student feel more harshly criticized. Assuming this is true, so what? What's wrong with criticism with a little zip? If students are offended by red ink, they can solve the problem by doing better work. (Maybe the geniuses at the University of Colorado should come up with strategies for that.) I'd like to get my hands on that study, and in red ink, write: "You people are idiots?" (Is that too harsh?)

Radical Anti-Bullying Advice From a Knucklehead

     Gabrielle Jackson was a sixth grader at the Central Middle School in Moline Acres not far from St. Louis, Missouri. Gabrielle complained to her mother, Tammie Jackson, that bullies at school were making lewd and insensitive comments regarding her large bust. Tammie called the school district to report the sexual harassment of her daughter and was not pleased with the response to her complaint. Over the phone, an unidentified employee of the school district suggested that the 13-year-old student have her breasts surgically reduced. Presumably the anti-bullying expert didn't provide this mother specifics regarding just how small the breasts would have to be to disinterest bullies. Moreover, if the plastic surgeon got carried away and made them too small, kids might bully her for being flat chested.

Zero Tolerance for Paper Guns

     On January 22, 2013, Melody Valentin, a fifth grader in a Philadelphia elementary school, inadvertently took a folded piece of paper to school that roughly resembled a handgun. Her grandfather had fashioned the toy weapon. When Melody realized what she had brought to school, she threw the paper gun into a classroom trash can. A fellow student who witnessed Melody's attempt to ditch the contraband, squealed. The teacher seized the evidence, hauled the offender to the front of the class, and gave her hell for being so reckless with all of their lives. Later that night, the distraught girl's mother found her daughter in the bathroom crying. As a result of the negative attention, some of her classmates were calling her a murderer.

     This example of schoolhouse hysteria came on the heels of an incident in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania involving a pre-schooler suspended for threatening to shoot a playmate with her pink Hello Kitty soap bubble gun. School officers called the incident a "terroristic threat." (See: "The Kindergarten Terrorist: The Hello Kitty Soap Bubble Conspiracy," January 22, 2013.)

     I'm afraid these school employees are so stupid they are immune from ridicule and embarrassment. (Still, I try.) Obviously there are bright, competent elementary and middle-school teachers and administrators, but just how outnumbered are they by all the fools and idiots?

     

The "Mainstream" Novel

Authors often believe that if a novel can only be categorized "mainstream" that it will automatically ship to stores in large quantities and sell to customers in big numbers. That belief is naive. So-called mainstream novels can sell in tiny numbers. That is even more true in the category of literary fiction. Authors with such labels face a double struggle in building their audience. For one thing, they cannot tap into the popularity of an existing genre. They must build from the ground up, creating a category where none existed before--their own. It can be a tough job.

Donald Maass, The Career Novelist, 2001 

The Immigrant as a Literary Protagonist

During the late 1990s, we saw the rise of a new literary subject: the postcolonial immigrant. In the metropoles of the North Atlantic--in London and New York, Paris and Toronto--the protagonist emerged: a parvenu, an outsider with a sturdy work ethic, a grocer or taxi driver seeking to make it in his or her new home. There were geographical variations, but central to these narratives was the direction of movement. The postcolonial subject moved from the outside in, from the former colony to the metropole, from beyond to the imperial center. Gatsby-like, he or she often tested the outer limits of the American dream--that still regnant myth about capitalist self-making. The narrative arc was that of the arriviste: a story not only of assimilation and the arduous passage toward citizenship but also of accumulation and the trials of "making it."

David Marcus, "Dangling Man," Bookforum, Dec/Jan, 2015 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Isaac Asimov on Writing Science Fiction

I can write nonfiction science without thinking because it requires no thought. I already know it. Science fiction, however, is far more delicate a job and requires the deeper and most prolonged thought.

Isaac Asimov, I Asimov, 1996 

The Sins of Book Reviewers

There is the critical sin of covetousness, which may cause the book critic to seek fame at the expense of the author whose work he exploits. The closely associated sin of envy leads to the denigration of the work of others for the hidden purpose of self-aggrandizement. To indulge the sin of gluttony is to bite off more than one is prepared to digest, denying others the right to partake. To be lustful is to indulge an inordinate desire for the gratification of one's sense of power. The deadly sin of anger leads to the loss of one's composure and sense of balance during the inevitable exchanges of differing opinion. The deadly sin of sloth is to repeat accepted lies about an author or body of work because the critic is too lazy to dig out the truth.

Carlos Baker in Opinions and Perspectives From "The New York Times Book Review," edited by Francis Brown, 1964 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Story Versus Plot

Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is a story we say, "and then?" If it is a plot we ask "why?" That is the fundamental difference between these to aspects of the novel.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) Aspects of the Novel, 1927

Discussing Writing Works-in-Progress

I find it helps a lot to talk to friends or editors immediately after I return from a reporting trip. It puts me in a storytelling mode. Even though I'm less preoccupied with producing a seamless narrative then I used to be, I do feel that narrative energy is crucial to distinguishing a story from a research report. When you are telling a story to a live human being [as apposed to a reader] you get a sense, immediately, of what people respond to. It gets you outside of your own head. And often people ask questions that I haven't thought of--questions that force me to look at the reporting in a new way.

Ron Rosenbaum, in Robert S. Boynton's The New Journalism, 2005 [Most writers of fiction do not discuss works-in-progress.] 

A Stupid College Course

Lady Gaga may not have much class but now there is a class on her. The University of South Carolina is offering a class called Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame. Mathieu Deflem, the professor teaching the course describes it as aiming to "unravel some of the sociologically relevant dimensions of the fame of Lady Gaga with respect to her music, videos, fashion, and other endeavors." [No wonder sociology majors end up working at Walmart or in the mall.]

Michael Snyder, "20 Completely Ridiculous College Courses Offered at U. S. Universities," theeconomiccollapseblog.com, June 5, 2013 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Good Interview Subjects

I hate writing about anyone who is familiar with the press or has a "story." I like to write about people who don't necessarily see what their story is, or what my interest might be. I like subjects who really know how to enjoy life or are immersed in whatever they are doing fully.

Adrian Nicole Leblanc in Robert S. Boynton's The New Journalism, 2005

Writing as a Process of Discovery

Many people think that writers are wise men who can impart to them the truth or some profound philosophy of life. It is not so. A writer is a skilled craftsman who discovers things along with the reader, and what you do with a good writer is you share the search; you are not being imparted wisdom, or if you are being imparted wisdom, it's a wisdom that came to him just as it came to you reading it.

Shelby Foote in Conversations with Shelby Foote (1989) by William C. Carter 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Science and Technical Writing

     Take a class of writing students in a liberal arts college and assign them to write about some aspect of science, and a pitiful moan will go around the room. "No! Not science!" the moan says. The students have a common affliction: fear of science. They were told at an early age by a chemistry or a physics teacher that they don't have "a head for science."

     Take an adult chemist or physicist or engineer and ask him or her to write a report, and you'll see something close to panic. "No! Don't make us write!" they say. They also have a common affliction: fear of writing. They were told at an early age by an English teacher that they don't have "a gift or words."

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, originally published in 1976 

Joseph Wambaugh on Writing Narrative Nonfiction

When I write nonfiction, obviously I was not there when the events occurred. I write in a dramatic style--that is, I employ lots of dialogue. I describe feelings. I describe how the events must have taken place. I invent probable dialogue or a least possible dialogue based upon all of the research that I do.

Joseph Wambaugh in Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Science Fiction Novelist Philip K. Dick

As a result of our media's obsession with the alleged connection between artistic genius and madness, Phil Dick was introduced to mainstream America as a caricature: a disheveled prophet, a hack churning out boilerplate genre fiction, a speed-freak. None of these impressions of Phil, taken without awareness of the sensationalism that generated them, advances our understanding of his life and work. Today the myth of Philip K. Dick threatens to drown out what evidence remains of his turbulent life.

David Gill in Anne R. Dick's The Search for Philip K. Dick, 1995

The Appeal of Whodunits and Thrillers

The whodunit and the thriller are in their most typical manifestations deeply conventional and ideologically conservative literary forms, in which good triumphs over evil, law over anarchy, truth over lies.

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing, 1996

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Romance Novel's Leading Man

The theme of the man who is "saved by the love of a good woman" is common in both life and romance. In reality, savior complexes are dangerous because they encourage women to stay with abusive mates, but that is another story, one that belongs in "women's fiction" rather than "romance." What matters in a romance context is that healing the wounded hero is a fantasy of incredible potency.

Mary Jo Putney,  romance novelist

Traditionally, the [romance novel] hero is the Byronic type--dark and brooding, writhing inside with all the residual anguish of his shadowed past, world-weary and cynical, quick-tempered and prone to fits of guilt and depression. He is strong, virile, powerful, and lost. Adept at many things that carry with them the respect and admiration of the world (particularly the world of other males), he is not fully competent in the arena where women excel--the arena of his emotions, which are violently out of control.

Linda Barlow, romance novelist

There is a place in romance, in my own fantasies, for the laconic cowboy, for the over-civilized power broker, for the gentle prince and the burned-out spy. They all have their appeal, their merits, their stories to tell. But the vampire myth strikes deep in my soul. Deep in my heart I want more than just a man. I want a fallen angel, someone who would rather reign in hell that serve in heaven, a creature of light and darkness, good and evil, love and hate. A creature of life and death. The threat that kind of hero offers is essential to his appeal.

Anne Stuart Krentz, romance novelist

In the romance novel the domineering male becomes the catalyst that makes the empowerment fantasy work. The heroine isn't as big as he is; she isn't as strong, as old, as worldly; many times she isn't as well educated. Yet despite all these limitations she confronts him--not with physical strength but with intelligence and courage. And what happens? She always wins! Guts and brains every time. What a comforting fantasy this is for a frazzled, overburdened, anxiety-ridden reader.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips, romance novelist

Your Book is Published: Now What?

Examining the first copy of your book is a mixed experience. On the one hand, proof now rests in your hand that you indeed wrote a book. This exciting thought lasts for about six seconds then the mind turns elsewhere: couldn't my publisher have found a better typeface for the jacket? Next time, I'm going to hire a professional photographer to take a good author picture. I wonder how long it will take before my book shows up on remainder tables. I wonder if it's going to get panned. I wonder if anyone will read it at all.

Ralph Keyes, The Writer's Book of Hope: Encouragement and Advice From an Expert, 2003

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Editing Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls"

     [There was a time when editors like Maxwell Perkins of Scribner's and Sons played a hands-on role in getting a book ready for publication. Those days are long gone. In the 1960s, editor Don Preston had the almost impossible job of getting a glitzy, gossipy novel by an amateurish writer named Jacqueline Susann into publishable form. The manuscript, entitled Valley of the Dolls, became a national bestseller thanks in large part to Don Preston's editorial skills. This is Preston's evaluation of Susann's manuscript]:

     "...she is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro. She wastes endless pages on utter trivia, writes wide-eyed romantic scenes that would not make the back pages of True Confessions, hauls out every terrible show biz cliche...lets every good scene fall apart in endless talk and allows her book to ramble aimlessly....I really don't think there is a page of this manuscript that can stand in present form. And after it is done, we will be left with a faster, slicker, more readable mediocrity." [Ouch.]

Don Preston as cited in Barbara Seaman's Lovely Me: The Life of Jacqueline Susann, 1987

A Realistic Take on Justice?

I find the public passion for justice quite boring and artificial, for neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not.

Patricia Highsmith, crime novelist 

Detective Fiction Gets No Respect

The reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972)  The literary critic who wrote, in 1945, the famous New Yorker article, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" Mr. Wilson was not an Agatha Cristie fan or a lover of genre crime fiction. He was, in that regard, a literary snob. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Market Oriented Publishing

     Trivia has swamped contemporary literary life and become, it seems, more important than the books. A book's blurb is more important than the book itself, the author's photograph on the book jacket is more important than its content, the author's appearance in wide-circulation newspapers and on TV is more important than what the author has actually written.

     Many writers feel increasingly uncomfortable in such a literary landscape, densely populated with publishers, editors, agents, distributors, brokers, publicity specialists, bookstore chains, "marketing people," television cameras, photographers. The writer and his reader--the two most important links in the chain--are more isolated than ever.

Dubravka Ugresic, Thank You For Not Reading, 2003

Margaret Atwood on Unlikable Characters in Fiction

I have been idiotically told that I write "awful" books [novels] because the people in them are unpleasant. Intelligent readers do not confuse the quality of the book with the moral rectitude of the characters. For those who want goodigoodness, there are the Victorian good-girl religious novels that would suit them fine.

Margaret Atwood, novelist,  2013

Friday, June 16, 2017

How the Fear of Crime Affects Our Lives

Crime affects all of us. There is little we do without thinking, however briefly, that we might be victimized. Nearly every time we turn around it seems we risk being cheated, robbed, attacked, or preyed upon in some other insidious manner. Our cities turn into ghost towns at night because we fear to go out. We are afraid to keep jewelry, silver, and other precious possessions in our homes; so we must resort to safes, locks, deposit boxes, and security systems. Fearing sexual assault, women who live alone bar their windows, severely restrict where they go by themselves, and even fear to have their names on a mailbox or in a telephone book. Municipal parks and swimming pools are no longer oases in the asphalt for they have been taken over by muggers, robbers, and drug traffickers. People are threatened with weapons and even murdered so their assailants can grab a few dollars. When we shop for clothes we are inconvenienced by security precautions that limit how many items we can try on, and we are afraid to leave our own clothes in the changing rooms. We fear for our children because the public schools are beset with disorder, vandalism, drugs, thefts, and violence. [And don't forget the pedophiles.] Fear that our medicine or food will poison us is no longer a paranoid's delusion. Such things have happened from coast to coast.

Dr. Stanton E. Samenow, Inside the Criminal Mind, 1984

Novel Advice

If you want to be remembered as a clever person and even as a benefactor of humanity, don't write a novel, or even talk about it; instead, compile tables of compound interest, assemble weather data running back seventy-five years, or develop in tabular form improved actuarial information. All more useful than anything "creative" most people could come up with, and less likely to subject the author to neglect, if not ridicule and contempt. In addition, it will be found that most people who seek attention and regard by announcing that they're writing a novel are actually so devoid of narrative talent that they can't hold the attention of a dinner table for thirty seconds, even with a dirty joke. [Ouch.]

Paul Fussell in Jon Winokur's Advice to Writers, 1999

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Shoplifting Versus Kleptomania

In its condemnation of kleptomania as an euphemism for the shoplifting of the well-to-do, America followed England. More attention was paid to the crime and how to stop it than to the disease and how to cure it. Founded in 1850 as a private security company [and investigative agency], the Pinkerton National Detective Agency established a division to catch shoplifters after the Civil War and most of the major department stores took advantage of it. Pinkerton detectives pursued shoplifters, while socialists, transcendentalists, and humorists lampooned kleptomaniacs as proof of democracy's failure. In his 1888 essay, "A New Crime," Mark Twain writes, "In these days, too, if a person of good family and high social standing steals anything, they call it KLEPTOMANIA, and send him to the lunatic asylum." …A lifelong advocate for free speech, suffragism, and a classless society, the anarchist Emma Goldman derided kleptomania. In a speech she gave in 1896 Pittsburgh, she denounced it as yet another strategy the wealthy enacted to steal from the poor.

Rachel Shteir, The Steal, 2011

What's Keeping You From Writing?

     If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do? You're a human being, with a unique story to tell, and you have every right. If you speak with passion, many of us will listen. We need stories to live, all of us. We live by story. Yours enlarges the circle....

     Writing is work, hard work, and its rewards are personal more than financial, which means most people have to do it after hours. But if writing is work, learning to write isn't necessarily painful. To the contrary, silence is pain that writing relieves.

Richard Rhodes, How to Write, 1995

     

Theodore Dreiser on American Literary Criticism

To sit up and criticize me for saying "vest" instead of "waistcoat"; to talk about my splitting the infinitive and using vulgar commonplaces here and there, when the tragedy of a man's life is being displayed, is silly. More, it is ridiculous. It makes me feel that American criticism is the joke that English authorities maintain it to be.

Theodore Dreiser in Theodore Dreiser, by Phillip L. Gerber, 1964 

Who Killed Jesse James?

     Did Bob Ford really kill the notorious outlaw Jesse Woodson James on April 3, 1882 in his house high atop Lafayette Street in St. Joseph, Missouri? If not Jesse, then who met his maker, courtesy of Bob Ford's revolver, on that fateful day?...

     Some say the assassinated man was an unwitting stand-in by the name of Charlie Bigelow. Others announce that there were in truth two Jesse Jameses: one, the true Jesse Woodson James, and the other, Jesse R. James, who was a Jesse Woodson James look-alke who could fool even Jesse's older brother Frank. In life and death, he passed himself off, it is said, as the authentic Jesse...

     Jesse James died on April 3, 1882 in St. Joseph, Missouri when he was shot in the head by a single bullet that did not exit his skull. In light of scientific findings, the claims of those who say that someone else died in Jesse's place, and that Jesse lived on to father additional children, are worse than nonsense. They are ludicrous in the extreme.

James E. Starrs (with Katherine Ramsland), A Voice for the Dead, 2005

  

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

China's Shocking Murder Story the Government Tried To Suppress

     At 7:15 in the morning of Monday, March 4, 2013, Mr. Xu parked his gray Toyota RAV 4 near the supermarket where he worked. He ran into the building, turned on the heat, and returned to the parking lot. To his horror, Mr. Xu discovered that someone had stolen his SUV along with his two-month-old baby who was in the backseat. The car thief probably didn't know the vehicle was occupied.

     The distraught father called the police department in Changchun City, a sprawling megalopolis of 8 million people in northeast China's Jilin Province. Mr. Xu also called a local radio station which broadcast periodic bulletins that included descriptions of the stolen car and the missing baby. Eight thousand police officers were alerted as well as thousands of taxi cab drivers. All of these people, including listeners of the radio station, were on the lookout for the stolen Toyota and its infant passenger, a baby named Xu Haobo.

     Almost immediately a variety of Internet social media sites picked up on the ongoing story. Most people following the case assumed that once the car thief realized he had inadvertently abducted the car owner's child, would deposit the infant in front of a hospital or some other public place.

     The next day, the car had not been recovered and the baby was still missing. Perhaps the car thief was also a kidnapper seeking a ransom. At five in the afternoon of Tuesday, March 5, a man named Zhou Xijun turned himself in to the Changchun police. According to the 48-year-old resident of Gongzhuling City, about an hour after he took Mr. Xu's car, he strangled the baby to death. Mr. Xijun said he buried the corpse in the snow off a country road.

     While the Xu Haobo story was widely circulated in China's Internet social media, Xinwenhua News, the official Jilin Province newspaper, did not report the murder. According to an independent journalist who uses the name "Yingshidian," the Communist run Provincial Propaganda Department had censored reportage of the case. The story was suppressed because it lent credence to concerns that criminals in China were losing all respect for human life. Stories like this were bad for tourism as well.

     A relative of the murdered baby, on a Chinese web site similar to YouTube, criticized the police for not finding the car thief before he murdered Xu Haobo. The relative accused the police of gross negligence in the case.  (Reportedly, the baby was killed an hour after the car theft which renders this criticism unreasonable.)

     Like all high-profile murders, the Xu Haobo case has spawned a lot of rumors. One story going around is that Zhou Xijun, the man who confessed to the car theft and murder, is covering for his son, Zhou Lei. Rumor has it that the son murdered the baby and is on the run from the police.

     The senseless murder of the baby in the stolen car has become one of the most talked about crimes in China's recent history. The murdered infant's mother has been treated for a mental breakdown at the 208 People's Liberation Army Hospital.

     Public outrage has led for calls that the baby's killer be punished with "lingchi"--the slow dismemberment of the prisoner's body.

     In May 2013, a judge in Changchun, China found Zhou Xijun guilty of murder. The convicted man was hanged six months later. (In 2013, 3,000 criminals were executed in China. In 2002, 12,000 were hanged.) 

Voltaire's Science Fiction Novel

When it became known that the earth was only one of a family of planets circling the sun, the question arose: was there life on other planets? Many later speculated about this. In his Micromegas (1752), the French writer Voltaire brought to earth an eight-mile-high visitor from Sirus and a slightly smaller native of Saturn. Because of their size, these beings found it hard to decide whether there was intelligent life on earth.

L. Sprague de Camp, 3000 Years of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1972 

John Steinbeck's Journal

Here is the diary of a book [The Grapes of Wrath] and it will be interesting to see how it works out. I have tried to keep diaries before but they don't work out because of the necessity to be honest. In matters where there is no definite truth, I gravitate toward the opposite. Sometimes where there is definite truth, I am revolted by its smugness and do the same. In this however, I shall try simply to keep a record of working days and the amount done in each and the success (as far as I can know it) of the day. Just now the work goes well. It is nearly the first of June [1938].

John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel, 1969 

The Politics of Gun Violence

     When politicians talk about the epidemic of gun violence in the country, they seldom address the problem honestly. Driven by political correctness, politicians focus on shootings involving spree killers, and armed men in suburbia who mistake family members and neighbors as intruders. Anytime a gun enthusiast at a gun show accidentally shoots someone, the media is all over the accident.

     While politicians are not the brightest people around, they know that gun violence is principally about young black men shooting other young black men in cities big and small across the country. The fear of being labeled racists keeps politicians from stating the obvious. That fear, by the way, is well-grounded.

     Black males are ten-times more likely to be victims of violent crime than their white counterparts. That's because so many of them live in high-crime neighborhoods, and participate in dangerous activities. Every year, 3,000 to 4,000 black men are murdered by handguns. Roughly 30,000 are wounded. In March 2013, during a three-day period in Chicago, 38 black men were shot to death. On any given night in many big cities, ambulances deliver up to 35 black males to emergency rooms with gunshot wounds.

     On average, treating a patient who has been shot costs $322,000. This form of inner-city violence costs U. S. taxpayer about $12 billion a year. The bill is significantly higher if you include loss of work, rehabilitation, court, and incarceration costs.

     Since the vast majority of these shootings involve illegally possessed handguns, the current gun control debate is nothing more than political grandstanding, and a waste of time. Politicians should be talking about how to reduce violent, inner city crime instead of imposing more regulations on law abiding gun owners. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Cold-Blooded Murder of Skylar Neese

     Sixteen-year-old Skylar Neese lived in an apartment in Star City, West Virginia with her parents David and Mary Neese. Sky City is a town of 1,800 outside of Morgantown, the home of West Virginia University. The community, located in the northern part of the state, is a few miles south of the Pennsylvania state line.

     On the night of July 6, 2012, Skylar came home from her part time job and bid her parents goodnight. Just before midnight, a surveillance camera directed at the apartment complex caught the A-student at University High School climbing out of her bedroom window. The camera also recorded her getting into a car occupied by two girls her age. When Sklar's parents discovered their daughter's bedroom empty the next morning, they reported her missing.

     The police questioned the 16-year-old driver of the car seen on the surveillance tape who said she had dropped her friend off at her apartment an hour after Skylar had snuck out of her bedroom. In the initial stage of the investigation, the authorities operated under the theory that Skylar Neese was a runaway.

     Over the next several weeks, fliers bearing the missing girl's photograph were placed on hundreds of utility poles and distributed to dozens of local businesses. The FBI, suspecting foul play, entered the case. Several of Skylar's fellow students were chatting about the case on the social media. One student eventually went to the police after hearing two 16-year-old girls discussing how they had murdered Skylar Neese. This student at first assumed the girls were joking, and for that reason didn't alert the police right away.

     On January 3, 2013, almost six months after Skylar Neese was seen on camera getting into the car, Rachel Shoaf, one of Skylar's 16-year-old friends, confessed that she and another 16-year-old girl had lured Neese into the car that night for the purpose of killing her. According to Shoaf, they had stabbed Skylar to death and drove her body into Pennsylvania where, at a remote spot near the town of Waynesburg about 30 miles northwest of Star City, they dumped her body. When the girls ran into difficulty digging a grave, they simply covered the corpse with branches.

     If Shoaf articulated a motive for the murder, that was not revealed. Police later arrested Sheila Eddy on the charge of first-degree murder.

     Police officers from several law enforcement agencies, on January 16, 2013, found a badly decomposed corpse in Greene County's Wayne Township. The body was preliminarily identified as Skylar Neese, but the identification was not officially announced until March 13, 2013.

     On May 1, 2013, Rachel Shoaf pleaded guilty to second-degree murder before a judge in a Monongalia County Circuit Court. She was incarcerated in a juvenile detention center awaiting her sentencing. The local district attorney indicated that he planed to recommend a sentence of twenty years. Under West Virginia law, second-degree murder carried a maximum sentence of forty years.

     Sheila Eddy pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in January 2014 and was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. A month later, the judge sentenced Shoaf to 30 years in prison.

     I find it odd that this case hasn't attracted more attention from the national media. I'm guessing that if this murder had taken place in Los Angeles, New York City, or Chicago, it would have developed into a big crime story. Sixteen year old, middle class girls do not go around stabbing each other to death in cold blood. Where are the TV crime profilers, criminologists, and murder shrinks?

     This strange and disturbing case was reminiscent of Chicago's Leopold and Loeb case in 1924. That murder involved a couple of young, well-educated men from good families who killed an innocent boy simply to see if they could commit the perfect crime. They didn't, of course, and were both sentenced to life in prison. (They both got out of prison before their deaths, however.)


   

Stephen King on His Place in the Pantheon of Writers

Somebody asked Somerset Maugham about his place in the pantheon of writers, and he said, "I'm in the very front row of the second rate." I'm sort of haunted by that. You do the best you can. The idea of posterity for a writer is poison....

Stephen King, 2013

The "Lock-'em-Up Era

     "Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people." James Q. Wilson's blunt declaration in 1975 captured perfectly the hard-line anticrime mood that was to dominate the country for the next twenty years. Persistent high rates of violent crime, public hysteria over drugs, and worsening race relations fostered a "lock-'em-up attitude toward criminals. The result was a spectacular increase in the number of prisoners, from 240,593 in 1975 to 1 million by January 1996. The incarceration rate of 330 per 100,000 population was eight times higher than that of many western European countries and was rivaled only by the rates in South Africa and the former Soviet Union.

     Nothing better illustrated the "lock-'em-up attitude than the fate of Gary Fannon, sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole at age 18 for possessing 650 grams of cocaine. The draconic Michigan drug law under which he was sentenced was typical of those in many states. There was also the case of Jerry Williams the so-called "pizza thief." One of the first persons convicted under a 1994 California "three strikes and you're out" law, he was sentenced to twenty-five years to life for stealing three slices of pizza.

[We seem to be starting the twenty-first century with the "let-'m out" attitude.]

Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice, Second Edition, 1998

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Crystal Mangum Murder Case

      In 2006, 27-year-old Crystal Mangum claimed that three Duke University lacrosse players gang-raped her at a team party. The students had hired her as a stripper. The case grabbed national headlines because the accused were privileged young white men and the victim was working-class black.

     When it became obvious that Mangum had fabricated her story of rape, North Carolina's attorney general declared the three Duke students innocent. The case ruined the career of Mike Nifong, the politically ambitious Durham County prosecutor who had championed Mangum's false allegations. The  state bar association disbarred Nifong for his bad faith and overzealous prosecution of the innocent college students. The Duke Lacrosse case represented what can happen when politics and race override the pursuit of justice.

     Another Durham County prosecutor, in February 2010, charged Crystal Mangum with attempted murder in connection with a row she had with her live-in boyfriend. According to the victim, she trashed his car then set fire to a pile of his clothes. At the time of the fire, children were in the apartment.

     Just before the trial, the prosecutor replaced the attempted murder charge with felony-arson and contributing to the abuse of minors. In December 2010, a jury found Mangum guilty of the child abuse charge after failing to reach a consensus on the felony-arson count. The judge sentenced Mangum to the amount of time she had served in jail awaiting trial.

   A 911 operator in Durham, North Carolina, on April 3, 2011, received an emergency call from the nephew of a 46-year-old man named Reginald Daye. Mr. Daye, another Mangum boyfriend, shared an apartment with her. The 911 caller said, "It's Crystal Mangum. The Crystal Mangum! I told him [Daye] she was trouble from the damn beginning!"

    According to this 911 caller, Mr. Daye needed emergency medical assistance. Crystal Mangum had stabbed him with a kitchen knife.

     Paramedics rushed Reginald Daye to Duke University Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery to repair the knife wound. Police officers arrested Mangum that day at a nearby apartment. Charged with assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill, the police booked Mangum into the Durham County Jail. The magistrate set her bond at $300,000.

     Ten days after his surgery Reginald Daye died from the knife attack. The prosecutor immediately upgraded the charge against Mangum to first-degree murder.

     In February 2013, Mangum gained temporary freedom after someone posted her bond. Acting as her own attorney, she claimed she had killed Reginald Daye in self defense.

     By the time the Mangum murder case went to trial on November 11, 2013, the accused had acquired the services of two defense attorneys. Assistant District Attorney Charlene Franks, in her opening remarks before the jury, said that the defendant, armed with a kitchen knife, had chased the victim down. Ten days later he died from his wounds.

     According to the defense version of the case, Mangum, to protect herself against an enraged and jealous boyfriend, locked herself in the bathroom. When Daye kicked down the door and started beating her, she used the kitchen knife to "poke him in the side." According to the defense, Daye had died not from the stabbing but from complications arising from his surgery.

     On November 22, 2013, the jury, after a six-hour deliberation, rejected Mangum's version of the events leading up to Reginald Daye's violent death. The panel found the defendant guilty of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced Mangum to a minimum 14 years in prison. At maximum, she could spend 18 years behind bars.

     If Crystal Mangum is released after serving her minimum sentence, she will walk out of prison at age 48. If she conducts herself behind bars like she has lived her life on the outside, she's in for a difficult 14 years.

     

Killing the Desire to Write

     We start out in our lives as little children, full of light and the clearest vision…Then we go to school and then comes on the great Army of school teachers with their critical pencils, and parents and older brothers (the greatest sneerers of all) and cantankerous friends, and finally that Great Murderer of the Imagination--a world of unceasing, unkind, dinky, prissy Criticalness.

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, 1938 in the Preface to the Second Edition, 1983 

Read First, Write Later

Reading is the one necessary prerequisite for writing. Every published writer of books I know grew up reading….If you're a serious and dedicated reader, then, you already know part of how to write. You know the forms and conventions of writing and how others have used these forms and conventions to shape their work. (If you haven't been a reader, I'd suggest you become one fast if you want to write.) What you may not know is how to begin and continue and finish, and how to publish what you're done.

Richard Rhodes, How to Write, 1995 

Stephen King on the Long Novel

     Let us consider the problems of the long novel, in which the heft is apt to come in for almost as much critical examination as the contents. There is, for instance, Jack Beatty's famous critique of James A. Michener's Chesapeake (865 pages): "My best advice is don't read it; my second best is don't drop it on your foot." Presumably, Beatty read it--or at least skimmed it--before offering these helpful hints, but you get the idea. In this hurry-scurry age, big books are viewed with suspicion, and sometimes disdain.

     The book buyer's suspicions are more justified. The critic, after all, is being paid to read. Consumers must spend their hard-earned cash for the same privilege. Then there's the question of time. Prospective buyers have every right to ask: "Do I really want to give two weeks of my reading life to this novel? Can it possibly be worth it when there are so many others--most a good deal shorter--clamoring for my attention?"

Stephen King, "Flights of Fancy," The New York Times Book Review, October 13, 2013

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Talking Versus Writing

     People often assume they know how to write because they know how to speak. There are deep and important connections between spoken and written language, but they're not the same thing. If you think they are, tape a conversation and transcribe it verbatim and see how it reads.

Richard Rhodes, How To Write, 1995

Writing Narrative History

Historians have always crafted narratives. War. Peace. Political battles. Feuds in the hollers. Floods on the Mississippi. Hurricanes. Strikes. Assassinations. Voyages to known and unknown places. Trials of the century. Personal quests. Leaders with uncommon touches and tragic flaws. This is the stuff of great narrative and the stuff of narrative history, stories about the past told with verve and drama but also with strong arguments and thick footnotes.

Lee Gutkind, Keep it Real, 2009 

The Emotional Makeup of a Serial Killer

After speaking at length to more than eighty [serial killers], I have found that serial murderers do not relate to others on any level that you would expect one person to relate to another. They can play roles beautifully, create complex, earnest, performances to which no Hollywood Oscar winner could hold a candle. They can mimic anything. They can appear to be complete and whole human beings, and in some cases are seen to be pillars of society. But they're missing a very essential core of human relatedness. For them, killing is nothing, nothing at all. Serial murderers have no emotional connection to their victims. That's probably the most chilling part of it. Not only do they not care, but they also have no ability to care.

Dr. Helen Morrison, My Life Among the Serial Killers, 2004

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Altering Criminal Behavior Through Blood Transfusion

     British and French doctors tried transfusing sheep's blood into humans, hoping that the life force of a docile creature might tame mad passions. In France, Dr. Jean Denis tried it on a wife-beater, with at first good results.

     Over in England, on November 23, 1667, a daft impoverished clergyman's helper, named Arthur Coga, was paid twenty shillings to undergo the experiment, receiving up to twelve ounces of blood from the wooly four-footed beast. "Some think it may have a good effect upon him as a frantic man by cooling his blood," wrote famed diarist, Samuel Pepys. A large crowd of experts gathered at the Royal Society to observe.

     Pepys was pleased to note that the following week, the man addressed the Royal Society in Latin. "He is a little cracked in his head, though he speaks very reasonably," added Pepys a bit cryptically.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Trump University: A Scam or Standard Academic Puffing?

     In May 2005, Donald Trump added a new service to the far reaching and diverse Trump brand. (Bottled water, neckties, golf courses, resorts, hotels, office buildings, condominiums--you name it.) Aspiring entrepreneurs in search of their fortunes could enroll at Trump University, an online educational institution that offered courses and seminars in real estate, asset management, entrepreneurship (If you need to go to school to become an entrepreneur, forget it.), and wealth creation. Trump University tuition ranged from $1,500 to $35,000. This was a lot of money for a "university" that didn't confer college credits or an accredited degree. Enrollees knew this, of course. They were attracted to the Trump name and all it stood for. Fair enough. That's why students endure Massachusetts to attend Harvard.

     Donald Trump himself appeared in television ads for the school that led prospective students to believe that the course instructors had been handpicked by The Donald. The targeted customers were promised a free, 90-minute seminar where they would learn how to make money in real estate through a "systematic method of investing." The free seminar acted as a pitch for the three-day real estate seminar that cost $1,495. The Trump school also offered the so-called "Trump Elite" educational packages that included personal mentorship programs that cost between $10,000 and $35,000.

     Trump University, in June 2010, changed its name to The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative after bureaucrats with the New York State Department of Education declared the use of the word "university" in the company name misleading. (Just how stupid would a prospective student have to be to think this was a real university?) The state authorities also felt that because the institution wasn't licensed, accredited, or bonded by the state, it was not a legal operation. Perhaps this is the real reason New York injected itself into the business of Mr. Trump's school. The government wasn't getting it's cut of the action.

     In May 2011, six years after the founding of Trump University, the New York Attorney General's Office, under Eric T. Schneiderman, launched an investigation of Trump's online educational service. State investigators were looking for evidence of "illegal business practices." The attorney general opened the case against Trump after Trump University graduates from New York and four other states complained they had been misled by deceptive advertisement. (According to Attorney General Schneiderman, some of the "Trump Elites" thought they had purchased the right to meet Donald Trump in person. Instead, they were photographed next to a live-size poster of the man.) At this point, The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative had essentially ceased doing business.

     The state of New York, in August 2013, filed a $40 million civil suit against the Trump institution. In its quest for restitution, the attorney general's office accused Trump and his operatives of illegal business practices in the form of "false promises." In the suit the plaintiff described Trump University as "an elaborate bait-and-switch" operation.

     Attorney General Schneiderman, in a statement released to the media, said that Donald Trump and his people had made false promises to persuade more than 5,000 students--including 600 New Yorkers--"to spend tens of thousands of dollars they couldn't afford for lessons they never got." (They got one lesson, only suckers think they can get rich by going to a seminar.) According to the attorney general, "Trump University engaged in deception at every stage of consumers' advancement through costly programs, and caused real financial harm. Trump University, with Donald Trump's knowledge and participation relied on Trump's name recognition and celebrity status to take advantage of consumers who believed in the Trump brand. No one, no matter how rich or famous they are, has a right to scam hardworking New Yorkers. Anyone who does should expect to be held accountable." (Really? The biggest scam artists are government employees. Who's holding them accountable?)

     As could be expected, the Trump organization went on the offensive. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told an Associated Press reporter that he had testimonials from 11,000 former students who had been "extremely satisfied" (odd combination of words) with Trump University. According to attorney Cohen, the attorney general's illegal business practices suit was laden with "falsehoods."

     George Sorial, another Trump lawyer, accused Attorney General Schneiderman of being politically motivated. According to Sorial, Schneiderman had filed the suit after Donald Trump refused to contribute to his campaign. "This [the lawsuit] is tantamount to extortion," he said.

     Critics of higher education generally might wonder why the New York Attorney General's Office wasn't going after other educational institutions that charge huge amounts of money for diplomas that, in the job market, are worthless. Why wasn't he, for example, suing Columbia University, Brooklyn College, or the University of Buffalo for deceptive business practices?  

Eccentric Characters in a Novel are More Memorable

If you were to examine the surviving novels of this century, you would find that a majority of the most memorable characters in fiction are to some degree eccentric. Eccentricity has frequently been at the heart of strong characterization for good reason. Ordinariness is what readers have enough of in real life.

Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, 1995 

What Can You Tell About a Writer From His First Novel?

     First novels are unpredictable. For one author it's the best thing he will do in his career, something into which he empties so much of his heart and talent and experience that he's left with too little fuel to light much of a fire under future work.

     For another the first novel sets the course for an entire career: He's found the key in which his voice is most comfortable and he sticks to it.

     For some writers that first novel gives no hint as to what is to come. Every new work is a departure from the last.

F. Paul Wilson in How I Got Published, edited by Ray White and Duane Lindsay, 2007 

Female Serial Killers in the Annals of Murder

     Can you name the serial killer who struck in the back of a military helicopter flying at 4,000 feet on a mission? Or the one who, at the age of eleven, killed two victims? Or the one who danced and socialized with a California governor? Some would know to name Genene Jones, Mary Bell, and Dorothea Puente--three females. But for the rest of us, we never knew there were female serial killers. That is, except for that lesbian hooker--the one they made the movie about--Aileen Wuornos. While the names of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer, or the monikers of the Boston Strangler, Son of Sam, the Green River Killer, and BTK are familiar to all, ask us to name a few female serial killers and we usually stop right after Aileen. Were there others?

     Yes, many actually. About one out of every six serial killers is a woman.

Peter Vronsky, Female Serial Killers, 2007

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Creative Nonfiction Versus Reportage

Creative nonfiction differs from fiction because it is necessarily and scrupulously accurate….Creative nonfiction differs from traditional reportage because balance is unnecessary and subjectivity is not only permitted but encouraged.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997

Stephen Koch on Writing Style

     Style is the relationship between writer and reader, and it is the vehicle through which you say whatever you have to say. It is the way you get your story told, and therefore consists of all your language and the whole manner you bring to its use. Style is always much more than decor or ornament, and it is always more than the way you dress up your story. It is the complete sound of what you write….

     Writers often talk about "finding their voice," and that is indeed just what it feels like. In fact, most writers have to "find their voice" many times over, since each new project, with its changed subject and set of demands, will call for some change in manner and inflection.

Stephen Koch, Writer's Workshop, 2003

Flawed Eyewitness Memories

I describe a study I'd conducted in which subjects watched a film of a robbery involving a shooting and were then exposed to a television account of the event which contained erroneous details. When asked to recall what happened during the robbery, many subject incorporated the erroneous details from the television report into their account. Once these details were inserted into a person's mind through the technique of exposure to post-event information, they were adopted as the truth and protected as fiercely as the "real," original details. Subjects typically resisted any suggestion that their richly detailed memories might have been flawed or contaminated and asserted with great confidence that they saw what their revised and adapted memories told them they saw.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham, The Myth of Repressed Memory, 1994

Coaxing Clues From a Corpse

The typical American goes into the ground injected with three to four gallons of preservatives. But a sizable segment of our over-sanitized culture will always escape quick processing. Prominent among this population: the abandoned and the murdered. In theory, their moldering bodies--slumped under bridges, forgotten in bed, or dumped along roadsides--retain the natural if repulsive clues that might disclose time of death. For reasons as sensible as sensory, police are quick to pass these unvarnished dead to the next line of custody--the coroners and medical examiners whose job it is to coax secrets from a corpse.

Jessica Snyder Sachs, Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, 2001

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

State Agents Execute Baby Deer: Keeping America Safe

     Lest anyone think that American law enforcement isn't insanely militarized, the story of a SWAT-like raid of an animal shelter in search of a state-condemned baby fawn should settle the question once and for all.

     In early July 2013, a family living in Illinois across the state line from Kenosha, Wisconsin, rescued a baby fawn that had been abandoned by her mother. The animal lovers who discovered the deer in their backyard, called the Society of St. Francis Animal Shelter in Kenosha. Personnel at the no-kill shelter agreed to take custody of the abandoned deer.

     An unidentified busybody, shocked that the shelter housed a wild animal without the required state-issued permit, alerted the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). After the agency received the anonymous tip, DNR agents dedicated to maintaining the peace and dignity of the great state of Wisconsin, sprang into action. Rather than one agent simply driving out to the shelter to inform the St. Francis personnel that they needed to acquire a permit for the baby deer (the day will come when we will have to get government permits for everything), DNR agents assigned to the case arranged for aerial photographs of the animal shelter and the contraband deer. (It's too bad Obama didn't lend the agency one of his drones. Terrorists--unlicensed deer--what's the difference?)

     Employees of the rogue animal shelter had named the 35-pound fawn "Giggles" because of the sounds she made.

     On July 15, 2013, a heavily armed squad of nine DNR agents accompanied by four deputy sheriffs rolled up to the Society of St. Francis Animal Shelter in several police vehicles. (The local SWAT tank was currently being used to transport a captured check-passer who had been caught in possession of two unregistered ballpoint pens. Just kidding.) It's hard to image what the idiot in charge of this SWAT-like operation was thinking. Did these officers expect armed resistance from the shelter workers? We all know how dangerous these kind of people can be. Perhaps the agents were afraid of Giggles. Unarmed deer in the wild have been known to charge hunters.

     As the DNR agents began executing their search warrant--that's right, they actually went to the trouble of bothering a judge for a search warrant--confused and concerned shelter employee were corralled near a picnic area. A false move at this point could have gotten one of them killed. This was serious business.

     The woman in charge of the shelter under siege informed one of the agents that Giggles was being taken the next day to a wildlife reserve. This relevant information fell on deaf ears. Armed law enforcement warriors on important crime-fighting missions do not allow themselves to be distracted by interfering bystanders.

     Not long after the armed invasion of the animal shelter, a DNR agent walked proudly out of the barn with a body-bag thrown over his shoulder. Giggles, still alive, was in the sack. One of the outraged shelter workers who assumed the agent had killed Giggles, asked why he had killed the fawn. (Giggles was tranquilized and dispatched by government officials later that day.)

     The  DNR agent, in response to the obvious question of why, said, "That's our policy." Of course, policy! That explains everything. The government has its policies and we have to shut up and live with those policies. What would a citizen know about policy?

     The animal shelter employee, obviously not impressed with the DNR policy of armed animal shelter raids in search of unlicensed baby deer scheduled for execution, said, "That's one hell of a policy!"

     Following the idiotic raid and execution of Giggles, shelter worker Ray Schultz said this to a local reporter: "I spent 22 years in the Air Force and two years in Vietnam and I've never seen such totally unnecessary, senseless cruelty."

     Cindy Schultz, the president of the Society of St. Francis Animal Shelter, described the DNR raid to a reporter: "This was like the Gestapo coming in. Giggles didn't pose any threat. She was petrified. She wasn't even sick. There was no reason to kill her."

     It's bad enough that we have to live under the control of a growing army of mindless bureaucrats blindly enforcing stupid and unnecessary laws and regulations. It's even worse that these idiots have guns, and operate under the false belief they are keeping America safe.

      

Why Nonfiction Writers Get Rejected

Nonfiction writers write too much about themselves and what they think without seeking a universal focus so that readers are properly and firmly engaged. Essays that are so personal that they omit the reader are essays that will never see the light of print. The overall objective of a writer should be to make the reader tune in, not out....The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality in action.

Lee Gutkind, Keep it Real, 2009

Self-Deluding Criminals

Criminologist Robert J. Kelly interviewed several inmates at Rikers Island in New York City, and observed that "in their own words, my inmates see themselves as putty in the hands of fate." They blamed bad luck, coincidence, unforeseen circumstances--the victims shouldn't have been there, the cops shouldn't have shown up. The inmates could not explain what they did in terms of their own moral choices; they had to explain it in terms of forces beyond their control. It isn't just because criminals aim to get away with their crimes, it's also because they need to live with them. "A frank and sincere acknowledgment of responsibility would result in a collapse of the psyche," notes Kelly. Criminals are compelled to reconstruct events in such a way that the aftermath is bearable. They need to maintain a sense of self-worth. Announcing to themselves in the mirror "I am evil" is not a popular option.

Patricia Pearson, When She Was Bad, 1997

The Writer's LIfe

Before I entered publishing, I believed, like most people, that the life of a writer was to be envied. As one of my heroes, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) wrote, "When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip." Now I understand that writers are a breed apart, their gifts and their whips inextricably linked. The writer's psychology is by its very nature one of extreme duality. The writer labors in isolation, yet all that intensive, lonely work in the service of communicating, is an attempt to reach another person. It isn't surprising, then, that many writers are ambivalent, if not altogether neurotic, about bringing their work forward. For in so doing, a writer must face down that which he most fears: rejection. There is no stage of the writing process that doesn't challenge every aspect of a writer's personality. How well writers deal with those challenges can be critical to their survival.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees, 2000

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Writers of Puffed-Up "Literary" Fiction Get Undeserved Respect

Now it is the unassuming storyteller who is reviled, while mediocrities who puff themselves up to produce gabby "literary" fiction are guaranteed a certain respect, presumably for aiming high.

B.R. Myers, Reader's Manifesto, 2002 

Hunter S.Thompson's Gonzo Journalism

New journalism is a term that Tom Wolfe has been trying to explain, on the lecture stump, for more than five years and the reason he's never been able to properly define "new journalism" is that it never actually existed, except maybe in the minds of people with a vested interest in the "old journalism"--editors, professors and book reviewers who refused to understand that some of the country's best young writers no longer recognized "the line" between fiction and journalism.

Hunter S. Thompson in Hunter S. Thompson: The Gonzo Letters, edited by Douglas Brinkley, 2000

Biography As A Prism of History

As a prism of history, biography attracts and holds the reader's interest in the larger subject. People are interested in other people, in the fortunes of the individual.

Barbara W. Tuchman in Biography as High Adventure, edited by Stephen B. Oates, 1986

Hanging Women Versus Burning Them at the Stake

     For many centuries in most of Europe through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was considered "immodest" to hang women--since, given the billowy nature of skirts…their legs if not more would visible from below the gallows.

     "For as the decency due to their sex forbids the exposing and publicly mangling of their bodies, their sentence is, to be drawn to the gallows and there to be burnt alive." So stated Blackstone Commentaries, England's authoritative early law book.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Vampire Fantasy in Romance Novels

It's that fantasy about taming the bad boy, and you can't get any worse than a vampire. They have been alive for 600 years. They've experienced everything. Then all of a sudden they meet this great heroine, who basically is a breath of fresh air. Falling in love, trying to find that spark again in their lives--that is a great romantic fantasy.

Erika Tsang, Time, February 27, 2006 

Driving Without a License

Plenty of drivers are out there with no license or one that is suspended or revoked. When you [a police officer] stop such drivers and ask for their license, the first thing they say often begins with "I was just…" as in "I was just gong to the movies" or "I was just dropping off a friend." They seem to think their claim of driving a short distance is a mitigating factor, as if the only people who really deserve tickets for unlicensed driving are those in the midst of cross-country odysseys.

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014 

Mystery Writer Agatha Christie

During her lifetime, Agatha Christie (1890-1976) sold more than two billion books, topped only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Hercule Poirot, her principal detective, appeared in 33 novels.

Reader's Digest, December, 2014 

Clueless in the Bronx: Puerile Substitute Discusses Love Life With Fourth Graders

     A New York City substitute teacher was fired after she asked her 4th grade students for romantic advice about her relationship with two men. Cassandre Fiering, 45, asked students to act out conversations where they would play the part of the men, both of whom are in their 30s….The incident happened in June 2013 at Public School 189 in the Bronx. Fiering said she was stuck in the classroom with five students without a lesson plan while the rest of the class was on a field trip. So she decided to act out the conversations….

     Students allegedly said she called them her "munchkins" and told them to toilet paper one of the men's homes….The kids, who were asked to help her choose between the two men, advised Fiering to break up with the younger of the two men because he was not returning her calls. Fiering said the conversation was harmless, and that the kids thought it was fun….

     Fiering is also an actress who has had small roles in commercials, movies and television….She admitted that it was poor judgement to bring her romantic life into the classroom, but told a reporter with The New York News that she would appeal her dismissal. "I've been slandered," she said. "This is the biggest bunch of crap I've heard in my life."

     Fiering has since ended her relationship with both men….[This puerile woman was fired because she was a substitute employee and not in the teacher's union. Otherwise, she'd still be in the classroom.]

Ben Axelson, "New York Teacher Fired For Asking 4th Graders For Love Advice About Her Boyfriends," Syracuse.com, May 22, 2014 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Adapting to Prison

Prison socializes an inmate to act hyper-rationally. It teaches him patience in planning and pursuing his goals, punishes him severely for his mistakes, and rewards him generously for smart action. No wonder that inmates are such ardent optimizers. A clever move can shorten one's sentence, save one from rape or a beating, keep one's spirits high, or increase one's access to resources. There is little space for innocent and spontaneous expressions of emotion when they collide with fundamental interests. Brutal fights, self-injury, and rapes can all be explained as outcomes of carefully calculated actions. Paradoxically, much of the confusion in interpreting prison behavior arises from both a failure to understand the motives of inmates and an unwillingness to admit that outcomes judged as inhuman or bizarre may be consequences of individually rational action.

Marek M. Kaminski, Games Prisoners Play, 2004

Penal Codes

The penal code...can be read as a kind of Sears Roebuck catalogue of norms; it lists things considered reprehensible, and tells us, by the degree of punishment, roughly--very roughly--how reprehensible they are. Groups that dominate society display their power most brutally and nakedly in the police patrols, riot squads, and prisons; but power expresses itself also in the penal codes and in the process of labeling some values and behaviors as deviant, abnormal, dangerous--criminal, in other words.

Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History, 1993

Detective Fiction as Literature

It may well be that when the historians of literature come to discourse upon the fiction produced by the English-speaking peoples in the first half of the twentieth century, they will pass somewhat lightly over the compositions of the "serious" novelists and turn their attention to the immense and varied achievement of the detective writers.

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) English playwright, novelist and short story writer

How to Get a Literary Agent

Choosing an agent is a lot like choosing a hairdresser. [I currently don't have an agent or a hairdresser.] If you know a bunch of writers and most writers do because who else is home all day?) ask the successful ones who represents them. [In reality, writers with agents hate to be asked this.] If you don't know any writers, look at books by authors you admire and see which agent the author thanked in the acknowledgements. Send five to ten of these agents a resume, cover letter, and proposal for what you're trying to sell (it's imperative that the prospective agent knows that you have a money-making project in mind). Interview the agents who respond positively and pick the one you like best. If no one responds positively, send your stuff to another five to ten agents. Don't take it personally. Think of it as practice in handling rejection. (Believe me, you'll need all the practice you can get.)

Margo Kaufman in Jon Winokur's Advice to Writers, 1999

[Avoid any agent who charges an upfront fee. A vast majority of the successful agents have offices in New York City. Retaining a fee-agent with an office in Youngstown, Ohio is worse than having no agent at all. Here's the catch-22: It's difficult getting commercially published without an agent, and it's hard to get an agent if you're not published.]

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Desire to be Written About

In our society, the journalist ranks with the philanthropist as a person who has something extremely valuable to dispense (his currency is the strangely intoxicating substance called publicity), and who is consequently treated with a deference quite out of proportion to his merits as a person. There are very few people in this country who do not regard with rapture the prospect of being written about or being interviewed on a radio or television program.

Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Criminals Are Victimizers Who Choose to Commit Crime

     I believed that criminal behavior was a symptom of buried conflicts that had resulted from early traumas and deprivation of one sort or another. I thought that people who turned to crime were victims of a psychological disorder, an oppressive social environment, or both....I saw crime as being almost a normal, if not excusable, reaction to the grinding poverty, instability, and despair that pervaded [criminals'] lives....I thought that kids who were from more advantaged backgrounds had been scarred by bad parenting and led astray by peer pressure....

     I gradually led those sacred cows to pasture and slaughtered them....Criminals choose to commit crimes. Crime resides within the person and is "caused" by the way he thinks, not by his environment. Criminals think differently from responsible people. What must change is how the offender views himself and the world. Focusing on forces outside the criminal is futile. We [the writer and Dr. Samuel Yochelson] found the conventional psychological and sociological formulations about crime and its causes to be erroneous and counterproductive because they provide excuses. In short, we did a 180-degree turn in our thinking about crime and its causes. From regarding criminals as victims we saw that instead they were victimizers who had freely chosen their way of life.

Dr. Stanton E. Samenow, Inside the Criminal Mind, 1984

Last Words of Executed Prisoners: Thomas J. Grasso

[Regarding his last meal]: I did not get my SpaghettiOs, I got spaghetti, I want the press to know this.

Thomas J. Grasso, executed in Oklahoma on March 20, 1995

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Tim Lambesis Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 2000, 19-year-old guitarist Tim Lambesis, a graduate of a San Diego area Christian high school, formed a heavy metal band called "As I Lay Dying" (the title of a William Faulkner novel). The group's sixth album came out in the fall of 2012 prior to a tour of Asia. The band was scheduled to kick-off a U.S. tour from Oklahoma City on May 30, 2013. Many of the band's songs included Christian themes of forgiveness and struggle.

     In 2011, Lambesis and his wife Megan separated. According to divorce papers, she accused him of becoming emotionally distant from her and the three children they adopted from Ethiopia. She complained that he had become obsessed with bodybuilding and touring. Megan also accused her estranged husband of having a "string of women."

     In April 2013, the 32-year-old rock star, on two occasions, confided to a man who worked out at his gym that he wanted to have his wife killed. Lambesis told this man his wife made it difficult for him to visit his children. The man in the gym Lambesis reached out to reported Lambesis' homicidal wishes to the San Diego County Sheriff's Office. Shortly thereafter, Lambesis met with an undercover police officer posing as a hit man named "Red".

     In the recorded murder-for-hire meeting, the heavy metal rocker handed Red an envelope containing $1,000 in cash, a photograph of his wife, the security gate code to the Encinitas, California estate, and a list of dates in which Lambesis would have an alibi. According to court documents, the murder-for-hire mastermind also gave the undercover sheriff's department officer instructions on how to kill Megan Lambesis.

    At two in the afternoon of Tuesday, May 7, 2013, San Diego sheriff's deputies arrested Lambesis as he shopped at a mall in Oceanside. The officers booked him into the Vista Jail on the charge of solicitation of murder.

     The day after his arrest, at his arraignment, Lambeis pleaded not guilty to the murder solicitation charge. The judge set his bail at $3 million. Forty-eight days later Lambesis posted his bond. The judge required him to wear a GPS device.

     The murder-for-hire suspect's attorney told reporters that his client had been set up by the man in the gym. If convicted as charged Lambesis faced up to nine years in prison. His fans and people who know the entertainer expressed shock over the murder-for-hire accusation.

     On September 16, 2013, the Superior Court Judge, after hearing preliminary hearing testimony from the undercover officer and other prosecution witnesses, bound the murder-for-hire case over for trial.

     In February 2014, Lambesis pleaded guilty in a Vista, California courtroom of soliciting an undercover officer to murder his wife. At his sentencing hearing on May 16, 2014, the former rock star's attorney said his client suffered brain damage as a result of using steroids. The deputy district attorney dismissed the claim. She called it a flimsy, illogical excuse for what in reality was a calculated plan to have a person murdered.

     The judge sentenced Lambesis to six years in prison.  

The First Gothic Horror Novel

A source of modern fantasy was the Gothic novel, invented in Germany and introduced to England by Horace Walpol's The Castle of Otranto (1764). This novel of medieval murder and spookery has all the elements that became standard props of the Gothic horror story: a wicked tyrant, an imperiled virgin, an impoverished young hero of noble blood, a monk, a castle with trapdoors and secret passages, a ruined monastery, and two ghosts. Who could ask for more?

L. Sprague de Camp, 3000 Years of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1972 

Learning to Write From Reading

     There are two ways to learn how to write a novel. By writing them and by reading them. If you are not reading them, the obvious question I'd ask is, why would you want to write something you wouldn't want to read? Are you one of those folks who really wants to make movies and figures writing a novel is easier than writing a screenplay? (It is not.) Or you think the novel will be your entree into Hollywood? (It very well could be.)…If you want to be a novelist, you have to read novels. You're kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Your daily view of the world is affected by what you've been reading, and what you write will also be affected.

     You should always be reading a novel or a collection of stories. When you find a novel you like, read everything by that writer, or read him until you've had enough. You're reading to learn….

John Dufresne, Is Life Like This? 2010

JFK Assassination: Most Americans Believe in a Conspiracy

     [In an Associated Press poll] conducted in mid-April 2013, 59 percent of Americans think multiple people were involved in a conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy, while 24 percent think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and 16 percent are unsure. A 2003 Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans felt there was a conspiracy.

     As the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death approaches, the number of Americans who believe Oswald acted alone is at its highest since the period three years after the November 22, 1963 assassination when 36 percent said one man was responsible.

Associated Press, November 2013 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Great Brink's Robbery

     The smart thief learned early on that the money in banks had to come from somewhere, which meant that someone or some company was transporting it. This task, at least in the middle of the twentieth century, was primarily handled by the Brink's Armored Car Company.

     The Brink's company has, since its inception, been involved with the banking business. It specializes in transporting money from one location to another--a point which has not gone unnoticed by bank robbers and holdup men. At one time or another everyone has envisioned the big bag full of money falling off the back of a Brink's truck. Often this money is completely untraceable; it's either new money going to a bank or old money going to a federal reserve depository to be destroyed. One can safely assume that wherever there is a Brink's armored car on the move, money is inside….Today there are hundreds of armored car companies all over the nation.

     The first Brink's robbery took place in Boston on January 17, 1950. The crime, pulled off by minor miscreants, nettled the robbers $2.7 million in cash and securities. Although these robbers should have fallen into the amateur classification, they did case the job very well. They even went so far as to gain entrance to the Brink's building by accessing the security company's office, and taking a close look at the system which protected the fortified building….

     Eight men were finally convicted of the crime and given life sentences. The three surviving members of the gang were released from prison in 1980.

L. R. Kirchner, Robbing Banks, 2003

Novel Versus Short-Story Writing

     Short-story writing, as I saw it, was estimable. One required skill and cleverness to carry it off. But to have written a novel was to have achieved something of substance. You could swing a short story on a cute idea backed up by a modicum of verbal agility. You could, when the creative juices were flowing, knock it off start-to-finish on a slow afternoon.

     A novel, on the other hand, took real work. You had to spend months on the thing, fighting it out in the trenches, line by line and page by page and chapter by chapter. It had to have plot and characters of sufficient depth and complexity to support a structure of sixty or a hundred thousand words. It wasn't an anecdote, or a finger exercise, or a trip to the moon on gossamer wings. It was a book. 

     The short-story writer, as I saw it, was a sprinter; he deserved praise to the extent that his stories were meritorious. But the novelist was a long-distant runner, and you don't have to come in first in a marathon in order to deserve the plaudits of the crowd. It is enough merely to have finished on one's feet.

Lawrence Block, Writing a Novel, 1979 

Children Like the Sound of Words

Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia [words that sound like what they mean], they fall in love with impressive words and use them in all the wrong places.

Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, 1998