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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Woman's Prisons Are For Females

England's Lisa Mandy, a Labour Party member of parliament running for leadership of the party, is a high-profile advocate for people's right to "self-identify" as a man or woman regardless of biological gender. Mandy recently (2020) proposed that a convicted male criminal who says he's a female should be allowed admission into a woman's prison. Mandy said her proposal would apply to child rapist Christopher Worton who. following his conviction, identified himself as Zoe Lynes. The child rapist was serving time in a men's prison. He petitioned for a transfer into a female correctional facility. His petition was denied.

The Mystery of Literary Humor

One of the great literary mysteries involves how some writers can make us laugh, and other writers, regardless of how hard they try, can't. It gets down to the inability to identify the core elements of humor itself. There is no formula for funny.

Writing Your Life Away

V. S. Pritchett once wrote, "The professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and has become almost nothing." This may be true, but in the end, we all become nothing. So, if you've got nothing better to do, go ahead and write your life away.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Public Hangings in Colonial America

When executions were still public events, they provided an enormous interest. Perhaps no single event brought more spectators in those years than a public hanging. People drove for miles to be present; some camped in the vicinity for several days. The large concourse of people naturally brought camp followers to every large gathering. Entertainers, vendors, pickpockets, promoters, evangelists, sight-seers, peddlers, and medicine men would descend on the town before the fatal day.

Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, 1961

Ann Rule on True Crime Writing

True crime writing is a very delicate and difficult genre and not to be taken lightly. Done well, the books can be near classic. Done sloppily or carelessly, they serve only to hurt the innocent even more than they have already been hurt.

Ann Rule, writersreview.com, 2000

The Con Artist

     Ever since the Snake first talked Eve into tasting the apple, the con artist has been practicing his art; the art of confidence. Confidence is the key, because once you gain people's confidence you can manipulated them. In con artists' parlance, that person becomes a mark--also known as a sucker, dupe, john, green, and rube…ready to be played in a confidence game, big or small. In Genesis, the Snake was practicing what is known as a short con--a confidence game where the con artist only comes into contact with the mark once. A con game that requires the con artist and mark to come into contact more than once is known as the long con.

     In the modern era, traditional distinctions like these are increasingly out of date, because most scams and cons take place without any contact with the mark whatsoever. Email, telemarketing, and even text-messaging are the media though which con artists mainly practice today, but many of the con games they employ are simply variations of themes established long ago.

Joel Levy, The Scam Handbook, 2004 

Novelists Who Practiced Law

I enjoy the dubious distinction of being known among lawyers as a writer, and among writers as a lawyer.

Arthur Train (1875-1945). My Day in Court, 1939.

[Other lawyers who became successful novelists include: Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, John Mortimer, Louis Auchincloss, John Grisham, and Richard North Patterson.] 

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Violent Teenager

      "Children are so exposed to violence, and violence is so glorified and accepted in the media that they are desensitized to it. It's impossible to watch television for very long now without seeing murders, gunshots, assaults, and rape. Nothing is shocking to the youth of our culture anymore. Children are also desensitized and inspired by the violence that is around them in real life, especially the violence that is committed against them. When children are bullied and abused by their peers or parents, any violence that they express is going to be equal or greater than what they are going through.

      "Our nation does not have the same level of morality that it had in times past. We don't believe in a general sense of right and wrong anymore, and we don't hold ourselves accountable for our actions like we use to. The mind-set in our society now is to care only for yourself and your own gratification. When you don't value the life and rights of others, you don't view them as human, making it a lot easier to commit a violent act against them."

     This quote is from Luke Woodham, a depressed, angst-ridden teenager who, in October 1997 in the small town of Pearl, Mississippi, beat his mother to death with a baseball bat, shot two classmates to death, and injured seven others. Woodham's story can be found in  Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer (2009) by Phil Chalmers.

The Harvey Weinstein Story

The Harvey Weinstein story was crucial not just because of the specifics of this case but because there are Harvey Weinsteins everywhere, because these kinds of abuses of power are endemic, including in a lot of settings where you don't have marquee names to carry it into the headlines.

Ronan Farrow, NPR interview by Mary Louise Kelly, February 28, 2020

The Term "Cop"

There are two principle theories regarding the derivation of the term "cop" for police officer. Some word scholars believe it's an Anglo-Saxon verb dating back to the 1100s for catch, grab, or capture. Other linguists believe it developed as an acronym for Constable on Patrol. At one time it was considered a derogatory, disrespectful way to identify a police officer. Today that is not the case.

Uberto Eco's On The Student Thesis

A student [writing a thesis] makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actively reading them.

Uberto Eco, How to Write a Thesis, 1977. This writing and research guide is published in 17 languages and is currently in its 23rd edition.

Creative Nonfiction: Research Plus Storytelling

Creative nonfiction requires the skills of the storyteller and the research ability of the conscientious reporter. Writers of creative nonfiction must become instant authorities on the subjects of their articles or books. They must not only understand the facts and report them using quotes from authorities, they must also see beyond them to discover their underlying meaning, and they must dramatize that meaning in an interesting, evocative, informative way--just as a good teacher does.

Theodore A. Rees Cheney, Writing Creative Nonfiction, 2001 

The Tall Manuscript

It took me six years to finish my novel Legs. I wrote it eight times and seven times it was no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time out it was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old and so was my novel and they were both the same height.

William Kennedy in The Writer's Mentor, Ian Jackman, editor, 2004 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Rationalizing Police Perjury

Police throughout the United States have been caught fabricating, planting, and manipulating evidence to obtain convictions where cases would otherwise be very weak. Some authorities regard police perjury as so rampant that it can be considered a "subcultural norm rather than an individual aberration" of police officers. Large-scale investigations of police units in almost every major American city have documented massive evidence of tampering, abuse of the arresting power, and discriminatory enforcement of laws. There also appears to be widespread police perjury in the preparation of reports because police know these reports will be used in plea bargaining. Officers often justify false and embellished reports on the grounds that it metes out a rough justice to defendants who are guilty of wrongdoing but may be exonerated on technicalities.

Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas, 2012

Writing a Short Story Versus a Novel

A novel is so much more difficult than a short story. If you run, it's almost like you can think through your whole short story before you finish running. With a novel, it's almost impossible to do that.

Joyce Carol Oates, Where I've Been, And Where I'm going, 1999

Kurt Vonnegut on Male Novelists Of the Past

Male novelists don't slug and insult each other the way they used to, since they aren't a bunch of drunks any more. They would be drinking less even if it weren't for the sudden humorlessness of the judiciary with respect to driving while under the influence. Not just male writers, but male artists of every sort, are no longer pressured to prove that they are real men, even though they have artistic sensibilities. As I've said elsewhere, my father was a gun nut like Ernest Hemingway, mainly to prove that he wasn't effeminate, even though he was an architect and a painter. He didn't get drunk and slug people. Shooting animals was enough. But male American artists don't even bother to shoot off guns anymore. This is good.

Kurt Vonnegut in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, 2012

What Hasn't Been Done in Horror Fiction?

Writing horror isn't so easy. With any type of fiction, it's difficult to think of something that hasn't already been done. With horror fiction, it's especially true. Creepy basements, loud noises from the attic, hidden rooms, Indian burial grounds, old hotels, multiple personality disorder, etc.--it's all been done before, and it's all out there. These cliches shouldn't restrain you, however. They've simply defined the space you're working in. You know what's out there, now create your own story.

Cris Freese, writersdigest.com, October 25, 2013 

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Bargained Pleas

People think that plea bargaining is a dirty word: an automatic insult to victims and defendants. I guess that's because of the way it's usually done. Prosecutors can plea-bargain for all sorts of wrong reasons that all add up to the same thing: conviction rates. Some of the most obscene pleas I've ever seen a prosecutor take have been done in the name of sparing the victim the hardship of testifying; some of them with the victim in the courtroom trying to protest with no one listening. [At least ninety percent of all convictions are acquired through the plea bargaining process.]

Alice Vachss, Sex Crimes, 1993

Book Clubs

I love book clubs. I love reading for them, I love talking to them, and if I had my choice I'd probably do nothing but visit them to promote my books. Where else do you find people who have already made a commitment to read your book, and to read it closely enough to discuss it in a knowledgeable fashion with their friends? The best insights I've ever been offered about my work have come from book club members. In a world full of readings attended by the inevitable, random 5 to10 bookstore browsers and 20-year-old assistant night managers who consistently mangle the title of your book, book clubs are an oasis of intelligent thought and discussion.

Kevin Baker, The New York Times Book Review, January 12, 2014

Too Many Flashbacks

I'm not a fan of flashbacks. As a reader I find a story riddled with flashbacks confusing and annoying. If you get the urge to insert a lot of flashbacks into your fiction, stop writing and take a nap. If you still insist on putting them into your story, go ahead. But if they don't work, and on publication you are criticized for this decision, flashback to when you made this mistake, then never to it again.

Jacqueline Susann's Literary Fantasy

Jacqueline Susann, a long forgotten romance novelist responsible for such badly written  drivel as Vally of the Dolls, once said, "Yeah, I think I'll be remembered. I think I will be remembered as the voice of the 1960s--Andy Warhol, the Beatles and me." Oh how we kid ourselves.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Boy in the Claw Machine

     A 3-year-old boy who went missing from his home was found inside a toy claw machine in a bowling alley across the street. The boy's mother called the Lincoln, Nebraska Police Department on April 15, 2014 to report her son had gotten out of their apartment while she was in the bathroom. Police canvassed the area and were notified by a man that a boy was inside the claw machine.

     The boy could only have gotten into the machine through the prize hole."You have to weave your way in and out, so he had to work pretty hard to get in there," said Jim Lakey, the owner of the machine. The boy was not paying any attention to anyone outside of the machine "because he was just picking up stuffed animals and putting them down," Rachell Hildreth, a bartender at Madsen's Bowling Alley and Billiards, said.

     So did they have to use quarters to get him out? No, Lakey came to the rescue with a key to the machine. The boy was uninjured and allowed to keep one of the stuffed toys from the machine.

Jolie Lee, "Missing Nebraska Boy, 3, Found in Toy Claw Machine," USA Today, April 16, 2014 

Gustave Flaubert's Tortured Work Habits

I have just spend a good week, alone like a hermit. I abandoned myself to a frenzy of literature; I got up at midday, I went to bed at four in the morning. I smoked fifteen pipes in a day; I have written eight pages.

Gustave Flaubert in Writer's On Writing, edited by Walter Allen, 1948. The French novelist (1821-1880) is known for his masterpiece, Madame Bovary 1857.

Stephen King on Active Writing

     Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

     The timid fellow writes, "The meeting will be held at seven o'clock" because that somehow says to him, "Put it this way and people will believe you really know." Purge this thought! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put the meeting in charge! Write, "The meeting's at seven." There, by God! Don't you feel better?

     I won't say there's no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although "was carried" and "was placed" still irk me. I accept them but I don't embrace them. What I would embrace is, "Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa." Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It's dead.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Banality of Evil Doers

In real life, evil is usually quite banal. Serial killers, for example, are more often than not ordinary looking and acting people. These killers often have regular jobs, families, and hobbies. On the surface they do not stand out. You could talk to a serial killer in line at Walmart and not have the faintest idea that you are conversing with a man who tortures and murders women. Evil is not only banal, it is all around us like the air we breathe. In crime fiction, however, the super villain cannot be banal. Hannibal Lecter is a good example of a fictitious serial killer. The bad guys in novels must be insidiously interesting or in some way weird. But in reality, Hannibal Lecter murder types are exceedingly rare. The banality of evil reality makes solving these murders all the more difficult.

Government as Organized Crime

When you break it all down, government is nothing more than a giant bribery, propaganda, and lying machine; beautifully orchestrated corruption run by opposing crime families headquartered in Washington, D.C. and state capitals across the country. Any person running for office who promises to "drain the swamp" is either a liar or a fool. The only thing that gets "drained" is the taxpayer.

Fictitious Versus Real Crime

No one is interested in real victims, or real criminals. An imaginary crime is much more convincing; reality is too real. Readers can only identify with an invented crime, only on paper can evil excite them. [In reality, true crime is a popular genre, one appreciated mostly by women.]

Dubravka Urgrsic, Thank You For Not Reading, 2006

Involuntary Writer's Block

I was most happy when pen and paper were taken from me and I was forbidden from doing anything. I had no anxiety about doing nothing by my own fault, my conscience was clear, and I was happy. This was when I was in prison.

Daniil Kharms (1905-1942), Today I Write Nothing: The Selected Writings, (2009), Kharms was a Soviet-era poet.

Young Adult Crime Novels

One of the problems with thrillers or crime stories where children or young people are the lead characters is that ingenious methods need to be thought up to explain why adults do not take over the whole investigation. A major part of your skill as a children's author of such plot-driven books will be to come up with plausible reasons why your protagonists do not tell any adults what is going on, and concocting events that are viable and reasonable in a world fraught with "stranger dangers." [Nancy Drew type books weren't believable then, and are almost impossible to pull off today. In other words, there is no longer a place for this genre.]

Allan Frewin Jones and Lesley Pollinger, Writing for Children, 1996 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Inadequate Prison Terms

Inadequate prison terms have become a major problem. A Brookings Institute study finds that, on average, the serious criminal commits twelve serious crimes a year. That means that a criminal sentenced to ten years and let out in four will, on average, commit seventy-two violent crimes during the time he should have been put in prison. Other studies put the number of violent crimes per year per criminal even higher. Newspapers routinely tell of murders committed by men out on probation, parole, or released early for good behavior.

Robert H. Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, 1996

The Role of True Journalism

News carries with it a promise of transparency, a light that can be shined into previously dark corners. It is far from a coincidence that the rise of the popular press spelled eventual doom for monarchs of all types. Once the news becomes democratized, governance is sure to follow. [It's no secret that in America, modern bureaucrats and politicians loath the idea of a free press and free speech. Those in power do not like transparency. Government is all about dark corners, and secrets. Many Americans believe that members of the so-called mainstream media are nothing more than propagandists for people in power. Instead of journalistic watchdogs they have become establishment guard dogs that attack perceived enemies of the state.]

David Carr, The New York Times Book Review, June 8, 2014 

The Complete Novelist

Some writers have the ability to come up with interesting story ideas, original characters and exciting bits of dialogue. But they are unable to convert these concepts into the written word. Other novelists write beautifully, but lack the imagination or experience to come up with anything interesting or new. The complete novelist can do both.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

An Attempt to Discourage Police Abuse Complaints

      In 2014, Kansas lawmakers considered a bill that would make it much harder for citizens to report instances of police abuse, while simultaneously putting internal affairs investigations at even greater risk of succumbing to police corruption. House Bill No. 2698 required citizens to swear an affidavit before submitting a complaint against an officer. If any part of the complaint was later shown to be erroneous, the complainant could be prosecuted for false reporting, a felony. 

      The bill also established that police officers accused of abuse would not be questioned until after they had reviewed the complaint. Ironically, that was the opposite of how police officers interrogate criminal suspects. Criminal suspects are never given the opportunity to review the entire case against them before being questioned.

     The bill also mandated that all police abuse investigations were final. If one police agency found a police officer innocent, no other agency could  review the case--even if the latter agency was a higher authority, such as the state police.

     Under the U.S. Constitution, the citizen is supposed to be protected from the government. This proposed law and others like it, protected the state against the citizen.

     The bill did not become law.

Developing a Sense of Novelistic Place

Many novelists avoid laying out the setting because they fear boring their readers, but the lack of vivid setting may in turn cause boredom. Without a strong sense of place, it's hard to achieve suspense and excitement--which depend on the reader's sensation of being right there, where the action takes place. When descriptions of places drag, the problem usually lies not in the setting, but in presenting the setting too slowly. Make your descriptions dynamic and quick; give bits of setting concurrently with character and action.

Josip Novakovich, Fiction Writer's Workshop, 1995

Novelists' Work Methods

     The study I've made of the writing methods of others has led me to the belief that everybody in this business spends a lifetime finding the method that suits him best, changing it over the years as he himself evolves, adapting it again and again to suit the special requirements of each particular book. What works with one person won't necessarily work for another; what works for one book won't necessarily work with another.

     Some novelists outline briefly, some in great detail, and a few produce full-fledged treatments that run half the length of the final book itself. Others don't outline at all. Some of us revise as we go along. Others do separate drafts. Some of us write sprawling first drafts and wind up cutting them to the bone. Others rarely cut three paragraphs overall.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel, 1979

Novel Versus Short Story Endings

The ending of the modern short story doesn't require a long summary of what happened "afterwards." The novel, though, presents a slightly different case. After having spent so long with the characters, the reader of a novel has become so interested in them, almost fond of them as acquaintances, that he is not adverse to a long "afterward" or "conclusion" that tells how they married, settled down and raised children and grew old together.

Rust Hills, Writing in General And The Short Story In Particular, 1987 

Friday, January 22, 2021

Lack of Coordination Between Law Enforcement Agencies

     Law enforcement investigators do not see, are prevented from seeing, or make little attempt to see beyond their own jurisdictional responsibilities. The law enforcement officer's responsibility stops at the boundary of his or her jurisdiction. The exception is generally only when hot pursuit is necessary. The vary nature of local law enforcement and a police department's accountability and responsiveness to its jurisdictional clients isolates the department from the outside world.

     The National Crime Information Center [NCIC] provides officers with access to other agencies indirectly, to obtain information on wanted persons and stolen property. However, the sharing of information on unsolved crimes and investigative leads is not a function of this extensive nationwide information system. Reciprocal relationships between homicide investigators are at best informal and usually within a relatively limited geographical area.

     Linkage blindness exemplifies the major weakness of our structural defenses against crime and our ability to control it. Simply stated, the exchange of investigative information among police departments in this country is, at best, very poor. Linkage blindness is the nearly total lack of sharing or coordinating of investigative information and the lack of adequate networking by law enforcement agencies. This lack of sharing or networking is prevalent today with law enforcement officers and their agencies. Thus linkages are rarely established among geographic area of the country between similar crime patterns or modus operandi. Such a condition directly inhibits an early warning or detection system regarding serial murderers preying on multiple victims. [Today there is a national databank designed to help in the identification and investigation of serial murder. But many police departments don't bother contributing information to the computerized repository. Moreover, within federal law enforcement, there is still little coordination and cooperation between agencies.]

Steven A. Egger, The Killers Among Us, 1996

Truman Capote's Obsession With Style

Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsession of this sort, and the time it takes, irritates me beyond endurance.

Truman Capote in Truman Capote, edited by George Plimpton, 1997 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Arlando's Folly

     Over a period of several months in 2019, 29-year-old Arlando Henderson stole $88,000 in cash from the vault of the Charlotte, North Carolina bank that employed him. In July and August 2019, Henderson posted photographs of himself holding stacks of bills on Facebook and Instagram. He accompanied one of his Facebook cash-holding photographs with the caption: "I make it look easy but this shyt [sic] is really a PROCESS." In another Facebook posting, Henderson talked about building his "brand."

     Arlando Henderson used $20,000 of the bank's money to make a downpayment on a Mercedes-Benz. He also posted photographs of himself standing next to the white luxury car. Henderson deposited the rest of the money in an ATM near the bank he stole it from.

     To acquire funds to pay the balance of his car loan, Henderson falsified loan documents.

     On December 4, 2019, after being charged federally with two counts of financial fraud, 19 counts of bank embezzlement, and one count of money laundering, FBI agents in San Diego, California took Arlando Henderson into custody.

     If convicted as charged, Henderson faced up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. As of this writing, he has not been sentenced. 

Frank Abagnale on Being Imprisoned in France

I went from 198 pounds to 109 while I was in prison in France, and I had to tie my clothes on me with a rope.

Frank Abagnale, the "Catch Me If You Can" check forger

The Presumption Of Innocence Versus Common Sense

The presumption of innocence is a legal doctrine that mandates, in a criminal trial, that the government carries the burden of proving the charges against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. Because Lee Harvey Oswald was never tried and convicted, he is presumed innocent. O. J. Simpson, tried and acquitted of double murder, is also presumed innocent under the law. The presumption of innocence, however, is not a substitute for common sense. For example, you would never let an accused pedophile, a person legally presumed to be innocent, to babysit your child.

Charles Bukowski on Writers and Writing

     According to Christopher Hitchens, "The reflections of successful writers on other writers, can be astonishingly banal." While probably true, this does not apply to southern California's Charles Bukowski. Before he died in 1994 at 73, Bukowski, the author of thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels, had plenty to say about the writer and his craft. His anti-social personality and noir attitude about life is reflected in some of the following quotes. Nice guy or not, Bukowski was interesting, and he could write. A few of his writing related quotes:

Writing is a sick habit to break.

I can write more truly of myself than of anybody that I know. It's a great source of material.

I liked [Ernest] Hemingway for clarity, I loved it, yet at the same time I didn't like the literary feel of it, there was an upper snobbishness attached. When you come in from the factory with your hands and your body and your mind ripped, hours and days stolen from you, you can become very aware of a fake line, a fake thought, of a literary game.

Why do poets consider themselves more elevated than the garbage man, the short story writer and the novelist?

The job of a writer is to write, all else is nonsense that weakens mind, gut, ability and the natural state of being.

Poetry? Well, it's not much, is it? A lot of posing and prancing and fakery, wordplay for its own sake.

I am not so worried about whether I am writing any good or not, I know I write a valley of bad stuff. But what gets me is that nobody is coming on that I can believe in or look up to. It's hell not to have a hero.

I have to write a lot of poems to keep from going crazy; I can't help it. I often write ten to twelve poems a day and then top the whole thing off with a short story.

You know, I've tried the starving writer bit. I write better with a few bucks in my pocket.

I have to drink and gamble [horses] to get away from this typewriter. Not that I don't love this old machine when it's working right. But knowing when to go to it and knowing to stay away from it, that's the trick.

Starvation and obscurity are not necessarily signs of genius.

If there is anything good about my writing it is the roughness, the quality of not being literary.

There is hardly such a thing as a modest writer. Especially a modest bad writer.

It has always been the popular concept for the writer to starve, go mad, suffer, suicide. I think it's time for the editors and publishers to starve, suffer, go made and suicide. 

Yes, I drink when I write fiction. Why not? I like things to be entertaining. If I feel entertained at this machine maybe somebody else will feel that way too.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Hanging Out With Heroin Addicts

One of the entrancing aspects of the heroin world is the sudden access you have to people different from yourself--people of other races, cultures, income levels. In line at a dope spot you may find yourself talking to someone you'd cross a deserted street to avoid, and you can find yourself sharing drugs with someone much older/younger, much richer/poorer and much more famous/obscure. I've been asked by movie stars if I know where to, uh, you know, like. I've also chatted with people who live in housing projects as we waited in line for our little bags.

Ann Marlowe, How To Stop Time, 1999

The Fake Memoir

     How many people take themselves seriously enough, or think they are important or interesting enough, to write a memoir? (An autobiography is a full account of the author's life while a memoir presents just a slice of it. EG: "How I Climbed Mr. Everest" or "My Role in the Brinks Robbery," or "How I lost 600 Pounds Eating Donuts and Snicker Bars.") Judging from bookstore inventories, a lot of people. One would be hard pressed to name a well-known politician, entertainment figure, television host, professional athelete or writer who has not written (or had ghost-written) a memoir.

     Because so many memoirs are ghost-written, especially books "authored" by celebrities, the term "author," in the context of this genre, is rather ambiguous. Moreover, when reading a memoir, one can never be sure if the book in hand is fiction, nonfiction, or a blend of fact and fantasy. In recent years several best-selling memoirs have turned out to be, at their core, fiction, and therefore fakes. Examples include memoirs written about the holocaust, crime, addiction, sports, and coming of age. Since 1996, three major holocaust memoirs have been shown to be heavily fictitious.

     Greg Mortenson's 1996 memoir (co-authored with David Oliver Relinhis), called "Three Cups of Tea," a supposedly true story of how Mortenson's non-profit institute established more than 170 schools for girls in Pakistan, sold more than three million copies worldwide. In April 2011, CBS's "60-Minutes" reported that the memoir was a fabrication and that Mortenson had used his charitable organization as a "private ATM machine."

    Many fake memoirists want the freedom to create and take advantage of the power of nonfiction. Readers like true stories, but not all true stories are interesting. This is where fiction--and literary fraud--enters the picture, and why so many book buyers now question the integrity of the genre.

Science Fiction: An Acquired Taste

Science fiction is often accused (by those who don't like it) of being unnecessarily esoteric. You can't understand the stuff, we are told, unless you've already read a fat pile of it. Science Fiction writers use devices not readily comprehensible to an outside reader. Take faster-than-light travel, hyperspace, fourth and fifth dimensions. The truth is that anything worth knowing demands effort, and the science fiction understandable only to science fiction readers is almost invariably the very best kind written.

Gordon Eklund in Epoch, edited by Roger Elwood and Robert Silverberg, 1975 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Waking Up With Someone's Hand in Your Pants

     On June 10, 2012, Janarol Ali Dickens boarded a Delta flight from Detroit to Amsterdam. The 32-year-old asked the girl next to him if she wanted to watch a movie with him. She declined and went to sleep. When the 19-year-old woke up mid-flight, Dickens' hand was in her pants underneath her underwear. In addition, the victim discovered that Dickens had pulled her arm onto his lap. The alarmed passenger alerted a flight crew member who placed her into another seat.

     Upon arrival in Amsterdam, officers with the Dutch Royal Military questioned Dickens who denied any sexual contact between him and the complainant. The authorities in Amsterdam released the accused molester without charging him with a crime. The woman Dickens had sexually assaulted filed a criminal complaint against him when she returned to the U.S. Because the offense took place on an international flight that originated in the U.S., the federal government had jurisdiction in the case.

     On April 22, 2014, two years after the assault, Dickens returned to the United States. His flight landed in Miami where FBI agents took him into custody at the airport.

     To the FBI agents, Dickens denied fondling the woman on the plane two years earlier. But after further questioning he admitted that he had put his hand inside the victim's pants for about ten seconds. (As though brevity in this case was relevant.) Dickens claimed he had placed the offending hand outside the girl's underwear. (Again, not  relevant.) He admitted that his neighbor on the plane had not given him permission to touch her.

     A federal prosecutor charged Dickens with Abusive Sexual Conduct. Dickens posted his bond and walked out of jail shortly after his arrest.

     In March 2015, following his guilty plea, the federal district judge sentenced Dickens to two years in prison.

Why Trust the FBI?

If FBI agents can't be trusted to wiretap under the law, why trust them to carry weapons and make arrests?

Robert Kessler, former FBI agent and author of books about the FBI

The "You-Should-Write-a-Book-About" Syndrome

My last biography is no sooner in the stores when the letters start coming suggesting a subject for my next one. The grandmothers of these letter writers are crying from the grave, it seems, for literary recognition. It is bewildering, the number of salty grandfathers, aunts, and uncles that languish unappreciated.

Catherine Drinker Bowen, Adventures of a Biographer, 1959 


Feminism is not keen on romance fiction, but sometimes its modern offspring, chick-lit, passes muster. This is a rapidly aging but still contemporary kind of romance that is more complex than the conventional romance. [Chick-lit] entails family and other woman friends with whom the protagonist shares experiences. The term was first used in publishing in 1995 and it has stuck, though claims that chick-lit is postfeminist are exaggerated. The sex in chick-lit books is more frank, sometimes comical, and generally more nuanced than in the traditional romance, where it can be peremptory and usually out of sight.

Michael Schmidt, The Novel: A Biography, 2014

The Trial and Tribulation Children's Book

As America's postwar baby boomers grew up, dipped a toe in child psychology studies at college and started families of their own, children's book publishers took note of a new, pop cultural sensitivity to a wide array of developmentally-based childhood trials and tribulations. Picture books about potty training, tantrum throwing, the death of a pet and other emotionally charged topics proliferated, and were often shelved together at the library under the catchall heading of "bibliotherapy."

Leonard S. Marcus, The New York Times Book Review, July 13, 2014 

Monday, January 18, 2021

A Burglar Brings Down a Pedophile

     Police in Jaen, Spain [in December 2013] arrested a pedophile after a burglar who broke into the suspect's home handed over his collection of child pornography. The burglar anonymously called the police and said he left the pornography in a car, along with a note giving the alleged pedophile's address."I have had the misfortune to come into possession of these tapes and feel obliged to hand them over and let you do your job, so that you can lock this creep up for life," wrote the burglar.

     Police said they identified the suspected pedophile as a trainer for a soccer team and he allegedly recorded himself sexually abusing children around the age of ten. At least one of his victims--a girl now sixteen--said she had been abused since the time she was ten.

"Pedophile Arrested After Burglar Finds Child Pornography," UPI, December 19, 2013 

Objectivity in Forensic Science

     In order to maintain scientific objectivity, forensic science practitioners have to rise above the adversarial nature of the trial process. They have to be true to their science. This can be especially difficult when their conclusions conflict with the law enforcement view of the case. Staying at arm's length from law enforcement is much easier for experts in the private sector. Crime lab employees who get too involved in the overall criminal investigation and outcome of a case are more vulnerable to prosecutorial pressure and influence.

     Keeping a firewall between forensic science and criminal prosecution is extremely difficult. It's easy to understand, for example, how a forensic pathologist in a medical examiner's office might lose scientific objectivity when he is involved in a case of child abuse or suspected infanticide. Forensic scientists should not think of themselves as part of a law enforcement team. They should think of themselves as independent scientists divorced from the outcome of a case. 

The Art of Written Humor

What is the secret of writing funny? If I knew, I would write my own ticket. But I venture this thought: The art begins with a sense of sadness. This is the clown's gift.

James J. Kilpatrick, The Writer's Art, 1994 

The Dramatic Biography

Considerable commentary focuses on the nexus between biography and fiction. As a narrative genre, biography would seem to have the greatest affinity with the novel, since both excel in the creation of characters and scenes through the sensibility of narrators. And yet the biographer has much in common with the dramatist, since biography is a kind of impersonation and the biographer functions as a kind of actor attempting to represent his subject's sensibility. The greatest biography in the English language, Boswell's Life of Johnson, consists mainly of dialogue, with Boswell's own comments serving almost like those of a director's notes.

Carl Rollyson, Biography, 2008

The Importance of a Novel's Ending

As novelists we all know that the ending is the hardest part. Getting it right. If editors interfere, it is likely to be there, at the ending. If we are unsatisfied with a narrative it is likely to be there, at the ending. We wish for happy endings but sometimes we reject them as unrealistic, therefore trashy, and we feel cheated and pandered to. Stern, sadistic endings may not please us either.

Diane Johnson in The Writer's Life, Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks, editors, 1997 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Can O. J. Simpson be Defamed?

     In October 2017, after serving nine years in a Nevada prison for robbery, O. J. Simpson, the famed football player acquitted of double murder in 1995, took up residence in a Las Vegas golfing community. Shortly after his prison release, O. J. Simpson and two of his friends were having drinks at the Cosmopolitan Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. The men were asked to leave the premises for allegedly being drunk and disruptive. Following the incident, the Cosmopolitan issued the 72-year-old Simpson a trespass notice that prohibited him from returning to the establishment.

     A member of the Cosmopolitan staff publicized the O. J. Simpson banning by alerting the celebrity website TMZ.

     Simpson, who insisted that he had not been drunk and disruptive, and therefore did not deserve to be banned from the Cosmopolitan, filed a civil defamation suit against the hotel-casino in which he claimed that the publication of the incident had caused "tangible damage to his reputation."

     Attorneys for the hotel-casino argued that O. J. Simpson was a public person who had a reputation of being a robber and a man who had murdered two people. In other words, O. J. Simpson didn't have a reputation to defame. The defendant also requested that the case be handled by private arbitration.

      On January 20, 2020, a pretrial commissioner (lower court magistrate) ruled that the Simpson lawsuit could go forward in a Clark County District Court. 

Deadly Women

One in nearly every six serial killers in the U. S. is a woman, acting as a solo perpetrator or an accomplice. Of a total of about 400 serial killers identified between 1800 and 1995, nearly 16 percent were females--a total of 62 killers. While that might not be an overwhelming majority, it is not an insignificant number either--these 62 women collectively killed between 400 and 600 victims--men, women, and children. Three female serial killers alone--Genene Jones, Belle Gunness, and Jane Toppan--might account collectively for as many as 200 suspected murders.

Peter Vronsky, Female Serial Killers, 2007

The Romance Novel's Big Scene

     One of the most critically important moments in the first section of your Romance novel is the first meeting of the hero and heroine. This moment may be the first time the two of them lay eyes on each other. Or it may be their first meeting after a long separation, if they've had a previous relationship. Or they may see each other regularly, but this is the first meeting that is significant to the plot and conflict--the first encounter connected with the event that is going to change their lives.

     This first meeting sets the stage for the interaction of the rest of the book. If the readers don't see it happening, they will feel cheated and left out, and won't likely be involved enough with the characters to want to continue reading.

     Yet many beginning writers tell about the first meeting, rather than show it as it happens. Or they include just a couple of lines of dialogue between hero and heroine, then jump to a scene hours later where the heroine is telling her best friend in five pages of dialogue how gorgeous the hero is. Or they have the hero think about how he reacted to the heroine.

Leigh Michaels, On Writing Romance, 2007 

The Writer's Journal

I've kept a journal on a capricious basis since I was sixteen. For me, my journal is a supplement to my imagination. I recently heard of a novelist who cuts out magazine photos of people, pastes them on his study wall, and uses them as the basis for his character descriptions. I completely approve. Writing is hard enough, and I welcome anything that helps me along. Besides, I can't help but filter what I see through my imagination, so even my most autobiographical fiction is, in a sense, wholly imagined.

Robin Hemley, Turning Life Into Fiction, 2006

In "Journalism," Curiosity Has Been Replaced by Hot Air

We seem to be living in an age of know-it-alls: talk show hosts and guests, expert witnesses, pundits, gurus on every conceivable subject. The information age is exhausting. It is also dull, like a dinner party guest who never stops talking. In my view, this climate is anathema to good writing, which is rooted not in knowledge but in curiosity.

James B. Stewart, Follow the Story, 1998

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Blue Collar Versus White Collar Crime

Essentially, the term "white collar" crime is regrettable. In my view, it is the product of class snobbery, and is the Edsel of criminological terminology. Let's say the socially connected president of a prestigious savings and loan institution is indicted and convicted on a charge of stock fraud, manipulation and theft. So we call the act a white collar crime. But if the same sort of crime is committed by an Italian-American Mafioso who used to make his living by hijacking trucks, then we call it something else. But the act is the same, whether the perpetrators wear blue collars or white! On top of this, the term obscures the additional fact that the so-called white collar criminals are increasingly allied with the blue collars on many of these criminal ventures. Why is the fence a blue collar criminal and receivers of stolen property lily-white? Why is the man who hijacks a truckload of shrimp with a pistol inferior, in some sense of terminology, to the manufacturer who robs the public with his defective products?

Thomas Plate, Crime Pays! 1975 

Mae West's Short Runs as a Playwright

Mae West wasn't just a campy actress, but a playwright as well. Her first play, Sex, written in 1926, was about a Canadian prostitute. A production in New York City led to her imprisonment for more than a week on obscenity charges. [Prostitutes themselves did less time.] Her second play, Drag, was about transvestites. It got shut down on Broadway before it could even open.

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

Reading Your Sentences Out Loud

Read your work aloud, if you can, if you aren't too embarrassed by the sound of your own voice ringing out when you are alone in a room. Chances are that the sentence you can hardly pronounce without stumbling is a sentence that needs to be reworked to make it smoother and more fluent. A poet once told me that he was reading a draft of a new poem aloud to himself when a thief broke into his Manhattan loft. Instantly surmising that he had entered the dwelling of a madman, the thief turned and ran without taking anything, and without harming the poet. [Perhaps it was the poetry that ran the intruder out of the loft.] So it may be that reading your work aloud will not only improve its quality but save your life in the process.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, 2006 

Lean Versus Flabby Writing

     I don't subscribe to the view that good editing requires the ruthless elimination of every single word that is not logically essential to a sentence. Sometimes idiom or the natural cadence of English favors phrases that aren't stripped to the bone. There's nothing wrong with "hurry-up" even though "hurry" means the same thing. [The same is true for "I thought to myself."]

     But in many cases, extraneous words really do gum up our prose; many padded expressions are weak, flabby and ineffective.

Phillip B. Corbitt, The New York Times, September 16, 2014 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Forensic Hypnosis: Investigative Tool or Junk Science?

     Advocates of forensic hypnosis claim that crime victims and witnesses, under a hypnotic state, can remember events they have forgotten, and sharpen memories that are still with them. Forensic hypnotists are often brought into cases to help, for example, a witness or victim recall a license plate number, or an odometer reading. Investigators also use the technique to retrieve more detailed descriptions of suspects.

     Supporters of forensic hypnosis point to cases where its use has solved crimes. Detractors (myself included) can point to instances where hypnotically induced information turned out to be inaccurate, and even harmful.

     In the 1970s I was tangentially involved in an arson-murder case where a forensically hypnotized witness/victim identified an innocent man as the fire setter. In one of my own cold case murder investigations a witness I had someone forensically hypnotize, produced information that led to a wild goose chase. In Pennsylvania and several other states, hypnotically induced testimony, because it is unreliable, is not admissible in court.

     A lot can go wrong when a victim or a witness is questioned while in a hypnotic state. The hypnotist can unwittingly suggest information to the subject that taints the results. Under hypnosis, the personal beliefs and prejudices of the interviewee can seep into remembered accounts and descriptions.

     Researchers have found that people under hypnosis are fully capable of lying, and the process can bring to the surface a subject's false beliefs. Because of these and other problems with this investigative technique, I am not a fan of forensic hypnosis, particularly when practiced by psychologists who make their livings putting clients under to help them stop smoking, lose weight, stop taking drugs, or get off alcohol. Composite sketches based on the memories of hypnotized eyewitnesses are, at best, useless. In the practice of criminal investigation, forensic hypnotists should be placed in the same category as astrologists and psychic detectives.  

The Incurable Pedophile

Everything I read said that pedophiles weren't treatable--they never stopped being pedophiles no matter what was done for them, or to them. There'd been fads where they'd tried everything from brain surgery to chemical castration to "aversion" therapy in which after he's been "cured," the pedophile is supposed to snap a rubber band against his wrist every time he wants to rape a child. [Perhaps the rubber band was on the wrong organ.] Occasionally there have even been cases in which physical castration has been considered--as if removing a body part could change what someone is, as if they wouldn't just use Coke bottles or broomsticks instead. None of it has worked. The worst part is the way the experimenters have found out they failed: at the expense of children. [Notwithstanding the universal realization that pedophiles are incurable serial offenders, they are never sentenced to life in prison.]

Alice Vachass, Sex Crimes, 1994 

The Semicolon

A semicolon can be called in when a comma is not enough. There are times when a comma is already used too much in one sentence, when it can't do its job effectively anymore. There are also times when multiple thoughts in a sentence need more separation than merely a comma, need more time and space to be digested. But a period is sometimes too strong, provides too much separation. The semicolon can step in and save the day, allow a more substantial pause while not severing thoughts completely.

Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style, 2006

Groucho Marx on the Art of Politics

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

Groucho Marx, 1947

Should Journalists Edit Quotes?

One time a newspaper sent us to a morgue to get a story on a woman whose body was being held for identification. A man believed to be her husband was brought in. Somebody pulled the sheet back; the man took one agonizing look, and cried, "My God, it's her!" When we reported this grim incident, the editor diligently changed it to "My God, it's she!"

E. B. White, The Second Tree From the Corner, 1954

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Blowing Smoke

     On Monday, January 27, 2020, in Lebanon, Tennessee, a town of 32,000 in the middle of the state 25 miles east of Nashville, Spencer Alan Boston, looking like a 1960's hippie, stood in front of Wilson County Judge Haywood Barry. The 20-year-old defendant had been charged with possession of marijuana and was in court to be sentenced.

     Before Judge Barry sentenced Mr. Boston, the defendant, while arguing for the legalization of marijuana, rolled a joint and lit it, filling the courtroom with marijuana smoke. Several people in the courtroom broke into laughter. The judge was not amused.

     On the spot, Judge Barry charged the pot advocate with possession of marijuana and disorderly conduct. The judge also held Spencer Boston in contempt of court, and sentenced him to 10 days in jail. As deputies led the pot smoker out of the courtroom in handcuffs, the man on his way to the slammer looked quite pleased with himself. Perhaps when Mr. Boston came off his marijuana high, he would see things differently. Perhaps not.

     Defense attorney are known to blow a lot of smoke in America's courtrooms. This time, however, it was the defendant who blew some smoke, the kind that sent him to jail.

U.S. Counterfeit Bills From China

U. S. Customs and Border Protection officers, on December 19, 2019, were asked by the Secret Service to inspect a rail container at the international port of entry that connects the cities of International Falls, Minnesota and Fort Frances, Ontario, Canada. The CBP officers seized 45 cartons containing 900,000 counterfeit $1 bills. The shipment had originated from China. The seizure was turned over to the Secret Service that determined the bills were counterfeit. 

Combining The Power of Facts and the Techniques of Fiction

I think narrative nonfiction is essentially a hybrid form, a marriage of the art of storytelling and the art of journalism--an attempt to make drama out of the observable world of real people, real places, and real events. It's a sophisticated form of nonfiction writing, possibly the highest form, that harnesses the power of facts to the techniques of fiction. It constructs a central narrative, setting scenes, depicting multidimensional characters and, most important, telling the story in a compelling voice that the reader will want to hear.

Robert Vare in Telling The Story by Peter Rubie, 2003 

Charles Bukowski On the Cruelty of False Praise

If you lied to a man about his talent just because he was sitting across from you, that was the most unforgivable lie of them all, because that was telling him to go on, to continue which was the worst way for a man without real talent to waste his life, finally. But many people did just that, friends and relatives mostly.

Charles Bukowski, Women, 1978

How To Teach Fiction Writing

What you create when you're teaching fiction writing is a kind of literary salon, not a social club or a mutual admiration society, not a repair shop, not a fight club or a soap box. It's a place to have a conversation about a story.

John Dufresne, novelist, writing teacher, 2011

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Vice President Joe Biden's Take on Domestic Violence

Napoleon Bonaparte said it best: "In politics, stupidity is not a handicap."

    In a speech delivered in Washington, D. C. on Wednesday, March 13, 2013, Vice President Joe Biden, the self-proclaimed criminal justice expert on subjects ranging from how to stop intruders by shot-gunning them through closed doors, to the problem of domestic violence, once again revealed the scope and depth of his wisdom. In profiling men who physically abuse women, Biden said this: "We've learned that certain behaviors on the part of an abuser portend much more danger than other behaviors. For example, if an abuser has attempted to strangle his victim, if he's threatened to shoot her, if he's sexually assaulted her, these are tell tale signs to say this isn't your garden variety slap across the face."

     Joe Biden has the unusual ability to make statements that are both puerile and offensive. While it's obvious that a man who attempts to strangle a woman is dangerous, a man who slaps a woman in the face could be just as dangerous. "Garden variety" or not, a man who has slapped a woman in the face has committed criminal assault. Moreover, slaps have a way of escalating to more severe beatings, and even murder.

     Among the less bright politicians in Washington, D.C., Joe Biden has been the most eager to put his intellectual limitations on display. He's done it time and time again. In fact, he's done it so many times and in so many ways, people no longer take much notice. As they say, every village has one. 

When Your Book is Published and No One Cares

     Authors have to promote their books, and they have to be flashy about it. Especially these days. You can't imagine anything less frivolous, and more painted in grim necessity, than an average mid-list bookstore signing. The audience is hushed and minuscule, the shattered-looking author can't believe he's there--the whole thing has the last-ditch solemnity of a persecuted religious rite. Oh sure, there have been good reviews; there have been polite acclaim. Fellow authors have kicked in with the blurbs and the boosts. A prize might have been won. But as regards this book, and this writer, the great sleep of the culture is unbroken

     So: You find new formats, new ways to perforate the oblivious disregard in which America holds you, the dark night of your un-famousness. The problem of course is that it's all so, you know, unliterary. Anti-literary, really. In the promotional moment, what has hitherto been an inward enterprise (the writing of the book) is turned outward overnight; the author is all of a sudden on display.

James Parker, The New York Times Book Review, May 25, 2014

The Flawed Character

I'm fascinated by characters who are completely flawed personalities, driven by anguish and doubt, and are psychologically suspect. Wait a minute--basically that's everybody, isn't it, in life and on the page? As a writer, I'm drawn to characters who, for one reason or another, seem to find themselves desperately out of joint, alienated but not wanting to be, and ever yearning to understand the rules of the game.

Chang-rae Lee, The New York Times Book Review, January 26, 2014 

The Short Story Golden Era

     If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass.

     If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel. Interestingly, most embryonic fiction writers accept the notion they ought to write a novel sooner or later. It's not terribly difficult to see that the world of short fiction is a world of limited opportunity. Both commercially and artistically, the short-story writer is quite strictly circumscribed.

     This has not always been the case. Half a century ago, the magazine story was important in a way it has never been since. During the twenties, a prominent writer typically earned several thousand dollars for the sale of a short story to a top slick [non-pulp] magazine. These stories were apt to be talked about at parties and social gatherings, and the reputation a writer might establish in this fashion helped gain attention for any novel he might ultimately publish.

     The change since those days has been remarkable. In virtually all areas, the short fiction market has shrunk in size and significance. Fewer magazines publish fiction, and every year they publish less of it. The handful of top markets pay less in today's dollars than they did in the much harder currency of fifty or sixty years ago. Pulp magazines have virtually disappeared as a market.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel, 1979

Crime Novelist Rex Stout on Literary Legacy

The only thing I want is something I can't have; and that is to know if, 100 years from now, people will still buy my books.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) known for his Nero Wolfe novels

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

George Ryley Scott On How Corporal Punishment Reflects The Inherent Cruelty Of Mankind

Man is cruel. He has always been cruel. He is cruel to everything which he considers inferior to himself. He is cruel to both his fellow man and to animals. The advance of civilization has not resulted in man losing his capacity and appetite for cruelty; it has merely directed it both into fresh channels, or camouflaged them, or temporarily subjugated them. The delight which man experiences in persecuting others shows itself today in various forms; and where physical persecution is impossible, psychological persecution takes its place. The fact that a barbaric act is practiced under the aegis of justice, and the additional fact that it is conceived to be a fit punishment for the crime, do not alter or in any way mitigate its basic cruelty.

George Ryley Scott, The History of Corporal Punishment, 1968

The Thriller

Old-fashioned suspense is more engaging than immediate violence. A great thriller is more about creating a sense of unease, a queasiness that comes with knowing something is not quite right. It's why I love unreliable narrators--there's something so wonderfully unnerving about realizing midway through a book that you've put yourself in the hands of someone who is not to be trusted.

Gillian Flynn, The New York Times Book Review, May 11, 2014

Speaking of Dialogue

Dialogue not only creates space on the page, which is visually appealing, it's also what brings characters to life in a story, which is emotionally appealing. We're much more interested in a story's setting when it comes through a scene of dialogue. Our characters' tense words let readers know where our characters are internally and create suspense for what's ahead in the story. The onset of a dialogue scene immediately propels the story into high gear. [Not necessarily. It depends on the conversation. I've read a lot of boring dialogue created by so-called "literary" novelists.] Through dialogue, we can give readers a very real sense of a story's setting. If done well, dialogue can even communicate the story's theme. Effective dialogue delivers all of these things to eager readers. This is the kind of dialogue we, as writers, want to create.

Gloria Kempton, Dialogue, 2004 

The Short Story: A Burst of Creativity

The short story form is like a hundred-yard dash, compared to a cross-country race. There's no time for pacing, strategy, getting a second wind. In a short flash you go flat out, and that's all.

Ben Bova, Notes to a Science Fiction Writer, 1975 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Nitrogen Gas Chambers: Send Them Off Laughing

     [A] new method of execution being proposed…is known as nitrogen asphyxiation, it seals the condemned in an airtight chamber pumped full of nitrogen gas, causing a lack of oxygen…Nitrogen gas has yet to be put to the test as a method of capital punishment--no country currently uses it for state-sanctioned executions. But people do die accidentally of nitrogen asphyxiation, and usually never know what hit them. (It's even possible that death by nitrogen gas is mildly euphoric. Deep-sea divers exposed to an excess of nitrogen develop a narcosis, colorfully known as "raptures of the deep, " similar to drunkenness or nitrous oxide inhalation.).

     In late April 2014, Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc suggested to a state legislative committee that Louisiana should look into using nitrogen gas as a new method of execution, since lethal injection has become so contentious. "It's become almost impossible to execute someone," LeBlanc complained…

     "Nitrogen is the big thing," LeBlanc told the legislative committee. "It's a painless way to go. But more time needs to be spent studying that." The committee instructed LeBlanc to do some research on the subject and report back. [The nitrogen asphyxiation proposal, no pun intended, died on the vine.]

Matt Mangino, "New Execution Method on the Horizon--Nitrogen Gas Asphyxiation," mattmangino.com, May 26, 2014

Where Have All The Pickpockets Gone?

     To avoid having your pocket or purse picked while shopping at the local mall or public event, crime prevention experts recommend that men carry their cash and credit cards in front-pocket wallets and that women tote their handbags diagonally across their bodies. While there's nothing wrong with that advice, is it really necessary?  In America, are there any pickpockets left?

     Today, when people say they've had their pockets picked, they're usually referring to politicians, not those dexterous thieves who actually pick pockets and lift wallets from handbags. You don't hear much any more about those street larcenists with the educated fingers and nerves of steel. In the old days, as-told-to memoirs featuring the exploits of these soft-touch artists had a small niche in the true crime genre. But there hasn't been a book like this published for decades. Are these guys still around plying their sticky-fingered trade? Has pickpocketing become a lost art?

     In Europe, particularly Rome, Italy and Barcelona, Spain, pickpockets still mingle with the tourists. Most of them are from Bulgaria and Romania. But even in those cities, pickpockets are vastly outnumbered by their less talented criminal cousins, purse snatchers. In America, they have been replaced by armed street thugs. The FBI, through its uniform crime reporting system, no longer keeps track of reported pickpocketing cases nationwide.

     New York City has always been paradise for pickpockets. But even in the Big Apple, pickpocketing has been a dying criminal trade. In 1990, there were 23,000 reported cases, but in 2000, less than 5,000. Up until the 1970s, the city was home to organized pickpocket schools where students lifted wallets from mannequins outfitted with bells that would ring if the trainee lacked the required finesse. These academies are gone, and no one is passing the torch to a new generation of wallet-lifting thieves.

     The beginning of the end for professional pickpocketing came when people started carrying credit cards instead of cash. About the only people still practicing this ancient trade are a handful of professional magicians whose motives are entertainment rather than theft. These entertainers have the skill, but without the threat of detection, arrest, and jail, they don't possess the nerves of steel.    

Elements of a Short Story

It is not hard to state what Edgar Allan Poe meant by a good short story; it is a piece of fiction, dealing with a single incident...that can be read at a setting. It is original, it must sparkle, excite or impress; and it must have unity of effect or impression. It should move in an even line from its exposition to its close.

W. Somerset Maugham, Points of View, 1961

Sunday, January 10, 2021

California's Homeless Crisis

In 1957, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act that ended the practice of admitting patients into the state's psychiatric institutions against their will. In 2009, Governor Jerry Brown, after a federal three-judge panel's ruling, ordered the state to cut its prison inmate population by 46,000 people. These governmental actions, taken without measures to help these people adjust to open society, contributed to California's homeless problem.

Jails in Colonial America

[In Colonial America], murder was practically never a bailable offense; the defendant therefore, languished in jail until trial, and if convicted, until execution. Jails were not very strong and escapes were not infrequent, although recapture usually followed quickly. The jail was usually left unattended at night so that a prisoner had the long evening to work to release himself. It also permitted his friends an opportunity to pass in tools for his assistance. To add to the security of the prisoner, he was frequently manacled and chained to a ring in the floor of his cell.

Thomas M. McDade, The Annals of Murder, 1961

The Young Reader

Books for kids need to be very entertaining. No preaching, no hidden messages, no condescending tone, no didactic stuff. Kids are smart: don't underestimate their bull detector. Contemporary kids have access to a lot of information, so don't even try to fool them. Kids like fantasy, imagination, humor, adventure, villains and suspense.

Isabelle Allende, novelist, 2013 interview 

Sources of Humor

Humor writers mine their personal experiences for material. They may tell a story using narrative techniques, or they may relate personal experiences to make a point and offer an opinion. Humor writers gain a lot of help in craft by learning how to structure jokes, work with timing, and deliver punch lines.

Elizabeth Lyon, A Writers's Guide to Nonfiction, 2003 

The Eighteenth Century Romantic Heroine

The romantic heroine emerged in the late Eighteenth Century as the archetypal female figure in modern European culture. Romantic writers like Rousseau and Coleridge made the female heroine's sexual powers both dangerous and unpredictable, mirroring the spontaneity of nature. But they also made her essentially passive, someone acted upon rather that her own agent. As an erotic being whose sensuality was very much of this world, and whose intellect was of minor importance, she stood in sharp contrast to the medieval and early modern woman spiritual figure, who sublimated her sexuality in the search for a closer union with God and was capable of learned comment on theology.

Jill Ker Conway, When Memory Speaks, 1998

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Psychic Detective

     When trying to image what fraud looks like, envision a bus full of psychic detectives en route to a charlatan convention in Las Vegas. Real detectives who give these frauds credibility by consulting with them should be busted back to the street for magical thinking, wasting time, and squandering taxpayer money.

     A study in England published in 1996 pitted people who claimed to be psychic detectives against undergraduate psychology students. Each participant in the experiment was handed an item from a real crime scene and asked to utter whatever popped into their minds regarding the offense. The results of this study showed that the only difference between a psychic detective and an ordinary person was the ability to act and to lie with a straight face. Over the years, similar findings that discredit psychics have been replicated numerous times by other researchers.

     Conducting a serious study to determine if psychics are bogus is like conducting a study to confirm that the earth is round.

Cellphones Make Lousy Witnesses

People are so absorbed in their cellphones, they are less likely to spot crimes in progress. Moreover, people are less apt to notice a person from a wanted poster or a missing persons flyer. Eyewitness testimony, already a weak form of evidence, my someday be nonexistent. 

Pretentious Literary Award-Winning Novels

I find so-called "literary fiction" unreadable. All that stylistic showboating puts me off. More than that, it makes me angry and produces the urge to throw the award-winning novel against the nearest wall. Albert Camus said it best: "Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators." And those commentators are usually highbrow literary critics and college literature professors who have to explain to us yahoos what it all means. I'll tell you what it all means: It means a lot of academic hot air trying to justify inferior writing by pretentious, untalented literary pretenders.

The Spoken Word Versus Literary Dialogue

If you need proof that dialogue and spoken words are not the same, go to a supermarket. Eavesdrop. Much of what you'll hear in the aisles sounds like idiot talk. People won't buy your novel to hear idiot talk. They get that free from relatives, friends, and at the supermarket.

Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, 1995

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Birth of Modern Policing

     The major revolution in American police history occurred when the historic fears of a militaristic police force were replaced by concern over daytime disorder. It was not until the mid-1840s that Americans abandoned the constable-night-watch for a police department which emphasized preventative patrolling during the day as well as at night. American cities were then experiencing a tremendous population increase. Large numbers of people who did not know how to live in congested places were flooding to the city. If they were from European cities, they interjected a foreignness into the American city which was not appreciated. Homogeneity was lost and new forms of control--proper public constraints on demeanor and behavior--needed to be enforced in the daytime.

     Police arrest reports in the late 1854 and early 1855 indicate that such offenses as drunkenness, disorderly conduct, fighting, and resisting police made up the major police problem. The old constable-detectives were too few in number for such a task, and the quest for an urban discipline inspired the creation of the modern police in the 1840s and 1850s.

Frank Thomas Morn, Pioneers in Policing, 1977

Genene Jones: "Killer Nurse"

     In 1984, pediatric nurse Genene Jones was convicted of murdering a 15-month-old Chelsea McClellan, a patient at the Bexar County Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. The 33-year-old nurse had injected the child with a fatal dose of muscle relaxant medication. The judge sentenced Jones to 99 years in prison.

     In 2017, a new Texas law designed to reduce prison overcrowding made Genene Jones, known as the "killer nurse," eligible for parole in 2018. Jones, a so-called "angel of death," was suspected of murdering up to 60 pediatric patients under her care.

     In 2018, a grand jury sitting in San Antonio, indicted Jones of murdering four children aged 3-months to two years when she was a nurse at the Bexar County Hospital. The victims died in 1981 and 1982 from muscle relaxant overdoses.

     On January 16, 2020, Genene Jones pleaded guilty to murdering one of the four children, Joshua Sawyer. He was killed in 1981. The judge sentenced Jones to life in prison. The other three murder charges were dismissed.  

The Book Tour

You're lucky to go on tour. You're lucky to meet readers who prize your work and who seem as though they might be honored to meet you. You're lucky to eat the pretzels in the minibar. You're lucky to see cities you have never seen. These things are indisputable. Anyone will tell you.

Rick Moody in Mortification, Robin Robertson, editor, 2004 

Keep Jokes Short

The best humor is concise. Ask yourself: Is this line needed? Can I make this line shorter? Is this aside that funny? Can I format this joke differently to make it move quicker? Here's an example of a lean joke: George W. Bush's plan to gain environmentalists' support for his energy policy: solar-powered oil pumps.

J. Kevin Wolfe in How to Write Funny, John B. Kachuba editor, 2001

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Arthur Conan Doyle and the History of Forensic Science

     The birth of the modern crime lab can be traced directly to fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician and keen observer of his patients' abnormalities. He was a splendid writer, as well, and when he created Sherlock Holmes, he also imprinted on popular culture the idea that when the elements of science are coupled with applied logic, crimes can be solved. Doyle also knew that the way to brand the concept in the public's hearts and minds was to package the science in the form of a uniquely fascinating man. After all, it had worked before in Charles Dicken's Bleak House, published in 1853. In that novel, Inspector Bucket personified all that amazed the public about Scotland Yard.

     By the time Doyle was writing, in the 1880s, London had had a police force for fifty years and the detectives of Scotland Yard since 1842. Starting in the 1860s, those detectives had added crime scene analysis to their toolbox of skills, and the forensic sciences took a great leap forward. But when Doyle captured it all in the form of Holmes, he did more than just sell books. One avid fan was Edmund Locard, who was influenced by the writing and went on to build the world's first forensic laboratory in Lyons, France in 1910. [Edmund Locard gave us the so-called Locard Principle: The criminal leaves part of himself at the crime scene and takes part of it with him.]

     The idea of crime labs spread throughout the world. In 1932, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened its lab under Director J. Edgar Hoover. [Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Detroit had formed crime labs in the 1920s.]

Michael Baden, M.D. and Marion Roach, Dead Reckoning, 2001 

Don't Resist Arrest

Now, can some cops be overbearing, rude? Yeah. But we have a process for that. Do what the officer tells you to do, and file a complaint. You don't attack a police officer on the street or resist arrest because you think you're being hassled.

David A Clarke Jr., sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin 2002-2917

Erica Jong's First Novel Success

When you have a first novel [Fear of Flying] that sells 6 million copies, anything you do after it has to be a disappointment. You set a standard that you cannot compete with, and the pressure it puts on you is almost unreal.

Erica Jong in On Being a Writer, Bill Strickland, editor, 1989 

Charles Bukowski on His Readers

I get many letters about my writing, and they say: "Bukowski, you are so [screwed] up and you still survive. I decided not to kill myself." So in a way I save people. Not that I want to save them. I have no desire to save anybody. So these are my readers, you see? They buy my books--the defeated, the demented and the damned--and I'm proud of it.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) in a 1981 interview

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Women Murdered by Husbands and Lovers

In 2019, fifty women in the United States were shot to death by their husbands and boyfriends every month.

Rachel Louise Snyder, No Visible Bruises, 2019

Reducing Gun Violence

The proven method for saving the lives of innocent Americans is not disarming them. The proven method for saving the lives of innocent Americans is to arrest, prosecute, convict, and jail criminal offenders, especially armed career criminals illegally using guns. This is the way to reduce gun violence.

Jeff Sessions, former U. S. Senator and U. S. Attorney General, 20l7

The Blocked Writer

The most common reason for writer's block is problems with the storyline. There are no hard and fast rules as to overcome this, but without swift attention, an acute attack can turn into a chronic condition. Start by revisiting the storyline. Have you introduced new elements, and are the characters true to your original outline? If you have veered from your original plan then you have to decide whether to rewrite the outline, and potentially the plot line of the story, or rewrite chapters. Both are painful decisions to make, but remember that writing is a work in progress, so revisiting your ideas is an essential element of writing successfully. By focusing on the bigger picture (the framework, context, plot and characters) the details often become clearer.

Maeve Binchy, The Maeve Binchy Writer's Club, 2008 

Good Talkers Versus Good Writers

     Those who tell stories better than they write them are the bane of editors. Editors dread wasting time on captivating talkers whose words lose their fizz on the page. Obviously, writing skills transcend conversational skills. But the drama and flair we bring to telling stories is too often lost once our words are nailed down on paper.

     Most of us converse better than we write because we feel so much less vulnerable when addressing a limited number of ears. While talking, we can alter material or adjust our delivery in response to cues from others. If things get out of hand, we can change the subject altogether. Even when they bomb, spoken words float off into space. They can always be denied. "That's what I said?" is a great court of last resort. But words we've committed to paper can be held in evidence against us as long as that paper exists. Is it any wonder that we're scared to make this commitment?

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write, 1995

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Vocabulary Of The Dead

Cadaver: A dead body intended for dissection…Carcass: A term for a slaughtered animal from which the inedible sections have been removed…Corpse: A dead human body, especially one that has not been embalmed…Remains: Applies to an embalmed body, a body whose major sections have been removed in dissection, or a body much of whose soft tissue has fallen away over time.

Rod L. Evans, The Artful Nuance, 2009 

The Nature of Drugs and Addiction

     Addiction is not a function of drug use--rather, it is a standard feedback phenomenon that occurs with or without drugs, whereby people immerse themselves in immediately rewarding experiences that detract from their larger lives. This definition of addiction makes clear that addiction is not a drug-centered trait. Addiction doesn't occur only with drugs and doesn't invariably occur when certain drugs are used. There is nothing inherent in narcotics, cocaine, alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana that makes them irresistibly addictive. Moreover, people who do become addicted, contrary to both popular mythology and government pronouncements, usually attenuate or end their addictions. (Keep in mind, cigarettes and cocaine were only declared addictive in the 1980s, and marijuana in the 1990s.).

     The annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that only a small percentage (less than five percent) of people who have ever used cocaine, heroin, crack, and meth are currently addicted to these drugs. Carl Hart, an experimental neuroscientist and author of High Price, calculates that 10 to 20 percent of those using drugs (he studies crack and methamphetamine) encounter problems.

     Some researchers questioned users in detail about their current and past drug experiences. The largest and most thorough such investigation of cocaine was conducted at Canada's addiction research agency. The study, published as "The Steel Drug," found that the large majority of people who experienced a range of problems from cocaine (sinusitis, nasal irritation, headaches, insomnia) quit the drug or cut back their use of it.

Stanton Peele, "How Television Distorts Drug Addiction," reason.com, January 18, 2015  

The Unauthorized Biography

Unauthorized biographies undress their subjects. When John Updike realized that a biographer was on his case, he hurriedly wrote a memoir, Self-Consciousness, so that he could forestall the biography. Autobiography and the authorized biography are time-honored methods of attempting to derail independent biographies and make them seem illicit.

Carl Rollyson, Biography, 2008 

Third-Person Narration

     Third-person narrators are identified by the degree and manner of access the reader is afforded to the hearts and minds of the characters. You should decide, for example, that your narrator will not get into the consciousness of any of the characters. [In other words, does not know what they are thinking.] That's called third-person objective or dramatic point of view or fly-on-the-wall point of view.

     Or you might decide that your narrator will get into the mind of the central character only. This is called third-person limited. We get the thoughts and feelings of the central character, but no one else's. Or you might shift points of view from character to character in what's called multiple selective omniscience. Or go all the way and use an omniscient narrator who knows all, but can't tell all.

John Dufresne, Is Life Like This? 2010 

Monday, January 4, 2021

When Marijuana Dealers Could be Sentenced to Life

     In the state of Indiana, a person convicted of armed robbery will serve about six years in prison; someone convicted of rape will serve about eight; and a convicted murderer can expect to spend twenty-five years behind bars. These figures are actually higher than the nation average: eleven years and four months in prison is the typical punishment for an American found guilty of murder….

     [In 1990, 38-year-old Mark Young] was arrested at his Indianapolis home for brokering the sale of seven hundred pounds of marijuana grown on a farm in nearby Morgan County. Young was tried and convicted under federal law. He had never before been charged with drug trafficking. He had no history of violent crime. Young's sole role in the illegal transaction had been that of a middleman--he never distributed the drugs; he simply introduced two people hoping to sell a large amount of marijuana to three people wishing to buy it. The offense occurred a year and a half before his arrest. No confiscated marijuana, money, or physical evidence of any kind linked Young to the crime. He was convicted solely on the testimony of co-conspirators who were now cooperating with the government. On February 8, 1992, Mark Young was sentenced by federal judge Sarah Evans Barker to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Eric Schlosser, Reefer Madness, 2003

The Memoir: Between Fact and Fiction

Bending the truth wasn't always part of the autobiographer's tool kit. In the middle of the last century, when Mary McCarthy published Catholic Girlhood, memoirists weren't even supposed to cobble up dialogue from memory. Her nonfiction standards were those for histories and biographies and journalism--forms then still held to be fairly irrefutable. Whether we were more gullible or more secretive or the standards more rigorous then, I can't say--probably all three.

Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir, 2015

Hardboiled Dialogue

"Why did you kill her?" the policeman in the rear seat asked. "They shoot horses, don't they?" I said.

Horace McCoy (1887-1955) They Shoot Horses, Don't They, 1935

Rod Serling On Novelists Writing for Film

In Rod Serling's play, Velvet Alley, a novelist in reflecting on being lured to Hollywood to write for the movies, says: "They give you a thousand dollars a week [1960s] until that's what you need to live on. And then every day you live after that, you're afraid they'll take it away from you. It's all very scientific. It's based on the psychological fact that a man is a grubbing, hungry little sleaze. In twenty-four hours you can develop a taste for caviar. In forty-eight hours fish eggs are no longer a luxury, they're a necessity."

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Was J. Edgar Hoover Murdered?

     I've seen some exhumations that are irresponsible attempts to disturb the dead for the sake of providing a harebrained theory, and I've seen others that are scientifically worthy. Some notable people die surrounded by legends and half-truths, making it legitimate to exhume their remains in an age where science can supply answers to the cause and manner of death, especially if the person in question has historical significance.

     Without being conspiracy theorists, we can say that the questions raised on the death of an individual can be many and varied. For example, why did three medical doctors decide not to autopsy the remains of J. Edgar Hoover, a man with many enemies and no history of medical ailments? Shouldn't we find out more through an exhumation? [Hoover was director of the FBI from 1924 to 1972. He died at the age of 75. While he did have a lot of enemies, there is no evidence he was murdered, and there was nothing suspicious about his death. This is one of those harebrained conspiracy theories.]

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

The Seventeen Percent Rule

According to the Seventeen Percent Rule, in all professions and advocations, the performance of only seventeen percent of those in the field reach the level of excellence. This includes physicians, lawyers, truck drivers, police officers, dentists, nurses, teachers, plumbers, and bureaucrats. I don't believe the Seventeen Percent Rule applies to writers and criminal investigators. In those professions, excellence is so difficult to achieve it is rare. It's probably more like five percent. For politicians, there is no such thing as excellence. The best we can hope for is that they don't steal us blind then sell us down the river.

The College Nonfiction Writing Class

In your nonfiction writing class [the professor should] always be ready to "tie in" whatever you're talking about with its application out in the world. Undergrads are terribly conscious they'll soon become human beings, and are delighted to know that some of the stuff they're learning may be useful after they leave this artificial hothouse called college. As a writing teacher you'll have more of an advantage in this regard than teachers of most of the other "humanities" courses.

Martin Russ, Showdown Semester, 1980 

Criticizing Agatha Christie

The tradition of the mystery or crime novel is an old and honored one, but its quality has been debased. And possibly nothing has done more harm to the nature of mystery fiction than the notion that it should concern itself more with "whodunit" than why the deed was done. Chief among those responsible for this decline in Agatha Christie.

Thomas H. Cook, themysteryguild.com, 2003 

Making History Interesting

Most people think of history as old dead stuff, and who can blame them? It's so often presented that way, like bad-tasting medicine that supposedly is good for you. History is about life and people and the writing must bring these people and their times to life. The story of our country is so strong, so compelling, so very important. I want to share the wealth.

David McCullough, The Writing Life, 1995

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Testimony of Jailhouse Snitches

Jailhouse informant testimony is one of the leading contributing factors of wrongful convictions nationally, playing a role in nearly one in five of DNA-based exoneration cases.

Innocence Project, 2012 

No Historical Accuracy in Regency And Georgian Romance Novels

The attitudes between men and women have to be politically correct even when you're writing Regency and Georgian period historical romance novels. You're going to alienate readers if you have terribly domineering men and very submissive women. That might be a historically accurate way to look at men and women, but you really can't get away with that in modern novels. You have to somehow skirt around that and make the heroes sensitive to women and respect them even while obviously they were more domineering than modern men would be. You have to do the corresponding thing with women. They have to be a little less submissive.

Mary Balogh, likebooks.com, 1998 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Subduing The Violent Woman

Having to fight with women is the worst. You sometimes tend to go a little easier on a woman than you would on a man…And they make you pay for it. Their fingernails rip your flesh. They go for your eyes and groin. They spit on you and pull your hair. When you're a cop all that chivalry gets you is hurt. And in the public's eye, you always look like you're in the wrong when you go hands-on with a woman. Actually, some people's idea of police brutality is, to paraphrase a character from the television show The Wire, anytime the police win a fight.

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know, 2014 

America's Most Stupid Book

In 1937, Ernest Vincent wrote a novel called, Gadsby: A Story Over 50,000 Words Without Using The Letter "E". The self-published book, sought fervently decades later by book collectors, entered the public domain in 1968. The letter "e", the most frequently used letter in the English alphabet, made writing such a book a significant challenge. (I used the letter "e" 14 times in the last sentence. I thought about showing my cleverness by writing a sentence about this ridiculous book without using the letter "e", then realized that exercise would make me, on a much smaller scale than Mr. Vincent, stupid.)