On Using Landmarks in Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Happy Easter! And what better time for the reappearance of America’s favorite vigilante nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice?

Yes, it’s finally here: FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS. I had the title first. All I needed was the story to go with it. A hot cross … hmm … a stolen cross? But how big a deal would that be?

Then it hit me. Mrs. B and I love going to the Hollywood Bowl in the summer. We bring a picnic dinner and sit in an area that gives us a view of iconic Hollywood buildings, like Capitol Records, The Roosevelt Hotel (where, it said, the ghost of Marilyn Monroe hangs out), and the old, rugged Hollywood Cross. That was it! The perfect MacGuffin for the title.

A little L.A. history is in order:

[T] cross was conceived … as a memorial to one of Hollywood’s pioneers, Christine Wetherell Stevenson, the heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint fortune who helped arrange construction of the Hollywood Bowl. She was also an aspiring playwright who wrote “The Pilgrimage Play,” a pageant about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

In 1920, Stevenson chose 29 acres across the Cahuenga Pass from the Hollywood Bowl and helped carry stones from the nearby hills to build the open-air Pilgrimage Theater. She died two years later and in 1923, her admirers memorialized her by planting the cross on the hill above the theater.

Within six years, a brush fire destroyed the original theater and in 1931 Stevenson’s drama reopened in a concrete theater designed in what was described as an “ancient Judaic style.”

For many years, the cross was lighted only at Easter and during the annual “Pilgrimage Play” season. But the public’s affection for the landmark grew and soon Sunday school children were donating money to keep the cross lit. Ultimately, Southern California Edison Co. assumed that expense and bore it until 1941, when the theater and cross were donated to the county. After the county supervisors accepted the gift, they renamed the theater after Supervisor John Anson Ford, recognizing his 24 years of service to the district in which the theater is located. The play continued its annual run until 1964, when the first in a series of lawsuits triggered by the facility’s religious uses forced an end to the performances.

The cross was damaged by fire a year later. The county replaced it with a steel and Plexiglas structure and operated it routinely for years. But the tradition came under legal fire in 1978, when a California Supreme Court ruling ended Los Angeles’ 30-year practice of lighting City Hall windows to form a cross at Christmas and Easter. Two years later, a college professor successfully argued in court that the county was violating the constitutional separation of church and state by maintaining the cross…

The cross, however, remained–dark and unguarded, abused and unused. Vandals chipped away at its foundation until a windstorm knocked it over it 1984.

Afterward, a small group of crusaders began raising funds for a new cross by doing a video documentary, recording a song, “The Ballad of the Hollywood Cross” by Mindas Masiulis, and collaborating with the Hollywood Heritage preservation group.

Almost 10 years later, with little fanfare, a new cross was erected on the small hilltop patch after the group purchased the site from the county.

So how could this landmark possibly be stolen? Who would do such a thing? And why? Find out in FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS, on sale now for 99¢. Like the other novelettes in the series, it can be read as a stand-alone. The other entries are:

FORCE OF HABIT

FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS

FORCE OF HABIT 3: NUN THE WISER

FORCE OF HABIT 4: THE NUN ALSO RISES 

I love seeing landmarks in fiction and film. Who will ever forget the chase over Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest? Or King Kong atop the Empire State Building? Or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man stepping on Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Ghostbusters, bringing forth Bill Murray’s classic line: “Nobody steps on a church in my town!”

The landmark doesn’t even have to be world famous. For example, there’s Top Notch Hamburgers in Austin, TX. That’s where Matthew “All right, all right, all right” McConaughey made his mark in Dazed and Confused.

So what’s a landmark in your home town? You do have one, you know. Even Takoma Park, Maryland has Roscoe the Rooster. So share yours!

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First Books on the Moon

April has been quite a month for scientific events. Mark Alpert last Saturday discussed the recent presentation of an image of a black hole at the center of Galaxy M87 and gave us some insight, otherwise absent from most accounts, into the importance of what was revealed. Another attempted milestone which occurred this month was not as successful as the image presentation but was not entirely a failure, either. It is also extremely relevant to what we do.

I am referring to the crash landing on Earth’s moon of the SpaceIL Beresheet Lander. Lost in the disappointment of the Lander’s failure to achieve a soft lunar arrival was that 1) the Lander carried something named “The Arch Lunar Library” which 2) may well have survived the impact.  This particular payload is the first in a planned series of lunar archives prepared and maintained by the Arch Mission Foundation, a non-profit organization that tasks itself with maintaining a billion-year history of Planet Earth (this is done, I would guess, by people who, unlike myself, do not spend their time streaming Turkish crime series on Netflix). The Arch Lunar Library was preserved on something called “Nanofiche,” which is a disc-shaped medium as opposed to those flimsy cards of a similar name that spill all over the place when you try to get them into a reader at your local library without adult supervision.  Nanofiche will apparently last for thousands of years. The medium is so indestructible that it can probably be used to crush the last cockroach. Nothing damages it except for saltwater. It can outlast everything else, however, including, apparently, a crash lunar landing at otherwise destructive speed.

So what does the payload contain? Many, many things, including millions of images of pages of books: all sorts of books, fiction, non-fiction, how-to, what have you, books. It’s an ongoing project, so maybe a book that you are writing right now will be included in the future. I don’t mean to make you choke or anything, but there you go. Keep writing. Before you resume writing again, however, I strongly urge you to read the overview of the Lunar Library which will answer many of the questions I had, such as why someone was doing this. The article is a bit long, but it’s a quick read. It’s hair-raising in spots, but in a good way.

My question: if you were to pick a book to include in a project like this, which would it be? I’m not talking about your favorite book, necessarily. I’m talking about the book that you feel would be most appropriate, most deserving, for a project like this. My choice is an easy one: From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne. What say you?

Happy Easter and Chag Pesach Sameach to all of my friends As Leonard Cohen said in a very different context, it would be a real drag without you.

 

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Tips on Writing Believable Conspiracies for Thriller Fiction

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

www.cgpgrey.com

“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Conspiracy theories have captured our imaginations for many decades. With the advent of the Internet, such theories have proliferated from the comfort and anonymity of your cell phone with your fake handles. Rightly or wrongly, the anonymity of the Internet has spurred conspiracies and brought them into our homes, linked to our smart phones and other devices.

Some popular, long standing conspiracies involve:
• A secret world order that controls the globe – Illuminati/Knight Templar
• The government secrets from Area 51/Roswell/Alien Autopsy
• Reptilian aliens walk on two legs among us
• The JFK assassination – Oswald wasn’t alone
• The moon landing was fake
• The FDA is withholding the cure for cancer

“WHAT IF” questions can generate plot ideas. Many conspiracy theories revolve around big institutions like the church, educational institutions, big oil, rogue agents operating within the CIA, a secret government agency,Wall Street, big pharma or similar organizations that touch people’s lives and make them vulnerable. Your notion of conspiracy can be domestic or foreign, localized or global, political, religious, military or big corporations.

Here are some popular movies that were based on conspiracy theories:
Wag the Dog – White House officials and a Hollywood producer create a fake war to distract the public from a sex scandal involving the US President.(1997)
All the President’s Men – Based on Watergate and secret factions operating in our government.
Manchurian Candidate – An evil corporation brainwashes US soldiers into fighting in Iraq in order to create a perfect assassin capable of eliminating undesirable political rivals. (2004)
Syriana – An energy analyst, a CIA agent, a middle-eastern prince, and a corrupt lawyer become embroiled in a high-level assassination involving Big Oil. (2005)
Network – Upon learning of his dismissal, failing news anchor Howard Beale goes on hugely popular rants quickly angering the Powers That Be. (1976)
JFK – Oliver Stone’s masterpiece documenting District Attorney Jim Garrison’s struggle to prove the involvement of a conspiracy behind the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy. (1991)
The Insider – A research chemist turns whistle blower (Jeffrey Wigand) and threatens to reveal to the world Big Tobacco’s cover up of the negative health effect of cigarette smoking. (1999)
They Live – A drifter accidentally discovers a pair of sunglasses which enables him to see Aliens among us, the true rulers of the world. (1988) (I can’t believe I actually saw this one.)

If you want to add a twist to your plot, consider combining multiple conspiracy theories that might not be related on the surface. I once combined a secret global human trafficking ring making illicit use of the dark web and combined it with a news story set in India where people were getting robbed on the street for their kidneys and other organs. I envisioned a contemptible shadowy organization that traded human flesh online and used my energy trading experience to visualize how such a group would conduct business across a network that resembled the control panels at large oil refineries (places I had seen many times).

Medical Conspiracies

Like telling a good ghost story, tap into fears people would believe. Not too far-fetched. Medical conspiracies are a great combination of personal vulnerability with a high stakes thriller plot. Think of the many ways we all accept certain medical procedures as normal. What if a covert group interferes with a “normal” procedure and hunts innocent victims without reason or a connection to the crimes? A great example of a medical thriller based on a believable fear is Michael Palmer – The 5th Vial.

Seemingly unrelated victims across the globe are targeted by a top secret cabal of medical specialists dealing in illegal organ donation. Standard blood work—and the 5th vial—put a target on their backs and seal their fate.

Robin Cook’s Coma is another classic medical thriller where certain victims are targeted and their bodies are harvested for illegal organ donation after the victims are suspended in a coma state. Innocent patients go in for standard and routine operations, only to become the latest addition to a body farm in a secret facility operated by wealthy patrons through the Jefferson Institute.

8 Key Ways to Writing Believable Conspiracies

1) Take advantage of paranoia. Mistrust and suspicion are keys to pulling off a believable conspiracy plot. Even if readers haven’t considered darker subversive motives at play during relatively routine activities, trigger their paranoia with your plot and a different way to look at it.

2) Write what you fear. If you fear it, chances are that readers will too. Convince them. Exploit common fears and highlight deeper ways that get readers thinking. In fiction, it works to grip readers in a personal way. The fears we all share—the things that wake us up in the middle of the night—can tap into a great plot.

3) Villainous motivation must feel real. You can be over the top but give your diabolical conspiracy a strong and plausible motivation. Don’t be vague. Drill down into your conspirators and justify their motives and existence from the foot soldiers on up the line.

4) Give your bad guys believable resources. Make it seem insurmountable to stop them. Think of the infrastructure it would take to plausibly pull off your thriller plot. Have them use believable technology, science and manpower to give them the appearance of Goliath when it comes to your hero/heroine fighting their diabolical acts.

5) Know organizations and your governmental jurisdictions to give your plot teeth. How do they operate in secret? Give them a plausible connection to organizations the reader may know about. Draw from organizations or systems readers will understand. If you’re too vague, readers will dismiss your plot as unlikely and a shadowy plot with no substance.

6) Make the risks personal for your hero and heroine. High stakes are important, but force your main character(s) to dig deep to fight through their fears and insurmountable odds. This is what will keep readers rooting for your characters. Make them worthy of their star role. A global phenomenon can put readers on edge, but bring the impact down to the personal stakes of real human beings for maximum impact.

7) Ripped from the headlines stories can add layers of credibility. The best fictional thrillers come from events or news that readers are familiar with.

a.) Re-imagine a well known historical event. Add your best twist to a conspiracy makes your work more interesting and forces readers to think.

b.) Or dig into a headline story for facts that are not readily known. Often that story will be deeper than most readers are aware of, especially if there are personal human stories within the big headline. I used the Mumbai terrorist attack to add bones to some of my stories. I’ve also used the National Geographic’s TV show Locked Up Abroad in my book The Echo of Violence and wrote my own version of those amazing events when a married couple (Christian missionaries) were abducted and held for ransom for a year by a small terrorist cell. It saddened me to realize that only one of the missionaries came back. They had gone to the Philippines for a second honeymoon to celebrate their wedding anniversary. I didn’t exploit their horrific story, but I re-imagined a “what if” scenario involving a nun.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What conspiracies can you imagine from today’s headlines? Get crazy. Add humor or scare the hell out of us.

2.) Do you have helpful resource links for writers interested in conspiracies?

3.) What book sticks in your mind that scared you with a plausible and frightening conspiracy?

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First Page Critique: Coyotes

Gentle Readers, We’re in dusty New Mexico today, at a delightfully grisly scene. Let’s go!

(Coyotes)

Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The bodies were stacked like cord wood; if they were wood, I’d wager there was a good half a cord there. New Englanders know these things.

The smell was overwhelming; the chorus of a few thousand flies filled my ears and the half-cord sized pile shimmered with writhing maggots. I gagged but forced myself to look, to see the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.

There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more, it was hard to be sure. Blocks of wood with a date scrawled in black marker—October 20th, three days ago—had been placed into the animals’ mouths, to what end I couldn’t imagine. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.

The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink. To flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies; the BLM land would simply reclaim them.

I looked away then. I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself. “Fucking hell,” I whispered and wished I had a cigarette, but they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger “has no balls and protects divine royalty.”

Ben has a little bit of a crush on me.

“They think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, his youthful cheeks red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers. Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it. He’s also very tall and thin and his tagline, when meeting new people is, “Ben Short. All my life.”

______

Dang, there’s so much to love about this passage. I’m wild for it. We’re BANG, right into the scene of the crime, with a smart narrator showing us around. The slaughtered animals tell us this isn’t going to be a gentle story, and the grisly detail is carefully observed. Such an opening won’t be for the faint of heart, but this will find plenty of fans. And there’s humor here to leaven it. I don’t have much more than praise to offer, so I’m going to give it a line edit.

______

“Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The bodies were stacked like cord wood; if they were wood, I’d wager there was a good half a cord there. New Englanders know these things.”

Terrific opening line. Don’t change a thing. Except maybe get rid of “out.”

Not identifying the bodies as belonging to coyotes is misleading. I assumed they were human, and felt a little confused and dopey when I learned they weren’t. Whole different story. 

__Three days is a long time to be dead, especially out under the intense New Mexico sun. The coyotes’ stiffened bodies were stacked as high as a half cord of firewood so that they appeared to be one hideous creature with way too many heads. Against my better judgement, I moved a few steps closer.__

(Okay. The “so that they appeared to be one hideous creature with way too many heads” may sound like too much, but you need something to carry forth some rhythm into the middle of the paragraph.)

Lose “New Englanders know these things.” Keep us in New Mexico for now. You’re in it for the long haul, and the confident voice needs no justification pertaining to knowledge of cords of wood.

“The smell was overwhelming; the chorus of a few thousand flies filled my ears and the half-cord sized pile shimmered with writhing maggots. I gagged but forced myself to look, to see the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.”

I want to know more than that the smell was “overwhelming.” What does that mean? That it’s so strong that the narrator staggers and might faint? That it smells like rotting hamburger wrapped in the socks of a million sweaty feet? Be specific. Give us a sentence.

Same deal with the flies and their sound.

 __A thousand hovering flies, their electric hum vibrating in my ears, swept and dove at the pile, which already shimmered with patches of wriggling maggots. Gagging, I forced myself to look into the coyotes’ empty yellow eyes.__

“There were at least fifteen of them, maybe more, it was hard to be sure. Blocks of wood with a date scrawled in black marker—October 20th, three days ago—had been placed into the animals’ mouths, to what end I couldn’t imagine. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.”

You’ve got an amazing visual and powerful commentary by the narrator here. Remember to keep the voice active and confident.

__I counted fifteen heads, but there may have been more that I couldn’t see. A block of wood scrawled with a date of 10/20–three days earlier–jutted from each animal’s mouth. Temporary markers for temporary remains, I guessed. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel like those small sections of two-by-four pressure treated wood had been placed there with any measure of respect.__

“The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink. To flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies; the BLM land would simply reclaim them.”

“Matted.” Were they bloody? Were the coyotes shocked to death, or shot? Attacked by vampires/vampire bats?! The “lack of lifeblood” implies they’ve lost blood.

Call me an idiot, but I wondered at the (BLM) Black Lives Matter land reference. Further investigation suggests that it refers to Bureau of Land Management land. Adding the BLM reference dulls the poignancy of the last line. Slip it in a tad later.

__The coyotes’ once sumptuous red-gray coats were matted, their fur dulled by the ever-present dust that blows across the desert, by the lack of lifeblood for nourishment. Their bodies had already begun to shrink and flatten, sinking back into the plains where they had made their homes, where they had hunted their prey. Where they’d eaten berries and birthed their young, and filled the night with their songs. No one would come to dispose of their bodies. The land would simply reclaim them.__

“I looked away then. I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself. “Fucking hell,” I whispered and wished I had a cigarette, but they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger ‘has no balls and protects divine royalty.'”

“I didn’t understand it but, when I’d risen this morning, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d needed to see for myself.”

I don’t get this at all. Are we not on the immediate scene? Had the narrator been told about the coyotes sometime earlier, and that’s why they’re now at the scene? Very confusing. If that’s the case, make that super clear and don’t drop it randomly in here–tell us at the end of the scene when they’re driving away or something. “The captain was going to be pissed as hell that I’d gone by the scene, but I’d been up all night thinking about it after Ben told me. I had to see it for myself.”

__I looked away then. “Fucking hell,” I whispered, and wished I had a cigarette. But they were a quarter of a mile away, in my unit—dubbed the Eunuch by my friend Ben, since my unmarked Charger “has no balls and protects divine royalty.”__

“Ben has a little bit of a crush on me.”

I must ask. Does our narrator identify as a man, woman, as transgender, or something else? Please make this clear, and sooner. It will matter to many readers because they’ll want to get the picture in their head.

“Ben is a bit of a comedian. He also has a crush on me.”

“They think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, his youthful cheeks red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers. Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it. He’s also very tall and thin and his tagline, when meeting new people is, “Ben Short. All my life.”

Okay. Now I see that Ben is the one who told her about the coyotes the night before. Still, the implied timeline is confusing. There’s no need to go back and forth–just tell us straight out what the narrator is doing there and at whose behest. Earlier.

Who is “they?” Maybe he can refer to them as son-of-a-bitches or bastards, etc. If he doesn’t curse, he could say “Jerks.”

The line about Ben joking about his name is cute. But given the intense scene, I think it’s one joke too many on top of the grisly coyote situation.

“Ben’s half Jewish and has the shnoz to prove it.” Really? This sounds like a line from a 1940s noir. It’s a stereotype that some people might find offensive. Use at your peril.

__“Bastards think of it as a sport,” he’d sputtered the night before, all six feet of him towering unsteadily over me. His youthful cheeks were red with righteous indignation, his prominent nose red from the beers.__

____

Again, I think this is a terrific beginning, and can be near-perfect with a small amount of thoughtfulness and editing.

What do you all think? Tell us your advice for our Brave Author!

 

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Nancy Drew – Immortal Female Detective

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

Nancy Drew was the original Super Girl—independent, confident, smart. She was competent to handle any challenge, fearless in the face of danger, and resourceful at solving problems decades before MacGyver came along. She drove motorboats, rode horses, and played tennis better than her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson. The girl sleuth never backed down from threats and brought villains to justice.

She is credited as an early influence on many girls who grew up to be accomplished, notable women, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Laura Bush.

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

 

Nancy’s heroic adventures kept my friends and me up long past bedtime, reading with flashlights under the covers. I remember saving for weeks to buy the latest release when it hit the neighborhood toy store that carried her books. If I recall correctly, the hardbacks in the late 1950s cost around a dollar, a serious investment for a kid earning a dime a week allowance.

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

 

Additionally, I devoured the local library’s collection of Nancy’s earlier books published in the 1930s and ’40s, with dark blue boards and cool pen-and-ink illustrations.

The dust jackets on older editions had long since disappeared and, after thousands of check-outs, bindings were often held together by heavy tape.

 

I didn’t really know what a “roadster” was but I sure wanted a blue roadster convertible just like Nancy’s.

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

 

 

In the 1950s, the books featured lighter blue, tweed-pattern boards with dust jackets.

 

 

 

 

 

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

By the 1960s, the dust jackets disappeared and the spine became bright yellow with illustrations incorporated into the front hardcover.

The last one I remember reading was The Secret of the Golden Pavilion (1959) which took place in the then-exotic locale of Hawaii around the time it became the 50th state.

Throughout the 30 or so books I read, Nancy remained eternally 18-years-old (16 in earlier versions) but never attended school or college. Her successful attorney father, Carson Drew, encouraged her to pursue all kinds of dangerous adventures but no one ever got murdered.

Nancy’s only job was solving mysteries and she didn’t get paid for her efforts.

Realistic? Not very.

Fun and exciting? Yes!

Nancy solved her first mystery in 1930 (The Secret of the Old Clock) and kept unraveling puzzles in 56 classic hardcovers originally published by Grosset & Dunlap. Simon & Schuster added eight additional books in paperback. A complete set of 64 classics in hardcover sells for over $400. The classic series ended in 2003 with 175 books. Spinoffs continue to the present day, totaling more than 600 books, TV series, video games, and films.

Here’s a trailer for The Hidden Staircase, the Nancy Drew movie released in this past March.

Nancy Drew was the brainchild of publishing magnate Edward Stratemeyer. His syndicate had launched popular series with male heroes like Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys and he decided to try a strong female heroine to appeal to girl readers.

Carolyn Keene was the pseudonym for numerous ghostwriters who were paid flat fees to write books based on outlines Stratemeyer generated. The ghosts gave up all rights, received no royalties, and were sworn to secrecy. Reportedly, the flat fee had started at $125 but was lowered to $75 because of the Depression.

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

The first ghostwriter was Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, who brought the smart, feisty, courageous Nancy to life. The series was an immediate success. For Christmas, 1933, Macy’s ordered 6,000 books that sold out in days, even in the midst of the Great Depression.

Mildred wrote 23 Nancy books, in addition to other series like the Dana Girls and Penny Parker.

As a teenager, Mildred had been determined to become a great writer. Her stories won contests and were published in high-end children’s magazines alongside authors like Louisa May Alcott. Mildred earned the first-ever master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa.

After her Nancy stint, Mildred wrote many more books under other pen names as well as her own. For more than a half century, she covered the crime and court beat in Toledo, Ohio and later wrote popular newspaper columns. The day she died at age 96, she was at work on an article.

Ironically, despite Nancy Drew’s profound influence on many generations of young women, Mildred wasn’t publicly acknowledged as Carolyn Keene until 1993, nine years before her death. Her archives are kept at the University of Iowa.

Nancy Drew fan conventions kicked off in 2001 and are scheduled as far ahead as 2030, Nancy’s 100th anniversary. For 2019, events will be in Toronto and Savannah.

Nancy Drew expert Jennifer Fisher has compiled vast amounts of history into a fun website that’s sure to bring back memories: http://www.nancydrewsleuth.com/   Thank you, Jenn, for your gracious assistance with this post.

Plenty of authors, including TKZ’s Kathryn Lilley, P.J. Parrish, and myself, credit Nancy with igniting their interest in writing mystery fiction. Kathryn was an ardent fan as a child and later wrote four Nancy books under the enduring Carolyn Keene pseudonym. In 2015, Kris wrote a great post on sidekicks, citing the example of Nancy’s friend, George.

Early editions, especially dust jackets, are collectors’ items. The asking price for a first edition of The Secret of the Old Clock is $2,000. Click on the bottom listing from bookbid2  to browse photos of the vintage cover and interior.

Can children’s books shape lives and careers?

Nancy Drew seduced me into a life of crime [writing]. How about you?

Credit: www.nancydrewsleuth.com

 

TKZers, please share your favorite memories of childhood books. What books influenced your reading preferences as an adult? Did Nancy, or another character, inspire you to become a writer?

 

 

 

Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil is on sale for only 99 cents during April at this link.

 

 

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First Page Critique: Unearthed

Today’s first page critique is for a mystery/thriller entitled ‘Unearthed’. My comments follow  – see you on the flip side – and I look forward to getting further feedback from the TKZ community.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall, cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said. A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be. Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it.

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails. He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this.

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

“He isn’t,” Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?”

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand. Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.”

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

“It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.”

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

“Just look,” she said.

MY COMMENTS

Overall, I think this first page has potential. I liked the casualness and tone of protagonist and his reaction to the possibility that the body was that of ‘wino’ he’d seen earlier (someone he’d ignored rather than helped) felt both realistic and sympathetic. For me, however, the dramatic potential of this first page is undermined by some awkward phrasing and dialogue, as well as inconsistencies in Rosemary’s character/reactions. I would also liked a bit more sense of place (more about that below). First, let’s deal with my phrasing/dialogue concerns.

Even in the first paragraph there are some awkward, clunky sentences, repetition and disjointed sentences which initially seemed jarring (at least to me). I had similar phrasing issues throughout the first page and thought the easiest way to illustrate these concerns was to mark up the page – bolding the issues/awkwardness and putting my comments in italics. While some of my comments may seem a bit petty, it is vital that this first page reads smoothly and succinctly to capture the reader’s interest. I’ve also added some comments about Rosemary’s reactions and dialogue – which I discuss in greater detail after the marked up version.

So here goes.

UNEARTHED

The thing Rosemary said was a corpse (seems a clumsy way to begin) lay against the garden wall, under the tree. Jittery from lack of sleep, Cal left her (we know it’s Rosemary but grammatically this sounds like the corpse as that’s the subject of the previous sentence) on the outside stairs leading to his flat, crossed the lawn and approached the wall (repetition), cold London air nipping at him. It wouldn’t really be a dead body, of course, whatever his landlady said (note: at this stage we don’t know Rosemary is his landlady)(Maybe a colon or dash would be better grammatically?) A trick, a mannequin got up in men’s clothes, or some wino passed out after wandering in off the streets, it would be (this is unnecessary and clunky). Then he saw the long coat and dirty orange hood rising out of it (what is it? Assume coat but sounds awkward).

“Oh, this guy,” he said.

“What?” Rosemary was all clenched into herself, teeth at her nails (sounds like she’s bent over with her teeth pushing against her nails when I think author means she has her nails in her mouth). He’d never seen the old girl shaken before; he couldn’t have this (awkward/redundant).

He raised his voice. “Come on, mate. Time to go.” The man didn’t move. His hooded face was turned to the wall. Cal tapped his shoulder. His fingers met a jolting thinness (weird description for me) under the coat. He sighed. If he gave the guy some breakfast, he’d keep coming back and Amanda’d (looks weird – I prefer Amanda would) throw a fit. Rosemary wouldn’t be any too joyful, either. “Hey. You can’t sleep here.”

He isn’t,(maybe add ‘sleeping’ to be clear – otherwise sounds a bit of an odd reply). Rosemary said. “I knew I shouldn’t have, but I looked. I pulled that hood up a bit. He’s bloody dead.”

Cal crouched. The man didn’t smell of alcohol. Something weird, sweetish, but not alcohol. There was no movement, either. Not even breathing. “Oh, no. Oh, God.”

Rosemary came down a few steps. “Did you say you knew him?” (Cal hasn’t said this…just ‘oh this guy’ – which doesn’t mean/sound like he actually knew him)

“No, just saw him this morning, coming home from work. I thought he was just pissed. He must’ve been ill. I’m such a dick, I should’ve checked.”

Rosemary waved a dismissive hand (why dismissive?? This seems inconsistent given how tense and worried she’s been). Cal saw all her sixty-three years this morning, gathered in lines on her forehead and around her mouth. “That wouldn’t have been him.” (Not sure why she says this – doesn’t make much sense as she doesn’t know who Cal saw…why would she know it wasn’t the same person?)

“It was. I remember the clothes. I was coming through the park, he was headed the same direction.” Stumbling and swaying behind him as he crossed the park in winter dawn. “He was holding his head funny; maybe he was in an accident. He was quite far behind but I could’ve stopped. I should have asked if he was — Oh, shit, Rosemary, what if he was dying and I just –”

It wasn’t the same man. Look at him.” (Again how does she know that??)

Cal pressed his fingers into his brow. “Didn’t see his face.”

Just look,” she said. (At what?? Up till now Rosemary hasn’t said she knows anything more about the corpse that Cal does…so why does it now sound like she does??)

ROSEMARY’S CHARACTER, REACTIONS AND DIALOGUE

While I was fine with Cal’s reactions and concerns, I was a little confused by Rosemary. She obviously ran to Cal to tell him she’d discovered a body and, though it was understandable that Cal didn’t believe her initially, Rosemary’s attitude then seems to shift  from tension and concern to a dismissiveness that I found very strange. First she dismisses Cal’s observations out of hand and then seems to be certain that the dead body is not the person Cal saw earlier. The rationale for this is unclear. Perhaps Rosemary saw something on the corpse’s face but, based on this first page, it seems odd that she wouldn’t have said something to Cal right away.

SENSE OF PLACE

Finally, I would have like to have got a greater sense of place in this first page. Apart from the reference to ‘London air’ nipping at him, we have only generic references to a wall, a tree, a park, and a block of flats. I would have liked a bit more specificity. For example if we knew it was an old gnarled oak tree, that Cal had been walking on Hampstead Heath, and if the block of flats was a red brick, post WWII era block – this would have all added more color/texture to the first page and helped ground the reader in time/place.

Overall, I think this page could be an interesting opening to a mystery novel set in London and the specific issues I’ve identified can easily addressed during the revision process.  So TKZers what do you think? What comments would you give to our brave submitter??

 

 

 

 

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Smell Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was nosing around for the subject of today’s post, and sniffed out the sense of smell. It is under utilized in fiction. We rightly concentrate on sight and sound, because those are the most immediate and pervasive senses, necessary for the telling of a story. But touch, taste, and smell should be used judiciously to enhance the narrative.

Today, let’s take a whiff of some ways you can use smell in your fiction.

Create a Tone

At some point in the beginning of a scene, use smell to help set the tone. In Michael Connelly’s The Narrows, FBI agent Rachel Walling arrives at a desert crime scene, the work of the notorious serial killer, The Poet:

As they got close to the tents Rachel Walling began to smell the scene. The unmistakable odor of decaying flesh was carried on the wind as it worked through the encampment, billowed the tents and moved out again. She switched her breathing to her mouth, haunted by knowledge she wished she didn’t have, that the sensation of smell occurred when tiny particles struck the sensory receptors in the nasal passages. It meant if you smelled decaying flesh that was because you were breathing decaying flesh.

Boom. I’m there.

Reveal a Theme

In Jordan Dane’s No One Heard Her Scream, San Antonio detective Rebecca Montgomery is ordered into her lieutenant’s office:

Lieutenant Santiago’s office smelled of coffee and stale smoke, a by-product of the old homicide division, before anti-smoking legislation. Central Station had been smoke-free for quite a while, but the stench lingered from years past, infused into the walls. No amount of renovation had ever managed to eliminate the odor.

Not only does this give us an added descriptor of the scene, but it also signifies the conflict between the younger detective and the old-school guard of the department.

Make a Comment

Travis McGee, the creation of John D. MacDonald, is a houseboat-dwelling “salvage expert” who gets dragged into various mysteries. One of the marks of a McGee is when he riffs on some contemporary issue, or makes a generalization that tells us about his view of life. In Nightmare in Pink, McGee is waiting on a bench at a police station, watching “the flow of business.”

It is about as dramatic as sitting in a post office, and there are the same institutional smells of flesh, sweat, disinfectants and mimeo ink. Two percent of police work is involved with blood. All the rest of it is a slow, querulous, intricate involvement with small rules and procedures, violations of numbered ordinances, complaints made out of spite and ignorance, all the little abrasions and irritations of too many people living in too small a space. The standard police attitude is one of tired, kindly, patronizing exasperation.

Now we know why McGee prefers to live on a houseboat, and goes around the cops when he’s on the job.

Show the Inner Life of a Character

McGee again. After the slings and arrows of the mystery in The Turquoise Lament, we have an epilogue. McGee is on his boat, The Busted Flush, with his friend Meyer. They’re playing chess.

I had Meyer crushed until he got cute and found a way to put me in perpetual check with a knight and a bishop. We turned off all the lights and all the servomechanisms that click and queak and we went up to the sun deck to enjoy the September night, enjoy the half moon roving through cloud layers, enjoy a smell of rain on the winds.

I love that smell, too, which carries with it both a sense of peace (which McGee needs) and a portent of coming storms—setting up the next McGee adventure. Nicely done, John D.*

So remember, it never stinks to use the sense of smell in your stories. Does that make scents?

*NOTE: The word queak in the last clip is in the print version I own. I wonder if JDM made a typo and then decided it sounded good, even though it’s not in the dictionary.

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Black Hole Dreams

By Mark Alpert

Every so often we experience an event that’s so amazingly big, it makes everything else seem petty. That happened on Wednesday. We saw something that introduced us to a whole new concept of bigness. We’re talking billions-of-times-more-massive-than-the-sun big.

I’m referring of course to the glorious picture of the gargantuan black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy (see above). This monster is as big as our entire solar system, and it’s phenomenally far away, more than 50 million light-years from Earth. But an array of radio telescopes was able to capture an image of the stuff swirling around the black hole — the so-called accretion disk — which emits copious amounts of radiation before it spirals into the hole, never to be seen again. The picture brilliantly confirms Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicts that space and time can be warped so mightily that not even light can escape.

Is it inspiring for us fiction writers? Definitely! The picture provokes all kinds of existential questions. At the center of the hole — according to Einstein again — an amount of mass equivalent to billions of suns has been crunched into a singularity, an infinitely dense point. Whaaaat??? It sounds crazy, and maybe it’s not true; we don’t yet have a theory that combines relativity with quantum mechanics, so we can’t say for sure how gravity works at the smallest scales. Perhaps the singularity is a rip in spacetime. Or a portal to another universe. Studying the exact shape of the boundary of the black hole — the event horizon — may give us clues to what’s lurking inside. Or maybe not. Maybe God has drawn a curtain between us and the ultimate truth, preventing us from ever seeing it.

On Wednesday night I had a dream about a dying physicist. Did the picture of the black hole trigger that dream? I don’t know. But I’m writing a short story about it. I have three thousand words so far.

———

My latest novel, THE COMING STORM, was featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books this week. Check it out!

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