About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book. www.elaineviets.com

The Proper Use of Improper Words

By Elaine Viets

CAUTION: Pearl-clutching zone. This blog contains R-rated language. If you’re offended by off-color words, please don’t continue.

Hah. I knew you’d keep reading this.
When I was a kid, my mother would wash my mouth out with soap if I used bad language. I can tell you from personal experience, Dial soap does not taste good.
Now that I’m grown up, those same forbidden words are in the dictionary. Yes, sometimes I mourn the good old days, when no one dared to use these words in public. But we can’t go back.
So why am I writing about offensive words?
Because if we want to write realistic stories, that’s how some people talk.
When I lived in a rough neighborhood in Washington DC, I was approached by would-be purse thief. He didn’t say, “Madame, hand over your reticule, please.” He said, “Give me your money, bitch.” (He didn’t get it, but that’s another story.)
In our novels, offensive language can be in indication of character (or lack of), social status, and age. Younger people are more likely to use these words than older ones.
Here are some cuss words from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Badass. One word, no hyphen.
This is my favorite off-color word. Often used for men, lately it’s been describing strong women (see kickass). Gal Godot in Wonder Woman, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and Michelle Yeoh, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are all examples. Dania Gurira, the all-women army leader in Black Panther, is the epitome of badass.

Webster says badass can be an adjective and both usages are “chiefly US, informal and sometimes offensive.”
Badass means “ready to cause or get into trouble.” Or, “of formidable strength or skill” as in “a badass guitar player.”

As a noun, badass is “a person who is badass.”

Badassery. Noun, one word.
It means “the state or condition of being a badass.”
This example in the Village Voice would have had Mom buying a case of Dial.
“The Seattle quartet, hailed as godfathers of emo back when that word made you think of something other than ‘eyeliner,’ indulged the distorted guitar badassery of their grunge-era brethren …”

Bitch. Noun.
We all know that bitch is a female dog. That’s excuse I used on Mom when she was brandishing that soap bar. She wasn’t fooled.
Like Webster, Mom knew that word was “informal and often offensive” and meant, “a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman.” It was also “a generalized term of abuse and disparagement for a woman.” And finally, “something that is extremely difficult, objectionable, or unpleasant.”
Or, as the novelist Harold Robbins wrote: “July and August were always a bitch in the subway.”
Bitch also means “complaint,” and is both a transitive and intransitive verb.
“They bitched up their lives.”

SOB. Noun, capped with no periods.
Webster downgrades this cuss word to “slang, sometimes offensive” and gives this example: “. . .. A guy who brought two dozen roses to a first coffee date and told you he felt like the luckiest SOB on the planet in the first five minutes.”

Asshat. Here’s a word that seems to be gaining in popularity in novels.
Webster says it’s a noun and “vulgar slang. A stupid, annoying, or detestable person.” See, asshole.
The first known use of this was in 1999. Then Webster has this odd “History and Etymology for asshat.”
“The seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat has a curious prehistory. Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from late-twentieth-century films: ‘Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!’ (addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave, in Raising Arizona, 1987, script by Ethan and Joel Coen). . . .”
Webster wonders: “If we have been calling people assheads for almost 500 years now, why did it take so long for ass and hat to get together in similarly pejorative fashion? One reason may be that while ass lends itself well to the beginning of an opprobrious compound, hat leaves something to be desired in terms of mordant wit.”
Amen. Few of these words can be considered witty, and most are a blight on the language.
Now we get to the cuss words I really dislike.

Asshole. A noun, “usually vulgar.”
The first meaning is “anus,” but Webster also says it can mean “a stupid, annoying, or detestable person,” and “the least attractive or desirable part or area —used in phrases like asshole of the world.” This is an ancient word, first used in the 14th century.
But not by Mom.

We can skip “shit” – we know too about that word and its variations. I hate that word, though I’ve used it occasionally. Mostly in traffic.

Let’s go to a fairly harmless phrase:
WTF. Harmless, that is, until you see what the abbreviation stands for.
Now if Mom was around with her bar of soap, I’d try to weasel out by quoting the Acronym Finder.
“Hey, Mom, WTF stands for Well and Truly Freaked, or What’s This Foolishness? Where’s the Fudge?, or heh, heh, Welcome to Florida. In fact there are 105 definitions of WTF, so put down that soap, Mom, and let’s talk.’”
Webster authoritatively says the phrase is all caps and “informal.”
“WTF means ‘What the f– ’” Webster uses the actual f-word and says WTF is “used especially to express or describe outraged surprise, recklessness, confusion, or bemusement.”
Mom would not be bemused. Or amused.

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, my new Angela Richman mystery, is out. Publishers Weekly says, “Colorful characters match the crafty plot twists. Viets consistently entertains.” Read the review and order your copy here: https://www.publishersweekly.com/9780727850287

Questions of Life and Death

By Elaine Viets

I like researching a mystery. I get to ask the wildest questions in the pursuit of facts.
A helpful homicide detective answers mundane question like these:
Does my cop have enough to get a search warrant? How about an arrest?
A poison expert shares her arcane knowledge of death. I was surprised how many perilous hazards lurked under the kitchen sink or in the garage.
Sure, I can look up some of these questions online, but it’s not as much fun. I like hands on research.
Here are a few of my favorite research questions.

Can a body fit in your car trunk?
I sprung this question on a sweet, silver-haired couple who owned a Lincoln Town Car, the same car as Margery Flax in my Dead-End Job mysteries. They were in a shopping center parking lot when I asked that question. Maybe I have an honest face. Or, since they were Florida residents, they were used to crazies. For whatever reason, they obligingly opened their trunk.
Yep, the Town Car trunk was definitely big enough for a body. Two, if the bodies were small.

How do you open a locked door with a credit card?
My cousin showed me how to do this. I’m not using her name because she is definitely light-fingered. She’s especially good with cheap button locks. She demonstrated her skill repeatedly, but I belong to the fumble-fingered side of the family. I did learn that “loiding” a door is a lot harder than it looks on TV.

Can you kill a person with a wine bottle?
“Empty or full?” the pathologist asked me. She was used to my crazy questions.
“A full bottle is a better weapon,” she said. Then she gave me another tip. “If you’re looking for another way to kill a person, please don’t use the old ‘hit-their-head-on-the-coffee-table’ to murder someone. That’s harder than it looks.”

How do you defrost a dead body?
This question for Ice Blonde stumped several pathologists. I finally found one who’d defrosted an intoxicated woman who ran out the door of her home and froze to death.
He told me, “You’ll need two body bags. Use a white one if you can, and then the heavy black bag. The white makes it easier to see the hairs and fibers when the decedent defrosts. Put the person in the white body bag first, then in the heavy black bag. Keep the decedent at room temperature, about 72 degrees, so the body will thaw naturally.
“What does your victim weigh?”
“About a hundred-fifteen pounds,” I said.
“The person will take about thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours to defrost.”
I have a fairly high tolerance for forensic details, but defrosting someone like a piece of meat made my stomach do a backflip.

There was more. While the person was defrosting, the pathologist has to check the body every two hours. The hands and feet would probably defrost first, and then the pathologist could get scrapings from under the nails. As the defrosting progressed, the pathologist would draw blood and get fluids, including ocular fluid from the eyes, and if the person was a woman, check for seminal fluid in the vaginal vault.
Had enough information? Yeah, me, too.

How do you hot-wire a car?
A friendly mechanic spent an hour giving me lessons until I could describe the process. Don’t worry. Your vehicles are safe – nothing sparked no matter how many times I tried.

What off-beat questions have you asked for research, TKZers?

Now in audio! All my Angela Richman mysteries and the first three Dead-End Job novels. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial with Scribd.
https://www.scribd.com/audiobook/490552091/Death-Grip

First Page Critique

By Elaine Viets

Today’s Brave Author gave us an intriguing story with a touch of the supernatural. Take a look, and then I’ll make my comments:

A Delima worth Millions

The man that just walked in the bakery to buy a lotto ticket is destined to win… but die the same day. If he plays. He stood in line. Waiting his turn. Like everyone else, he wished to wake up tomorrow as the mega lotto prize winner of 25 million. On an empty table to his left, a newspaper had a headline that caught his attention: LOTTO WINNER FOUND DEAD with the victim photograph and name-Pascual Montenegro. “That’s me,” he said. The hair on his body bristled as he walked slowly to the table and grabbed the paper. It was him. Short black hair, shaved, blue eyes. “What the hell is this?” he whispered.

A slight chill quivered his chest. The published date was two days from today. He scrutinized every word. According to the article, the police found him dead without a clear cause the same day he won. No further details revealed.

“Do you mind giving me back my paper,” said a voice. Pascual lowered the newspaper. There sat an old man he never seen before, dressed in a black suit with a fedora hat. “Do you mind?” the old man asked again. Pascual slammed it against the table. “Why is my picture here?” He looked at him.

The old man remained unrattled and sneered back with his dark eyes on a stone face. “Can’t you read? That is Sunday’s headline. You play, you win millions, you somehow die and its newsworthy,” he said. Pascual shook his head and pointed his finger at the old man’s face. “I don’t know who think you are. I do not appreciate this joke, scam or whatever bullshit lie you trying to pull with here” he said.

The old man sneered again. Then he leaned forward, the chair squeaked “buy the ticket and you will find out,” he hissed. Pascual shrugged his shoulders and grabbed and crumbled the paper. “Go to hell old man” he said and dropped it in front of him. He returned to the line. The old man smiled as he unwrinkled the paper with thump sounds like a judge gavel. Louder than the cracking sound of eggs being fried in the kitchen. “Go ahead, buy the ticket, you can’t stop what’s coming” he said. Pascual grabbed his cross necklace and kissed the image of Christ, a habit since childhood whenever he shivered in distress.

ELAINE’S CRITIQUE: I saw real possibility in this first page – and an author that needs help with some awkward phrasing and spelling. My changes are in bold. The problems start with the misspelled title:

Dilemma Worth Millions

The man that just walked in the bakery to buy a lotto ticket is destined to win… but die the same day.

ELAINE: That opening grabbed me, but Brave Author, please use it to tell us where we are. For example: The man that just walked in the San Antonio bakery to buy a lotto ticket is destined to win… but die the same day. If he plays.

BRAVE AUTHOR: He stood in line. Waiting his turn. Like everyone else, he wished to wake up tomorrow as the mega lotto prize winner of 25 million.

ELAINE: Twenty-five million what? Dollars? Pesos? Euros?

BRAVE AUTHOR: On an empty table to his left, a newspaper had a headline that caught his attention: LOTTO WINNER FOUND DEAD. He stared at the victim’s photograph and name – Pascual Montenegro. “That’s me,” he said. The hair on his body bristled as he walked slowly to the table and grabbed the paper.
There was no mistake. It was him. Same short black hair, shaved, blue eyes.

ELAINE: That “shaved” is puzzling. Do you mean “clean-shaven”?

BRAVE AUTHOR: “What the hell is this?” he whispered.

A slight chill quivered in his chest.

ELAINE: “A slight chill”? This is a man who just read that he was dead. He’ll need more reaction than that.

BRAVE AUTHOR: The published date was two days from today. He scrutinized every word. According to the article, the police found him dead without a clear cause the same day he won. No further details were revealed.

“Do you mind giving me back my paper?” said a voice. Pascual lowered the newspaper. There sat an old man he’d never seen before, dressed in a black suit and a fedora hat. He had dark eyes set in a stone face. (This phrase is moved up from below.)

ELAINE: You don’t need that “hat.” We know what a fedora is.

BRAVE AUTHOR: “Do you mind?” the old man asked again.
Pascual slammed the paper against the table. “Why is my picture here?” he demanded. He looked at him.

ELAINE: Cut the line in italics. It adds nothing.

BRAVE AUTHOR: The old man remained unrattled and sneered back: “Can’t you read? That is Sunday’s headline. You play, you win millions, you somehow die and it’s newsworthy.” he said.

ELAINE: Yikes! The dreaded “it’s” contraction was without an apostrophe. This mistake alone will send an editor screaming into the night. Also, you don’t need that “he said.”

BRAVE AUTHOR: Pascual shook his head and pointed his finger at the old man’s face. “I don’t know who you think you are. I do not appreciate this joke, scam or whatever bullshit lie you’re trying to pull with here,” he said.

ELAINE: We don’t need the word “lie”  or “with” and the punctuation is wrong for “he said.”

BRAVE AUTHOR: The old man sneered again. Then he leaned forward, and the chair squeaked. “Buy the ticket and you will find out,” he hissed.
Pascual shrugged his shoulders, and grabbed the paper and crumpled it. “Go to hell, old man,” he said and dropped it in front of him. He returned to the ticket line.

ELAINE: Again, there are some punctuation errors and the italicized “and” can be cut.

BRAVE AUTHOR: The old man smiled as he smoothed the wrinkled paper, the sound louder than the crack of a judge’s gavel.

ELAINE: “With thump sounds like a judge gavel” is an interesting image, but it doesn’t quite work. And it should read “with a thump that sounds like a judge’s gavel.” The same goes for “louder than the cracking sound of eggs being fried in the kitchen.” And do you mean “cracking” or “crackling”?

BRAVE AUTHOR: “Go ahead, buy the ticket, you can’t stop what’s coming,” the old man said.

Pascual grabbed his crucifix necklace and kissed the image of Christ, a habit since childhood whenever he was shivered in distress.

ELAINE: Cut “shivered.

ELAINE’S CONCLUSION: I was impressed with this first page. I want to know what happens to Pascual: does he win his fortune and cheat death? Will his faith help save him? And who is this mysterious old man – the Grim Reaper in a fedora? The devil? Or a nameless charlatan?
However, this first page presents a real writing dilemma: numerous misspellings and grammatical mistakes, starting with the title. No editors worth their red pencil will read this novel, and that’s a crying shame.
A writer has to know grammar and spelling. These are the tools of our trade. If we don’t, we’re like builders who can’t use a nail gun or a circular saw.
So what can our Brave Author do?
Take an adult education course in grammar and spelling.
Have someone who understands grammar and spelling read your manuscript.
Hire an editor to correct your grammar and spelling before you send out your manuscript.
I teach English as a second language, and judging by some of these errors, I suspect our Brave Author is not a native speaker. But I believe our Brave Author is a natural storyteller. Keep writing.

This Saturday, August 14, 10 AM to noon, I’m teaching “Dead Write: Forensics for Writers” a Zoom workshop at the Florida Authors Academy.
I passed the Medicolegal Death Investigators Course for forensic professionals at St. Louis University’s School of Medicine. I’ll discuss the proper methods and pitfalls of body identification, and other tips that will give your mysteries authenticity. Handouts are included. Contact Murder on the Beach Bookstore. Registration is required. It’s $25. Call 561-279-7790 or email murdermb@gate.net.

 

The Pain of Killing Your Darlings

You know your prose will stun your editors with its brilliance. When you reread that passage, it brought tears to your eyes. The emotion quivers on the page.
So why are your editors asking you to cut and rewrite your favorite section? Why do they see your fiery passages as deep purple?
I don’t know about you, but I have the most problems when I’m starting a novel.
Once it gets going, I’m okay – sure, I have to watch for sagging middles.
But here is a problem I had with a rough beginning, when the murder came too late in Brain Storm.

The first book in my Angela Richman, Death Investigator series was hard to write:
I was starting a new series, and it was hard-boiled, not cozy, a change for me.
Also, the plot used my actual experience. In 2007, I had six strokes, brain surgery and a coma. It took seven years to get up the nerve to write about this, and another year for my agent to sell this story.
Here’s the plot: Death Investigator Angela Richman has a series of blinding headaches. She goes to the ER and Dr. Porter Gravois tells her she’s too young and fit to have a stroke. He sends her home, and she has six strokes and brain surgery. She’s saved by Dr. Travis Tritt, a brilliant surgeon with a lousy bedside manner. Dr. Tritt hates Porter Gravois, and when Porter is murdered, Tritt is the main suspect. Angela, still sick and drug-addled, has to save the man who saved her life.
When Brain Storm sold, my manuscript went to Bryon Quertermous, a freelance development editor.
Here’s what Bryon wrote:

Plot-wise, I think you have a good motive and solid characters and a nice arc. That said, I think the arc starts too late and needs to encompass more of the first half of the book as well. You do a good job of starting strong with the character and with Angela’s job and readers will forgive a little slow burn to get into this cool world, but we need to see some plot development sooner than almost halfway through as it is now.
The biggest note I have is that Dr. Porter’s death scene needs to come sooner in the book, ideally a quarter of the way in or so. For Angela to really work at her best as a character she needs to be actively investigating a death, not just playing armchair detective with her friend, the pathologist Katie, as she does now. I think there are some great interactions between the two of them and I don’t want those to go away, but I think you can kill two birds with this.

First, you need to make a list of all of the scenes that come before Porter’s death. Next, write a little bit about each scene. Then figure out which ones can be reworked to come after that scene and which can’t, and then go from there.
I think a lot of the discussions with Katie about the Angel of Death can come after. I love the idea that you briefly toy with of having Angela obsessed with the perfect Hobie as the killer and, better yet, as a vigilante killer. I think Angela needs to come to this obsession sooner and it needs to coincide with her talks with Katie about the Angel of Death murders.

You need to build her paranoia here and really play around with it as she wonders in her head if what she thinks about Hobie really is true. I think you need at least one more big set piece hallucination (like the fake hospital one which I though was brilliant) and I think as Katie realizes more and more that Angela isn’t playing devil’s advocate that she actually thinks Hobie is the Angel of Death and that he killed Porter this can create some nice tension between the two friends. Part of this will come from a line of investigation I think you need to develop where Angela starts digging into the backgrounds of the other Angel of Death victims to see if they have anything in common or if they were bad people who needed to die like Porter did.

Bryon gave me good advice: I don’t believe the murder should always be in chapter one – but if someone isn’t dead by the first third of the book the writer is making the fatal mistake of slowing the pace.

But how could I cut those wonderful scenes?
Bryon had the answer: List all the scenes.
See which ones can be combined or relocated to another section of the book.
Kill the ones that slow it down. Be brave. If you want your book to live, you’re going to have to kill – or at least transform – those darling scenes.

Have you had to kill your darlings? Tell us about it.

 

Here’s how Brain Storm turned out. https://tinyurl.com/7kwezp3t

Creating Likeable Villains

By Elaine Viets

This month got off to a pleasant start. My short story, “Dog Eat Dog” was nominated for two awards: the Macavity and the International Thriller Writers.
The story was in The Beat of Black Wings, an anthology based on the songs of Joni Mitchell. I chose “Dog Eat Dog.”

This story was difficult to write, because my protagonist was so dislikeable. We learn straight out that Tiffany Yokum is a gold digger – and a calculating killer.
Here’s her introduction:

“The first time I tried to kill my husband, I failed. Miserably. I gave him a little push at the top of the stairs and Colgate tangled himself in his walker and fell down twenty-seven marble steps, just as I hoped. And he cracked his head – but not hard enough.
“Now he’s in a coma. The doctors say there’s still brain activity and he could wake up at any time, so I can’t pull the plug. He could live forever this way. As I sit by his bedside, I watch the fluid drip through his IV, and imagine each drop is a dollar. Even his immense fortune will be drained away.
“I want desperately to finish him off, but I don’t want to get caught.”

Greedy Tiffany put a nice old man into a coma, and now she wants him to die. How do I make readers root for this little moneygrubber?
Unlikeable protagonists are extremely popular, thanks to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Before Gillian, there was the disgusting pedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita. And Rabbit Angstrom in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and other novels in this series. Books I pretended to read in college but couldn’t finish because I found Rabbit, the protagonist, self-absorbed and dull.
Short stories don’t have time to create the subtleties of a novel. Which gets us back to Tiffany and how to make readers root for this crafty killer. Here are some ways to do it.
Give your villains a minor illness.

The award-winning Evan Hunter – a.k.a. Ed McBain – made that recommendation. It works if your villains aren’t too evil. McBain had a lot of sniffling and sneezing detectives in the 87th Precinct. But I could give Tiffany pneumonia – heck, Covid-19 – and she still wouldn’t be likeable.

Give your villains a sympathetic background.


Tiffany is by no means her rich husband’s social equal. She’s an 18-year-old clerk at a hardware store in Festus, Missouri. “Colgate Osborne was a randy seventy-two when he first spotted me behind the cash register, falling out of my tank top,” Tiffany says. She grew up in a trailer park. So she’s at the bottom rung of the ladder, looking to climb. Readers like to root for a rags-to-riches scenario.

Make your villains smart. Or at least crafty.

Tiffany quickly becomes the fourth wife of rich old Cole Osborne and they live in luxury in Fort Lauderdale.
“I never went to college, but I wasn’t stupid,” Tiffany said. “I knew now that Cole had tied the knot with me, my struggle had just begun. Cole was very, very classy, and I had to fit in with his rich friends.”

Make your villains self-aware.

The Joni Mitchell song was Tiffany’s anthem, and she recognized herself in the lyrics of “Dog Eat Dog.” Especially the part about slaves. Some were well-treated . . .
And some like poor beasts
Are burdened down to breaking
Tiffany said, “This was a dog eat dog world – more so than the trailer park where I used to live. I was a well-treated slave, and I’d sold myself into slavery, but I knew that.”
Our villain has knows she’s living in comfort, but she can’t get comfortable.
“One misstep, and I’d be one of those poor beasts, working again at the local hardware store or greeting people at Walmart. I had a prenup that would give me a measly hundred thousand dollars if we divorced, but if I could hang on until Cole died, I’d get half his fortune.”

Make your villains work for their success. That way, readers can root for them.

Cindy knew she’s landed her pretty derriere in a tub of butter, but she knew her work has just started. Among other things, Cindy changed her name to a classier “Tish.”
She also “made friends with his housekeeper, Mrs. Anderson. She’d been with him for twenty years and three wives. I slipped her a little extra out of my mad money account that Cole gave me, and Mrs. A told me where to shop on Las Olas, the local Rodeo Drive, and which saleswoman to make an appointment with. She also advised me to ditch my long fake nails and get a nice, refined French manicure, then sent me to a salon where I had my long hair tamed into fashionable waves and the color became ‘not so blonde’ as the tactful stylist said.”

Make your villains aware of the stakes if they fail.

Now readers have more reasons to root for them.
“As I got into my mid-twenties, I had to work hard to keep my girlish figure,” Tiffany said. “My trainer was worse than a drill sergeant, and I endured endless runs on the beach. Awful as it was, it beat standing on my feet all day on a concrete floor, running a cranky cash register for nine dollars an hour.”

Create a conflict – and an even worse villain.

Tiffany says, “I thought I could sail smoothly into Cole’s sunset years and collect the cash when he went to his reward. But then that damn preacher showed up. The smarmy Reverend Joseph Starr, mega-millionaire pastor of Starr in the Heavens.”
As much as we may dislike money-hungry Tiffany, the bloodsucking TV preacher is even worse. He plays on Cole’s fear of death and walks off with a check for a million dollars on his first visit – and the Reverend has his sights set on more.
“Starr would work on Cole’s guilt and milk him for every dollar – my husband was one big cash cow,” the practical Tiffany said.
Now that her husband was in the hospital on life support, Tiffany has to find a way to kill her husband and put the blame on the Reverend Starr.
Does Tiffany succeed? Or does the Reverend Starr walk off with the money? You’ll have to read “Dog Eat Dog” to find out – and see if I made you root for her.
Tell us, TKZers. How do you humanize your villains?
***

The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pachter, is an anthology of 28 crime writers who wrote short stories inspired by Joni Mitchell’s lyrics. The award-winning authors include Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski, Kathryn O’Sullivan, Stacy Woodson, and Donna Andrews. A third of the royalties will be donated to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation in Joni Mitchell’s name.
Order your copy of Beat of Black Wings here: https://tinyurl.com/38x2cyar

Do You Need Hygge?

By Elaine Viets

The English language is expanding faster than waistlines during quarantine. This year, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary has added another 520 new words.
English is a living language, so growth is good. Or as Webster says:
“The words we use—if they are new or relatively new—are the words we need to express and explain our world. If these words then also become widely used, it becomes the dictionary’s job to explain this use.”
The new crop includes words and abbreviations I’ve never used – including “hygge” and “ASMR.”
And words I hope we’ll never use, like the clunky “decarceration.”
Plus words that we’ve been using long before Webster got wise to them, including “silver fox.” (George Clooney, anyone?)


So what’s “ASMR”? It’s short for “autonomous sensory meridian response.” Uh, right. That clears it up. This example from Webster explains it better:
“It might sound like a bafflingly bizarre way to spend time on the internet. But for Maria’s viewers, her voice and movements hold a certain magic: they can instill tranquility, overcome insomnia—and induce a mysterious physical sensation known as … ‘ASMR’, wherein the body is flooded with waves of euphoric tingles.”
“Hygge” sounds like a type of Scandinavian salt fish. It’s actually a Danish word, meaning “a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable.”
Here’s how the dictionary says it’s used: “During the long, dark winters when Danes retreat inside their homes, ‘hygge’ is what brings them a great sense of comfort and joy.” It’s sort of pronounced like “hugh-ga.”

“Hygge” and “ASMR” were used a lot in the past year, when we needed comfort. At least, that’s what Webster said. My friends used other comfort words, such as “Ben & Jerry’s” and “Johnnie Walker.”
Thanks to Covid, old words have taken on new meanings. “Long hauler” is not just an over-the-road trucker. Webster says it’s now “a person who experiences one or more long-term effects following initial improvement or recovery from a serious illness (such as COVID-19).”


“Pod” and “bubble” both gained new meanings. A “pod” is a small group of friends, relatives or co-workers that we can safely socialize with and avoid spreading COVID. Now that all my friends are vaccinated, my “pod” had an indoor party without masks.

Any sports fan knows the new meaning of “bubble.” Sports Washington wrote:

“To avoid COVID-19 infection, the NBA and NHL instituted strict ‘bubbles’ where players, coaches, media and staff are sequestered away from the general public. Major League Baseball . . . instead is asking its players to be responsible as they travel the country for games. It’s not working well, and in the case of the Miami Marlins, it’s been awful.”
Most of us are aware of the new words in corporate speak:
“Hard pass” is a firm refusal.

“‘Makerspace’ is a communal public workshop where makers – including artists, painters, jewelry designers – can work on small personal projects.
But don’t confuse “makerspace” with “coworking.” That means people are working in a building with many different kinds of tenants, including new start-ups, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits. These tenants rent their work space and use communal facilities.

I don’t have to explain “crowdfunding” or “gig worker.” You already know those words.


“Decarceration” is a new word that I wish would go away. It means “to release from prison” or to reduce the number of people housed by the “prison industrial complex” – and those three words are another new term. “Decarceration” ranks right up there with “deplane” as one of my most hated words.

“Second Gentleman” has been around since 1976, but Webster finally made it official after the 2020 election, when Kamala Harris was elected Vice President and her husband, Douglas Craig Emhoff, became the first Second Gentleman of the United States.
Wanna know my favorite new word?
“Sapiosexual.”
That means you’re attracted to smart people.

Love words? Logophiles can sign up for Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day here: https://www.merriam-webster.com/word-of-the-day. It’s free.

Enjoy forensic mysteries? Kirkus says this about DEATH GRIP, my new Angela Richman mystery: “Viets produces chills with a murder hunt turned on its head.” Buy it here: https://tinyurl.com/ya9q9tfm

Out With Them!

 

By Elaine Viets

I was listening to a talk radio show when I heard something like this:

“You’ve given us a lot to unpack here, Bill,” the host said. “Destructive weather events are becoming the new normal in these uncertain times.”
The guest blathered, “Yes, we’re all in this –

No! I switched off the radio before he finished saying, “We’re all in this together.
I’ve learned to live with many of the old cliches and misused words. I no longer cringe when someone says, “Irregardless.”
But these uh, uncertain times have spawned a new and even more annoying crop of cliches. They’re infesting our language like termites. My husband Don is tired of listening to me gripe. But I can tell you, can’t I, dear reader?

Here is my list of words and phrases I’d like to see banned. I hope they don’t creep into our conversation – or worse, our writing.

UNPACK. Usually suitcases are unpacked – we remove the contents and put them away. But lately unpack has been used in another way: to consider, to analyze, to reveal. Webster says that use is legit, but it rubs me the wrong way. Never mind that Shakespeare himself used it, during Hamlet’s rant (uh, soliloquy):

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab

PROCESS. After you unpack something, you need time to process it. “After my mother died, it took a long time to process her death.” What the heck? Are you a computer?

EVENT. Here’s another one that gets me. A tornado trashes an entire town, killing innocent people and destroying their homes. And what does the media call it? “A weather event.”
Why? Do you sell tickets to a tornado?


LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL. Something we’re not seeing these days, but the media keeps saying it’s there. This phrase has been around for maybe two hundred years. Some sources say it goes back to the 1800s and was used “in a letter by English novelist George Eliot.” John F. Kennedy made it popular in the mid-1960s when he talked about Vietnam. The phrase can be either one of hope – or despair.

 

GIVE 110 PERCENT. Mostly said by corporate types. Can you folks even add?

BAD OPTICS. PR speak for “this looks bad.” For instance, “Widgets Inc. cut ties with their foreign supplier when they found out the supplier used child labor.” Did Widgets care about those toiling tots? Heck no. But they were worried what their customers would think.

EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. Usually said after some especially senseless tragedy. Often followed by another favorite phrase: “thoughts and prayers.”

Covid has spawned a crop of cliches:

IN THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES. A euphemism for “in these hopelessly screwed-up times.” And unless we’re fortune tellers, almost all times are uncertain. We can’t see the future.

IT IS WHAT IT IS. A mental shrug. An annoying way of saying, “I don’t want to do anything about it.” Politicians as far back as George Bush have used it and it’s the favorite excuse in sports. Your Dictionary says, one famous example was when the coach of the US hockey team at the 2006 Winter Olympics excused his team’s “lack of rest by saying, ‘We’re going to do the best that we can. It is what it is.’”
If it will make you feel any better, other languages also have versions of this, according to Your Dictionary: “In Persian, ‘Fihi Ma Fihi’ means the same thing and was the title of a famous work by Rumi, a 13th century writer. In Spanish, the phrase ‘Que será, será’ means ‘what will be, will be.’ This is a somewhat more optimistic twist on the idea.” Doris Day made that phrase into a song.

LESS THAN. In mathematics it means smaller. Four is less than six. But the term is less than satisfactory when it strays in to everyday language. It’s wrong to make people feel “less than.” Less than what?

LIVING MY BEST LIFE. Oh? You get more than one? Lucky you. Like it or not, I’m already living my best life – now.

NEW NORMAL. The new normal not only isn’t normal, it’s not even new. Wikipedia, for heaven’s sake, points out that every time we have a major crisis, we dig up that term and dust it off. It seems to have appeared the first time in 1918, right after World War I. Henry A. Wise Wood spelled it out for us: “How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?”
Pundits have been working variations on that theme after the 1990s Dot-Com Bubble, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, September 11 attacks, the aftermath of the 2008–2012 global recession, and now – the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The New Normal” was a TV show and country singer Cooper Alan even has a love song called “New Normal.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poBwXChcvCY

So which words or phrases are driving you nuts in these . . .um . . .difficult times? Go ahead. You can tell us.

**********************************************************************
Now out! DEATH GRIP, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. Kirkus magazine says, “Viets produces chills with a murder hunt turned on its head.” Buy it here: https://tinyurl.com/ya9q9tfm

Are a Ghost’s Feelings Dead? A First Page Critique

Critiqued by Elaine Viets

 

Gather ’round, readers, and make sure the lights are on. Today, we’re critiquing a “murder ghost story,” a first page critique by a brave anonymous author. Read it first, and then I’ll discuss it. Here goes:

Continuing Adventures of Laurel Palmer: Murder Ghost Story

When I was a child I was afraid of ghosts.
As I grew up I realized people are more scary.

When I woke up, I was dead. It took a minute to sink in.
When it did, I sat up abruptly, immediately shooting up to the ceiling twenty feet above the first-floor landing. In a cloud of confusion, I looked down and saw myself, or what used to be myself, sprawled at the foot of the stairs. I waved my arms, wondering if that’s how I would need to propel myself in my current insubstantial form.
Actually, it only took thinking to be able to float down, where I hovered a few feet above the empty shell that used to be me. I examined the form critically. I had been beautiful, hadn’t I?
I was lying there picturesquely, almost gracefully, face up, large brown eyes wide in shock, long sable hair spread around my head like a dark halo. Or I could have pulled that off if my arms and legs weren’t bent at strange angles, and a crimson liquid wasn’t pooling on the hardwood floor, with strands of that sable hair soaking in it, and my normal olive complexion wasn’t unusually pasty, with maybe a little gray creeping in.
Nice legs, I thought, noticing that the filmy silk dress I had been wearing was halfway up my thigh, fortunately not exposing anything I…she…might be embarrassed to have on display when the appropriate authorities arrived on the scene. I tried to pull the dress lower to cover more of her exposed legs, but my hand passed right through.
Floating, both physically and emotionally, I felt only mild curiosity as I scrutinized the body on the floor. Having no lingering connection to it, I could watch it dispassionately, waiting to see if it did anything. Like breathe. I gave a soft laugh. Not likely, since I was here, and I would have been there if any life remained in the corpse.
I settled onto a step a few up from the recently deceased person, rested my elbows on my knees, and pondered the meaning of life. Or what it all means. Being dead and still here, I mean.

*****************************************************

Death is the ultimate mystery, and we all wonder what will happen when we meet our end. Our Brave Author gave us an imaginative look at the other side. This first page is readable and well-written, but I’d like to suggest some changes.

(1) Drop the italics line.
When I was a child I was afraid of ghosts.
As I grew up I realized people are more scary.

Consider using it elsewhere as an observation in your story. It takes away from the impact of your first two lines: “When I woke up, I was dead. It took a minute to sink in.”
Those lines are grabbers, and so is the next one. “When it did, I sat up abruptly, immediately shooting up to the ceiling twenty feet above the first-floor landing.”
So far, so good. This beginning shows imagination. But now the tone changes. It becomes distant.
(2) The woman is dead, and we need to know how she feels about it. At first, she seems confused, which might be the expected response – I hope I won’t know for sure for a long time.
“In a cloud of confusion, I looked down and saw myself, or what used to be myself, sprawled at the foot of the stairs.”
That “in a cloud of confusion” is a bit confusing. Consider making it something like: “Confused, I looked down and saw myself, or what used to be myself, sprawled at the foot of the stairs.”
Confusion is to be expected, especially since our new ghost is learning that she is incorporeal and has to navigate in a new world. “I waved my arms, wondering if that’s how I would need to propel myself in my current insubstantial form. Actually, it only took thinking to be able to float down, where I hovered a few feet above the empty shell that used to be me.”
That’s good.
(3) But by now, she should be feeling something – or wondering why she feels so numb.
Instead, she admires her dead body, as if it were a work of art. We need some emotion here.
Is she upset that she’s lost this beautiful body? Is she unhappy? Did she like her life? Will she be sorry to leave it? Are there any relatives, friends or lovers she will miss?
(4) Also, this is billed as a “murder ghost story.”
Was our ghost murdered? Tell us. Does she know who pushed her down the stairs to her untimely death? Let us know. Is she angry? Frightened? Vengeful?
(5) And last, but not least, our ghost is suffering from Ectoplasmic Anonymity.
Tell us her name. Right away. Maybe here in this sentence would be a good place: “Actually, it only took thinking to be able to float down, where I hovered a few feet above the empty shell that used to be me, Laurel Palmer.” Or whoever the ghost is.
Don’t let these criticisms scare you, Brave Author. If you want another good critique of a paranormal story, check out PJ Parrish’s paranormal critique: https://tinyurl.com/8f5jmbut
Your ghost story is off to a good start. Your ghost is just a little . . . insubstantial.
******************************************************************************************


Save the Date! Wednesday, March 17 at 6 PM ET
Charlaine Harris and Elaine Viets: A Zoom Event at Murder on the Beach
You know Charlaine from her Southern Vampire “True Blood” mysteries. Now she has a new series, featuring Gunnie Rose. The gunslinger for hire lives in a fractured US. I’ll have a new book, too: “Death Grip,” my fifth Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery.
Admission? Just buy either book. For reservations, call Murder on the Beach Bookstore at 561-279-7790 or email murdermb@gate.net.

Scamming the Scammers

By Elaine Viets

There’s another virus that’s hitting those of us who work from home – ransomware. The most common right now is called the Microsoft Attack. A warning pops up that you have a virus and there is an 800 number to call “Microsoft” to have it removed. My IT guy says Microsoft will never call, email, or send a pop-up about a virus. That’s malicious software holding your computer hostage until the ransom is paid. You’re locked out.

Ransomware attacks are epidemic. Two weeks ago, a woman in my (socially distanced) gym class had her computer locked by ransomware. She refused to pay the ransom. Instead, she paid her IT guy $600 to free her computer. Yep. The poor woman ponied up 600 bucks. My IT guy said $50-100 was overcharging. He could do the job in under an hour.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her it would have been cheaper if she’d backed up her data and gotten a new computer. Not to mention a new IT guy.
Last week, my husband Don was working at his computer when it was attacked by ransomware. His computer was locked. Don couldn’t finish his article and he was on deadline. A red warning message blared across his screen. There was also an 800 number that he could call for “help.”

We both knew how expensive that help would be.
Don waited about an hour, hoping the ransomware would disappear.
No such luck.
Don and I had no choice but to use our most extreme weapon: 131 C.
He called the 800 number on his screen and I got on the line to listen in. The man who answered sounded young – maybe in his twenties – and he spoke English with an Asian accent. He told Don his name – a decidedly WASPy one, something like John Clark. That’s what I’ll call him for this blog. The attacker also told Don he was working in Chicago. I doubt he was anywhere near the place.
John claimed he didn’t know how Don’s computer got locked up. He was simply here to help, and if Don would give him his credit card number and tell him exactly what was wrong, then John would fix Don’s computer. They went back and forth like this for at least a minute:
John would ask Don to tell him what was wrong. Don would demand John remove the ransomware. John would deny he was there for any reason but to help and if Don would give him his credit card information . . .
At that point, I joined the conversation. “This is Don’s attorney, Vera Ellis, calling on a recorded line. Mr. Clark, you are aware that this conversation is being recorded, right?”
“No reason to record,” John Clark said. “If you will tell me what is wrong, I can fix the computer.”
“I’m Don’s attorney,” I repeated. “I’m speaking on a recorded line. You are in violation of FCC regulation 131 C. Do you understand that, Mr. Clark?”
“If you will tell me what is wrong, I can fix the computer,” John Clark said. He continued to protest that he only wanted to help and would we tell him what was wrong. I talked over him and kept repeating: “No, Mr. Clark. I’m informing you again, you are in violation of section 131 C. Do you understand? That’s 131 C.”
Finally, the line went dead. Don turned off his computer.
Half an hour later, Don switched his computer back on. The ransomware was gone and his computer worked fine. He finished his article on time.


By the way, 131 C is the number of an apartment we lived in on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. We moved in on a muggy August Saturday, and the air-conditioning was broken. The apartment was at least a hundred degrees. We couldn’t open the windows, either. They were painted shut. And there were no fans.
I called the landlord, who told me he couldn’t get anyone there before Monday at the earliest. I suspected he didn’t want to pay the weekend repair rates. I wasn’t about to swelter in that apartment until Monday.
“You have to get someone here to fix the air-conditioning,” I told him in a firm voice. “Or you’re in violation of section 131 C of the housing code.”
After I hung up the phone, Don said, “Isn’t 131 C our apartment number?”
It was. But it was enough to produce an air-conditioning repairman at our apartment within two hours.
And so the legend of 131 C was born.

Some of these scammers hijack major cities and counties. County officials in LaPorte, Indiana paid a $132,000 ransom to hackers who took over some of the county’s computers. The hijackers demanded their payment in Bitcoin. Another city paid more than $9 million to update their old, outdated system, rather than give the ransomers the $76,000 they demanded in Bitcoin. (Ransomware thieves loved Bitcoin.)
The FBI recommends that you don’t pay the crooks who hold your computer for ransom. You can report malware, ransomware, phishing and other scams to the FBI by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI. Press 3 and you’ll be directed to a website to file a complaint.
The FBI does catch some of the critters crawling around on the web.
One Raymond Odigie Uadiale pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with a ransomware called Reveton. The former Microsoft employee got 18 months in prison.
If you ask me, and anyone else who’s battled these scammers, Ray got off easy.

 &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
Coming March 2, DEATH GRIP, my latest Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. Kirkus says, “Viets produces chills with a murder hunt turned on its head.” https://tinyurl.com/ya9q9tfm

‘Nuff Said

By Elaine Viets

Jenny, my first editor, gave me this advice: When you write dialogue, never use any tags but “said.” and “ask.”
As advice goes, it was pretty good. Jenny told me that the eye passes over “said” and “asked” and doesn’t stop my story, the way flashier tags did. Nothing said amateur writer like so-called “creative” dialogue tags. I avoided the hundreds of synonyms for the simple, efficient “said.” Here’s why:

“It’s time to go,” he insisted.
“I agree,” she concurred.
“My arm hurts,” he whimpered.
“Come along, you big baby,” she jeered.
“Hey, that hurt,” he yelped.

I also knew adding adverbs to “said” could quickly get me into Tom Swifty territory:

“The roof doesn’t leak any more,” Tom said dryly.
“I’ve lost my hair,” Tom said baldly.
Ouch.

But good advice can go too far. Always using “said” as a tag can make your novel look like a ping-pong match. Consider this dialogue:

“I’m leaving you,” she said. “I can’t take it any more.”
“Hah!” he said. “You’ll come running back. You always do.”
“Not this time,” she said. “Your affair with that stripper was the last straw.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Let me make it up to you.”
“You can’t,” she said. “I’m outta here.”

Suppose I took out some “saids,” and added observations instead.

“I’m leaving you,” she said. “I can’t take it any more.”
“Hah!” he said. “You’ll come running back. You always do.”
She folded the last blouse into her suitcase. “Not this time. Your affair with that stripper was the last straw.” She zipped her suitcase shut.
He handed her a Tiffany blue box. “I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you.”
She opened it, and studied the diamond earrings with hard eyes. “You can’t. I’m outta here.” She tossed the box on the bed and rolled her suitcase out the door.

That’s better. And the dialogue is improved even more if I add the characters’ names:

“I’m leaving you, Josh. I can’t take it any more.”
“Hah! You’ll come running back, Marie. You always do.”
Marie folded the last blouse into her suitcase. “Not this time, Josh. Your affair with that stripper was the last straw.” She zipped her suitcase shut.
Josh handed her a Tiffany blue box. “I’m sorry, Marie. Let me make it up to you.”
She opened it, and studied the diamond earrings with hard eyes. “You can’t. I’m outta here.” Marie tossed the box on the bed and rolled her suitcase out the door.

Okay, Hollywood won’t be calling to option that dialogue, but you get the idea. Adding names and observations helps tag your dialogue, and cut back on the “saids.”
You can also use too few “saids.” Mystery writer Robert B. Parker is a master of dialogue, but he could be stingy with his “saids.” Consider this dialogue from his novel, Family Honor, featuring PI Sunny Randall. It’s written in the first person.

“They both brought people home,” she said. “If one of them was away the other would bring in a guest.”
“How about Millicent?”
“They didn’t seem to care if she knew.”
“Did they know?’
“About each other?”
“Um hmm.”
“I don’t know. They weren’t very careful. They didn’t seem to care if John or I knew.”
“Know any of the people that they brought home?”
“No.”
“Were they people who came often or did they go for variety?”
“Variety, I’m afraid.”
“Both of them?”
“Yes.”

Are you lost? I am, too. There’s more – at least another page more without a “said” to be seen. Some “I saids” every four lines or so could have made this intriguing conversation about infidelity much easier to follow.
When all is said and done, “said” makes a good dialogue tag – in moderation.
***
Preorder Death Grip, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, due out March 2. Here’s what Kirkus said about Death Grip: “Viets produces chills with a murder hunt turned on its head.” https://tinyurl.com/ya9q9tfm