A Pair of Pants and Other Mysteries

Photo credit: Marcusstratus CC by NC SA 3.0

by Debbie Burke


The English language is full of quirks that are downright puzzling.

Take, for instance, the term a pair of pants.

Okay, a pair of shoes, a pair of glasses, a pair of aces—they all make logical sense. Two related objects make a pair.

But when was the last time you saw someone wearing a single pant?

Where did that weirdness come from?

According to Quora, it originated when people wore pantaloons, which were two separate pieces of clothing, put on one leg at a time. Eventually someone sewed them together, creating a singular garment, but the plural term stuck. The first recorded use of pants was in 1835 as a slang abbreviation for pantaloons.

Britannica says scholarly references don’t back up the sewn-together theory. Instead, they use the term, plurale tantum.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines plurale tantum, which is Latin for “plural only,” as a “noun which is used only in plural form, or which is used only in plural form in a particular sense or senses.” Bifurcated items (things that can be divided into two), such as pants, fall into this category. Think of items that are usually referred to in plural—often preceded by “pair of” or something similar, even when there is only one item: pliers, glasses, scissors, sunglasses, tweezers, etc. So, pants is a type of noun that is used only in its plural form, even when there is only one item being discussed.

 I dunno if I buy the plurale tantum argument. Back in the 1800s, few people could read, let alone comprehend Latin. I tend to believe the sewn-together legend as the more likely origin.

Since TKZ readers and wordsmiths focus on crime writing, let’s look at a couple of plurale tantum examples that are used as weapons.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

 According to Merriam-Webster, a pair of scissors originated from “Vulgar Latin”:

 …caesorium referred to a cutting instrument, and this Latin word was singular—even though the cutting instrument it named had two blades that slid past each other. When the word was borrowed into Middle French, French speakers gave it both a singular form (cisoire) and a plural form (cisoires). The plural didn’t refer to multiple cutting implements, however; it was modeled on the two blades of a single caesorium.

We began calling an individual scissors a pair to emphasize the matched cutting blades. There’s precedent for it. Before we called them scissors, we called them shears, and pair was used with shears for about 100 years before scissors arrived on the scene.

Alfred Hitchcock chose a pair of scissors as the weapon in his 1954 classic, Dial M For Murder.


Photo credit: Kandy Talbot CCA by 3.0


Another possible weapon is a pair of pliers.

The versatile tool was likely developed in Europe during the Bronze Age to handle and shape hot metal. An early Greek illustration shows the god Hephaestus at a forge using pliers.

Wikipedia says Hephaestus is “the Greek god of artisans, blacksmiths, carpenters, craftsmen, fire, metallurgy, metalworking, sculpture and volcanoes.”

In the 1973 film Charley Varrick, Walter Matthau and cohorts rob a bank that turns out to be a repository for mob money. Mobsters go hunting for Matthau’s gang. In the scene below, a villainous character tries to obtain information from a hapless banker who was in on the heist. The villain threatens torture with “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons



According to the British Film Institute, Charley Varrick influenced director Quentin Tarantino who coopted the line about pliers and a blowtorch for Pulp Fiction (1994), delivered by the menacing Ving Rhames.

Warning: this link contains offensive language.




Digging deeper into pluralia tantum, here are some examples where the singular meaning is different from the plural:

Arm is a limb. Arms are weapons.

Brain is an organ. Brains are intelligence.

Custom is a traditional event. Customs is the government body that collects taxes on imported goods.

Damage is harm done to something. Damages are monetary compensation for harm.

Gut is the bowel. Guts are courage.

Enough linguistics for today. Let’s wrap up with some amusing inconsistencies in the English language.

In school, we learned I before E except after C, or when sounded like A as in neighbor and weigh.”

Then along comes a smarty pants to turn that rule on its head:

Sign outside bookstore:

I before E…Except when your foreign neighbor Keith receives eight counterfeit beige sleighs from feisty caffeinated weightlifters. Weird. 


 TKZers: which peculiarity of the English language baffles you the most?

The Pulp Writer’s Insurance Policy

by James Scott Bell

People want stories. I would argue people need stories. That’s how the great pulp writers made their living—providing fast-moving tales for readers who longed for escapism, especially during the Great Depression.

Pulp fiction, like jazz, is an American phenomenon. Pulp refers to the cheaper paper (wood pulp) that these magazines used to save money. The mags came out every month, stuffed with new stories for a voracious reading public. The golden age was between the World Wars. Dozens of magazines offered crime, detective, fantasy, action, sports, and Western fiction, with eye-catching and often lurid covers to tantalize the harried businessman as he walked by the newsstand.

To make a living in the pulps, which paid on average a penny a word, you had to be prolific. That meant several stories flying through the postal system, and when one came back rejected, slapped in another envelope and sent off to another editor.

The best of the pulpsters quickly figured out that a great series character was, in the words of Erle Stanley Gardner, the “pulp writer’s insurance policy.” When a character caught on, subsequent issues of the magazine could advertise “a new Doc Savage story” thus guaranteeing sales.

After trying out several series characters in Black Mask, Gardner hit on Perry Mason, who became not just his insurance policy but his lifetime annuity as well.

As you may know, I run my own personal pulp fiction “magazine.” It was here I developed a series character in classic pulp style—a troubleshooter for a Hollywood studio in 1940s Hollywood named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster.

Armbrewster solves problems for National-Consolidated Pictures. That means getting leading men out of the drunk tank … or a murder rap. It means keeping wolves away from starlets and dancers away from temptation. Once it even means helping Bette Davis out of a jam.

His beat is trouble and his fists are ready.

He’s got some Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe in him, and a bit of Bill Lennox, the character created by W. T. Ballard for Black Mask. My collection of six Bill Armbrewster novelettes is up for pre-sale at the deal price of $2.99 (it goes up to $4.99 after launch week). You can snag your copy here. Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B09V1RLXDM

There will be a print version, too.

As an added feature, I’ve put together an extensive glossary of 1940s pulp slang. This will be a good education for the kids who want to read and understand classic crime fiction, and enjoy film noir to the full.

So how about a quiz? Here are a few terms from the glossary. How many can you translate? (Keep score, then see my answers in the comments section. No peeking!)

Adam and Eve on a Raft
Bunk, The
Chicago overcoat
Clip joint
Educated puppies
T’aint funny, McGee

Thanks for letting me toot my own horn today. Enjoy the book. After all, entertainment is my beat.

The Pulp Writer’s Mindset

by James Scott Bell

JSB, Pulp Writer, and his Maltese friend

Back in 2012, when self-publishing was proving to be a legit way to make actual, long-term money, I had a choice to make. I was in a good spot. I’d completed a contract and was ready to go out to find another.

A year before, I’d dipped my toe in the indie waters by self-publishing a novella and a book of writing tips. At the end of that year I looked up and saw that I had an extra ten grand in my bank account. And I quietly, calmly contemplated this with the serene thought: ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?

Then came an event I wrote about in this space. I called it The Eisler Sanction. Barry Eisler, who along with his buddy Joe Konrath was a leading light in the burgeoning self-publishing movement, had just turned down half a mil (!) from his publisher to go indie.

So, with a completed thriller ready to go out, I had a sit-down with my agent and friend, Donald Maass. To his enormous credit, Don left the decision to me. (This was back in the days when agents were freaking out about self publishing, warning writers that their careers could be tarnished forever if they tried it and “failed.”)

I also spoke to some traditional writers who’d found success going indie.

One in particular represented the wild ride of that time. A year earlier he’d told me he was wary of self-pub. He was a moderately successful thriller writer, an award winner in fact, with nice mass market editions put out by his publisher, great covers and all that. Now he was saying he’d changed his mind and was going for it.

He’s been a very successful indie ever since.

Thus, I decided to take my novel, Don’t Leave Me, directly to market.

At the same time, I was a) writing new work, fast and furious; and b) getting the rights back to my traditional novels (almost all of which I have now).

Along the way I discovered that the kind of writer I truly was: a pulp writer!

My models were the great pulp-magazine writers of old. The guys who had to churn out marketable work during the Great Depression or they wouldn’t eat. Writers like Robert E. Howard, Erle Stanley Gardner, W. T. Ballard (who was a friend of my parents), Cornell Woolrich (the greatest suspense writer of all time), not to mention latter-day pulpsters like John D. MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, and Gil Brewer. This latter group moved into the exploding paperback originals market of the 1950s. All of them knew how to write fiction that made readers want more.

Isn’t that what every one of us wants out of this gig?

And while “pulp writer” was a pejorative back then (Mickey Spillane famously quipped, “Those big shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar”) it didn’t matter a whit to those writers, who kept turning out books that sold in the hundreds of thousands, even millions.

If you are writing books to entertain readers in the hopes of getting a fair financial return, you are a pulp writer in your soul.

You know who else is? A fellow named Lee Child. His story is well known. He was working in the TV biz in England when, as he says, “My boss said something to me one day that made it impossible for me to work for him any longer: ‘You’re fired.’”

He then sat down to write a book about a character that would sell to the American audience. Jack Reacher was born. Knowing that production is key, Child kept writing about this character, and his books sold in increasing numbers. When he submitted Persuader, his publisher decided this is our guy, and put their massive marketing muscle into the release. That’s how James Grant became the Lee Child we know today. True to the pulp mindset, he adopted his nom de plume after noting that successful thriller authors had short, snappy names…and that the letter C would shelve his books at the front of the thriller section in bookstores. Right next to B. Ha!

He also stuck to his series character.

Now, I love my stand alones, but I came across something Erle Stanley Gardner once said. He called a hit series character “the pulp writer’s insurance policy.” He tried out several in his early pulp days (like Sidney Zoom, master of disguise, and Speed Dash, a crime-solving “human fly”) until he hit it big with a fellow named Perry Mason.

I’d written a trilogy for Hachette featuring a lawyer named Ty Buchanan. These were good, my best work to date, so I was thrilled to get the rights back. Book #3 has, in my humble opinion, the most perfect ending I’ve ever written. So even though I get emails asking me to write another in the series, I am loathe to mess with that ending.

Thus, I needed another series character, which is how Mike Romeo was born.

Now I’m happily finishing Romeo #6, and intend to keep right on going.

With the pulp mindset, I also produce short stories. This brings in a little scratch via my Patreon community.

And I will never stop. Because I love being a pulp writer.

Which is, deep down, what you are, too.



Coincidentally, this post is brought to you by How to Write Pulp Fiction.

First Page Critique – Donny Malone

Photo credit: Thomas Wolf, Wikimedia CC

By Debbie Burke



Please welcome today’s Brave Author who’s submitted the first page of a historical Crime Novel. Give it a read then we’ll discuss it.  


Donny Malone

Larry began eating at Vicenzo’s after his last picture went bust and his fourth wife fled with the remaining cash. It was a cheap breakfast joint off Santa Monica’s Broadway and Sixteenth.  A SWELL LITTLE JOINT, he wrote Howard Miller in a telegram arranging the meeting.

Miller was one of those full-time writers on the payroll at Paramount. Swell kid. Owed Larry too. Back in seventeen, Larry accepted Miller’s romance script titled: The Loving Call. Anyway, cut a long story short, the picture made money. Big money. Made Howard Miller a star. Or as much a star as its possible to be for a writer. Still, he had the manner of a kid from the Bronx, old Howie. He’d still roll up his sleeves when the L.A. sun hit noon. He’d still greet a guy with a firm, two-handed grip, and look any maître d’ in the eye without flinching. Howard weren’t into none of that small talk baloney neither. Soon as Vicenzo filled the coffees, he got down to talking shop.

“So Larry,” he asked. “How’s the kid?”

He was asking about Malone.

“Donny’s swell. Donny’s Donny.”

“Cos last I heard, Malone burnt his bridge back to vaudeville.”

“Donny’s done with that vaudeville hooey. Gets into L.A. tomorrow. Donny’s big time.”

“I hope you’re right.” Howard sighed, shaking his head. He dropped two sugar cubes into his coffee. Gave it a stir with his finger. “Since Malone gets his kicks making Mackenzie Campbell out like a chump.”

“Mack’s done. Donny’s contract was up.”

“I’m talking about Mack’s wife.”

“They were done.”

Done, Larry? You think Campbell – Campbell – is letting Malone cross the country with that broad?”

Larry didn’t know what Mack had planned. Never thought to wonder. All he knew was Donny Malone didn’t belong in no dying nineteenth-century circus act. This was a kid who could jump from a railway bridge onto a series of fast-moving carriages. Who would do it in a hot minute for a twenty-cent bet. A kid with the acrobatics of Buster Keaton. The dashing victory-smile of Fairbanks. And Larry wasted no time telling him. Put on his Hollywood voice and told the kid straight. Told him, ‘Donny. Baby. You ain’t signing with that bum another season.’

“So what he say?” Howard asked.


Let’s start with the title. On its own, Donny Malone isn’t intriguing. I immediately thought of the 1997 film Donnie Brasco with Johnny Depp and Al Pacino. Unless a person is famous or notorious, a name doesn’t generally make a good title because the reader doesn’t yet understand the reference. A better title could hint at the bygone era of Hollywood that might attract readers who enjoy the noir genre.

This first page does a nice job echoing conventions of pulp fiction and noir. A telegram  sets the time as early to mid-20th century in Santa Monica. The language is sharp, crisp, and slangy, further setting the period tone.

Brave Author introduces Larry who’s down on his luck, reduced to eating at a dive café after suffering professional and personal misfortunes in the Hollywood film industry.

Howard Miller’s character is established with backstory (more on that in a moment) as a successful Paramount screenwriter who is indebted to Larry. The inference is that Larry contacted Howard to call in a favor since Larry’s career is evidently languishing.

The subject of their conversation is an unseen third character, actor Donny Malone, followed quickly by the introduction of two more unseen characters: Mackenzie Campbell and Campbell’s wife with whom Donny has or had a relationship. Campbell is apparently not someone to mess with, raising a possible threat to Donny. The reference to an expired contract indicates Donny and Campbell once had legal obligations to each other but that’s now over.

The potential for conflict is present, although the reader isn’t sure yet what the conflict is. For the reader to fully engage with the story, s/he needs to understand the relationships among characters and what their opposing goals or agendas are. Suggest you fill in those aspects quickly in the pages that follow. 

The lead-off sounds promising but I see four issues that need work.

First problem: What is Larry’s profession? He’s in the Hollywood film business but in what capacity—producer, director, talent agent, actor, writer? The lack of that knowledge makes it difficult to pin down what he wants and what he hopes to accomplish by meeting Howard. It sounds as if Larry might represent Donny as his talent agent but that’s not clear.

The character sketch of Howard is well done. Describing him as a “swell kid” reinforces appropriate slang of the era. “Back in seventeen” narrows down the time closer to the 1920s.

However, it also highlights the second problem: most of that paragraph is an information dump about Howard. After the line “Still, he had the manner of a kid from the Bronx, old Howie” I suggest you cut the rest of the paragraph and save it for later in the story.

The following lines confused me:

Soon as Vicenzo filled the coffees, he [which he? Vincenzo or Howard] got down to talking shop. 

“So Larry,” he [again, which he? Vincenzo or Howard] asked. “How’s the kid?” 

Easy fix: Soon as Vicenzo filled the coffees, Howard got down to talking shop. 

“So, [need comma] Larry,” he asked.

The mention of sugar cubes and Howard stirring coffee with his finger were wonderful little details that again reinforce the era. Fun fact: restaurants replaced sugar cubes with packets after World War II.

The third problem is yet another info dump, this time about Donny Malone.

Buster Keaton, photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

“All he knew was Donny Malone didn’t belong in no dying nineteenth-century circus act. This was a kid who could jump from a railway bridge onto a series of fast-moving carriages. Who would do it in a hot minute for a twenty-cent bet. A kid with the acrobatics of Buster Keaton. The dashing victory-smile of Fairbanks. And Larry wasted no time telling him. Put on his Hollywood voice and told the kid straight. Told him, ‘Donny. Baby. You ain’t signing with that bum another season.’”

While the description of Donny is compelling and shows he has great star power, it’s still an info dump.

Don’t feel bad, Brave Author. We all struggle with finding the right balance between telling just enough background information to orient the reader and over-telling that halts the story’s forward movement.

Also, if this whole paragraph is Larry’s thoughts, the transition back to the conversation with Howard is a bit bumpy. ‘Donny. Baby. You ain’t signing with that bum another season’. Because of the single quotes around these sentences, I had to reread to determine if Larry is reviewing the conversation in his head or if he’s telling Howard about it.

In the passage below, Larry and Howard are already talking about Donny:

“Donny’s swell. Donny’s Donny.” 

“Cos last I heard, Malone burnt his bridge back to vaudeville.”

“Donny’s done with that vaudeville hooey. Gets into L.A. tomorrow. Donny’s big time.”

“I hope you’re right.” Howard sighed, shaking his head. He dropped two sugar cubes into his coffee. Gave it a stir with his finger. “Since Malone gets his kicks making Mackenzie Campbell out like a chump.”

“Mack’s done. Donny’s contract was up.”

“I’m talking about Mack’s wife.”

“They were done.”

Done, Larry? You think Campbell – Campbell – is letting Malone cross the country with that broad?”

Why not continue the conversation and incorporate Larry’s thoughts about Donny into dialogue?

Here’s a different way to convey the info:

Larry didn’t know what Mack had planned. Never thought to wonder.

One side of Howard’s mouth pulled down, unconvinced.

Larry leaned close and put on his Hollywood voice. “Listen, Howard, for a twenty-cent bet, this kid will jump from a railway bridge onto a fast-moving train. He’s every bit as good an acrobat as Buster Keaton. Plus, he’s got that Fairbanks smile. I didn’t waste no time telling him straight. ‘Donny. Baby,’ I says, ‘you ain’t signing with that Campbell bum another season.’”

The reader still doesn’t know exactly what’s happening or what conflicting agendas are in play among Larry, Howard, Donny, Campbell, and Campbell’s wife. But enough hints have been provided to promise the reader that fireworks are ahead.

The fourth problem is point of view. It feels off. Sometimes the voice sounds as if an unseen narrator is telling the reader about Larry rather than Larry thinking to himself.

Vintage films often used voice-over narration to explain context and introduce characters. A prime example is the 1944 classic Laura where Clifton Webb talks to the audience about her murder. If this is the effect Brave Author is striving for, it doesn’t quite succeed.

Currently, readers favor deep point of view, inside the main character’s skin, thinking his thoughts, experiencing his sensations and physical reactions. Yet that doesn’t feel quite right for this historical piece.

So I confess I’m stumped how to handle POV except to suggest that Brave Author study classics written during this time period to pinpoint how those authors treated POV to achieve their tone. If TKZers have other ideas, please chime in.

There are minor problems with word repetitions and typos:

“Or as much a star as it[‘]s possible to be for a writer.” I smiled at the humorous observation that the writer is definitely at the bottom of the movie industry food chain.

The word “swell” is used three times on the first page. If “swell” is a verbal tic Larry falls back on when he’s nervous, three times might be okay but more than that may wear thin with readers. Perhaps change one to a similar slang term for the era, e.g. Vincenzo’s is the bee’s knees. Same suggestion applies to “joint,” used twice in the first paragraph. And “still,” used three times in the second paragraph.

The last line So what he say? might be slang but could also be a typo. So what‘d he say? sounds more natural. 

Overall, this page is well written and captures the time, speech patterns, and period slang in a style that’s reminiscent of noir pulp fiction. The reader doesn’t yet understand the story problem or what’s at stake. However, the historic setting and the voice are intriguing enough that I’m willing to read on to discover if Larry is a sour-grapes loser, a hustler seeking a shortcut back into the big time, a determined guy who refuses to give up, or someone else. Knowledge of his profession would help frame his personality.

This promises to be an entertaining trip into the gilded age of Hollywood where treachery lurks beneath the glamorous veneer.

BTW, Jim Bell has discussed pulp fiction and noir here. On Patreon, he offers short stories set immediately after World War II about a studio fixer in the Hollywood film industry. You might check out how our resident expert handles his first pages.

Best of luck to you, Brave Author. You’re off to a good start.


TKZers: What do you think of Donny Malone? What suggestions can you offer our Brave Author? How would you handle POV? 




Debbie Burke’s new thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, is on sale at the introductory price of only $.99. Please check out the link here.

A Lot Has Changed, But Reading Remains

by James Scott Bell

The other day I woke up and felt like I was in Groundhog Day. Truly. When I tweeted about it, someone replied I should add I Am Legend and Swiss Family Robinson to the mix. That was brilliant. The streets of my city—Los Angeles—do look like the zombie apocalypse. And our homes are like tree houses in this urban archipelago.

And it’s like that every dang day.

Maybe you’re feeling something similar, wondering what to do next within the confines of your domicile.

Or what to read next. If that’s the case, I’ve got your back.

First off, ebooks are suddenly the coin of the realm for readers. With bookstores shuttered, print purchases have slowed considerably. I’ve also heard that audiobooks, once the growth slice of the publishing pie, have stalled. Why? Because no one is commuting to work!

So for homebound readers hungry for entertainment and escape, the ebook is fast and reasonably priced. As a recent BookBub post put it:

This is a turbulent time for the publishing industry. Many bookstores, publishers, and authors are facing significant challenges due to the impact on their print sales from store closures. However, one thing that seems clear is that people are still seeking out your books to help them learn, escape, find solace, and cope at this time. 

In that regard, I give you some new pulp fiction of my own — LAST CALL:


For call girl Keely Delmonico, having a client die was a new one. Now she has to avoid the cops and all their nasty questions. She manages to get out of the fancy hotel free and clear. But lurking in the shadows is another danger, a deadly one—a killer who is determined to make Keely’s next step her last call.


What possessed me to write a book from (mostly) the point of view of a call girl?

The challenge! Writers need to stretch if they’re going to stay on top of their game. As Kris so eloquently explained in her post on Tuesday, sometimes you just have to take a risk, knowing that at the very least the resulting book will:

  • Help you grow as a writer.
  • Make you stronger.
  • Help you find your way to your next story.

This book actually started some time ago when I sat down before a blank screen and asked myself what sort of book would I probably never write? A book about a call girl came immediately to mind. So what did I do? I wrote a first chapter. And liked it. I liked the character that was forming in my mind. Naturally I had to add a killer. From there I plotted and planned, and eventually wrote the thing.

Now, some of my loyal readers may be wondering if a) I’m off my rocker; and b) if the book has, um, well, racy parts.

As to a), I’m a writer. Of course I’m off my rocker.

And b), heck no. The content of the book is what would have been acceptable in a 1960s episode of Mannix or Mod Squad or Hawaii Five-O. The action takes place in L.A. and Las Vegas. Pre-pandemic. But I felt I had to handle that issue in the book. How did I do it? With a couple of Easter eggs I will not reveal here.

What a rat!

I know, but I want you to have the book as pure, lockdown reading pleasure. That’s why I’ve priced it at the lowest end of the Amazon scale—99¢—and will keep it there for the next few weeks. You can order in here.

So here we are, friends, deep into the shutdown. Lots of things have changed, but reading remains. I wonder, though, have you noticed any changes in your reading habits and/or preferences over the last six weeks? Do you think they will carry over when we get, finally, to the “new normal”?

Escapism Rocks!

by James Scott Bell

There’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with being alive. In pre-historic times, this was largely based on concerns over being eaten by large animals. Or by having pointy things stuck into your body by the tribe down the road. At the same time, you had crops to attend to and weather events to deal with. All with no TV, internet, or Candy Crush.

Later on, the Greeks sat around inventing philosophy and giving people more reasons for stress, as in, trying to figure out the point of this bewildering existence. Religion was asking the same questions in places like India, China, and Jerusalem.

As the great historians say, stuff happens. Like war. More stress. In America we had a war oddly called “Civil.” And later joined the right side in a couple of wars big enough to be called “World.”

In between WWI and II, we had the Great Depression, and the stress of actually getting food onto the table. Jobs were scarce. Prospects, in many cases, dim.

Which is where escapism stepped in to offer rays of entertaining sunshine. You had the movies, of course. For a dime you could spend a few hours with Astaire and Rogers, Gable and Tracy, Hepburn and Grant. Radio was pervasive, providing laughs from Benny and Hope and Fibber McGee, and adventures with The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. And comfort by way of “fireside chats” delivered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

But by far the most popular form of escapism came by way of the pulp magazines. In the 1930s the pulps were booming. Newsstands and drug stores carried dozens of magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Amazing Stories, Adventure, and Thrilling Western. Popular series characters (what the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner called “the writer’s insurance policy”) included Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan the Cimmerian, Buck Rogers, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Bill Lennox.

Indeed, some of our best American writers came out of the pulps—people like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Fredric Brown, and Horace McCoy. Not to mention the many steady professionals who knew one thing above all—how to tell a dang good story.

And just what did these stories have in common? I think Gardner himself said it best:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

I believe this is still true. Which is why I’m launching my own short fiction channel via Patreon.

If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it’s a site where artists of various stripes can find support for their work. Friends, family, and fans become patrons of the artist. Usually that comes in the form of monthly pledges, in return for which a patron receives various benefits, such as early access to new work or a personally autographed print.

But there is another model called “per creation,” which seems to me more applicable to writers. In this model, patrons are not charged monthly, but only when an actual story is published. My job is to deliver the goods, which means entertaining escapism for a busy reading public. Stories you can read on the subway or the bus, or while waiting for the doctor, or simply at home after a long day when you don’t feel like cracking Moby Dick.

All of the details about this venture are on my page. I hope some of you will join me in this venture. The stories I publish will not appear anywhere else. You’ll be able to read this exclusive content online, on your phone via the free Patreon app, or on your Kindle, Nook or Kobo ereader.

My first story will come out June 1. It takes place in Hollywood in 1945. There’s a movie studio, a murder, and a studio troubleshooter named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. He’s going to be a series character, so this would be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Because in times such as these, escapism rocks.

So what are some of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows when you simply want to escape?

All Stories Have Legs

by James Scott Bell

During Abraham Lincoln’s law-practice days, he had occasion to share a stagecoach with his soon-to-be adversary, Stephen A. Douglas, and a man named Owen Lovejoy. They were on their way to the courthouse at Bloomington, Illinois.

Douglas, known as “The Little Giant,” was about five feet tall with a long body and short legs. Lovejoy, on the other hand, had a short body and long legs. Lincoln, of course, was 6’4”. It must have been crowded in that coach.

At one point, Douglas tossed some shade at Lovejoy, remarking on his “pot belly” and long legs. Lovejoy came back with a barb about Douglas’s vertically-challenged sticks.

Then Lovejoy looked at the future president and asked, “Abe, just how long do you think a man’s legs should be in proportion to his body?”

Lincoln replied, “I have not given the matter much consideration, but on first blush, I should judge they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.”

And how long should a story be? Long enough to reach the end, and no longer. (Please note, I have not run this theory by George R. R. Martin.)

Which is why I love the novella form. In a brisk 20k-50k, you can grab a reader and deliver a wallop. Did you know that The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain is only about 35k words? Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has a similar count.

Stephen King has done some of his best work in novellas (e.g., The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption)

The novella really matured during the golden age of the pulp magazines. In the classic years of the pulps, roughly 1920 – 1955, America was awash in inexpensive commercial fiction of all types. These were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, bound between wonderfully lurid covers. You could buy one of these magazines for a dime or 15¢, and inside you’d have a plethora of short stories and novellas and perhaps even an entire novel (or an episode from a novel in serialization).

A productive pulpster who could deliver the goods could make a living, even at a penny a word.

The novella largely disappeared after the death of the pulps. It was a difficult sell for book publishers who had to price them to make a profit, while bookstore browsers thought they might not be getting enough story for the price.

That didn’t mean the occasional novella didn’t break out (***cough***The Bridges of Madison County***cough***). But by the 2000s there were few being published simply because production costs exceeded revenue.

Now, because of the digital universe, those costs have disappeared, which has brought a revival of novella-length fiction.

Like the one I’ve just published.

Here’s how Framed came about. A couple of years ago I was playing the first-line-game. That’s a creativity exercise where you just come up with great opening lines and see if any of them spark a story idea. I’ve got a whole file full of ’em, some of which have led to published work.

This particular morning I found myself writing It’s not every day you bleed to death.

I had no idea who my character was or how he or she got into the implied predicament.

So I started to play with it. How could this have happened? Was it a suicide or attempted murder? Did my character have a near-death experience? Could he be narrating from the beyond?

I kept asking myself what if questions and writing things down, and eventually came up with an explanation that I liked. And from there I proceeded to develop the story.

I set it aside for awhile as I worked on other projects, then late last year came back to it and finished it. And you know how I knew it was done?

Because its legs had reached the ground. The ending felt just right.

So now, in the spirit of the pulps, I am launching the ebook for just 99¢ on Kindle. I want you to have it. I believe there is a huge market for brisk, suspenseful fiction, just like there was in the 1930s and 40s.

Do you agree?

Be Productive, Persistent, and Professional

by James Scott Bell

I’ve written often in this space about my admiration for the pulp writers of old. As I was learning the craft myself, I often turned to these writers for inspiration. Not just for their stories, but their practices as well. I found they did three things above all—they were productive, persistent and professional.


The first mark of the successful pulp writer was productivity. They wrote. They wrote a lot. And they usually wrote on manual typewriters, several of them producing up to a million or more words a year.

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

Indeed, perhaps the most prolific author of all time, Frederick Faust (better known by his pen name Max Brand) wrote 4,000 words a day every day for about thirty years. How on earth did he do it? Especially since he drank whiskey all day and then, when finished with his fourteen pages, settled down to his serious drinking? (I do not recommend this method.)

Pulp writers had to be productive. They had to put food on the table, especially during the Depression. They were often being paid a penny a word. (Erle Stanley Gardner figured out that if he used a character’s full name in dialogue attributions, it was an extra penny. Thus, you’ll see his Perry Mason stories filled with: “Come in,” Perry Mason said. “Hello,” said Paul Drake. “Shall I stay?” asked Della Street.)

Be productive. Set a weekly quota of words. What can you comfortably do? Up that by 10% and keep track of your daily output on a spreadsheet. Review and adjust your quota every year.

“The most critical thing a writer does,” said the late Robert B. Parker, “is produce.”


In the pulp days, if you wanted to break into a market, you had to overcome hundreds of rejection slips. In the 30s and 40s, the golden age of pulp, most magazines had headquarters in New York. Many a writer moved to the Big Apple so they could walk around and knock on doors and meet editors personally.

While they waited for a break, they continued to write and cop “hobo soup” at the automat. (That’s where you’d get a cup of hot water and dump in a healthy dose of ketchup, salt & pepper, and stir, then crumble in saltines—all these ingredients were free.)

Now, with digital self-publishing a viable option, you don’t have to wait to be published. But in most cases you’ll have to wait to make significant headway in the market. How long will it take before you start seeing more than coffee money come your way? That all depends on how productive you are (see above) and if you operate like a professional (see below).


The pulp writers approached writing as a job. They had to. They didn’t have time to sit around cafés gabbing endlessly about theories of literature. So they studied the markets, figured out what worked in those markets, and learned how to make their own writing better.

You can do the same. Study markets, expand your craft, and keep writing and adding your own spices.

When pulp writers sent in a manuscript, they made sure it was typed cleanly. When they talked to an editor, they made sure they spoke cleanly, for burning bridges was a fast route to the soup kitchen.

They had egos, sure, but they kept them in check because publishing is a small world. On occasion they’d push back on an editor messing with one of their stories, but they tried to keep it respectful. It was a good thing Twitter did not exist in the 1930s.

Professionalism still matters. Even if you self-publish, readers will pick up a vibe about you, stretching from the design of the books themselves all the way through your social media footprint.

So be wise about your profile, remembering what Erle Stanley Gardner said: “I serve the reading public.”

So should you. Which is why I’m happy to announce a new book, one I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s designed to teach the secrets of the great pulp writers, everything from how to be more prolific to the best plotting methods to my exclusive Start-a-Plot Machine.

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available now. Here’s where you can get it:





A final word on pulp fiction. A certain class of literati has sniffed at its very existence. I even read one jeremiad that claimed commercial fiction writers have “sold their souls” to the “devil” of profitability, and how can they even look at themselves in the mirror?


Well, I continue to shave in the morning and my mirror is clean, and I delight in what a successful pulp writer named William Wallace Cook (writing under the pen name John Milton Edwards) wrote over 100 years ago:

The tale that moves breathlessly but logically, that is built incident upon incident to a telling climax with the frankly avowed purpose to entertain, that has no questionable leanings or immoral affiliations—such a tale speeds innocently an idle hour, diverts pleasantly the harassed mind, freshens our zeal for the duties of life, and occasionally leaves us with higher ideals.

An honorable goal, I would say.

So, TKZers, how are you stacking up on the three Ps—productivity, persistence, professionalism?

What we can learn from pulp fiction

By P.J. Parrish

Now pay attention, kittens and bo’s, there’s a quiz at the end of this one.

I was an art major in college. This was before I figured out I couldn’t make a living at this. Unless I planned to teach, but I was scared of kids. (Not a good character trait in teachers). I was doing okay in art until I hit a class called Three Dimensional Design. I could draw and paint but I was terrible at this. Evidence of my ineptitude was my “final exam” sculpture, which I called Nude With A Paper Cup Head. So titled because I couldn’t get my figure’s face right so I just filled a Dixie cup with wet plaster and stuck it on top. I got a D.
I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t think outside the two-dimensional box. Finally, my instructor told me I had to stop seeing the world in POSITIVES and start seeing it in NEGATIVES. In other words, I was so hung up on adding things, I was missing the beauty of subtracting. “Learn how to leave things out,” he told me.
I ended up abandoning art for writing. But I think that little piece of advice must have lodged deep in my brain cells because it is something subconsciously I have always tried to apply to my fiction writing. Subconsciously I say because until recently, I hadn’t even thought about my art instructor and his advice. Maybe I am thinking about it now because of the book I am reading — “The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps.” I got it for Christmas but I keep it handy by the bedside, digesting it in small doses.
It’s a handsome book…a compiliation of the best crime stories from the “golden age” of pulp crime fiction — the 20s through the 40s. It’s about the size of the Manhattan phone book. And to be really honest, parts of it read about as well.
Many of these guys were dismissed as the hacks of their day, churning out their stories for cheaply printed magazines like “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective.” Yeah, they were lurid, the syntax cringe-worthy, the plots thin or nonsensical. But they tapped into a popular need for a new kind of human hero. The most memorable of the heroes became the prototypes for much of what we are seeing in our crime fiction today — lone wolves fighting for justice against all odds but always on their own different-drummer terms. Would we have Harry Bosch without the Continental Op? Jack Reacher without Simon Templar? Doubtful…
Some of my favorite “classic” crime writers wrote pulp. Like John D. MacDonald who churned out stories for “Black Mask” and “Dime Detective,” and Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Even my seminal hero Georges Simenon (creator of inspector Maigret who was a partial inspiration for my own protag Louis Kincaid) couldn’t resist the lure of the lurid and wrote two nasty little noirs call “Dirty Snow” and “Tropic Moon.” 
To be sure, not all the stories in “Lizard” have aged well. The slang sounds vaguely silly now, the sexism and racism we can explain away as anachronistic attitudes. But the armature these writers created is still sturdy.

Especially in pure writing style. That is the biggest thing I am getting out of these stories, an appreciation for that streamlined locomotive style that propels these stories along their tracks. I read these stories now — discovering most of these writers for the first time — with a smile on my face and a Highlighter in hand. There are lessons to be learned for us all, and you can almost hear James M. Cain whispering: “I’m not going to dazzle you with my writing. I’m going to tell you a helluva story.”

These guys sure knew what to leave out. Let me give you one little passage from Paul Cain’s “One Two Three”:

I said: “Sure — we’ll both go.”
Gard didn’t go for that very big, but I told him that my having been such a pal of Healy’s made it all right.
We went.

Not: And then we left the apartment and got in my roadster and set out. We took Mulholland Drive out of the canyon and arrived just before dusk.
Just: We went.
How can you read that and not smile?
I heartily recommend the “Big Book of Pulps.” And speaking of art, check out some of the best pulp cover artists of the day at Rex Parker’s terrific vintage paperback blog Pop Sensation. 
And now, in honor of our pulp forefathers, I am offering up this little quiz of pulp slang for your amusement. Answers at the end. And don’t chance the chisel for a cheap bulge, bo. We Jake?
1. Ameche
2. Kicking the gong around
3. Wooden kimono
4. cheaters
5. Gasper
6. Hammer and saws
7. Orphan papers
8. Wikiup
9. Bangtails
10. Can-opener
11. I had been ranking the Loogan for an hour and could see he was a right gee. It was all silk so far.
12. I stared down at the stiff. The bim hadn’t been chilled off. Definitely a pro skirt who had pulled the Dutch act.
13. I got a croaker ribbed up to get the wire.
14. By the time we got to the drum the droppers had lammed off. Another trip for biscuits…

1. telephone
2. taking opium
3. coffin
4. sunglasses
5. cigarette
6. Police
7. Bad checks
8. Home
9. Horses
10. Safecracker
11. I had been watching the man with the gun for an hour and could tell he was an okay guy. Everything was cool so far.
12. I stared at the body. The woman hadn’t been murdered. She was definitely a prostitute who had committed suicide.
13. I have arranged for a doctor to get the information.

14. By the time we got to the speakeasy, the hired killers had left. Just another trip for nothing…

What Would You Want in Your Writer Bio?


JAMES SCOTT BELL was born August 10, 1912, in Arlington, Kansas. His father worked for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway, but quit in 1918 and moved his family of ten to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to work the oil fields. When Jim wasn’t in school or working odd jobs, he was reading Zane Gray, Edgar Rice Burroughs and pulp magazines like Black Mask.
When the Depression hit, Jim rode the rails to Los Angeles and got a job as a cub reporter for the Hearst newspaper, The Examiner. By day he tracked down stories of murder, fraud and corruption. By night, in his one room apartment on Bunker Hill, he pounded out short stories for the detective magazines. He was published almost immediately alongside such luminaries as Horace McCoy, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dashiell Hammett. When his crime novella, One More Lie, hit the racks, Jim garnered instant national fame. The story sold to MGM and became the classic 1941 film starring Joan Crawford and Robert Taylor.
Jim became one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood and contributed as much as anyone to the post World War II film noir genre. He continued to put out suspense stories for the paperback original market and pulp magazines.
In 1952 Jim and Robert Mitchum got into a fight with two henchman of mobster Mickey Cohen, who had been bothering a cigarette girl at the Brown Derby. One of the thugs pulled out a .38 and shot wildly, hitting Jim just above the heart. At the hospital Jim refused sedation and insisted that a studio secretary be summoned so he could dictate the final pages of a screenplay due the next day. That script went on to win an Academy Award.
Jim kept up his prodigious output of short stories, novellas, full length books and screenplays right up to his death at the age of 99. He had just typed The End on a novel when his heart gave out. His last words were, “Don’t forget the mayonnaise.” 
Here is a picture of James Scott Bell in his office at Warner Bros. in 1947.
# # #
This flight of fancy is based on how I feelas a writer. I always admired the pros, the ones who could deliver the goods time after time. The writers who wrote to make a living and yet found a way to make their writing come alive.
What about you? If you could write your own writer biography, and it could be from any era, what would it look like? What sorts of books would you have written? Who would be in the movies based on your books?
This is not a  mere game. Use this exercise to focus on your long term goals as a writer. Ask yourself how your imaginative bio might inform your writing today.
Go ahead. What are some of the entries in YOUR writer’s biography?
NOTE: I wrote a little bit more of my philosophy of pulp fiction writing over on Rachelle Gardner’s blog