In Praise of the Antikythera Mechanism!

When I was last here two weeks ago I discussed ancient books and authors. I was gratified to receive a number of comments on the topic, including one from Dan Phalen, who wondered what would become of our digital prose. Dan used the example of an archeologist coming upon an iPhone a thousand years from now who would be faced with the task of coaxing digital text from the device.  

Dan’s example isn’t going to have to wait for one thousand years to occur. It’s happening right now. Remember floppy disks? Some of you may not. They were and are these square things that were read by something known, by amazing coincidence, as a floppy disk drive. If some of you have a bunch taking up space in a forgotten corner of your office you might be surprised and disappointed to find that the data on them is corrupted or bye-bye. On the other hand, some companies, like Boeing, the airplane people, still use them.  Think about that the next time you are in the air and you hear your pilot say “Uh-oh” on a hot mike, followed by an extended period of turbulence.

There are also .art files. Back when AOL was (almost) the only game in town and you downloaded pictures from the internet using AOL those pictures were saved in the form of an .art file. A great many of those are corrupted as well. I have tried several programs to open them but none have worked. AMF. That said, the unknown of the obsolete goes back much, much further than the most recent turn of the century. More on that in a minute.

I did another research deep dive — this one into the topic of information storage retrieval — and almost didn’t get this post written because of it. I was in so deep and had to come up so fast that I am still recovering from the bends. I did find a number of interesting websites dealing with the topic of retrieving data from obsolete technical doo-dahs. I’ll (attempt to) limit my discussion to two of them, which hopefully will be particularly relevant for those of you who labor in the historical fiction grammar mine. As an aside, let me note that there doesn’t seem to be an agreed-upon definition of what “historical fiction” is. For our purposes, we’ll call it a story set at least twenty-five years before the year in which the story is written. That would be from the beginning of all of this around us to…um…1996. That is disconcerting because I can remember a number of major events in my life from that year but not what I had for lunch yesterday. Oh, the humanity!

Onward. There is a wonderfully nerdy (and I say that with the highest respect) site named the Museum of Obsolete Media which is a time bandit of the highest order. If you look under the “Popular Tags” section you will see links to decades beginning with the 1860s. If you are neck-deep in writing a series set in the 1900s and want to see what was there in 1906 that ain’t no more and want to use it as a starting point for some element of your novel, this is the place to go for that and so much more. I was surprised when looking through my own timeline to note how many cutting-edge items (at that time) were listed that seemed futuristic but are now practically forgotten. Anyone want to buy a non-functioning Apple Newton?

Obsoletemedia.org is a labor of love. If you want to get up to your neck in things, however, the oft-forgotten but absolutely indispensable National Archives has an area — a very, very large area — devoted to “special media preservation.” That area has everything from wire recordings and machines to play them on to that new iPhone that you’ll brick in two years. It is particularly noteworthy that you can email questions to them about such topics and the worker bees there will happily email you back with everything you ever wanted to know about, say, wax cylinder recordings, the same way that your local library still does for more mundane topics. 

It all sounds very cool. The problem, though,  is that all of that data, particularly the digital type on collections such as the ones in the National Archives, is sitting on a time bomb. The immediate problem with contemporary “media preservation” is that digital media isn’t built to last. It is fragile coming out of the box and deteriorates relatively rapidly.  That is but one reason that I can’t open .art files I made twenty years ago but I can go on eBay and buy photographs taken in the 1800s. As far as digital information is concerned, there is more and more of it being made, lost, and found even as there are fewer people dedicated to exploring the obsolete storage mechanisms and preserving what they find. Information is being lost, as is the ability to retrieve it in the first place. Meanwhile, wire recordings made by Thomas Alva Edison still work and can be repaired.

Getting back to archeologists and the like…this photo may look like the water shutoff valve in your basement

but it is something called the “Antikythera Mechanism,” considered to be the world’s oldest computer. It is believed to have predated Bill Gates’ monster by around two thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism was discovered amidst the ruins of an ancient shipwreck in 1901. It was not until 2008 that it was recognized for what it was (“Why…that’s an Antikythera Mechanism!”). Yes. It took a looong time for archeologists and scientists to figure out what the f-heck it was and what it could do, which was predicting solar eclipses and organizing calendars (“Meet Lycastra on the down-low. 4P by the sundial”). It can probably do a heck of a lot more, such as spontaneously opening dimensions between our reality and the netherworld on July 11, 2021.  What I find particularly interesting is that our contemporary technology had to catch up with the Antikythera Mechanism so that it could be recognized for what it was. Otherwise, it would probably be a paperweight on a desk of a Greek fishing boat.

Sobering, isn’t it?

 I had a conversation last week with my granddaughter, who is starting high school next year. We talked about fields of study. My advice to her was to master computer systems and storage retrieval. “This is all going to break down,” I said. “All of it. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when.’ When all the king’s horses and men need those digital bits put back together be ready to be the one to do it. You’ll be able to name your own price. Settle for nothing less than your own island and a bunch of people — well paid, but well paid by somebody else — to look after it.” 

When I think about the Antikythera Mechanism, that advice looks better with each day. 

So what technological device, program, or storage entity do you miss? Windows 7 is an okay answer.

 

+10

Achieving Immortality Through Fiction

Debbie Burke’s recent post about falling down research rabbit holes has launched a couple of ships this week. Here is mine. I fell through a research wormhole and found myself engrossed in a topic totally different from the one on which I started.

What I ended up digging into is what is (generally) regarded as the first known book and its cousin, the first known novel. It’s a fascinating topic. Folks, including myself, might reflexively answer the question as to what the first known book is with the response (index finger in the air for emphasis) as “The Gutenberg Bible!” It’s not even close. The Gutenberg Bible is the first printed book from moveable type, which a noteworthy accomplishment to be sure. The first known printed book, however, is The Diamond Sutra, which was created in China in the ninth century, using wooden blocks somewhat like you can now find in arts and crafts sections at Michael’s and similar stores (don’t forget the ink pad). That said, even The Diamond Sutra isn’t the first known book. 

Since we are moving backward, let’s discuss for a moment what is currently regarded as the first novel. It is titled The Tale of Genji and is considered, with some dispute, to have been written almost one thousand years ago, in the eleventh century, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. That name is believed to have been a pseudonym, but Lady Murasaki, as she is known to us, was a noblewoman who was invited to be a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress Soshi at the Imperial Court. The Tale of Genji is considered to be a psychological and romantic novel. What is remarkable about this is that in the world of Japanese literature at the time genre literature was held in low esteem. Time really is a flat circle, isn’t it? The Tale of Genji was so well-written and popular that it nonetheless influenced Japanese culture and mores and continues to do so in present times. Genji, a courtier, is portrayed as being passionate and gentle, which is part of the appeal of the story. The novel continues to be studied, researched, and translated. The most recent translation that I could find is approximately 1300 pages long. It looks to be somewhat rough sledding to read but it nonetheless endures. 

That brings us to what is acknowledged as the first known book, titled The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is, by amazing coincidence, an epic poem believed to have been written in installments between 2100 and 1200 B.C. (what is a millennium between friends?) and is an exaggerated and fictionalized account of the exploits of Bilgamesh, the King of Uruk. It is preserved on cuneiform tablets but you can read it on a Kindle. You should. Its exact author is unknown but whoever it is launched a thousand literary ships. Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s enemy turned BFF, cut a wide swath through the known world, drinking, fighting, and ravishing until they take things a step too far. A tragedy leaves Gilgamesh seeking the meaning of life and attempting to acquire immortality, with predictable results. 

Or maybe not. Gilgamesh lives on. There is a heck of a story here. You can find traces of it in Don Quixote, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, Robert Lee Howard’s Conan tales, and yes, the tales of Roland in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Oh, and did I forget The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Aeneid? There may be a book that is the source for The Epic of Gilgamesh, buried in spider doo-doo somewhere in the Middle East, but it hasn’t been found yet. So why isn’t it regarded as the earliest novel? It’s a poem, for one, For another, it’s only a hair or so over one hundred pages, which I guess qualifies it as a novella. It is in any event worth reading, in translation, of course.

Gilgamesh may not have physically lived forever, but he certainly has in the literary sense. I doubt the author(s) ever imagined that their epic poems would be read and revered thousands of years after being written but there you go. My best advice to you, my friends, is to dust off that trunk novel and give it another shot. Someone may be reading you at some point in the future and considering you the best of your time. Why not you?

Now, a question for you. Has there been any story/poem/novel from the time period which we have been discussing (a long one to be sure) that has influenced you, or that you still return to for inspiration, succor, or reference, for any reason, including but not limited to writing?

 

+13

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

+9

Preparing for the End of the Story

Photo Courtesy of Neptune Society, Inc. All rights reserved.

I recently attended three funerals over the course of a week. One of the deceased individuals was a month short of 90. The other two were much closer to my age. Of those two, one had an open casket. He looked good, but…you know. I had shared a number of meals and consumed a number of beers (when I did that type of thing) with the gent and seeing his empty vessel displayed in an open casket functioned as a wake-up call for me.

I decided to start pre-planning my funeral arrangements, or lack thereof. We talk of wills and trusts and of getting one’s affairs in order for the inevitable day of departure and the time that follows. What often gets lost is what is to be done in the minutes and hours that follow a death. The wishes of a deceased are sometimes noted in a will but a testamentary document isn’t usually looked at until weeks after passing. Telling your survivors ahead of time, with something in writing other than in a will, is an absolute must. I wanted to be cremated (and still do) without ceremony or recognition. Given that we are in the Age of Google, a quick search for “cremation” almost immediately in my devices being inundated with pop-up ads, emails, and phone calls from area funeral home representatives. This kind of browned me off, to be honest, though if you really want a lot of attention, google “housepainting.” That aside,  I was further upset by the refusal of the people contacting me to send me a price list concerning their services, insisting that I instead come to their offices for such information.  I know why. Funeral homes upsell. It is what they do. It is how they are able to stay in business. They have very high overhead and offer a service that almost no one else wants to perform. I just didn’t want it. 

I eventually as a result of my research contacted Neptune Society, a national organization that arranges cremation. I did this for a number of reasons. I wanted to be cremated. I contacted them, as opposed to them reaching out to me. They were upfront about their pricing and services. A friend of mine who would have found a problem with them if there were a problem to be found had personal experience with them (once removed of course) and strongly recommended them.  Their local office is on Cemetery Road(!) in a nearby suburb. And… they offered me a free lunch at a local restaurant where I could attend a seminar, even after I indicated to them that I would be using their services.

I showed up on the day and time appointed at a local sports bar with a few other crusty customers of the age where one wakes each morning with roughly equal amounts of surprise and regret. The other attendees eyed me uneasily across the table for a few minutes while I listened to them carp about the lunch choices (“I usually have a drink with lunch. Can I order a drink?”) and tut-tut about the cost of the services (“When my husband had this done ten years ago it cost less…”).  I silently promised myself to never be that obnoxious when I reached their ages. I learned over the course of the next hour that I was the oldest one there. You live and learn, even as you approach the end of the story.

The folks from Neptune Society were very nice and didn’t try to upsell me (“for just a little bit more, we can arrange a celebration of life for you”) or cross-sell me (“Don’t you think that a nice commemorative ribbon to match your urn would be a nice touch?”) as many funeral homes do. Their sales pitch was so low-key that it wasn’t an infomercial at all.  I was able to enter into an agreement with Neptune Society that afternoon and I became officially “pre-planned,”  meaning that my arrangements were paid for and my wishes set in stone. One item which was offered but not pushed was the “Travel Protection Plan.” I purchased it. The Travel Protection Plan is like “AAA-Plus” for a deceased, only better. If you have AAA or another roadside assistance service you are probably aware that there is a limit as to how far your car will be towed at no cost to you. If the towing mileage exceeds that limit there is a per-mile charge. It is not calculated in pennies. The same holds true for dead bodies. The general industry standard for funeral homes, at least in Ohio, is that if you die outside of a thirty-mile radius of your home the odometer starts ticking. Neptune Society has a seventy-five-mile radius, but with the Travel Protection Plan there is no mileage limit, even if the covered individual is out of the country. What this means is that should I pass away far from home Neptune Society’s sweet chariot will swing down and take me home at no cost.  The thought of my sons traveling to wherever I might be and doing a Weekend at Bernie’s trip to bring me back made me chuckle, but only initially. I paid for that and a storage box which I have taken to calling my “forever home.” Done. And done.

Photo courtesy of Al Thumz Photography. All rights reserved.

The surprise for me was how relieved I felt about making the arrangements, or lack thereof. I told my children that if they wanted a visitation to come to see me while I’m alive. If they want to celebrate my life, take me to Twin Peaks. It’s too late once that rusty gate swings open and I tapdance through. I also gave each of them a copy of my Neptune Society card so that when the time comes things would be taken care of promptly. 

All of this thought and consideration about death and its immediate aftermath of course sparked within me an idea for what I think will be a heck of a story with the potential to be much darker than The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. That brings us to you, my friends. Have any of you pre-planned your funeral? Have you thought about it? Do you know what you want? Or is the topic like that closet that you haven’t opened in years and are afraid of what you’ll find (or what will find you)?

 

+11

Guest Post by Agatha-Winner Leslie Budewitz

Agatha-winning author Leslie Budewitz

Today, I’m pleased to host Leslie Budewitz for this guest post. Leslie is an attorney, mystery author of two cozy series, and triple Agatha Award winner. For more than 20 years, she and I have been trusted critique partners and good friends.

Leslie offers insightful techniques to deepen emotion in our writing. Welcome, Leslie!

Emotional Research

by Leslie Budewitz

No matter what genre we write, readers come to our books in part for an emotional connection with our characters and the story. One way to give them that is to draw on our own experiences. We’ve all felt deep emotion—rage, betrayal, jealousy—that if pushed to extremes could lead us to do terrible things, planned or unplanned. I’m betting most of you have drawn on your own emotional experiences in your fiction, exploring your personal emotions, perhaps through a free-write, then giving that, or pieces of it, to your characters.

But sometimes characters have experiences we haven’t had. This is when need to call on our research and observational skills, as well as our empathy, to better understand a character’s emotional experiences, what motivates them, and how they will respond in a particular story crisis.

I first delved into this when writing my first published mystery, Death al Dente. When the series began, my main character, Erin Murphy, was a 32-year-old who had lost her father to a hit-and-run accident when she was 17; the crime was unsolved and I planned to solve it over the course of the first three books.

My father died when I was 30. That’s a very different experience. I’d worked on countless personal injury cases as a lawyer, including wrongful death cases, and knew some of what survivors went through. But I needed to know more about the emotion and how it might continue to influence this particular woman

I sat down and wrote by hand about every person I could think of that I knew—well or not well—who’d lost a parent when they were young. Some of my observations were decades old, but it turned out that I knew a lot. I remembered talking on the phone for an hour, back when daytime long distance was expensive, when my best friend from college lost her father at 21. I thought about some of the ways that loss at that age affected her—she’s still my BFF—and gave her a different experience than her older siblings got.

I remembered a conversation with a 35-year-old colleague whose father died when he was 18. “But you were grown,” a friend said, implying that that lessened the impact; “not really,” he replied, and his sadness told me how much he felt had been unjustly taken from him.

I wrote about the high school classmate whose father died the year after we graduated, and whose own husband died in his early 40s, leaving her with a small child, giving her—and me—a dual perspective. I let my focus drift and I wrote about my reaction and that of my high school classmates when a boy in our class was killed in a car accident junior year. Later that same week, a girl a year behind us in our small school lost her mother to wintry roads; the family lived near us and went to the same church. I thought about the baby, not a year old, who never knew his mother, and some poor decisions the oldest girl made that might have turned out differently if not for that tragedy.

Other options: Talk to people who’ve had your character’s experience, if they’re willing, or to people involved with it in other ways. I talked to my husband, who’s a doctor of natural medicine with a general practice and has treated many patients rocked by grief. Talk to your friend who teaches high school or your walking buddy who’s a social worker.

I searched online for guides for teachers and school counselors on dealing with students who lost a parent. You could also read memoir, personal accounts, or YA novels involving that situation.

And from all of that, I was able to see how Erin would have responded, the different ways her older brother and sister responded; how the death affected her relationship with her mother at the time, and how it affects their relationship now. Francesca still wants to protect Erin, who’s 32, and knows she can’t, any more than she could when Erin went off to college that fall. What does that lead Francesca to do—and say—when she sees her daughter investigating murder? Erin was on stage in the local theater rehearsing for the school play when the accident happened; fifteen years later, she still thinks about that every time she walks in the building. And the guilt she feels over having argued with him the last time she saw him doesn’t resolve until she solves the crime. It was just a teenager’s pique, but the more complicated the relationship, the more complicated the emotions and the bigger the potential story impact.

Of course, all losses have ripple effects. In college, Erin was aloof, focused on school and her own grief. She barely noticed a guy who was really into her. She meets him again, 15 years later. How does that history influence their relationship? And the impact on her friendship with her childhood best pal is a big driver of the story as well, because of what the other girl thought she knew and how she responded—and because she’s now a sheriff’s detective in their hometown.

For Erin, I did the emotional research during the first draft. For Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut coming out later this month, I did the digging during revision, in response to questions from my editor. I thought about people I knew who, from my perspective, appeared to be driven by bitterness and resentment. I read articles online in Psychology Today and blog posts by psychologists. Tip: This is one time when you want to read the comments! People will say the most amazing things when given the freedom.

All that helped me develop what I knew, and gave me specifics on how such a person views the world and the language they use. I was able to imagine more fully what this particular character in this town, in this crisis, might do.

I said write by hand when you mine your memories and connections, and I mean it. Research shows that writing by hand bypasses our internal editors and judges, and gives us more direct access to our feelings.

You know how to research dates and car models and the color of prison jumpsuits. Turn those skills to your characters’ inner lives and you—and your readers—will connect with them more deeply, more fully.

~~~

Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two cozy mystery series, the Spice Shop mysteries set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, set in NW Montana. She’ll make her suspense debut with BITTERROOT LAKE, written as Alicia Beckman, in April 2021. A three-time Agatha-Award winner (2011, Best Nonfiction; 2013, Best First Novel; 2018, Best Short Story), she is a current board member of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in NW Montana.

Find her online at www.LeslieBudewitz.com and on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/LeslieBudewitzAuthor

When four women separated by tragedy reunite at a lakeside Montana lodge, murder forces them to confront everything they thought they knew about the terrifying accident that tore them apart, in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s suspense debut.

More about Bitterroot Lake, including an excerpt and buy links here: https://www.lesliebudewitz.com/bitterroot-lake/

 

 

A big thank you to Leslie for sharing her wisdom! 

TKZers: Do you have favorite techniques to portray emotions about experiences you haven’t experienced yourself? Please share in the comments section. 

+12

Losing Your Identity

Good Saturday to you. Please consider this an update to Debbie Burke’s excellent post,  True Crime Thursday – COVID 19 Scams, of just a few weeks ago, as well as an addendum to the wonderful and still pertinent 2012 post by TKZ alum Kathleen Pickering concerning identity theft.

I groaned when I received my post office mail this past Monday. I knew immediately that someone was pretending to be me.

The moan-inducing missive was from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (“DJFS”). That agency in Ohio is tasked with administering unemployment benefits, among other things. There have been daily reports of individuals in Ohio having bogus unemployment benefit claims filed in their name using their personal information. The first hint that something is amiss is usually the receipt of a letter from DJFS, noting that they have filed a claim and that an account has been set up for them. That was precisely the type of letter I received, in spite of not having filed a claim. 

The fraud which is occurring is an example of never letting a crisis go to waste. The COVID-19 situation resulted in a great deal of unemployment concentrated in certain industries. Many states — Ohio, for one — wanted to get unemployment benefits to the unfortunate workers in those industries as quickly as possible. This resulted in some instances of “pay now, verify later.”  Someone figured out a way to take advantage of this. 

The scam is fairly easy to do once the scoundrel is in possession of another person’s name, address, and social security number. The despicable cad first sets up a bank account (usually with an online bank) utilizing a newly created email address and a burner phone for contact purposes. They then use the ill-gotten information to file for unemployment benefits and directing that the benefits be deposited to the online bank account. The victim, moi or vous, is usually unaware of this until the agency acknowledges the claim via letter to the victim’s snail mail address. At least two or three weeks of benefits have often been paid by then.  Should the person who is the target of the scam ignore the letter from the DJFS the fraudulent payments can go on for far longer.

It often isn’t immediately a problem for the victim. Whoever is doing this isn’t taking money out of the victim’s legitimate bank account. The problem with the false claim occurs later, as in the following year, when the victim receives a Form 1099 from DJFS noting that “their” unemployment benefit payment (which is taxable) has been reported to the IRS. There are of course other problems having to do with someone having your name and SSN. These would include the ability of someone else to open accounts and apply for credit in your name. 

There is a fix for this and it is free. You just need to do three things and do them immediately.  

The first is that you must immediately go to the website of the state agency that sent you the notification letter. You should find a link there that will take you to a page where you can report that you have had a fraudulent claim for unemployment benefits filed in your name. 

The second is to file an NCDF Disaster Complaint Form with the Department of Justice. This is not as intimidating as it sounds. It is actually quite easy to do and can be done online by following the link above which will give you some additional information and take you to another page where you fill out a form dealing with your complaint.

The third action actually has two components that concern protecting your credit. Part A is checking your credit report at http://annualcreditreport.com, which you should be doing anyway. Part B is placing a free, one-year fraud alert on your credit reports by contacting any one of the three nationwide credit reporting companies online or through their toll-free numbers. The bureau you contact must tell the other two. They are Equifax: 800-525-6285, Experian: 888-397-3742, or Trans Union: 800-680-7289. The companies will let you know if someone applies for a loan or credit in your name. Please don’t tell them that I sent you. 

I hope that you never need any of this. If my experience provides you with the germ of an idea for your next novel, however, that is all to the good. You can possibly ascertain how the personal information of the victims is being acquired. I believe that the databases of state departments of taxation are being cracked. I base this in part on the timing of my experience, which occurred a few weeks after I filed my state return. It could be for any number of reasons, however. 

Photo by sincerely-media on unsplash.com

My question for you today is whether any of you have had this experience within the past several months. that being a fraudulent unemployment claim being filed in your name. I hopefully am a loner, at least among my friends here. Thank you. 

 

+13

Fun Hunting A Killer

Fun Hunting A Killer
Terry Odell

Hunt a Killer

(No, I haven’t forgotten that it’s St. Patrick’s Day. More about that at the end of this post).

Thanks to stumbling across a friend’s post on Facebook, the Hubster and I discovered a new project. We’d gone the jigsaw puzzle route, but this was something different.

What are we doing? Solving a murder. It’s called Hunt A Killer. What is it? A detective game. You can play alone or with others.

Here’s the setup:

Private investigator Michelle Gray needs your help with yet another perplexing mystery. A woman named Julia Adler has recently found a mummified corpse in the attic of her family-owned theater. The remains belong to the famed actress Viola Vane, who notoriously disappeared in 1934. Now that Vane’s body has been unearthed after decades, you can finally investigate the million-dollar question: Who orchestrated the vanishing of Viola Vane?

Here’s how it works:

Each episode ends with your action to piece together another aspect of the overall mystery. In Curtain Call, this isn’t just about finding evidence and eliminating suspects. You’ll be called upon to uncover all aspects of the case – including the suspects’ secrets and their relationships to Viola, as well as to one another. Follow your contact’s assignments to advance the investigation, but examine every document closely to reveal the full story of the Cadence Theatre.

Hunt A KillerOnce a month, for six months, we get a box of evidence and clues. Of course, some will be red herrings. Each box comes with an objective. For box one, it was to determine the murder weapon. We sifted through forensics reports, newspaper clippings, theater programs, stage notes. There are more clues on the website dedicated to each crime. Of course, finding the monthly objective isn’t enough, because each month’s evidence will build on the previous months’.

Hunt A KillerWe’ve set up a murder board (honestly, I think this is what convinced the Hubster this could be fun), solved different kinds of ciphers, started a timeline, come up with potential suspects, worked on the relationships between everyone…and there’s more.

Since this is an 80-year-old case (created for the game), there are no survivors who can answer questions. We have to rely on what’s in our evidence boxes, or on the website where some more transcripts and pictures might be hiding more clues. Oh, and there are Facebook groups for each episode where people can ask questions if they’re stumped. It’s moderated to avoid spoilers.

Did the forensic anthropologist leave out relevant information? Who wrote the rehearsal notes? Is the shopping list jotted in the middle of those notes a clue? Do the dog roses refer to an incident in the play as an inside joke for the cast and crew, or will they be important? What about the letters to “Dear Dorothy” in the newspaper clipping? Why did the understudy take over Viola’s role? There’s a ton of information to sift through, and this is only box 1!

In addition to the game itself, they give you drink recipes and a Spotify playlist to get you in the mood. And gifts. We got a cocktail recipe book and two copper mugs.

Hunt A KillerWe’ve been having as much fun testing the libations as we have trying to interpret evidence.

We’ve only completed the first box so I can’t go into much more detail. If you want to move faster, there’s the option to expedite the next box once you’ve met the objective, but we’re letting things play out on the monthly schedule because there’s so much more to ferret out. I’m not going to go into specifics about what we’ve discovered in case anyone here at TKZ wants to give this a try. If you’re writing mysteries, you should already have the mindset for crime solving, and it’s a great way to keep those deductive processes honed.

Disclaimer: I’m sharing this because the Hubster and I have been having so much fun, and I thought some TKZers might like to know about it. (Of course, there are probably a bunch of you out there who wonder why I’m so late to the party.) I get nothing from the company for talking about their program.

St. Patrick's Day

As promised: Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I thought you might be interested in how it’s celebrated in Northern Ireland, where my daughter lives. Hint: There’s no green beer.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

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Making a Movie With Spider-Man

 

(Note: Thanks and a tip of the fedora to TKZ’s Terry Odell, who noted that for some reason comments (as of 8:20A EST) cannot be posted. I am working on fixing that but having problems doing so. I’m sorry!)

(Update 12:28P EST: It appears to be a system problem as opposed to a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem. It will hopefully be fixed in time for Jim Bell’s post tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who is stopping by today. SJ)

(Update 12:46P EST: Comments are working. Thanks and a tip of the fedora to Lynne Reynolds, the Wizard behind the curtain! SJ)

The following occurred about a year and a half ago. I have had to remain uncharacteristically quiet about it until now due to an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) which blessedly expired on February 26. I left my home in central Ohio at 2:30A on November 27, 2019, and headed north toward Cleveland, a place where I misspent several of my formative years. I was to report, showered, shaved, and tap dancin’, at 6:00A to an address near Cleveland’s east side. 

I had been notified a few days previously that I had been selected for a (very, very small) part in a movie named Cherry. There was plenty of buzz about the project before it began, due to the presence of Tom Holland in the lead role and the involvement of Joe and Anthony Russo as directors and producers. Holland and the Russo Brothers had worked together before on such obscure cinematic projects as Avengers: Endgame and Avengers: Infinity War, with Holland appearing as Spider-Man and the Russos directing those films. Expectations for Cherry were high, my presence in the film notwithstanding. 

Shaker Heights, a somewhat tony Cleveland suburb, was my ultimate destination.  I misspent a good portion of my formative years in Cleveland. I had been to Shaker Heights only once, close to sixty years before, with my parents on a Sunday to go to a retail area named, by amazing coincidence, Shaker Square. I planned to take a look at the area while I was up there. Did I get to? Read on. 

I arrived on time at the appointed place. Despite being a little later in the morning it was somehow even darker and colder on Cleveland’s east side than Columbus had been three hours earlier. I parked and started following some hand-lettered signs through a parking lot, heading toward an unmarked building. A limousine pulled up next to me. Tom Holland got out, smiling, and yelled, “Joe! Joe Hartlaub! My man!” as he embraced me. Not really. Actually, a guy with an Eddie Murphy vibe exited the limo and asked me if this was the right place to be for Cherry. We had some introductory chit-chat during which he told me that he also had a very small part and lived about ten blocks away. I glanced at the limo. He said, “I was gonna ride my bike, but, like, how many times ya gonna be in a movie? Y’know?” I shrugged. He asked me how I had gotten there. “I coptered in from Columbus,” I answered, whirling my index finger around. I had him going for just a minute as he looked around us, perhaps hoping to see Jan-Michael Vincent lean out of a hovering whirlybird and wave. He was disappointed.

We walked into the building together and followed some more hand-lettered signs through a warren of what turned out to be dance rehearsal rooms that had been temporarily repurposed for storing movie equipment. We ultimately found a nice lady, complete with piercings, tattoos, and a clipboard, who checked us in and then directed us to a large room that had been set up like a cafeteria. Breakfast. It was a surprise. We were cautioned to use the serving line on the left and to sit in a specific area since the right line and the other tables were for the crew. Same food, no mingling. My fellow cast member looked at me and kind of smirked at the ironic separate but equal arrangement. We ate some breakfast, ate some more, and drank coffee. An hour passed before my new friend, a few other folks, and I were ushered through a different labyrinth of rooms to suddenly find ourselves outside and on Shaker Square, which looked both different and the same from how I remembered it.  We were given our assignments as the wind and sleet started up, and admonished that we were absolutely not to talk to Tom Holland if we encountered him since he would be working.  My acting assignment was to stand on the street in the wind while being peppered with ice pellets while reading a newspaper, all the while acting as if I were cold,  wet, and old. It stretched my abilities to the limit, let me tell you, but I am a true professional and got the job done, take after take. I was truly humbled by the applause I received every time I turned a page of the newspaper and the director yelled “Cut!”

We were all released at around 12:15 PM. I went into the diner to get some more coffee and saw my fellow actor. He was standing with a small group of folks and head-bopped me over. Tom Holland was standing next to him. Holland started talking to us after a couple of minutes about this and that.  Directives notwithstanding, it would have been rude not to have answered him. It turned out that he was/is a very personable guy. His younger brother was with him. Holland was much nicer to his brother than I would have been to mine under similar circumstances, but, then again, Holland’s brother wasn’t as irritating as mine was at that age. 

Photo by Joe Burdick. All rights reserved.

Things then became weird. I looked back across Shaker Square and recalled that, when I had been there on that long-ago Sunday, a drugstore had filled a storefront where a clothing boutique presently occupied. I had gone in there (probably to get away from my younger brother) and purchased some comic books with a dollar that I had saved from a week before (something I wrote about a few months ago). One of those comics was The Amazing Spider-Man #1.  My adult self kind of felt the earth and everything else shift for just a moment.  I didn’t have to wonder how eleven-year-old me would have reacted if he had been told that, in another sixty years or so, he would be standing across the street talking to the actor who played Spider-Man in a couple of movies while appearing in another movie “with” that actor. I would not have believed any of it.

Holland was called away to do more acting. I got my coffee and gave my new friend a ride home (a real come-down for him, I am sure, after his limo ride of the morning) and made the three-hour drive back home, thinking about life and how the choices we make and the chances we take often bring things back to where we start. 

Cherry was supposed to be released in July 2020 but…you know. That was changed to November 2020 and was delayed a second time. There was a limited (meaning not in Columbus) theatrical release on February 26, 2021, with a full release on Apple TV+ scheduled for March 12. I still don’t know if my scene made the final cut. I did, however, meet Spider-Man. If I could I would tell my eleven-year-old self, “Hang in there, Joey. It’ll be okay. Just don’t get involved with ________, __________, ____________, ______________, or __________. Oh, and you’ll get to hang with Spider-Man. Lastly, hang on to your comics.”

I don’t really believe in coincidence. Life stretched over many years just has too many moving parts. To paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane (and many have), life is not stranger than we imagine. It’s stranger than we can imagine. But we still try, don’t we? 

That is all I have today. I hope that I’ve been able to entertain you while you are waiting for your Coming 2 America feed to stop buffering. In the meanwhile, do you care to share a strange thing that has happened to you lately? 

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Navigating Rough Waters

Photo courtesy of Jim Coffey, Esprit Whitewater

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

What does whitewater rafting have to do with writing?

For one thing, rafters and writers often endure blasts of icy water in the face. For authors, the cold, wet shock is metaphoric—a stinging rejection, a hideous review, a kiss-off from a publisher.

Today’s story begins when my pal, former river ranger Susan Purvis recently sent me a link to a podcast about whitewater rafting. Susan often leads me into adventures that always pay off in unexpected rewards so when she recommends something, I listen.

That day, with a crammed to-do list, I didn’t have a spare hour for a podcast. Yet once I started to listen, I couldn’t stop.

The interviewer is Barry Kruse, entrepreneurial coach of Leading Steep, and his subject is Jim Coffey, founder and owner of Esprit Whitewater, a Canadian rafting company.

Jim’s rafting business began in 1992 and survives nearly three decades later, a rarity in the field. A seasonal operation is especially tough because he has to earn enough income in four, maybe five, months to last the entire year. Plus, recreation-oriented businesses are hit hard during recessions when people can’t afford vacation trips.

Jim believes entrepreneurs who succeed have “a high tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.” He proves his point when he relates the setbacks he’s experienced that would tank most businesses— a fire that destroyed part of his facilities, a couple of floods, the Covid shutdown, and, last summer, his own diagnosis of throat cancer.

His attitudes and coping tools struck me as helpful advice for authors. The following are a few gold nuggets from his podcast.

Jim: “You never know where that first step is going to lead.”

When you’re stuck in your writing, take a step.

Inertia is not healthy for writers, in body, mind, or word production. If you’re bogged down, take a step in a new direction.

Write a public service announcement for a charity you admire. Write ad copy for a fundraiser for a worthwhile cause.

If your own ads don’t pan out, analyze what authors with similar books do for promotion. Try new avenues.

Learn a new skill—make a video, add fresh features to your website, try a different software writing tool, create an audiobook.

First steps sometimes lead to dead ends. But they can also lead to new universes.

 

Jim: “You never know who that [most] important customer is going to be. Treat every customer as if they are that person.”

Readers are the author’s customers. Building their loyalty and trust is key to selling books.

A major breakthrough opportunity for Jim’s company occurred when a particular customer was impressed with the fledgling operation. That man turned out to be an influencer who booked more trips for large groups and retreats, as well as recommending Esprit Whitewater to colleagues. A single customer hugely expanded Jim’s business.

For authors, treat every reader as your most important customer. They might place your book in Stephen King’s hands for a blurb. Or convince Oprah to feature it in her book club. Or catch Reese Witherspoon’s attention for a new movie production.

Not likely? Okay, but how about these possibilities?

A reader invites you to speak to their book club. That results in more sales and more readers.

A reader from that book club works for a major media outlet and wants to interview you.

The leader of a civic or professional organization hears/reads your interview and invites you to talk to their 500 members.

And so it can go.

When you treat each reader as that most important customer, their reach and recommendations carry you and your books into markets you never imagined.

 

Jim: “We manufacture our own luck. Preparation collides with opportunity.”

The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Preparation can mean: take a class; read a new craft book; attend a conference; research new marketing angles.

When you’re doing the work, opportunities pop up in unexpected ways in unexpected places.

 

Jim: “Be unselfish and generous with your skills and pass them on.”

Help other writers.

The writing community is a continuum of authors at different levels of accomplishment, from beginners to multi-published bestsellers. We have all been helped by authors more experienced than ourselves and, in turn, we can help others less experienced than ourselves.

Freely share what you’ve learned. Teach a workshop. Write a guest blog post. Produce a newsletter for a charitable organization. Mentor a struggling writer.

You might think you’re too new at the craft to offer anything. Not so. You can beta-read. Judge a writing contest. Offer to talk to schoolchildren—most teachers are delighted to host writers and kids are eager to learn.

 

Jim: “It’s easier to train a great person to be a great whitewater guide than to take a great whitewater guide and turn them into a great person.”

For authors, attitude is more important than skill. Approach learning as a humble student.

I’ve known many talented authors who were positive they were destined to knock Michael Connelly off bestseller lists. They were usually so busy talking about how much they knew and how great they were that, not surprisingly, I haven’t noticed any of their names in USA Today.

C.S. Lewis said: “Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears.”

That advice spans to entrepreneurs, military, industry, and, of course, writing. Nobody knows everything.

Before you become a great writer, you must first be a great student.

 

Jim: “You never know when people you’ve contributed to will come back and contribute to you.”

At the beginning of the podcast, interviewer Barry said Jim had recently undergone chemotherapy and radiation for throat cancer. While Jim was laid low during the busy summer season, his team kept the business going and took care of hundreds of happy whitewater rafting customers. He’d earned the loyalty of his staff who came through when he needed them the most.

At the very end of the podcast, Jim mentions he gave the interview while lying in bed… with a feeding tube.

Wow. Just wow.

That left no doubt Jim Coffey is off the scale in his tolerance of adversity and uncertainty.

 Perhaps the most important lesson can be found in Jim’s actions:

Help others and never give up.

Works for authors, too.

~~~

Many thanks to Jim Coffey and Barry Kruse for their permission to quote and reference the interview which can be heard here: https://www.leadingsteep.com/podcast

~~~

TKZers: What is your favorite advice, touchstone, or belief that helps you over treacherous rapids and shoals encountered in your writing career?

~~~

 

In Debbie Burke’s new thriller Flight to Forever, her main character persists in spite of lots of cold water thrown in her face. Please check it out here.

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Public Domain Day 2021 and Writing Advice from 1925

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Public Domain Day was January 1, 2020. Although today is February 22, a tad late, it’s still a newsworthy event for writers and readers because books like The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf), Manhattan Transfer (John DosPassos), In Our Time (Ernest Hemingway), and An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser), among many others, came into the public domain.

Same with films like Buster Keaton’s Go West and songs like “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.”

Here is the link to Duke University Law School’s announcement and listing of many other artistic works whose copyrights expired as of January 1: https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2021/

One book in the bunch caught my attention: The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1920 novel The Age of Innocence.

Has fiction writing changed much since 1925? Are 95-year-old insights from the first female Pulitzer winner relevant to writers in 2021?

The Writing of Fiction is short, fewer than 150 pages, originally published by Scribner in 1925. Much of the beginning section is literary criticism, comparing Proust, Austen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other greats of the era, contrasting them with the new “stream-of-consciousness” trend that shook up readers at that time. I confess I skimmed those parts.

But elsewhere Wharton reveals her views on the art and craft of storytelling.

I found several passages I thought might provoke interesting discussion among TKZers.

Wharton calls the “modern” novel “that strange chameleon-creature which changes its shape and colour with every subject on which it rests.”

In the following paragraph, she describes what writers often call being in the zone:

“To the artist his world is as solidly real as the world of experience, or even more so, but in a way entirely different; it is a world to and from he passes without any sense of effort, but always with an uninterrupted awareness of the passing.”

Here at TKZ, we often work on point-of-view problems.

Wharton is critical of “the slovenly habit of some novelists of tumbling in and out their characters’ minds, and then suddenly drawing back to scrutinize them from the outside as the avowed Showman holding his puppets’ strings.”

About character development, she writes: “[they are] the creatures of [the author’s] imagination, more living to him than his own flesh-and-blood…”

Further, she studies the tightrope that writers must walk while creating characters. On one hand, she cautions against the “author [who] is slave to characters” while, on the other hand, who risks becoming a “puppeteer manipulating marionette strings…”

Conflict is another topic that she addresses:

“The conflict, the shock of forces, is latent in every attempt to detach a fragment of human experience and transpose it in terms of art, that is, of completion.”

This is what she has to say about an artist’s sensitivity:

“One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break.”

On the focus of a story, she writes:

“…the only remedy is resolutely to abandon the larger for the smaller field, to narrow one’s vision to one’s pencil, and do the small thing closely and deeply rather than the big thing loosely and superficially.”

The topic of inspiration:

“Many people assume that the artist receives, at the onset of his career, the mysterious sealed orders known as ‘Inspiration,’ and has only to let that sovereign influence carry him where it will. Inspiration indeed comes at the outset to every creator but it comes most often as an infant, helpless, stumbling, inarticulate, to be taught and guided, and the beginner, during this time of training his gift, is as likely to misuse it as a young parent to make mistakes in teaching his first child.”

Writers often ponder if their concept, plot, or characters are original enough to capture readers’ tastes. Wharton’s answer:

“True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.”

~~~

TKZers: Did any of Edith Wharton’s thoughts particularly strike you?

Are they out of date, no longer relevant?

Or does she express timeless truths about the art of writing fiction?

~~~

 

Debbie Burke is one of Montana’s Women of Mystery, along with Leslie Budewitz and Christine Carbo. Three crime novelists will reveal writing secrets and talk about their books during a Zoom appearance on Wednesday, February 24, at 3 p.m. mountain time. Email debbieburkewriter@gmail.com for the Zoom invitation.

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