Friday, October 29, 2010

buy books?

by Barbara D'Amato

Several years ago, after a meeting of the midwest chapter of MWA, I was standing at the coatrack and heard two women next to me, talking. Our speaker had been a man in the insurance business who had just had his first crime novel published. One of the women said, "If he has a book out, why is he still working at his job?"

I pause to let the published writers out there chuckle grimly.

A great many people, including readers, seem to think that if Stephen King is paid a couple of million dollars per book, midlist writers must receive about a hundred thousand. In fact, a fairly typical advance for a hardcover from a first-time author is about five to seven thousand and many are paid less. A paperback original maybe three thousand. Certainly many writers earn more, and we all hope to work our way up. But most writers have to keep their day job.

Which brings me to a recent event. On Yahoo, there are mini-articles, taken from a variety of sources. You know the kind of thing. Ten best cities to live in. Ten worst-dressed at the Emmys. This one was "Ten ways to save money." And number four was "Buy used books. Don't pay new-book prices."

Well, I was horrified and dismayed.

If nobody bought new books, few people would bother to write them. Of course, if nobody bought a new Lexus, just used ones--sorry, pre-owned--they would no longer be manufactured. But that's not likely to happen. Not buying books is in a different category.

I love libraries and support reading library books. Libraries increase literacy in a lot of ways, including making books available to children, who mostly don't have the money to buy books for themselves. And used bookstores or new/used bookstores are valuable assets in a community.

But people who love to read, who can afford to buy new books at least sometimes, still may not know how writers are paid. I wonder whether we as authors are doing enough to let the readers know that it is buying the book that keeps the writer they like to read going on writing. Most of us give talks or readings for a variety of groups, and in my experience there are usually questions about the book business. I'm not suggesting that mournful remarks on how little we are paid is a good idea. But it's easy to make the assumption that readers just know that most writers are paid on the basis of how many books they sell .In fact a lot of readers have no clear idea of this. And they're interested, once you start to talk about it. What is a mid-list author? What exactly is an advance? If you forego an advance can you bargain for higher royalties? What do authors earn, really? Does your company send you on all-expense-paid--don't laugh-- tours? People are genuinely interested in this and sometimes are too shy to ask.

Enough preaching for today?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

And now ... Bruce DeSilva:

Many of you know already Bruce DeSilva from his crime fiction reviews at the Associated Press and the New York Times ... but now he has published a novel of his own, and if I tell you that his debut, Rogue Island, is making waves in the mystery community, I am guilty of gross understatement.

On the Raves page on Bruce's website, I find myself in esteemed company - Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Alafair Burke, James W. Hall, Peter Blauner, Ken Bruen, Thomas H. Cook, Ace Atkins, Otto Penzler, Tim Dorsey (and the less-esteemed company of Marcus ... but what the hell, you can't have everything). Anyway. You should follow the links above and learn more about Bruce DeSilva and Rogue Island. You won't be sorry.

I've invited Bruce to guest-blog here at The Outfit. Please welcome him...

The most memorable crime novels transport you to interesting places and let you hear, see, smell, and taste them.

Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly have shown you Los Angeles through the decades. Read James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels and you have been to New Iberia, LA, even if you’ve never left your house. It is difficult to imagine Ken Bruen’s best novels set anywhere but in his native Galway.

As my friend, the crime novelist Thomas H. Cook, once said, “If you want to understand the importance of place, imagine Heart of Darkness without the river.”

The writers who regularly grace this blog provide a guided tour through the great city of Chicago—a city I have come to love. Through the years, I’ve gotten to know it from Wrigley Field to Comiskey Park and from Pilsen to the Loop. My wife, the poet Patricia Smith, grew up a West Side girl.

So when I wrote my first crime novel, Rogue Island, I decided to set the story in . . . Providence, Rhode Island.

Please allow me to defend myself.

This summer, Newsweek crowned New Jersey the most corrupt state in America. (Nice try, Illinois.) But the magazine declared that Rhode Island was the most corrupt per capita. There is nothing new in this. You can trace the smallest state’s culture of crime and political corruption all the way back to one of the first colonial governors dining with Captain Kidd.

For more than a hundred years, pirates slipped from Narragansett Bay’s hidden coves to prey on merchant shipping. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Rhode Island shipmasters dominated the American slave trade. During the French and Indian War and again during the Revolution, privateers skulked out of Providence and Newport to seize prizes with little regard for the flags they flew. After the Civil War, Boss Anthony kept his Republican machine in power by buying votes at the going rate of two bucks apiece. At the turn of the century, Rhode Island’s own Sen. Nelson Aldrich helped the robber barons plunder the country. In the 1950s and 1960s, a Providence mobster named Raymond L.S. Patriarca was the most powerful man in New England, deciding everything from who lived and died to what songs got played on the radio. And more recently, Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. did federal time for conspiring to operate a criminal enterprise, a.k.a. the city of Providence.

One of the many quirks of Rhode Island history is that no one knows how the state got its name, although historians have come up with several half-baked theories. According to one of them, the name derives from the fact that the state resembles the Isle of Rhodes. The only problem with that one is: It doesn’t.

My favorite theory is that “Rhode Island” is a bastardization of “Rogue Island,” a name the God-fearing farmers of colonial Massachusetts bestowed upon the nest of pirates, heretics, and smugglers who first settled the shores of Narragansett Bay. Hence, the title of my novel, Rogue Island. I decided not to go with the Cotton Mather’s pet name for Providence: “The sewer of New England.”

However, Rhode Island and its capital also share a culture of decency and integrity that began with its gentle founder, Roger Williams. The competing strands of good and evil wind all the way thorough the state’s history, and the tension between them makes for great storytelling.

But that’s not the only reason I set my tale in Providence.

Most crime novels unfold in big, anonymous cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and, of course, Chicago. There are also many fine mysteries set in rural areas. But Providence is something different.

The city is large enough to have the usual array of urban problems, and it’s surprisingly cosmopolitan; yet it’s so small that it’s claustrophobic. In fact, the whole state is so tiny that you can almost throw a baseball across it. Nearly everybody you meet on the street knows your name, and it’s almost impossible to keep a secret.

In Rogue Island, my main character, an investigative reporter named Mulligan, needs to have a face-to-face meeting with a cop. The two don’t want to be seen together, so they have a hard time figuring out where to go. Finally they pick a sleazy strip club in a bad part of town. No one there is likely to know them, they think; but as soon as they walk in, someone shouts: “Hey, Mulligan! How ya doin’?”

Mulligan is paid to root out corruption. But he was born in Providence. He is not just from but of this place. So while he digs to uncover the truth, he’s not above placing a bet with a mobbed-up bookie or paying a small bribe to get his decrepit Bronco through the annual state inspection. As Mulligan sees it, graft comes in two varieties, good and bad, just like cholesterol. The bad kind enriches greedy politicians and their rich friends at taxpayers’ expense. The good kind supplements the wages of underpaid state workers, putting braces on their kids’ teeth. Without the lubrication of good graft, Mulligan says, not much would get done in Rhode Island, and nothing at all would happen on time.

I strove to make the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island not just the setting but something more akin to characters in Rogue Island. According to one reviewer, my portrayal of the place is “jaundiced but affectionate”—and that puts it exactly right.

I just finished the sequel, tentatively titled Cliff Walk, and it, too, is set in Rhode Island. But once the third book in the series is written, I’m going to co-write a crime novel with my wife. It’s going to be set in Chicago—on the West Side.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The daily miracle at the sausage factory

By David Heinzmann

I’ve been writing in my car a lot, lately. And I’ve been spending most of my time in my car, so I’ve been pretty productive.

Of course, I haven’t been writing crime fiction. We’re a week from Election Day, and I’m on the campaign trail with the Republican nominee for governor in Illinois. Wherever he goes, I go. Friday it was the suburbs across the Mississippi from St. Louis, with Newt Gingrich, no less. Saturday it was the North Shore. Yesterday, the Salem Baptist Church on the Far South Side.

I bring it up because in the fiction world we know writing to be a solitary, somewhat lonesome, experience. (OK, I’m also bringing it up because I’m so buried in this right now that I can’t think about anything else.) Anyway, I know that quiet realm of writing very well, but because I’m a journalist I’ve always had this other experience of writing, as a more dynamic, interactive experience with other writers and multiple editors all huddling—literally or virtually—to put a story together. On a deadline.

Most complicated news reporting is collaborative in this way. But political reporting, on a campaign trail, in the final days before the polling places open, is a special breed. And the 2010 midterms are pretty much this converted cops reporter's maiden voyage.

You stick your recorder in the candidate’s face. Ask uncomfortable questions. Ask more uncomfortable questions. Then play the tape back while sitting in the front seat of your car, scribble the important answers down and craft a “feed” into three or four paragraphs that make sense. Thumb it into a BlackBerry and then send it to a string of other reporters and editors who are all working together. Back at the ranch, an editor or writer puts it all together. A couple hours later, the story evolves, and we do it all over again. Oh, all-powerful Internet, how we worship you.

You might say this is no way to write, but I have a feeling that this is sort of how television shows get written—replacing imagination and creativity for reporting, of course. (Also minus the drivng, fast-food, and ...Newt.) And there’s some pretty great television writing going on, especially in the world of crime drama.

I’m sure as hell not advocating writing a novel by committee like this, but it’s an interesting thought. A) there’s usually not enough money in a novel to support one writer, let along a team of four or five. B) Without the age of images and sound, aren’t novels much more dependent on a consistent vision, and that means one writer’s vision. Thoughts on that, please…

In other news, my own newspaper and its corporate management has been very much in the headlines lately. I’m not going to spout off about it, but if anybody has questions about the craziness in the Tribune Tower, I’ll do my best to answer in a way that’s both informative and not likely to get me taken to the woodshed at the office. Just kidding, my bosses are wonderful people who would never resort to corporal punishment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

On Seeing My Reflection, I'm Looking Slightly Rough

By Kevin Guilfoile

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I watched someone die.

Okay it wasn't someone, it was my cat. Our cat. My family's 18-year-old cat. But it was the first time I had been with a living thing larger than an insect at the moment it passed away. The first time I had held an animal while it died.

And it strikes me today, as I go about the house putting away Sinatra's dishes and her litter box and sweeping up the crumbs of her last meal, how much owning a pet is like inventing a character in a story. You attribute all these human qualities to it. You give it a personality and a life that is a product of your imagination but that seems very real to you. That character becomes a large and important part of your life for a time.

And you have a unique relationship with your pet, the same way a writer has a unique relationship with his creations. Readers will never know a character in your book quite the way the author does. And friends will never know your pet the way you do, because so much of her exists only in your mind.

It's not exactly the same, of course. When an animal suffers it actually feels pain. And I've never cried over the fate of one of my characters. But like we do to fictional characters we ascribe all kinds of irony and meaning and symmetry to the lives of our pets, which fulfills us in some way but is nevertheless created out of nothing. It is a meaningless fact, hardly even a coincidence, that my wife received a kitten as a gift the very week she and I met, and that Sinatra died on our 15th anniversary. But there it is.

I won't post pictures of her here. The internet is already all full up with cats. And to you a picture of my pet is a picture of any pet. You can't see all the great stuff I've made up about her over the years.

You can share a character you invent for a novel, but you can't share the character you invent for your pet.

A couple of appearances next week. On Monday, October 25, I'll be at The Royale in St. Louis where designer and author Bill Keaggy and I will be screening a fun, short documentary called The Curators which Bill and I both had a hand in making. We'll also be discussing collecting and collectors and I'm sure I'll talk about The Thousand a little bit and we'll both be signing books. It's going to be much fun and if you're in the St. Louis area I hope you can make it. The event starts at 5:30 and will probably go for an hour and a half or so.

Then on Thursday, October 28, I'll be at The Bookstore in Glen Ellyn, Illinois where author Joelle Charbonneau and I will be talking and signing as part of The Bookstore's celebration of Chicago Authors Month. That event begins at 7 PM and involves complimentary wine and cheese, which should be all I need to say.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Writers and Conferences.

by Jamie Freveletti

I just returned from Bouchercon 2010 the annual mystery convention. My first writers conference was Bouchercon when it was here in Chicago. I remember finding the web page online, seeing the list of authors--many that I admired and read voraciously, and scanning the panels page.

That conference sticks in my memory, mostly because it was my first, the weather in Chicago was beautiful (I rode my bike down the lake to get there) and many friends that I made there have stayed friends. Some were other, aspiring writers at the time that are now published and working on their second or third novels, and others were readers that loved the same authors that I did.

What is fun about these conferences now is the fact that they take me away from my computer and writer mode and back into fan mode. I learn about new authors, new stories, and get to be a fan again. For the first couple of days I'm thrilled to be out and about.

What's tough about the conferences is the flip side: that I usually don't have time to write. By the last day I'm usually holed up in my room pounding out a few pages. Writing keeps me balanced, happy, and gives me a chance to go wherever my imagination takes me. I love it. Can't wait to do more of it, and am thankful to be able to do it as a living. For that last bit I thank the readers.

Monday, October 18, 2010

To E or Not to E, Part 2

by Libby Hellmann

I blogged about ebooks (Part I) a while back. Then about a month ago Joe Konrath asked me to “defend” traditional publishing on his blog. What follows is the post I wrote. It generated a lot of discussion– bear in mind many of Joe’s followers are “indie authors” themselves. Still, most of the comments were surprisingly even-handed.

I am a traditionally published author with six crime fiction novels out. I am an indie author with a two novels and a collection of short stories out. In fact, it was Joe, a good friend, who pushed me to do my short story collection for Kindle and Smashwords. I’ve written about e-books on my blog, and I tell every author I meet to put their backlist on Kindle and try to keep the e-rights to their future works. (Which is, of course, getting harder to do).

I participate on the Kindle Boards, the Amazon Kindle and Mystery community threads, and I see the handwriting on the wall, er, screen. I am incensed that publishers are only giving their authors a 25% royalty for e-books. I do not agree that just because a publisher releases an author’s book in print that they are automatically entitled to the e-rights. I think the prices publishers charge are outrageous (None of my e-books, at least the ones I control, are more than $2.99). I agree with Joe that the major publishers are clueless about the future, and that many will be forced to downsize to adapt to this Brave New E-World.

So, when Joe asked me to make a case for traditional publishing in this climate and on his blog, I hesitated. Given everything that Joe’s written and done, was I crazy? Did I WANT to get beat up in his comments section? But… the more I thought about it, I decided I did have some points to make.

In one of his recent blogs, Joe talked about the “tipping point,” the point at which authors and agents will no longer need publishers. And that’s the key. We are not yet at the tipping point, and while that might change in the future, for now I still want to be traditionally published. Here’s why:

If a publisher gets behind a title, you can’t beat their marketing support and promotion. They saturate the media with information and hype in a way most individual authors can’t. Even if you’re not one of the “chosen,” publishers send out ARCs for review – which I believe is still the best ways to start generating “buzz.” As much as I appreciate Amazon reviews, a review from the New York Times or NPR can make a huge difference in sales, in both DTB and e-books. Publishers still underwrite author tours, which while they aren’t as effective as they used to be, are still worth doing. Publishers are beginning to understand the world of book blogging and are trying to catch up. And when I see an ad of someone’s book on a bus or subway or billboard, I might gnash my teeth that it’s not mine, but it makes a difference in my awareness.

Traditional publishers’ distribution networks are broad, deep, and in some cases, even creative. As much as we focus online for our book info, when you see a book in the bookstore, at the airport, in Costco, or the grocery store, it makes an impression. The more impressions, the more apt a consumer is to buy. Publishers make those impressions possible in ways that a computer screen can’t. Sure, you can see a book being talked about by several bloggers on Twitter, you can read an interview with the author on line, you can see their blogs on other blogs, but seeing the product in the “real” world is different. You can touch it, thumb through the pages, read the 69th page, even the last line, and make up your mind whether you want it. And if the publishers’ sales reps are enthusiastic about a title, they can make a difference in the numbers that are available. I’m not saying that can’t happen with e-books; we’ve seen how a cascade of recommendations can catapult a book into Amazon’s best-seller lists; just that we’re not at the “tipping point” yet. Most readers still do not have Kindles or Nooks or iPads.

Publishers offer a built-in editing service. Yes, there are books out from major publishers where the editing sucks. Yes, there are authors who refuse to be edited, or editors who are afraid of touching other authors’ work. But, for the most part, an editor at a publishing house makes a book better. They have for me. The way I see it is that you have one chance to impress readers, whether you’re traditionally or e-published. Your book HAS to be the best you can possibly make it. If not, no one will buy Book Two. Unless a third party (not a relative or friend) who knows what they’re doing takes a look at it, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Traditional publishers have that third party. And you don’t have to pay for it.

Over the years, I’ve been to hundreds of bookstores. In some cases, they have hand sold my books and helped my numbers. They have hosted me when there were thirty people, and when there were less than three. Booksellers are some of the most knowledgeable, thoughtful people I know. They steer me to wonderful stories, introduce me to authors I might not have considered. I would hate to lose their expertise. Traditional publishing helps booksellers – not as much as readers buying books, of course – but for now, until the “tipping point” arrives, they are an indispensible part of the book landscape. Happily, some have already created e-stores; I hope more do. We need to keep hearing their voices.

If you’re an author who wants to be recognized with an award or nomination, traditional publishing still has the big ones. The Pulitzer, the Booker, Penn/Faulkner, the Edgar, etc. stipulate a DTB, not an e-book alone. That may change; other awards might take their place, but for now, that seems to be the case.

PS Recently I’m seeing a bit of pushback (here and here) from those who aren’t convinced ebooks will take over the world. There’s also a poster from Newsweek that summarizes – sort of -- the differences between the two formats. It’s clear we’re in the Wild West of publishing these days – but what do you think the future holds?

Back from Bouchercon

And our own Jamie Freveletti and Bryan Gruley continue to rack up the awards. Jamie won the Barry Award for Best Thriller, while Bryan won the Macavity and the Anthony for Best First Novel!

Congratulations to both!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Housing Court Games

by Michael Dymmoch

The lease is up. The tenant won’t leave. Eviction is an option (two years ago!). What’s the deal?

Maybe the neighbors don’t like the bar, but the landlord doesn’t want to piss his tenant off. Because even though the lease expired, the bar is current on its rent. (And A bird in the cage is worth twenty flying around outside.) It’s all a game.

It’s not a bad way to operate if you’re a landlord with a not-so-bad tenant. You don’t live in the neighborhood, don’t have to put up with the noise and the empties and drunks urinating on your porch. You’re collecting your rent. You can tell the neighbors—and the cops if the bar gets to be a problem—that your hands are tied—your tenant just won’t leave. (Not that you really want it to.) And you have the option of evicting the bar if someone makes you a better offer. Another example of the Chicago Way. (Though I bet it’s happening everywhere.)

Winning in court is more a matter of tactics and patience than of having a good legal case. The Constitution guarantees that you can’t deprive citizens of life, liberty or property without due process. It doesn’t guarantee speedy process. And due process requires that persons in possession be served with papers before a court can kick ‘em out, an issue that drags an eviction out for weeks or months. Even if the City gets an order to demolish a building that’s hazardous and irreparable, an attorney can get a stay of execution—even when a building inspector has testified that the one thing wrong with the building is EVERYTHING, that it doesn’t even have a roof!

Private lawyers get paid by the hour by people with the money to hire them. Public lawyers get paid to handle all the cases brought to them, which sometimes means they don’t have a lot of time to spend on any single case. Housing court judges are elected; that means they’re politicians first. And most people have no idea what goes on in housing court—how their tax dollars are being spent—unless they’re hauled in for a violation or eviction. Something that almost never happens to most of us.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bouchercon and Beautiful Words

Hey folks, tomorrow I'm headed to Bouchercon, and as a result I'm spending the afternoon running around like an idiot. So rather than a thoughtful, well-researched post, today I thought I would share a couple of passages I read recently that blew my hair back. I hope you enjoy.

By the way, if you're going to Bouchercon, come say hello! I have a panel at 8:30 Friday morning, along with Steve Hockensmith, Henry Perez, Rick Mofina, and Ken Mercer. I'm also signing at the Crimespree booth Saturday at 11. And most of the rest of the time I'll be in the bar.



At this point in the story, Packard had never fallen in love, and didn't trust what he'd heard of the lingo (forever, my darling, with all my heart, until the end of time, more than life itself, with every fiber of my being, oh my darling Clementine, etc.) It sounded out of control to him, and messy.

He had spent maybe a thousand Sundays in church, though--make that four hundred--and then two edgy years on a battleship in the Pacific Ocean, and then five very edgy days in the Pacific Ocean without the battleship, and before any of that, he'd deliberately and often put himself in places where he saw awful things happen not only to people who deserved it but also to people who just seemed to stumble in at the wrong time, walking into the picture as the shutter clicked, through no fault of their own.

Which is to say that by now Packard recognized praying when he heard it, and knew the kind of deals people would offer up, the promises they would make, when they were in over their heads. And that, from what he's heard, was what it--love--was about.

-From Train, by Pete Dexter

* * *

"So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when the flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam. Even fireworks, for all their prettiness, come from the chemistry of the earth. Yet somehow we think we can grow, feeding flowers and fireworks, without completing the cycle back to reality."

-From Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

* * *

Peter, however, didn't want to live in basements. He wanted to be a wheeler and dealer (as some would call him), a denizen of the present, though he can't quite live in the present; he can't stop himself from mourning some lost world, he couldn't say which world exactly but someplace that isn't this, isn't streetside piles of black garbage bags and shrill little boutiques that come and go. It's corny, it's sentimental, he doesn't talk to people about it, but it feels at certain times--now, for instance--like his most essential aspect: his conviction, in the face of all evidence ot the contrary, that some terrible, blinding beauty is about to descend and, like the wrath of God, suck it all away, orphan us, deliver us, leave us wondering how exactly we're going to start it all over again.

-From Before Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

Monday, October 11, 2010

Corruption, Medieval Style

Please welcome guest blogger Jeri Westerson. Jeri is a wonderful writer whose third novel in her "Medieval Noir" series has just been released. I read it and couldn't put it down. (Btw, I love that she calls her protagonist, former knight Crispin Guest, a "Medieval Sam Spade on the mean streets" of fourteenth century London). Jeri's post, while clearly of another time, will nonetheless resonate with Outfit readers today.

Corruption. It covers so many events and practices. It can be found in any age, and the Middle Ages were certainly no exception. In this instance, I decided to dig up some of the more unusual cases than simple government corruption. Heck, you can see that in your daily newspaper!

For instance, in 1303, when Edward I was king, the crown jewels were kept in Westminster Abbey. It was thought that if they were looked after by the monks there, little could happen to them. But a few years earlier, there had been a fire in the abbey and many of the monastic buildings had been destroyed. The monks, about fifty of them, ended up encamped in the half-ruined buildings. Now we are talking England here, where the weather is far from meek and mild, and these monks are camping out in pretty nasty conditions. No wonder they got a little resentful. According to court documents, they had become “slack and slovenly.”

Enter one Richard of Pudlicott. He started out as a clerk and then became a wandering trader in wool, cheese, and butter. He went on a selling trip to Bruges but when King Edward returned to London from Flanders, poor Pudlicott was thrown in the Flemish clink for Edward’s debts and the king left him there! Pudlicott escaped and when he returned to London, he wasn’t a happy camper, vowing revenge. He began to carouse with the Keeper of the King’s Palace, and he found that the monks, being so slack and slovenly, made it easy to sneak into their chapter house— one of the few buildings unaffected by the fire—and steal their plate and coins.

But carousing gets expensive, especially when you are in such rich company as the Keeper of the King’s Palace, and so Pudlicott upped the ante and decided to steal the king’s treasury with the help of the monks.

When later he was caught for the theft—and a sloppy job it was—he originally confessed that he worked alone, but it didn’t take long for it to come out how many others helped him. The sacrist of the church, the abbot, forty-eight monks, and thirty-two others. The treasure was found all over town. Under Pudlicott’s bed, stashed in the graveyard, dropped in the Thames (and later fished out in fishermen’s nets), at pawnbrokers’ who simply turned the stuff in (“Oi, mate. Where’d ya get this crown?”).

The majority of the monks were released fairly quickly but six servants and ten monks remained in custody. Pudlicott tried to plead benefit of clergy—that is, as a clerk, he was in the clerical class along with monks and priests and couldn’t be tried like everyone else. King Edward’s court wasn’t buying it, though, and in 1305 he was finally hanged. The Keeper and five other lay culprits were also put in the noose while the rest of the monks were more or less pardoned. So ended the great crown jewel robbery.

Several hundreds of years later in a separate corruption case, but no less interesting, is this case of corruption where a man loses his knighthood. I bring this one up because my detective Crispin Guest also lost his knighthood, only for different reasons and…er…minus the horse (you’ll see in a minute).

Sir Giles Mompesson and Sir Francis Mitchell were tried in 1621 before the House of Lords for the political offense of “exercising harsh monopolies over the licensing of inns and the manufacture of gold and silver thread.” Doesn’t sound horrible when put that way, but essentially, Mompesson schemed a good long time on a lot of things. He did big business in graft. He was the go-to person for licensing for inns and he was supposed to be overseeing the manufacture of gold and silver thread and imprison those manufacturing said thread without a license.

Instead, he ran a good trade in extortion on the goldsmiths of London and pulled a few fast ones conning taverns into putting up guests overnight and then fining them for running an inn without a license! He was tried by the House of Commons which referred it to the House of Lords where he was sentenced to quite a unique punishment:

“Mompesson was ordered to pay a £10,000 fine, lose his knighthood, walk down the Strand (in London) with his face in a horse's anus, and then be imprisoned for life. A few days later, they added banishment for life to the penalty. Further, he was decried as an eternally notorious criminal.”

This is what happened as reported by the College of Arms: “Sir Francis’s sword and gilt spurs, being the ornaments of Knighthood, were taken from him, broken and defaced, thus indicating that the reputation he held thereby, together with the honourable title of Knight, should be no more used. One of the Knight Marshal’s men...cut the belt whereby the culprit’s sword hung, and so let it fall to the ground. Next the spurs were hewn off his heels and thrown, one one way, the other the other. After that, the Marshal’s attendant drew Mitchell’s sword from the scabbard and broke it over his head, doing with the fragments as with the spurs.” (Sir Bernard Burke, Ulster King of Arms.)

If you are a member of the Order of the Garter, the banner and stall-plate (plates bearing the arms of that particular knight which are mounted in the choir stall where their family worshipped) are removed from the Chapel.

Mompesson was banished but some time later he was allowed to return to get his affairs in order and then banished again, but the slippery Mompesson managed to get back into the country and stay, retiring in Wiltshire till his death.

Yes, it’s true. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Jeri tries to be true to her history in her Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series. Read a chapter from her latest title THE DEMON’S PARCHMENT at

Friday, October 08, 2010

Reality Bites (me in the arse)

by David Ellis

I have a long-running feud with realism in novels. I never know where to draw the lines. Like many other authors, I know how to cheat when I need to. Gloss over a detail in a summary paragraph so you don’t have to reveal your ignorance. I hate doing that, actually, but sure it happens sometimes.

I remember in my first novel, LINE OF VISION, I had a scene where my protagonist broke through the back door of someone’s house. Except I didn’t know how to break through the back door of someone’s house. So I wrote a placeholder, something like this: “The lock came loose surprisingly easy.” And I figured I’d go back and fill in some detail later. But we didn’t have the internet back then and I didn’t know any burglars or cops, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to practice on somebody’s house, so I showed my first draft with that placeholder language, and every person reading that draft said that they didn’t notice, or care. And I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure I left that placeholder in there.

I’m a lawyer and I write about the legal system, in one way or another, in every book. So as a matter of professional pride, I want to get those details right. But sometimes those details are inconvenient to my story. So what did I do? I created my own city, which of course most people recognize as Chicago, but still—it’s my own nameless city, in my own nameless state, so I can create whatever laws and whatever procedural rules I want, and nobody can say I got anything wrong.

Going too far? Probably. I could probably set the whole thing in Chicago, get a few of those details wrong, and nobody would care. Certainly lawyers and cops have seen reality butchered enough on television that most of them wouldn’t bat an eye if one of my books played fast and loose with some criminal procedure. In fact, I can only think of one television or movie set in a courtroom that came even remotely close to reality, and that was an excellent movie called The Music Box, about a Nazi war crime prosecution in Chicago. (Trivia: the judge in the movie was played by a real federal judge from Chicago, and the same one who presided over the Blagojevich trial, Judge James Zagel.)

Right now, I’m co-authoring a novel and it’s set in France, and I just finished writing a prison escape. I had one minor problem. I’d never been to a French prison, much less escaped from one. It paralyzed me for a while. After I painstakingly detailed to my wife the various problems of writing this scene, she hit me with this—and this is not the first time she’s said this to me: “Is anyone going to care other than you?”

I hate it when she says that. But she was right. And maybe that’s a good place to draw the line—to careabout reality when the reader is going to care. Will the reader care about the fact that I didn’t toll the Speedy Trial Act in my novel when the defendant pleaded insanity, when everybody knows that the Act is automatically tolled in such a case? No. Most normal, well-adjusted people probably don’t even know what the hell I just said.

Somebody was talking about John Grisham the other day, and I remembered something that bothered me about his novel The Pelican Brief. You have this law student who has provided a theory on why two Supreme Court justices were just murdered; she submits her thesis in written form to the FBI; and what is the response by the evil villain, when he learns of it? He blows up her car, obviously intending that she be inside it at the time. Anyone have a problem with that? My guess is no. I did. Maybe if you killed her before she submitted the document to the FBI, sure. But once she had put that document into the hands of the federal government, what was the point of killing her? And wouldn’t her death from an obviously organized hit—a car bomb—not automatically give credibility to her theory and point suspicion directly on the very person who was trying to cover up his role in murdering the judges? I mean, really, is there anything more colossally stupid than assassinating the law student at that point?

If you think it through (which presupposes you haven't stopped reading this post), I imagine most of you would agree with my logic. But my wife’s voice returns to ask me that question: “Did anyone care other than you?” I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

I think you can categorize this stuff. There’s real reality. Like, a revolver doesn’t have a silencer, so if you write about a silencer on a revolver, you have objectively, completely misrepresented reality. Then there’s reality like the Grisham example above, where there’s no objective truth, it’s just a subjective take on what is “realistic” and what isn’t. Then we can break those things another way into my wife’s category of the-reader-won’t-care and the-reader-will.

So, getting out my slide rule and inputting this algorithm into my computer, I have come up with this simple formula for all you writers out there:

1. If it’s absolutely, clearly wrong and more than a few people will catch the mistake—get it right.
2. If it’s absolutely, clearly wrong and nobody but you will care, then pick whichever way makes the story better, unless you’re anal retentive and can’t stand the thought of a mistake (whoops, there’s another category).

3. If it’s not absolutely, clearly wrong but just a subjective take on what seems realistic, let your spouse decide.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Women and Innocence: An Interview With Exoneree, Julie Rae Harper

By Laura Caldwell

Through the Life After Innocence program at Loyola University Chicago, I've had the pleasure of meeting Julie Rea Harper, a woman, who has a PhD level education and two masters degrees, was convicted of a murder of which she was entirely innocent. After serving three years in the state penitentiary, she was finally exonerated. The most brutal aspect of her story is the fact that Ms. Harper was convicted of killing her 10-year-old son, Joel Kirkpatrick, described as an insightful, loving child who was wise beyond his years and loved by all who knew him.

Now that Joel's real killer has been identified (Tommy Lynn Sells), one of Julie's recent efforts has been to turn her sights towards educating the world about wrongful convictions and, in particular, the women who find themselves in such immensely difficult situations. On November 6, 2010, Julie will host the first annual Women and Innocence conference, joining together female exonerees, as well as some of their male counterparts, and the people who've worked to free them, along with law students, professors, and interested members of the public. As she prepares for the conference, I contacted Julie to ask a few questions.

Why did you want to start the Women and Innocence conference?

There are so many aspects of women, as seen through the lens of wrongful prosecution that need to be taken into consideration. When Tabitha Pollock was incarcerated in Illinois for having not realized her child would be killed by her then boyfriend, she was held accountable for what she didn't know. (It was presumed that as a mother, she should have). This is but one example of a double standard. It is a result of the conceptual map or schematic that society holds for the idea of what a man or woman is and can acceptably be. A man can become violent - even though it is wrong for him to kill, technically - and we can accept that a man provoked may act out aggressively. But women generally do not act aggressively and violently. So when a woman is charged with a violent crime it is already an anathema for the jury that she faces - she is presented as a person who has already stepped beyond the conceptual framework of what is acceptable societal behavior for a woman to exhibit - no matter the explanation. There are many more issues surrounding women and innocence, and there is a need for a forum about them.

Do women face the same issues as male exonerees?

Women face some of the same, of course, but some different ones as well. When a man exits prison, he may have physical scars - which are character building and such war stories are interesting to society and make him potentially more intriguing. Women on the other hand exiting with scars are less attractive and hence less desirable to society. Fact is fact. We do not wish to hear about a woman’s story of either how she was exploited or how she exploited another. But when a man becomes king of the jungle - well, that society finds him more readily appealing. An example though of how both stories are finding a venue in popular media currently is the movie Conviction with Hillary Swank playing Beverly Waters. While this is about a man who was wrongly convicted there is a significant role of the woman who works toward his innocence. Again - the woman stays within the more approved societal role as the 'caretaker' and 'angel of mercy'. These things will change with time as society is opening the territory for wider definitions, but for now there is clearly a boundary line that has more traditional roles in place and these are still greatly affecting those of us who have lived the real experiences of the wrongly convicted.

Is there one person you credit for your exoneration? Will they be at the conference?

No - there were gobs and gobs. And while I would love for them all to be there, they are busy helping others and the needs of a larger audience. However some will be in attendance, and that's super cool. My parents will be there, as well as attorneys Karen Daniel and Judy Royal, from Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions, and I believe Stephanie Horton. And author, Diane Fanning, who coincidentally played a role, as fate sometimes draws characters into our life story. Private investigator Bill Clutter, who worked on my case, may come to share about Jeannette Slover's case, which I am hopeful one day she will also be free. She is a woman I met inside who is definitively innocent and needs to be exonerated yesterday. One thing that happens when you go thru something like this is that you find out just how many people you need to thank for their role in your life - the good parts of it - and you also find out how great the needs are that still exist in the world right around you. This is a very obvious fact in my daily existence now.

The question I hear often about exonerees is how they cope, day to day, with what they went through. Your situation was even more intense than most. Can you share with us one or two things that help you?

I thank God constantly for everything I put into my mouth, for every deep breath I take, and the provisions he makes for me. And I ask his help with every need I have. And I still do a lot of whistling in the dark. I also accept the fact that I won't just get over what I've been through over night. It didn't happen overnight and, it isn't going to go away that quickly either. However, the healing comes in unexpected ways and is evident as I look back and through the loving grace of others in my life. I am just very very thankful for each and every day.

Tell us about Joel and what you like him to be remembered for.

He was a person who loved his people. He had no qualms about saying something was wrong when it was, and he didn't get confused about what mattered most. I used to tell him when I grew up I wanted to be just like him. He used to say when he grew up he wanted to test computer games for a living. Because he had a genius IQ, I kind of hoped he would reach a bit higher for his eventual profession by the time he reached adulthood, and yet I couldn't help but be a bit amazed that he was able to never make others feel stupid when they were around him, and that he saw the beauty in others and the most simple moments. We would sometimes sit and read snuggled up in quilts with a favorite book and a cup of soup while the rain came down in the summer because we both loved the steady, refreshing sounds of the rain and the peace it offered as a backdrop. I want him to be remembered as someone who knew what mattered and did what was true and right, someone who would never have done what the state did. But someone who would forgive them - and yet ask them to change what they've done and not do it to another person - but do it better next time.

Where can people go for more information about Women and Innocence?
For more information, click here.

Monday, October 04, 2010

I. To Outline or Not to Outline

By Bryan Gruley

I’m frequently asked whether I outline my books before I write them. Not really, I always say.

But maybe I should say yes.

A little background: I’m a child of Catholic education from Grade 1 through Notre Dame. I was diagramming sentences before reaching puberty. The nuns, priests, and Mr. John Kessel also drilled us on outlining. It involved Roman numerals and capital letters and lower case Roman numerals and lower case letters and lots of indentation.

I loved outlining. I scratched outlines on legal pads that nearly ran longer than what they were written for. I outlined every essay, newspaper story, and magazine feature I wrote in college. It helped me put things in order. I understood the beginning, middle, and end before I committed a word to actual article or essay. For me, outlining became the thinking part of writing. Writing actually seemed easier (note: I did not say easy) after outlining.

The need to meet daily newspaper deadlines weaned me off of outlining to some degree. For longer narrative features, I took to assembling detailed chronologies that, while dispensing with the numerals and letters, did the virtual work of an outline by giving rough shape to the notes I’d amassed from interviews, documents, observations and other sources.

I tried to outline the early chapters of my first novel, Starvation Lake. It didn’t work. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t put things in order; the problem was that I didn’t have much to put in order. I knew the beginning and I had a vague idea about an ending but I had no idea what would happen in between. And I found it nearly impossible to imagine what would happen without actually writing it down in narrative form.

So I ditched any outlining—or “plotting,” if that’s what you prefer to call it--and just kept tapping away on my laptop. The characters behaved. The setting revealed itself. The story unfolded. I wound up with a manuscript that I then turned inside out with hundreds of edits.

Was that rough manuscript a de facto outline?

In an interesting how-I-write piece in my newspaper on Saturday, Philip Roth said he doesn’t map out his books in advance, but rather “feels (his) way going forward. The book educates me as I write.” As with everything Mr. Roth writes, I couldn’t put it any better. (Here’s a link to the piece:

In addition to whatever manuscript I'm writing, I keep a separate Word file to which I frequently toggle called, “stuff.” It’s essentially a list of all the balls I’ve tossed into the air as I’ve written the manuscript and a reminder that I need to bring them down at some point, preferably not on my head.

Is my stuff file also an outline? Do I actually have two outlines?

For the record, I did not outline this blog before I wrote it. Does it show? Do you outline? If yes, how? If not, why not?

Friday, October 01, 2010

THE FEATHERED ONION and other stories

by Barbara D'Amato

I don't know how you all feel about evolution. I like it as well as anyone else does; I just don't think it's gone far enough yet.

One of the best books on the subject is THE FEATHERED ONION, subtitled Creation of Life in the Universe, by Clive Trotman [John Wiley & Sons, 2004].

Ever since Archbishop James Ussher calculated that Creation happened on October 22nd [or 23rd] 4004 B.C., the probable time of the creation of the earth has been pushed back, and back, and back. THE FEATHERED ONION is particularly good at describing the process leading to the changes of dates and the current evidence for the age of the universe--possibly 13 billion years.

Trotman is also wonderful on the [to me at least] surprising complexity of unicellular life.

There is a good deal of math in Trotman's book, but it's well explained and the writing is clear and lively. This is a book that is truly mind-expanding.

And the other stories I mentioned above?

As you surely are aware, this is Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week began in 1982. The American Library Association has compiled a list of the ten most challenged titles in 2009. Here they are:

ttyl, l8r,g8r and so forth--the series by Lauren Myracle
AND TANGO MAKES THREE by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
TWILIGHT the series by Stephanie Meyer
MY SISTER'S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult
THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier

So, for Banned Book Week, buy a banned book.

For my granddaughter, I think I'll buy TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and THE COLOR PURPLE. She has already read all the TWILIGHT series, which does not seem to have damaged her, and anyway I don't think Stephanie Meyer really needs my help.

For my grandson, TOM SAWYER and HUCKLEBERRY FINN. They didn't make the list this year, but they often have in the past.

Besides the Mark Twains, others often challenged are 1984 and ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell, A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC by Shel Silverstein, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut, A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle, BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley, and such all-time faves as CANDIDE by Voltaire and JUSTINE by the Marquis de Sade.

Because I have a few friends with new children or grandchildren, I will also buy JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH by Madeline Holler, one also not on this year's list, but frequently challenged. There are a few iffy words in it, and some unfortunate characterizations of people by their body builds, but most children don't notice or care, and if they do, it's an opportunity for discussion.

Buy a banned book. They make great birthday presents.

My Kind of Book

Starting today, Jen Devourer of Books will be featuring Chicago authors all month on her blog. If you haven't read it, you should. She's sure to cover someone you'll want to read. And who knows? You might even see some familiar names and books pop up. She's partnering with another blogger as well, but she'll tell you all about it.

Check her out.