The First Two Chapters of Cold Dark Lies

This week’s blog post is a teaser: the first two chapters of the latest Martin Preuss mystery, Cold Dark Lies.

The ideas for the book go back a long way. As in all the novels, the final version braids together several strands that come from “real” life. The main plot thread comes from an article I read in a Detroit newspaper many years ago about an auto executive from Bloomfield Hills who was found dead in one of the no-tell motels in Ferndale. It was a minor blip in the news day, but it stuck with me all this time. I was intrigued by the dissonance between his privileged, upper-middle class existence and his desire (or need) to take a walk on the wild side at the skeevy motel, with tragic results for himself and the family he must have left behind.

The idea for one of the subplots in the book comes from a student who came to talk to me once about a research study she was undertaking to find out if she was really related to a criminal gang in Detroit in the 1920s, as family lore had insisted.

As always, by the time both of these threads made it to the final version, I had changed much—characters, situations, names, details, circumstances, motivations, and so on. Then I set it all in an imaginary context consistent with a mystery story—so I made up lots of bad actors, bad actions, and events that didn’t happen . . . but that could have. 

At first, I imagined the motel guy as a character in a poem called “The Secret Life,” but I knew there was more to the story than the poem could explore. When I started thinking about the next book in the series after An Uncertain Accomplice, I took the story out of my back pocket where I had kept it all these years and started thinking about using it in a Preuss mystery.

This is pretty typical of how I’ve been working with these books. Only in the first book, Crimes of Love, did I make up the inciting episode; in all the rest, I started out with a situation I knew about either because somebody told me the story or I read about it somewhere. (Henry James’s advice to writers: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”) After that, it was a matter of imaginatively transforming the original real inciting situations to make them fit with my own purposes and the demands of the plots.

So here’s the beginning of how that process turned out in Cold Dark Lies. Enjoy!

CDL-Front Cover copy 2

1

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The hammering brought him back. Loud, insistent pounding on the door. And raised voices outside. And the door handle jiggling. Then more pounding.

He opened his eyes in darkness and rolled his head over the rug where he was sprawled. The smell was unpleasant: damp, sour, musty.

From where he lay, limbs outstretched, his eyes focused on the stumpy and scuffed legs of the bed, the tangle of clothes on the floor, the peeling caramel feet and brown cracked leather of the arm chair, turned on its side. The thick wall of the dresser.

The effort exhausted him. He closed his eyes. He was so tired. Why couldn’t he just sink back into that void where he floated before the pounding on the door roused him?

The banging stopped. The voices receded.

Silence outside.

He listened. Silence in the room, too.

Was he alone?

He lifted his head. Intense pain shot through his neck and temple. As through every other part of his body, he now realized.

He didn’t hurt before—he didn’t feel much of anything—but now he was conscious of sharp aches in his head, ribs, face . . .

He licked his lips and tasted the thick, sweet tang of blood.

He raised his right arm and saw the sleeve of his white shirt rolled up to the elbow. The golden red hair that had furred his forearm ever since he turned fourteen. Around his wrist, the sleek black Fitbit, and, on the third finger of his hand, the ring his ex-wife had given him when he graduated Michigan State—the head of a Spartan warrior carved in intaglio carnelian in a gold setting, like a temple.

And flopping lazily from the crook of his elbow, a syringe still stuck into a vein, pulling at the skin.

Oozing a dribble of blood down to the threadbare, colorless weave of the carpet.

How did that get there?

He couldn’t remember how.

Or why.

Or when.

He wanted to make sense of his situation, but thinking was too hard. His mind was too foggy.

He lowered his arm. In the silence of the room, blackness began to close back in on him, slowly, like a cloth fluttering down over his face.

He was relieved when his thoughts, too, began to close down. No more thinking. Not about what he was doing here, or anything else.

He closed his eyes. Gradually his pain eased, and he welcomed the release. There was only silence.

And finally there was nothing.

 

2

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

“He was a bad one,” the woman said, and gave her head a sad shake, as though the memory itself hurt.

Martin Preuss waited for her to go on, but she said nothing more. She seemed lost in thought, gazing at the blank wall behind him. He sat with her in what she called the parlor, the front room in her large home in the Boston-Edison Historic District of Detroit. The place smelled of cat pee and old wood, the sweetish-sour odor that reminded Preuss of his childhood home.

All that was missing was the sound of his father raging upstairs while the rest of the family tiptoed around downstairs so they wouldn’t disturb “Daddy’s work.”

Unlike his family’s minimalist home, this one resembled a comfortable museum, with heavy wooden settees and huge armchairs from another age and lush Oriental rugs on the hardwood floors. In the other room, Preuss had noticed a massive Steinway grand piano when the woman, Sarah Posner, invited him in.

She lived here alone with her three cats, so their conversation was interrupted only by her memories. She had lived in this house for decades with her late husband and their three children, who were now grown and scattered across the country.

“You did know him, then,” Preuss prompted, to bring her back from her remembrance.

“Oh, yes,” she said. Her eyes returned from the past to land back on him with a bright intensity. She was small and hunched in the wingback chair where she sat. Her skin was the color and texture of old parchment, and the knuckles of her hands were swollen and stiff as she gripped the arms of her chair. Wisps of white hair peeked from the turban she wore.

“We all knew about him,” she continued. “Izzie was already in prison by the time my Morrie and I were married. But Morrie know him when he was little. Izzie was Morrie’s great-uncle, you see. I didn’t meet Izzie until he got out of prison. He was an old man by then. Old and defeated. And, you know, Morrie’s family used to talk about them. Izzie and his cousin Leon both. Morrie knew Leon, too, but Leon was killed in the thirties, so I never met him.”

She thought for a few moments longer, then said, “They were all bad boys.”

She drew her mouth together in a pinched frown of disapproval.

“They reflected so badly on us,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, all right, they were immigrants, they had to make a place for themselves, it was a bad time, they had no other skills. But it’s another to look at what they did and how they did it. So cruel. And to know people would look at them and think they represented us all. People in this city already had enough reasons to hate us, between the poison they heard from Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.”

She fell into silence as she reflected on her family.

Preuss sketched a fast diagram of the connections in his notebook. When he got back to his office, he would have to draw out a more detailed chart of the family relationships.

“You’ve never met my client?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “Until you called, I’d never heard of her. But now I think I’d quite like to meet her.”

“I’m sure she’d like to meet you, too.”

“Maybe you could set something up,” Sarah said. “She could come for tea.”

“You can probably fill in a lot of family history for her. She seems hungry for it.”

The woman nodded absently, and he wondered if she was off on another reverie.

He had asked her about her family’s connections with members of the Purple Gang, the group of Jewish criminals around Detroit in the 1920s. They began as shakedown artists and petty thieves and wound up controlling the local bootleg liquor trade from Canada during Prohibition, subsequently hiring themselves out as hitmen and enforcers.

Preuss’s client was a college student named Beverly Frankel. She hired Greene and Preuss, Investigations, to track down a rumor in her family that they were related to a few of the Purples. His search led him to this 95-year-old woman and the genteel poverty of her mansion.

According to Sarah Posner, the Frankel family’s stories about their links to the gang were true.

But the family connections were to two cousins who were among the most savage of the crew, so Preuss didn’t know how his client would react to the news. She struck him as someone looking more for colorful, romantic stories of outlaws to tell her friends, but Isadore Adler and Leon Glick’s bombings, assassinations, and brutal enforcement methods weren’t the stuff of romance.

Like many cases he had worked since joining Emmanuel Greene’s detective firm after retiring from the Ferndale Police Department’s Detective Bureau, the lesson here was, don’t ask questions you might not want answered.

Before he could ask the woman any more about her relations, he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Do you have to get that?”

“Let me just check,” he said. “It might be about my son.”

He glanced at the screen. It wasn’t about Toby; the call was from Rhonda Citron, the administrative manager of the detective agency.

“Excuse me,” he said, “it’s my office. I should take this.”

She raised a wan hand in permission and took another sip of her tea. She stared into the air, as though she could see images floating there of the past they had been talking about.

He stood and walked to the parlor’s bay window looking out on the broad, manicured lawns of Edison Boulevard. He connected the call. “Rhonda,” he said.

“Are you still at your appointment in Detroit?”

“I am.”

“For much longer?”

“I think we’re almost done. What’s up?”

“Manny has a one o’clock meeting with a new client and he just called,” Rhonda said. “He’s going to be late. He wanted to know if you could take it for him. He said he doesn’t want the client sitting around waiting.”

He held the phone away from his ear to check the time. Twelve-thirty.

“I can just make it,” he said. “You might have to stall the appointment a little.”

“Great. I’ll let Manny know. Things okay there?”

“I found the link I was looking for. I just need to nail down the next steps. I’ll wrap things up and see you soon.”

He disconnected and returned to the parlor. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to get back,” he said. “Mrs. Posner, could we talk again?”

“Anytime,” she said. “I don’t know how much more I can tell you, but . . . next time, why don’t you bring Miss—what was her name?”

“Frankel.”

“Bring her when you come. I’d like to meet her.”

“Excellent,” said Preuss. “I’ll set it up.”

Sarah Posner said she would look forward to it.

 

[Interested in reading more? Find Cold Dark Lies at Amazon.com or order it through your local bookstore or directly from me at donaldlevin.com.]

 

Promoting Depth in Fiction

In a recent conversation, author, editor, and publicist Diana Kathryn Plopa mentioned how struck she is by what she called all the layers in my books.

I’ve been reflecting on how much I appreciated that comment. We all like to hear nice things about our books, but Diana’s remark about layers particularly resonated with me. I understood her to mean a kind of richness of meaning in the stories and characters that she finds in my work.

Diana’s comment was so interesting because that’s just the term that I use in thinking about my novels: layering.

61Zm+Yi1KzL._SL1024_

Remember those transparencies in old-fashioned biology textbooks? Layered atop an image of the human body, one transparency would have bones, another would show muscles, another would have organs, blood vessels, nerves, and so on. Put them all together and you get a full picture of the fullness and complexity of the human body.

Novels (and not just mine) can have a similar kind of depth. It doesn’t happen accidentally, but results from working the following “overlays” into the books.

1. One layer consists of conventions of the genre or type of writing, including reader expectations.

For example, for a crime novel (my own genre), conventions might include a crime or some violation of the personal, social, or political order; efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator (often this is the focus of the mystery novel; think of the “Law” part of “Law and Order”); the perpetrator is brought to justice (the “Order” part of “Law and Order”); and the world is either set right or order and law are not re-established.

Often a particular kind of crime novel will focus on one or more of those elements. A mystery novel like the Martin Preuss mysteries (to take just one example chosen completely at random) would focus on the efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator of the violation of the order.

71NViuClnML._AC_UL436_

To take another example, in heist novels like Donald Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) Parker books, or a movie like Baby Driver, plot conventions include planning the crime, the meeting/gathering of participants, execution of the crime with ensuing complications, and resolution or justice (or not).

Conventions may also include character types, that is, recurring kinds of characters. Many mysteries offer variations on the eccentric, socially maladjusted genius, a type that comes down to us from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and includes all his modern counterparts, such as Sherlock Holmes in literature and Dr. House and Monk on TV, as well as the solitary counter-authoritarian knight-errant like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, or Lew Archer, to name just three examples.

Along with these conventions come the expectations the reader brings, such as that she will be challenged, misled, or misdirected along with way, or that the heist will not go well, involving double- or triple-crosses.

On top of this overlay, add:

2. Elements of the setting—the place or places where events happen

Unknown

Setting not only supplies the locations for the action (not only names and specific locales, establishments, and so on, but also history, politics, media, etc.). Setting also suggests actions and language arising from places, provides characters particular to certain places, and helps set the tone of the books. Think of how historical mysteries accomplish all of these; think also of what Elmore Leonard’s Detroit setting means for his books. The setting is always crucial.

Finally, on top of these, overlay:

3. An author’s individual concerns: recurring characters and character types, themes, styles

Read enough of any author’s work and you’ll find certain constants. In my mysteries, for example, there’s always a sympathy for marginal characters; a focus on the cascading effects of greed, violence, and misplaced loyalties; issues of social class; and care of a son with cerebral palsy. Here is where an author’s particular point of view and insights turn stock flat characters in round, living people.

I also have another concern that serves as what I think of as the heart of the Preuss series (besides sweet Toby, that is), informing each book. 

As I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog posts, at this moment in history, I believe we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. As Camus said in one of his essays, “In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity. We must achieve this or perish.” This echoes Auden’s line “We must love one another or die,” from his great poem, “September 1, 1939,” and what Susan Sontag meant when she wrote, 

sontag“A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world.”

In my writing, I’m trying to expand our sympathies and sense of the world. Writing mystery fiction allows me to enter into the minds and hearts of characters acting under the stresses and extremities of crime and see the world through their eyes, and help readers see it as well.

(This is the reason I get a little nuts when I hear a writer talk about writing for “self-expression.” I remember hearing poets and their critics/interpreters talking about “the self,” and images of the self, and the poetry of self, and the self’s multiplicity, and so on. I’m not a fan of the kind of solipsistic, cryptic writing that results from this approach.)

I want to tell a good story, sure, but I also want the reading experience to be more than simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours. I’m hoping that when readers finish my novels, they will be transformed somehow—even if it’s a slightly expanded understanding of what it takes to care for a child with handicaps, or acknowledge how the effects of violence cascade down through generations, or even appreciate the way a grief-stricken detective tries to do his best in a world rife with corruption.

Such transformations are my ultimate intention, and I rely on the layering strategy I talked about here to accomplish it. 

Whether or not I succeed, of course, is up to my readers.

Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Wendy Thomson

IMG_0718

Today I’m happy to offer another Indie Thursday entry. Each week, I’ll feature other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Wendy Thomson. Wendy is the author of two books, Summon the Tiger, a memoir, and The Third Order, a novel, and as she will discuss, has several other projects in the works.

Recently I had the opportunity to pose some questions to Wendy. Here’s what she told me.

DLWendy, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

WST: I grew up here in Michigan—Birmingham, to be precise—but spent nearly ten years away, living in Florida and Chicago. I got to Florida by jumping ship, literally. My father had purchased an old Dutch freighter and outfitted it for a two-year journey around the world. That adventure didn’t go exactly as planned, so I got off, found a job, got an apartment, and was on my own.

I had dropped out of Michigan State, where I was pursuing a degree in Linguistics, to join the ship. When I did go back to school to finish my undergrad degree, it was at University of Miami, and it was in Business. I moved to Tallahassee for a man . . . that was a bust, but I did end up going back to school at Florida State for a Master’s degree. I was working full time and going to school at night. When my company transferred me to Chicago, I finished that degree at University of Chicago. I moved back to where I grew up forty years ago—again, for a man (again a bust.) I have spent those forty years working full time, raising a couple of sons, and occasionally performing classical music around town, in addition to performing a concert tour in Italy.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

WST: My most recent published work is The Third Order, which came out in 2018. The plot was the last thing that fell into place. My first book, Summon the Tiger (2016), was a memoir, a reflection on how my values and determination have taken me to extraordinary destinations, and given me the strength and grit to face any hardships that came my way. I wanted to write a second book, and I felt most comfortable writing about things and places I know. Well, I know Italy fairly well, and I especially fell in love with Assisi. I also know Scotland fairly well, since my father was born there. Those were my two major constraints: I needed a way to tie those two places together. I started looking into St. Francis, and details of his life started shaping the plot. I then looked for a tie to Scotland, which I found in the Third Crusade. The rest started to fall into place. It was a fun romp.

Thomson book 3I currently have two works underway: the first is The Man from Burntisland—a saga of a hard-scrabble Scot born in 1899 who emigrates to the US, enduring both World Wars and the Great Depression. I am very excited about this work, as I feel it demonstrates the strength of determination and tenacity in the face of great odds. Life was comparatively so much more difficult for folks like him. I am basing this historical fiction on snippets of what I know of my grandfather’s life.

The other work underway is Silo Six. It is a sci-fi/dystopia novella about the end of humanity on earth. I was asked to contribute this for an anthology as one of three authors. The other two authors are amazing, and I am honored to have been asked.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

WST: I sometimes ask myself that very question. I write because it is a generally enjoyable activity, especially during long winter evenings. I write because people keep telling me they like to read what I write. What do I hope to accomplish? That varies by book. In Summon the Tiger, my goal was to tell a story of determination and grit. One of my sons suggested I write it. I realized that my sons had no idea of the forces that helped shape who I became. I hope that as they grow older, they will come to appreciate the events detailed in the book more and more.

For The Third Order, my main goal is to entertain my audience. If they learn a little bit about history while doing so, then that is an extra added bonus. Just fun.

My hope for The Man from Burntisland is to both educate readers on life in the early 1900’s and to describe a man of particular tenacity and pragmatism. It’s not all pretty, and he is in no way a saint. I hope that readers will see the complexity of a driven man whose life circumstances caused him to make uncomfortable choices.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

WST: I have a rather fluid writing process. Topics seem to bubble up from my sub-conscious—I call that part of my brain my Co-Processor. I never force myself to write on any particular day, but I do set very generalized goals . . . for instance, I would like to get The Man from Burntisland published this year. That might be too lofty a goal, given the work I need to do for Silo Six. I tried to set a daily word goal once, but life has a way of being a great disruptor. I do get antsy to write if I’ve been away from it for a couple of days.

I never outline. The most I have ever done is to jot down notes on character’s back stories and to create cheat sheets on characters and specifics (who they are married to, what jobs they have, etc.) so I don’t need to scroll back and find what I may have said before. My little Co-Processor seems to think about plot lines and required prose all on its own while I am busy doing life. When I pull out my laptop, the words and story direction are developed and only require being committed to paper.

My very favorite part of the process is finding logical solutions to the issues the plot hands me. Case in point is in The Third Order. How in the world can I wrap a story around Assisi and Scotland? So I started researching, and I found one Alan FitzWalter, second Steward of Scotland, who returned from the Third Crusade in 1192. That’s fact. Then I found an old Italian farce of a movie à la Monty Python, and I learned that, many times, soldiers would travel to the boot of Italy and sail for the Holy Land instead of trudging around the Mediterranean. Then I learned that St. Francis became a soldier as a young man. Taking small snippets and crafting them into a woven fabric of logic is my very, very favorite part.

My least favorite part of writing? Trying to make sure I have perfect copy. It is So. Damn. Difficult to publish a flawless work. Even with a professional editor, things get through. And while it’s not difficult to correct the found error in the next printed copy, it irritates me that there are different versions out and about.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

WST: I spent the vast majority of my life in quantitative fields. My highest tested aptitude in school was mechanical engineering. And while I was often told that I developed creative solutions in processes and analyses, I never considered myself particularly creative, and definitely not particularly emotional. And now comes Kirkus, which announces to the world at large that The Third Order “taps into the powerful emotional satisfaction that comes with solving a puzzle,” and that the book is “a satisfying synthesis of mystery, history, and emotion.” “Me” and “emotion” have rarely been seen in close company.

That is probably a long way of saying that writing has brought out a side of me that, apparently, has been quite latent. I am a writer. I can create, and I can imagine.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

WST: The Amazon page for Summon the Tiger is https://www.amazon.com/dp/1537137441/ref=nav_timeline_asin?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1.

The Amazon page for The Third Order is https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07HP9GX59/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1537997744&sr=1-4&keywords=wendy+sura+thomson.

My Goodreads page is https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15801291.Wendy_Sura_Thomson.

My website is www.quittandquinn.com, which also contains my writing blog.

Readers can connect with me on Facebook as Wendy Thomson.

 

 

Why I Stopped Writing

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that for most people who want to write, the urge begins early in life.

So it was with me. I can’t remember a time when I was young when I didn’t want to be a writer, even when I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I just knew I loved reading, and the natural partner to that was making up my own stories. I’m not sure where that came from. My parents weren’t readers; the only books we had in our house when I was growing up were the ones in my room. But I was a voracious reader in our library at Bagley Elementary School (my favorite books were the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series) (yes, I am that old), and lying in bed at night I used to pretend my hands were the characters and I would act out stories with them (most of which ended in finger/thumb fistfights accompanied by much tongue-clucking sound effects). 

IMG_0716

One day my father brought home an old monster manual typewriter from his office. As soon as I started playing with it, I realized from the letters that appeared through its raucous clacking that I had found my instrument, the same way a pianist is moved by the note made by the first touch of cool ivory on a keyboard. At one point, somebody gave me a toy printing press—surely an act of almost psychic precognition—and I started printing up my little stories.

My reading habits were helped along by my painful, almost pathological shyness while growing up. It seriously curtailed my social development, but gave me all the time I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. While other kids were out playing sports or going on dates, I was the quintessential bookworm, holed up at home discovering new authors and plowing through as much of their work as I could find.

As I grew older and life took shape for me with more clarity, I followed the well-trodden path of young writers everywhere. (I hate the term “aspiring writer” . . . to paraphrase a certain short green Jedi master: write or do not write, there is no aspire.) I wrote my stories and sent them out, got my rejections, revised the stories, and sent them out again. Occasionally I wrote a poem that was also rejected, but for me, fiction was where the heavy lifting of literature took place, so that’s what I concentrated on, with the aim of working my way up to writing novels.

I sent stuff out; I got it back. Once in a blue moon, I placed a story with some small journal or other, and that was enough to keep me going for a while. But for the most part, I sent work out; I got work back. This was pre-internet, so there were no online publication opportunities. There was no online, no internet, no word processing, just a typewriter and the US mail.

I kept at it despite the rejections, which is what people tell you to do. It goes out, it comes back. Sooner or later, I believed, if something was good enough, it would find a home.

Stories went out, they came back.

Then novel drafts went out, and they came back.

Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Finally, one day, when I was in my thirties, I thought all my hard work had paid off. I had written a mystery novel (The Ramp of the Chinese Dog), and after making the rounds of agents, I found one who accepted me. He was the real deal, the guy who sold a pair of books that became the blockbuster movie The Towering Inferno. I thought I was in.

I went to meet him in New York City, taking the bus down from Binghamton, where I was living at the time. He told me he was “cautiously optimistic”; I remember the words to this day, as well as his soothing voice. He believed in the book. He believed in me. My spirits soared. Success was in sight.

Except now he was the one sending the manuscript out and getting it back. Periodically he would send me the pile of rejection notes he got from publishers, and they were not helpful (but were, gallingly, peppered with typos, grammatical errors, and misinformation about the book).

Finally, after three years of this, he returned the manuscript to me. “Sorry,” he said. “I like the book, but I just can’t do anything more with it.”

I sent him another manuscript that I had written in the meantime. He sent that one back, too. “Sorry, no.”

8222771-rejected-stamp

I was crushed.

After trying to break into publication for all of my twenties and most of my thirties, experiencing virtual nonstop rejection, I was back where I started. Cynthia Ozick writes about the little holy light like a pilot light that keeps a writer going. Mine went out.

This writing life must not be for me, I decided. I’m just not good enough. Don’t have what it takes. So I gave up writing fiction. It was painful, even devastating. I had failed at the one thing I had wanted to do since I was little.

Failure: a terrible word for someone in love with words.

But I still thought I had some chops as a writer, just not a fiction writer; I had already worked several public relations jobs. In what I now understand was despair-fueled self-flagellation in penance for my failure, I joined a small advertising agency as a copywriter. If I can’t publish the stuff I want, I thought, I’ll become a hack. I turned away from literature; I turned away from reading. I turned away from writing about important subjects and instead churned out dreck like copy for rebate ads for Masonite paneling, and news releases for small town jewelry stores.

And yet I did well in that world. Working freelance after getting fired from the ad agency for having a bad attitude (big surprise), I wrote reports and proposals and video scripts for companies like General Electric and IBM. I once wrote a video program promoting military attack helicopters for two wild-eyed crazies at IBM who ranted about the joys of “killing tanks” like a couple of tweakers playing video games.

When my wife and I moved to New York City so she could take a job teaching at Long Island University in Brooklyn, I found more work there. I wrote grant proposals and project summaries and donor appreciation letters for the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center Fund in upper Manhattan. I took a job as speechwriter for the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and wrote literally hundreds of speeches, articles, testimonies, and newspaper editorials on AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, window falls, pit bulls, child-care centers, and restaurant inspection scandals, among other public health issues. I wrote op-eds on needle-exchange programs for the New York Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The commissioner was delivering my speeches in Washington to Congressional committees; the mayor of New York was using my speeches to promote anti-smoking legislation at Sloan-Kettering.

It came to pass that working at such a high level of productivity and visibility, the writing I was doing for others relit that little holy pilot light. I started thinking about returning to fiction, and about writing under my own name. About the importance of stories in our lives.

The other thing that happened around this time was the birth of my grandson Jamie, whom I’ve mentioned before and whose presence had profound effects on me and everyone around him.

Except as soon as I thought, Man, I’d really to like do some imaginative writing again, the equal and opposite thought arose: Why? Do you really want to enter that world of rejection again? Seriously?

The answer, of course, was no. As much as I wanted to write fiction again, I couldn’t bear the thought of sending my work out and getting back into the cycle of rejection, especially after working so hard to wrestle back my confidence. So I resisted the urge, and instead retreated to private journal entries that alternately (1) agonized over my need to write fiction, and (2) scolded myself for even thinking about giving in to it.

But here was the problem: that little pilot light? It was on again. And the pressure to write fiction continued to build, along with my conflicted feelings about what that would mean.

When I started to have angry thoughts about pushing people off of subway platforms, I knew I had to do something.

So I screwed my courage to the sticking point and started another novel. Not a mystery, but a mainstream book about a group of people who lived together in one house in an effort to create a new type of family. I learned to put out of my mind any thoughts about what I would do with the manuscript once I finished it—and once I started, I knew I would finish. I brought to this new project all the disciplined work habits and writing skills that I had honed over the years I spent writing other people’s stuff. It took a few years, but the result was a novel, The House of Grins.

A1325325-BC74-488F-AC22-29C390E02462But what to do with it?

A friend put me in touch with an editor he knew at one of the big NYC publishing houses. When I called the editor, she told me to send her the manuscript, and if she “really loved it” she would recommend publishing it. Her tone of voice dripped with the kind of derisive smarm very few can match outside NYC publishing; it told me the chances of her “loving it” were somewhere between zero and fuhgedaboudit. To spite her, I decided not to send anything (I showed her!).

In the interregnum between my fleeing from imaginative writing and returning to it—a ten-year gap—a new development had begun in publishing. Prompted by advances in technology, the self-publishing movement was just starting to take off in the ‘90s, apart from the dreaded “vanity press” industry. I discovered that I could take back the means of production, like independent filmmakers and almost every other artist. 

But more: in those ten years, I grappled with what success as a writer really meant, and more importantly what it wasn’t. I met editors, and became an editor myself, and realized how capricious and unpredictable the process really is.

I came through that decade of despair by learning that—yes—the writing and the changed qualities of mind and heart that accompany writing really are more important than the faux approval suggested by acceptance by others. As if that insight broke some self-imposed spell, in the years since I fantasized pushing people off subway platforms, I’ve published seven novels (six in the Martin Preuss mystery series), two books of poetry, a handful of stories, and dozens of poems in print and online journals.

That voice shouting in your ear, the voice my friend Jerry van Rossum personifies as “Sid”—Self-Inflicted Doubts—never goes away. But with practice and wisdom, you can silence it long enough to get some good work done.

And in the end, that’s really all that matters. 

Indie Thursday

[My Monday blog post took a Memorial Day break, but it’ll back next week.]

Today’s guest: Mark Love

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

Today I’m happy to offer another Indie Thursday entry. Periodically, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Mark Love. A friend and fellow mystery writer, Mark is the author of two mystery series: the Jamie Richmond mystery series, including the novels Devious, Vanishing Act, Fleeting Beauty, and Stealing Haven, and a story in the anthology Once Upon a Summer; and the Jefferson Chene mystery series, including Why 319? and the newly-published Your Turn to Die.

Recently I had the opportunity to pose some questions to Mark. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Mark, welcome. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself?

ML: I was born and raised in metropolitan Detroit and lived there for many years. From an early age I enjoyed getting lost in a good story. As a teen, I discovered the great John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and quickly became hooked on mysteries. A while later it was Elmore Leonard’s work that caught my attention. It became a goal to someday write a mystery.

Growing up in Detroit, there was always a lot on the news about crime and scandals. I would follow stories and try to figure out who was behind such activity and imagine unraveling the case. At one point I was working as a freelance reporter for a couple of area newspapers. One of my assignments was a crime beat, visiting police departments in Oakland County. That was the equivalent of turning a kid loose in a candy store. I learned a lot and it helped sharpen my writing skills.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works-in-progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

ML: The latest book, just published in print and audiobook, is Your Turn to Die. It’s the second book in the Jefferson Chene Series.

perf5.000x8.000.inddChene is a Sergeant with the Michigan State Police, part of a squad of detectives that work on major cases. Most of their assignments center around investigations that cover multiple municipal jurisdictions. This story is about a successful businessman who is murdered at a paintball game. With over a hundred suspects to consider, Chene and his team know this won’t be an easy case to solve. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this victim was no choirboy and more than one person wanted him dead. Every turn brings out more suspects. Soon they’re looking into illicit affairs, possible connections with organized crime, and a fortune in jewels.

Currently I’m working on the third book in the series. I’m also considering dusting off a novel I wrote years ago and bringing that up to date.

My story ideas can be triggered by anything. I’ll start with the germ of an idea and kick it around in my head for a while. If it gains a little traction, I’ll write a couple of pages and see where it leads.

DL: You’ve published quite a few works of fiction. Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

ML: I think we all have stories to share. For me, it’s a chance to entertain. Maybe you’ll grow to like my cast of characters and see some traits you can recognize or relate to. I always share a little local flavor along the way. All of my novels take place in the Motown area and often include local venues that many readers may be familiar with. That’s something as a reader I enjoy.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

ML: Despite all those years at Catholic school (yes, I still bear the scars from the nuns wielding their rulers), I can’t write with an outline. It’s too restrictive. So I’ll begin with an idea and one of my main characters, like Jamie or Chene, and see where it goes. More than once, I’ll be writing a scene when suddenly it takes a dramatic ninety-degree turn.  Upon review I know it’s perfect but it wasn’t anything planned. It just happens. The characters make the transition and I follow along.

I will write scenes as they occur to me. Then it’s a matter of weaving them into the timeline of the story where they make the most sense. As one of the nuns in elementary school would say, “crude, but effective.”

Dialogue to me is the most fun. It’s crucial to the story and can help convey so much information. And there are emotions that can be shown as well. The dialogue can make the difference between a great story and a dud.

My least favorite part? Editing is tough. It’s difficult to trim your work, to shape it, to make it flow better. But it’s so important. I’ve gone through some novels half a dozen times before submitting it to a publisher, only to do it again while working with an editor. But the end results are definitely worth it.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

black tablet computer behind books

ML: Once I seriously started writing, I was pleasantly surprised at how the stories came together. Writing is not easy. It’s a lot of hard work. But when I’m able to finish a book or short story, there is a true sense of accomplishment. When those efforts have then been selected by a publisher and come to life in print, that just sweetens the deal. But the real icing on the cake is when someone reads my stories and enjoys them. I’ve had people tell me how much they love my characters and how realistic they are. Some have even told me “this would make a great movie,” which is a fantastic compliment.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today, Mark. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

ML: My Amazon Author’s Page is https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B009P7HVZQ.

My blog page is https://motownmysteries.blogspot.com/.

Readers can connect with me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MarkLoveAuthor.

Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Joan H. Young

Joan Young

Periodically I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Joan H. Young. Joan is the prolific author of essays, nonfiction, and fiction. Her works include the award-winning North Country Cache: Adventures on a National Scenic Trail; the six-book Anastasia Raven cozy mystery series: News from Dead Mule Swamp, The Hollow Tree at Dead Mule Swamp, Paddy Plays in Dead Mule Swamp, Bury the Hatchet in Dead Mule Swamp, Dead Mule Swamp Druggist, and Dead Mule Swamp Mistletoe; and the four-volume Dubois Files series, a series of mysteries for readers aged 6 to 12 years, including The Secret Cellar, The Hitchhiker, The ABZ Affair, and The Bigg Boss.

DMSSixCoverPanel

Recently I posed some questions to Joan. Here’s what she told me.

DL: Joan, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JHY: I grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York State, but have now lived in Michigan for almost fifty years. I love the outdoors, and have had the privilege of participating in a number of adventures. Some of the highlights are a 10-day canoe trip in high school with the Girl Scouts, riding a bicycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in 1986, and being the first woman to complete hiking the entire 4600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail on foot.

As a result of that hike, I wrote a book about my experiences called North Country Cache. A few years later, I decided I wanted to write fiction and began the Anastasia Raven cozy mysteries. There are now six stories in that series, and a mystery series for children spun off from that. This currently includes four books known collectively as The Dubois Files. These books are suitable for grades 3-6, and good readers who are younger.  

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

JHY: North Country Cache was published in 2005, before I finished hiking the North Country Trail. It includes tales from about half the hike. I’m working on the sequel, North Country Quest, which will tell the rest of the story. It will be available this year. (Pre-order discounts available.) 

The general idea for my mysteries was born from a desire to write fiction. I read more mystery/true crime books than any other genre. I read mysteries of all styles from hard-boiled thrillers to light reads, but decided that the style I would be able to write best is the cozy. In these books the violence and sex are kept “off-stage.” The main character is often a woman, and the setting is often a small town. 

Unless you plan to do a significant amount of research, it’s good to write what you know. I know small towns and rural settings. I’ve lived in places like this all my life, and felt I could capture the atmosphere and worldviews of people who live in such places. 

CoverMistletoeEbookMy most recently published book is the sixth Anastasia Raven mystery, Dead Mule Swamp Mistletoe.  This book is an attempt to capture the classic British sub-genre of the closed-suspect-pool mystery. It is certainly a cozy, but will appeal to those who like traditional mysteries. 

The idea for this book came directly from a challenge thrown down in a work about British country-house murder mysteries, in which the author states that there is no successful American counterpart. I’ve managed to incorporate thirteen out of fourteen points that author considered essential. The only one I missed is that it takes place in the mythical Forest County, somewhere in the upper Midwest of the United States, rather than in England. Readers will have to decide if I succeeded in meeting the standard.

The children’s mysteries happened because I was continually being asked if I had books for younger readers. One day, I realized that there was a perfect backstory in the Anastasia Raven mysteries to spin off a series told by Cora, one of Ana’s friends. 

Thus, The Dubois Files are set in the 1950s, in the same location as the Anastasia Raven books. So far, the only character that appears in both series is Cora Dubois Baker Caulfield. However, the grandfather of young Jimmie Mosher, also named Jimmie, is Cora’s best friend as a child.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JHY: When I write non-fiction, I sincerely hope to prod readers to see something in a slightly different way, to gain a new perspective on whatever the topic is.

In fiction, I primarily want to entertain. But I try to create a realistic enough setting and story that people can visualize the story without too big a stretch of the imagination. There is humor in my books, but it is subtle.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JHY: Well, the process in fiction is, for me, much different from non-fiction. 

For non-fiction, I need to have a pretty solid outline. Books about my hikes need to conform to notes made and journals recorded, maps, guides, and other historical/cultural information. This is a long process to collect and assimilate that information before I write each chapter. Once I have the basics of each segment in my head, then the writing is easy.

With fiction, I try to have a general sense of the plot, the characters and their interactions laid out before I begin. But since it’s all made up, if something seems to move in a different direction part way through, I can change it. In one book, the guilty person changed quite late in the writing process.

I spend a lot of time crafting things in my head for fiction. I’ve been experimenting with recording with speech to text to get the ideas down. Thinking up the stories and the characters is probably the part I like best. Starting and ending the book is also fun— sometimes I think up a couple of alternate endings in case the characters develop minds of their own. The hardest part seems to be from about two-thirds of the way in till the ending begins to play out. Sometimes my great ideas leave gaps of how we get from point B to C, and then I must work hard to make the connections and present them credibly to readers.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

JHY: I have been writing since I was a child. But I’ve also been doing a score of other things. Lack of focus has always been my nemesis. However, once I began writing the mysteries (I now have over a dozen titles altogether), I decided to try to concentrate on being a writer. A year ago, I quit my job to write and sell books (I’m self-published, so marketing is a big piece of what I do). In some ways, this is nothing like retirement—it’s a big job to bring books to completion and to constantly be trying to make sales. However, I do get to do most of this on my own terms and in my own time frames. Since I like being my own boss and having creative control over my works, this has been a good move for me. 

It’s been rewarding to be recognized as an author. I no longer feel sort of red-faced about attempting to be a writer—isn’t everyone trying to write a book? I AM a writer, and have received several awards for books and articles. One always needs to perfect the skills given, and I’m constantly working at this, but the awards give me a real sense of credibility.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

JHY: My website is www.booksleavingfootprints.com

I have a personal blog at www.myqualityday.blogspot.com

Writing blog at joanofshark.com

Readers can connect with me on Facebook as Joan H. Young.

 

Imagining the End of the World: A Selection from Postcards from the Future

About six months ago, my friend Andrew Lark invited me to take part in a project he was then developing. He was in the middle of writing the novella that would become “Pollen,” a work of dystopian fiction imagining the end of humanity, and his idea was to include two other novellas to round out a volume with that theme.

He also invited our mutual friend author Wendy Thomson. Wendy and I both jumped at the chance. We had read and respected Andrew’s previous novel, Better Boxed and Forgotten, and we all respected each other’s work. This included Wendy’s two books, a memoir, Summon the Tiger, and a novel, The Third Order, as well as my own Martin Preuss mystery series.

518CWwA3EfL-1._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The result of our collaboration was Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, published this month (please see the end of the post for details of our book launch on November 2nd.) Besides Andrew’s “Pollen,” Wendy contributed a novella, “Silo Six,” and I added “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

People who know my work wondered if this project represented a departure from my mystery series. But I didn’t see it as a departure at all. True, dystopian fiction is a different genre than mysteries. But in a way, my contribution to Postcards is a mirror image of a mystery novel.

Mysteries, after all, generally start in a state of disorder (a crime has been committed or the social order has been upset somehow) and proceed to a state of order (the crime is solved, the social order is restored).

A dystopian or post-apocalyptic work, on the other hand, often starts with society in a state of order and then proceeds to disorder through some apocalyptic event or events. Or, as Newton’s second law of thermodynamics predicts, things move into a state of increasing disorder in the world of the work.

There’s also another way this isn’t a departure for me: I’ve long been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. It appeals to my cynical sense that “the crust of civilization on which we tread,” as scholar Timothy Garton Ash has written, “is always wafer thin. One tremor and you’ve fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.”

My appreciation for post-apocalyptic fiction culminated in a senior seminar I developed at the college where I used to teach. As the capstone experience for English and Language Arts majors, the course, titled Post-Apocalyptic American Fiction, required students to prepare an extensive paper derived from in-depth critical reading and research on the topic, then make a public presentation of that paper.

Students were expected to draw upon the critical and analytical powers they had honed in their literature, criticism, and writing courses throughout their previous semesters.

To prepare the course, I read widely and deeply in post-apocalyptic literature, from the beginning (the biblical book of Revelation) to the most recent (at that time, The Hunger Games), from the classic (A Canticle for Leibowitz) to the popular (The Walking Dead), from goremeisters to the finest “literary” authors.

I read books about zombies, vampires, nuclear war, electromagnetic pulses, and crumbling societies in the past, present, and future. I read what critics had to say about them.

For my final reading list, I settled on four novels that represented what I thought were among the most fascinating, daring, and thoughtful works of contemporary post-apocalyptic literature, while still offering at least a glimmer of hope: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (I interpreted “American” to include “North American because I wanted her in), Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

I loved this quartet of novels. I had previously taught senior seminars that were among my most rewarding teaching experiences, so I was tremendously excited about the course. I couldn’t wait to teach it.

Unfortunately, it was, to put it bluntly, a disaster in almost every way.

This particular group of students didn’t understand the books; they didn’t know how to read the research about the books; they didn’t know how to approach a long, segmented critical paper; though seniors, they didn’t know how to incorporate outside sources gracefully; they didn’t have a handle on critical theories or how to use them; they couldn’t grasp the not-so-subtle rules of plagiarism . . .

Please note I’m not mocking or blaming the students here, but rather commenting on their lack of preparation for the rigors of the experience—which of course was our failure as faculty in the department.

I taught the course twice, in the fall and winter semesters. It didn’t get any better from one semester to the other. To make matters worse, I got pneumonia at the beginning of the first semester and was never at my best during the  entire four months of the fall.

Needless to say, it was not my finest hour as a professor. As it happened, these two senior seminars turned out to be the last undergraduate courses I would ever teach; the following summer I was appointed dean of the faculty, and except for a few graduate courses I spent the rest of my time until retirement as an administrator.

(Which was a dystopian nightmare of a whole different order of magnitude, but that’s a story for another day.)

So when Andrew invited me into his project, I was coming from a deep involvement in, and appreciation for, dystopian literature. Naturally, I said yes at once.

Because of that background, I’m particularly proud of the book the three of us produced.

Both Andrew and Wendy’s pieces are splendid, not simply as works of dystopian fiction, but as serious and thought-provoking works of literature. As one reviewer said, the novellas in Postcards are “fascinating,” “powerful,” “inviting,” and “tense, bleak, and entirely human narrative[s].”

For myself, I had such a good time on this project that I’ve begun writing a spin-off from my contribution, and have been envisioning an entire cycle of works set in the world I imagined (which I’m starting to call the Dry Earth Series).

I’d like to share a small section of my novella with you here, in hopes you’ll be interested enough to have a look at the entire book.

And if you’re in the metropolitan Detroit area, I invite you to the party celebrating the official launch of this project on Saturday, November 2nd, from 1 till 4 pm, at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion, 74 Arden Park Boulevard, Detroit. To register, go to www.alarksperch.com and hit the Comment button. It’s free and open to the public, but we suggest a contribution to charity.

I’m happy to present an excerpt from my novella in Postcards from the Future, the first two chapters of “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

 

1

A figure appears in an empty window frame halfway up the ruined wall. Dark glasses in a face wrapped with rags and shaded beneath a hood stare down at her.

The long barrel of a gun points in her direction.

Caught completely out in the open, she has no time to do anything except dive to the ground. She tries to merge with the rubble, disappear into it, though she knows she can’t; she is completely exposed. She holds her breath, waiting for the kill shot. She had thought there were no bullets left anymore, but she doesn’t want to take any chances.

When the kill shot doesn’t come, she dares to lift her head. The window frame is empty.

She scrambles to her feet and turns to flee.

Before going ten feet, she comes face-to-face with the hooded figure holding his rifle.

“Halt!” the figure rasps. The voice is muffled by the layers of rags wrapped around its head beneath the hood. But there is no mistaking the rough, deep sound.

It is a raggedman’s voice.

She falls to her knees and raises trembling hands.

2

Her day started hours earlier, when the wary young woman—whose name is Ash—picked her way through the debris near the entrance to her underground settlement.

With a staff for balance and protection, she stepped over concrete blocks and ragged piles of broken bricks under the heat of the unrelenting sun. Several times she tripped over planks of charred wood from buildings that had been destroyed in the old wars, concealed under the red dust that coats the land.

Her destination was a few clicks away from their settlement. Wreckage like what surrounded the underground opening was everywhere, all along the meandering path she traveled. They were taught to avoid moving in a straight line to present less of a target, and also to increase the chances of scavenging valuables buried away from the common paths.

The woman stumbled over the detritus of what was left of the city. She wore a tattered drab coat wrapped around her despite the heat, and she protected her head with an ancient battered welder’s helmet that was the unit’s only armor against the brilliantly bright, deadly rays of the sun. This was one among a cache of similar helmets that had been scavenged over the years. Nobody knew what they were at first, but when the tribe discovered the helmets’ uses, they became treasured finds.

She walked carefully, alert to every movement around her. No animals or insects survived anymore, so chances were any movement would be hostile. The only sound was the wind soughing against the metal of her helmet. She swiveled her head constantly. The helmet restricted her view, but its protection against the damaging rays of the sun outweighed any limitations to her vision.

Ash walked over the streets, cracked and overgrown with the skeletal remains of trees and bushes. No one could remember the last time it had rained, not even the elders; plant life had turned brown and desiccated in the absence of water, disappearing like the animals.

Her destination rose ahead of her. It was a larger building than most in the area, originally three stories tall. One entire wall had fallen over in the tremor that rolled through the land the day before.

After a collapse was the worst time to be out scavenging. The dangers from old structures were multiplied after one toppled; the ground grows unsteady around them, so the ones nearby are liable to let go and fall, too. The mortar between blocks is dry, the ruined buildings unstable.

Their original purposes have been lost, but their current usefulness sometimes surprises the survivors who venture from their underground settlement to scavenge. While most such buildings, like the one Ash sought, had long been emptied of any water or food, they sometimes yielded tools or pieces of clothing or other prizes that made exploring them worth the danger. Especially after a collapse, which often uncovered treasures previously hidden to the Vengers who searched.

Ash is a Venger. When Vengers found objects that might be of use, they would bring them back to the settlement. If they found potential food sources, they were to return and inform their work unit’s leader, who would let the Vesters know. They, in turn, would go out and harvest the food. The practice had developed to ensure their survival, and so far it was working, if barely; Ash’s settlement was on the verge of starvation.

Slowly the food sources have been dwindling. As they did, so too did the tribe. The Vengers had to travel further and further from their underground settlement to find food, and sometimes they returned empty-handed and sometimes they did not return at all.

Ash paused when she was about a half-click away from the structure she sought. She scanned the sight through the dark glass of her helmet. Then, stepping carefully while still some distance away, she circled the ruin once, twice, three times, all the while keeping watch for anything moving in the wreckage. It wouldn’t take much to overwhelm her; one raggedman alone could do it if he caught her by surprise.

On her third circuit around the building, a sound reached her, penetrating her helmet. It was high and keening. Though she had not heard a baby cry in years, this brought back the sound of an infant’s mewl. Of course that would be impossible; few children have been born in the recent past. And no child would have survived for long in the outside.

She stopped, knelt low, and listened. The crying ceased, but then she heard what she thought was pounding. She raised the faceplate of her helmet, aware as she did that she was allowing the deadly radiation inside the metal. But she needed to find out what the sound was.

She lifted her head, with the helmet guard ajar so she could see into the shadows that surrounded the building. She listened but heard no more wailing.

Then she heard a scratching and scrambling in the rubble. She stood perfectly still, aware that she was unprotected outside the ruins of the building.

And that this might be a trap.

Then she looked up and saw the figure with the long gun in the empty window frame.

###

Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, by Andrew Charles Lark, Donald Levin, and Wendy Sura Thomson, is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.com and on order from your local bookstore.