In a time long ago and far away, my father, Walter Chapman, contracted ALS. It devastated him. And my mother. The progression was fairly long, and it took him several years to die. During the height of his debilitation, my dear friend Dave Hosteland and I took Dad fishing. We didn’t catch anything, but we had a great trip—special, in different ways, to all three of us. After my father’s death, I wrote a piece of fiction to help me process the experience. The events are all true, but I invented the characters in order to add a little humor and atmosphere. Thinking today about events in my life for which I’m grateful, this popped into my mind. As the Stoics says, “amor fati.” Here’s the story— https://hekint.org/2017/03/04/fish-story/
This bit originally appeared in the Blackbird Writers blog. The birds are a group of fiction fashioners whose books run the gamut from sweet to thrilling. Check ’em out.
I’ve been thinking a lot about dialog lately. The project I’m working on is very dialog heavy, and as I write, I’m saying the lines in my head with, what I imagine are, the accents and inflections the characters would use. Sometimes while writing, I’ll go back a few pages and read the dialog aloud. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that readers will hear the dialog the way I do, but it helps me hear when something’s off. My wife is used to hearing me read aloud, but our dog, Hendrix, still looks up to see if a treat or toy is involved. When none is forthcoming, he stalks off in disgust.
Vocalizing dialog always makes me think of audiobooks. Over the past three years, the audiobook market has exploded. Lots of folks are too busy to read, and listening to books and podcasts in the car or at the gym is a great way to multitask. You just have to be careful not to drive into a building or drop a weight on your foot. But with an audiobook, the text is only part of the experience. Having the right narrator is almost as important. A flat read (like an AI-generated voice) can kill a story, and an over-the-top read will make even the most serious passages sound silly and cartoonish. Two of my favorite narrators for detective/crime fiction are Peter Francis James and Scott Brick. Both actors are able to portray a story’s characters with subtle depth. My short story collection is the only one of my books currently available as an audiobook. I can’t recommend it. I did half of the narration myself, and believe me, I ain’t a good narrator.
Another thing that can kill a story is the misuse, or overuse, of colloquialisms. This is particularly evident when authors who are unfamiliar with a culture saturate dialog with phrases they think will sound authentic. Rather than verisimilitude, the result is a story that sounds phony. This is particularly evident when the words are being read aloud, y’all.
Back when I was teaching writing classes at Malcolm X College, I would occasionally assign an eavesdropping exercise. We’d all take our pads and pens to the cafeteria and sit near a table of students who were engaged in lunchtime conversations. I would explain the fine art of being sneaky beforehand, so we were only caught eavesdropping a couple of times. What we came away with was always fascinating. And frightening. I learned some new swear words, which surprised me because I’m not exactly an amateur in the field.
The first thing you realize when trying to translate eavesdropped dialog into fictional dialog is that there’s a lot of extraneous verbiage to cut—er, um, etc., along with the boring bits, like greetings, that precede an actual exchange of ideas and information. One of my favorite overheard conversations went something like this—
Man 1: “I thought it would be a fun trip, but no. Nuh uh. Not.”
Man 2: “What happened?”
Man 1: “A lot of nothing. I thought it would be romantic to walk together on the beach. You know, holding hands and stuff.”
Man 2: “So?”
Man 1: “She’s afraid of birds. I had to stay ten feet ahead of her, shooing the birds away as we walked.”
Man 2: Shakes head.
Some day I’ll use this in a story. It’s gold, Jerry. Gold!
If you’re ever looking for dialog to attribute to a character who’s despicable, morally bankrupt, and cruel, look no further than social media. Not the posts. Scroll down to the comments. Intellectually small people with low self-esteem and poor reasoning skills populate the comments section, and they delight in the opportunity to be cruel from the safety of their keyboards. These “discussions” are a treasure trove for writers. Don’t linger there too long though, or you may come to the opinion that we should embrace global climate change as the earth’s way to cleanse itself of the pestilence of humanity. My wife can usually tell when I’ve spent too much time down the rabbit hole. Then she’ll repeat the lines of dialog I’ve come to cherish: “Put your phone down and get the dog’s leash and a tennis ball. We’re going to the park.”
The amazing Valerie Biel invited me to write a little something for her blog. Advice for prepublished writers or some such thing. Anyway, here it is. When you,re done, head over to https://valeriebiel.com to check out her other content.
Like many writers, I started as a reader. At some point I learned to be a critical reader, drawn to books that were both interesting and well written. When I decided to write my own stories, I figured I oughta learn how ta write gooder, so I did three things: I analyzed the writing I admired. I went back to school to learn the rules of storytelling (earning a Master’s Degree in the process), and I joined a critique group with writers I trusted to hurt my feelings. Then I honed my new skills by writing dozens of short stories. Most of them went into the crap file, but several were published in literary journals, and three sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Now I was ready for the big time—writing and selling a novel. I did exhaustive research for the historical and technical details I wanted to use to tell the story. I mixed outlining with spontaneous writing (pantsing). I designed an interesting three-tiered plot device. I sought feedback from Beta readers. I wrote draft after draft. Finally, I had a marketable novel, and I was ready to shop for an agent and/or publisher. I’d been at it a long time. I was proud of the hard work I’d put in. Now I just had to decide to whom I would gift this gem. So what advice would I give to my pre-published self? Slow down, pally.
Back then; I had no clue what the publishing world was like. Rejections from agents and publishers flooded my Inbox, and every one of them stung. Most were form rejections, but the few that explained the whys made it clear that there are a lot of roadblocks in publishing. Some agents weren’t interested in taking a chance on a new novelist. Of the agents that were open to new writers, many wanted them to be from specific societal demographics. Some wanted books that were exactly like books that had sold well, but were just different enough. Huh? A few small press publishers said they wanted authors with an established social media following. That first novel, “A Trace of Gold” (originally titled “Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold”) takes place both in present-day Chicago and the Chicago of 1930s gangsters and gun molls, weaving two stories into a whole. One publisher told me this would just confuse people. I guess he thought readers weren’t very smart.
I couldn’t believe it. All my brilliant efforts to arrange twenty-six little glyphs into an exciting and insightful tale was just sitting, dormant, on my hard drive alongside tax documents and pictures of my dog. Sooooooo, I jumped at the first publisher who offered me a contract.
A very nice woman ran this small indie company. She had a backlist of historical mysteries and cozies. And she really liked my novel. I didn’t ask myself if I thought she was the right publisher for my book. I didn’t ask her what her marketing strategies were, though it wouldn’t have mattered if I had. I didn’t know anything about selling books. I just thought if it was in a bookstore, people would see it, and some of them would buy it. And I thought libraries would be clamoring to add it to their collections. My publisher arranged for a book signing at a local Chicago bookstore, and, for some reason, we did a signing in a suburban furniture store that had a small book department attached to it. She had a table at a couple of summer book fairs. To her credit, she got the book several really good reviews in the trades. She also got me an interview on public television during one of their mystery marathons. It was fun, but I don’t think it sold many books. The one thing she couldn’t do was get the book into bookstores or libraries.
I started reading articles on book marketing. I sent postcards to libraries all over the world and managed to get over a couple hundred librarians (my heroes) to order a copy. I hired a well-known publicist to get online reviews. He charged me two thousand dollars up front and got only one review, and that was from a woman who also reviewed dish soap and cosmetics on her website. I ran a Goodreads giveaway and gave away some books. That didn’t seem to move the needle either. I did an interview with a college radio station. The only time “A Trace of Gold” ever got into a Barnes and Noble or a Borders Books (remember them?) was when I talked my bookseller friends into ordering it, and then they would order too many, and my publisher would have to pay for the returns. Returns make publishers unhappy.
That first novel didn’t earn much money, but a couple thousand people have read it. One thing the book accomplished was to open my eyes to a few important truths about writing and publishing. First, the path to getting your book in front of readers is as complicated and time consuming as writing it, so learn as much as you can about the process. Learn what agents want (and don’t want) in a query. There’s plenty of information available about that. Short, to the point, and professional is a good way to formulate your query. No weird typefaces, hyperbolic claims (This book will make us both rich!), or gifts in the mail. Agents hate having to call the bomb squad to check out suspicious packages. Learn which agents represent books like yours. “Poets & Writers” and “Writers Digest” magazines publish interviews with agents. Websites like Duotrope and Publisher’s Marketplace are chock full of information. If you decide to go with a small press or an indie publisher, find out up front what their track record is and talk to them about their marketing plan. The same is true if you decide to hire a marketing professional. There are a lot of “professionals” who have discovered writers are an easy mark, er, I mean income source. The same is true in the world of self-publishing. I retained the rights to my first book and now self-publish both my own books and the annual arts magazine I edit, “Litbop.” In order to produce a professional-looking product, self-publishers need editing, design, and marketing skills. There are companies, contractors, and freelancers galore who offer these services. Many are legit but some are not, so do your homework. One obvious information resource is Valerie Biel’s Lost Lake Press (hint, hint).
The most important thing I would tell my pre-published self is to savor the writing process. Writing is a deeply personal activity that often involves a good bit of introspection. We writers tend to imbue our characters with our own traits, philosophies, and personal histories. In learning this craft, I’ve grown as an artist and as a person. It may be a corny cliché, but the real value in writing isn’t the destination; it’s the journey.
Ellen and I recently saw the Barbie movie (more on that another time), and some of the comments I’ve seen online reminded me of this piece I posted a year ago on the Blackbird Writers website.
Do artists have a responsibility to speak to the human condition? Lin-Manuel Miranda thinks so. In his December 2019 article in The Atlantic he writes, “Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it.” He goes on to use The Sound of Music as an example. The story of the singing von Trapp family, he points out, isn’t so much do re me as it is an indictment of fascism.
Toni Morrison takes the idea a step further. In a 2008 feature in Poets and Writers magazine she calls out her fellow authors. “Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”
Are Miranda and Morrison right? And what do we mean when we say something is “political.” Is politics merely voting every few years for the yutz who might inflict the least amount of harm on the world? Is it community involvement? Is it culture? At a time when people are voting for or against book bans, censorship, teaching uncomfortable histories, and recognizing issues of sex and gender, I’d say that culture is as political as it’s ever been.
Are stories in the detective canon political? Sherlock Holmes? Phillip Marlowe? Maybe. Conan Doyle’s and Chandler’s sleuths often traveled between the classes, touching on the economic disparities of their times. Or, as Freud may have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
There are, of course, plenty of people who don’t want artists to comment on politics or culture. In 2003, the country group Dixie Chicks voiced their opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and were told, ironically, to “Shut up and sing.”
So what, if any, responsibility does the artist have to acknowledge the political in our lives? One of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, is famous for infusing his fiction with criticism of humankind. He doesn’t charge his fellow authors with this responsibility, but, as a witness to, and survivor of, the firebombing of Dresden in World War II, felt it was his personal duty. In a 1973 interview in Playboy magazine he states, “Mainly, I think (writers) should be—and biologically have to be—agents of change.” He would have agreed with Spider-man creator Stan Lee that, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But what makes us purveyors of little amusements think our opinions are worth foisting on our readers? Most of us aren’t political scientists or economists. We’ve simply learned to arrange groups of letters in ways that tell stories. Isn’t it hard enough to keep an audience interested for two or three hundred pages? My own writings are attempts to entertain, infused with small takes on subjects like bigotry, class, and greed. Putting up with a little pontification is the price (along with a few bucks) my readers have to pay. I often wonder if these are the parts where they skip ahead. ;^)
“Law is man’s attempt to civilize society. Science is man’s attempt to reveal truth. Forensic science, then, is the intersection of civilization and truth.” —Sean McKinney: “A Trace of Gold”
A lofty sentiment from my fictional forensic scientist, but the reality in both fiction and life is closer to the philosophy of Heraclitus (or Patti Smith) who said the only constant is change. Forensic science in the late nineteenth century saw the introduction of techniques like Bertillon’s anthropometry—identifying a person through a series of physical measurements—an inexact method that resulted in numerous misidentifications. Anthropometry was soon replaced by fingerprint comparison. Over the years a number of analytical techniques have come and gone, some replaced with more accurate tests, and some discredited altogether.
Forensic analysis of physical evidence is primarily based on the comparison of a known to an unknown. We look for patterns that are similar, allowing us to make “reasonable” assumptions about the role the evidence played in a crime. Pattern comparison standards have evolved over time with technologies that are more discriminative.
Types of evidence include serological (blood, saliva, semen), trace evidence (hairs, fibers, glass, paint, gunshot residue), visual comparisons (fingerprints, foot and tire prints, tool marks, fired evidence, fracture matches), etc. Many of these disciplines have changed over the years and new ones have been added, such as the analysis of digital evidence like photo, video, and audio forgeries. Most use some sort of pattern comparison, whether it’s a visual comparison of the striations on a fired bullet or DNA profiles from two samples of body fluids.
DNA Comes In
I can’t overstate the impact the introduction of DNA analysis in the 1980s/90s has made on the field. Previous serological comparisons like blood type or secretor status are now obsolete. DNA evidence has been instrumental in exonerating persons who were wrongly convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. But its statistical models have upset the apple cart for a whole host of techniques.
In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a report calling into question analytical techniques without the kind of specificity that’s attributed to DNA analysis. The effect of that report was to send a shockwave through the legal and scientific communities. Some of the changes it produced were long overdue; for example, the elimination of visual comparisons of hair evidence. But it also paved the way for defense attorneys to challenge the accuracy of other types of analysis, even fingerprint comparisons.
The problem with relying on DNA analysis to the exclusion of other techniques is that it ignores their use as investigative tools. The presence of gunshot residue on a person doesn’t tell us whether or not a suspect fired a gun. Its value in the courtroom is often overstated by both the prosecution and the defense. But it can tell investigators that a person either “discharged a firearm, was in the vicinity when a firearm was discharged, or came in contact with a surface on which there was gunshot residue.” This information is often sufficient to place someone at the scene of a crime, giving detectives a reason to look at that person more closely. Gunshot residue analysis itself has evolved significantly. The dermal nitrate or paraffin test was replaced with atomic absorption analysis, which has mostly given way to the scanning electron microscope coupled with an X-ray spectrometer.
Two of my favorite television fictional detectives are Homer Jackson on “Ripper Street” and the modern version of Sherlock Holmes on “Elementary.” Homer Jackson is a drunk, an opium smoker, and a doctor who aids the Whitechapel police as they investigate crime in 1890s London. The writers do a good job of giving him analytical expertise that could (maybe) have been possible at the time. Jonny Lee Miller’s modern-day Sherlock uses all the investigative techniques we’d expect from Holmes and adds twenty-first century technology to the mix.
Forensic scientists don’t solve crimes. They associate evidence with persons or events. Due to advancements in technologies and continued research, the analytical techniques they use are always subject to change. Forensic science in fiction reflects the period the characters “live” in, but those fictional characters can also evolve, reflecting advancements in the science. Nevertheless, I believe this statement by the original Sherlock Holmes will endure: “You know my method. It is founded on the observation of trifles.”
This post originally appeared on the Blackbird Writers website in 2020. https://blackbirdwriters.com/tim-chapman-looks-at-forensic-science/
I have four paintings in this sale at Palette & Chisel. Stop by the awesome 1012 N. Dearborn mansion next Saturday, to support a Chicago arts institution.
I just learned that my friend (and high school prom date) Katherine Ace passed away. She was a brilliant artist. I featured her work in the first issue of Litbop. More importantly, she was a compassionate, intelligent woman with a quirky sense of humor, a feminist, and a fighter who told stories through her art. She was as colorful as her paintings, and her absence makes this world less interesting. The last time we spoke was a long phone conversation near the end of last year. We discussed art, our families, some shared memories of long-ago adventures, and the love/hate relationship we both have with our fractured country. She was a little drunk, and a little giggly, and a little delightful, and that’s how I will remember her.
Ellen and I were in the kitchen putting anchovies and cheese on a pizza when I got the text. It was my little red-nosed friend, and he was on his way. ETA about an hour. He tries to stop for a quick visit every year on his way back to the North Pole from whatever warm climate he’s vacationed at. Usually we meet downtown or on the lakefront. Having the Chicago skyline as a backdrop for our visits is alway a delight. He was a couple of days early this year, and his text said he was coming to my house and to meet him in my back yard. That was unusual, but I wanted to get the pizza in the oven, so I didn’t think much about it. We finished dinner, and I grabbed a bottle of Nebbiolo, a glass and a bowl, and my coat and went out back to wait. It was dark out, so I clicked on the porch light. The reindeer was already there, standing by the garbage cans on the alley side of the garage.
“Turn out that light,” he said.
I did. There was a streetlight in the alley, and under its glow I saw that my friend was leaning against the side of the garage. He was panting, like he was out of breath, and his fur was a mess—muddy and stained with blood on one haunch. There was blood on his snout, too, and it looked like part of one antler had been broken off.
“Holy crap!” I said. “What happened to you?”
“Let me catch my breath. I flew here nonstop from Florida.”
We went into the yard, and I poured us some wine, mine in the glass, his in the bowl. I brushed the snow off a lawn chair and sat down to wait. After a few minutes, Rudolph lapped up a little liquid fortitude and asked, “So. How are things?”
“Oh no,” I said. “You first. What happened? Are you hurt? There’s an emergency vet right over on Belmont. They’re open all night.”
“I don’t need a vet. I could use something to eat, though. I don’t suppose you’ve got any moss or lichen laying around?”
“Sorry, no. How about oatmeal? Or I can make you a salad.”
“Salad’s good. No kale though. My stomach’s feeling queasy.”
I went in and filled a large bowl with lettuce and spinach, then grabbed a bucket of warm water, a sponge, and a tube of antibiotic ointment. While he ate, I cleaned the blood off his haunch.
“This could use a couple of stitches,” I said.
“Uh uh. No vet. I’ll be fine.” He lapped up a little more wine. “I’m feeling better already.”
I wiped the blood from his snout. I didn’t see any cuts. His nose glowed a little, and he said, “Don’t fuss, bro.”
“All right. What happened?”
“I started my vacation in New Orleans, just like last year, and was having a great time. I hooked up with some street musicians who dug having me around. I drew a big crowd in the French Quarter, which meant better tips for them. I’d keep time by flashing my nose, kind of like a metronome. Sometimes I’d let the trumpet player sit on my back. He let me sleep in his living room, and the whole band was happy to share meals with me. And we’d occasionally get a little high. Just lightly toasted, you understand. It was a very mellow scene, but a week ago New Orleans got hit with a cold snap, so I decided to finish my vacay a little farther south. I flew across the Gulf to the Tampa Saint Pete area, figuring to get in some beach time. Big mistake. You’d think people’d never seen a reindeer before. I was just walking along the sand, dodging the waves, pondering my place in the universe, when a crowd gathered and started following me. I got nervous and accidentally lit my nose, and the crowd lost its mind. They all rushed in, wanting to pet me or take a selfie with me.”
“And they hurt you?”
“Naw. I’m getting to that. This bunch was just annoying. Anyway, one of them saw that I was getting kind of panicked. He said his van was parked nearby and he’d be glad to help out, so we made a break for it. I got in the back of his van, and he drove us to a little bookstore where he worked as a clerk. We stopped and picked up sandwiches on the way. He was very polite. Told me his name was Brad and he was gay. I told him my name, which he had figured out already, and that I thought it was a mistake to define himself by his sexuality, but I knew it was a big deal for humans, so okay, good for you. Brad suggested maybe I should choose a less crowded beach if I was determined to go walking in the surf and pulled up a map on his phone to show me a few. The rest of the bookstore employees were pretty cool, and we had a very nice lunch. I was just getting ready to leave when the store’s owner, a woman named Sandra, mentioned they were having a holiday photo event over in the children’s book section, and would I please stick around and help out. She was going to put on a Santa suit with a little extra padding and call herself ‘Sandy Claus,’ and would I mind standing next to her on the dais and light my nose for the kids. She assured me that Brad and another clerk would keep the crowd under control. They’d treated me to lunch, so I figured, sure, why not.
Everything went okay at first. The kids were excited to see a real reindeer, but they were also intimidated enough to keep their distance. Sandy Claus and I developed a routine. She’d ask the kids if they’d been good, and when they said ‘yes’ I’d light my nose and nod my head. It went over big with the parents, too. One of the moms gave me a kiss on the cheek. I lit my nose when she did, which got a laugh from some of the dads. Like I said, it was all smooth as new fallen snow until a group of angry humans, chanting and carrying protest signs, showed up. I didn’t understand what they were saying at first, but the head chanter stepped up to the dais, pointed at Sandy, and called her a groomer. Up at the pole, we have a groomer, an elf named Cecil. He brushes us out, and cleans the mud off our hooves, and does a fairly presentable job. Anyway, you can imagine why I was confused. Turns out, the bookstore carries books about all different kinds of humans, and some of the books are about families with two moms or two dads. I still didn’t understand why the chanters were upset, but like I told Brad, you humans seem to put a lot of emphasis on who you should love rather than that you should love.
Well, Sandy Claus lost her cool and started yelling back at the chanters, at some point saying, “Get the fuck out of my store.” That was the spark that set off the dynamite. The chanters rushed the stage. The parents, upset that Sandy said ‘fuck’ in front of children, grabbed their kids and tried to get out of the store. Unfortunately, they were blocked by another group of chanters trying to get into the store. The head chanter took a swing at Sandy. Brad started to lead me to the stockroom, but someone grabbed him and pulled him into the crowd. I tried to help, but I had to be careful not to hurt anyone. I’m not big for a reindeer, but these antlers ain’t just for show. By the time the cops arrived, I’d been punched, kicked, bitten, and I think some asshole slashed me with a scissors. Santa can get someone else to guide his sleigh this year. I’m through busting my butt for humans. Maybe strap a headlight on Comet. That guy thinks he’s so great, let him navigate the blizzards and the war zones. I’m staying home with Clarice and the kids.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “You had a terrible experience, and, honestly, you look like you could use a solid week of sleep, but don’t you think you’ll miss it? I mean, this is your big annual event.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I’m pretty fed up.”
“Well, let me ask you this. What was the mood like in the bookstore before the protestors showed up?”
“What do you mean?”
“The parents and the kids were all having a good time, right?”
“Did any of those parents complain about the books the store carries or that Sandy Claus was a woman instead of a jolly fat man?”
“No. I see what you’re getting at. Don’t judge all humans by the bad actions of a few. Well there weren’t a few. There were a lot, and they didn’t care who got hurt.”
“Okay. So they win.”
“What is that, some kind of reverse psychology. No. Uh, uh, bro. I’m not falling for that.”
“Think about it. We can’t control the things that happen to us, but we can control the way we respond to them. Don’t let a bunch of jerks influence your decisions. Besides, like it or not, people look up to you. You’re the outcast who made good. People look to you for inspiration.”
“We’ve talked about this before, man. I’m not a symbol. I’m just a reindeer. And I’m fed up.”
I got up, pulled his head down onto my shoulder, and stood hugging him. And he let me.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
It felt strange, me giving him advice and comfort instead of the other way around. I guess that’s how friendships work. I went in and brought out another bottle of wine and some oatmeal cookies. We sat there eating and drinking in silence for a couple more hours, just enjoying one another’s company. I always loved hearing him call out “Yippee ki-yay!” as he flew off into the night, but I’d dozed off. When Ellen came out and shook my shoulder to wake me, he’d already gone.