Murder Most Fashionable

An untapped area for murder, it seems to us, is murder based on “unfortunate apparel choices.” Not that one of us hasn’t considered it when she sees people wearing what our mother used to call ”inappropriate attire” absolutely everywhere. One of us admits to particularly disliking patterned leggings because she feels , if so attired, she would resemble nothing so much as a brightly floral couch, In that, she notes, she is not alone. Spandex, as they say, is a privilege and not a right.

Murder does seem to be a natural fit—pardon the expression—for fashion. How often do you hear someone wearing 5-inch spiky heels by fancy Italian designers say “my feet are killing me?” It’s all you can do not to respond, “Bad fashion choices will most definitely be the death of you.”

Fashion definitely has a place in a murder mystery. For example, as one of us lives in a place where the four seasons are “winter is coming,” “winter is here,” “still winter” and “road repair,” she is nonetheless astonished at the number of female tourists who think the aforementioned spiky heels—not to mention bare midriff tops in below-freezing temperatures—are “appropriate ski resort attire.” Were someone homicidally inclined, it would be so easy to provide a well-placed bump to the fashionista on an icy step with predictable (broken neck) consequences, lending an entirely new meaning to the expression “fashion victim.” (So much harder to be offed on the ice if you are wearing low-heeled, rubber soled shoes with a good tread, just as your mother told you.)

One could imagine a Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada character portrayed by Meryl Streep) wanna-be just losing it in the face of a fashion faux pas and using one of her ultra-high heels or Italian leather purse with gold metal-trimmed corners to strike down the offender. Immediately arrested, she pleads justifiable homicide, noting the victim was committing a crime against humanity for wearing …

  • Bicycling shorts to a sit-down restaurant
  • Spandex leggings to a Broadway play
  • Plaid, flannel shirt and Hawaiian shorts for a walk around town. [Hmm. One of us has been known to do this. In her defense, she notes she was merely celebrating Scottish and Hawaiian culture, and she believes aloha shirts look perfectly mahhhvelous with a Davidson plaid.]
  • Flip flops to hike the Alps
  • Che Guevara t-shirt with a tuxedo
  • Bare midriff shirt on a very hairy man
  • Yoga pants to a wedding. And to the rehearsal dinner. And the bridal shower – unless it’s in a yoga studio.
  • A men’s suit made out of the American flag. (Or any national flag.)
  • Low-rise pants on anybody except a toddler, because they are so cute they can get away with anything. “The plumber look is, like, so in,” said nobody—ever.
  • Baseball hat, aloha shirt and flip-flops to the opera (one of us saw someone so attired, and it wasn’t an opera performed in Kapi’olani Park, either).

If you were on the jury, would you let Miranda get away with it? Or would you convict her, in part for her stupidity in not using a 9mm Smith and Wesson in basic—and always appropriate—black?

Toasty halibut overtones

Do you enjoy reading phrases like, “the agnosticism of lugubriousness is almost independent in its nobility” and “the 1998 Semillon from Bear Valley Winery unites free-love-inducing Home Run Pie elements with a feminine mustard essence.” If so, the 2017 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is for you. (Personally, we detected notes—highly nuanced, mind you—of tsetse fly dung (local, organic and sustainable, to be sure. We believe they were Namibian tsetse flies, not the oh-so-last year’s ones from Ethiopia.)

The Contest honors the memory of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (even his name is too long). One could argue Bulwer-Lytton’s fame is based on a beagle. Charles Schulz’s Snoopy adopted the first line of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel “Paul Clifford” for his own adventure stories: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Rarely quoted, for obvious reasons, the entire opening line reads, “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents––except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” (One of us thought of having this opening line tattooed somewhere to help remind her to avoid writing turgid prose, but she ran out of leggy real-estate.)

The 2017 contest is upon us, with only a couple months until the June 30 deadline to compose epic opening lines: epic as in of unusually great size or extent, not epic as in impressively great. For those seeking a pinnacle achievement for their writing career, visit the website http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/ for contest rules. We suggest you also read through the contest winners from 2016 at http://www.bulwer-lytton.com/2016win.html. Some of our favorites phrases from 2016 include “when your home smells like a three-week-old buffalo carcass” (for one of us it is only 2-weeks since she’s had the carcass) and “my mind bent under the weight of it all like a cheap paper plate at a family barbecue when it is filled with all the wet heavy stuff like baked beans and sauerkraut.”

We leave you with the overall winner of the 2016 Bulwer-Lytton Contest:

“Even from the hall, the overpowering stench told me the dingy caramel glow in his office would be from a ten-thousand-cigarette layer of nicotine baked on a naked bulb hanging from a frayed wire in the center of a likely cracked and water-stained ceiling, but I was broke, he was cheap, and I had to find her.” —
William “Barry” Brockett, Tallahassee, FL

 

So an Axe Murderer Walks Into A Bar…

We had you at “axe murderer,” right? (Axe murderers, we note, are people, too, and need to be respected in the interests of diversity, which we think means we shouldn’t discriminate against them in favor of poisoners, garden variety stranglers or plain old push-off-a-cliffers. Wood-chipper offers, of course, are in an exalted category because they exhibit the ecologically correct murder technique of recycling dead bodies as mulch. It’s so important to help the planet through homicide…)

But we digress.

One of the challenges we have in writing short stories as opposed to novels – as we alluded to in an earlier blog—is finding new, exciting and not oh-so-last-year’s-untrendy way of offing people (literarily speaking, of course). Another challenge, which we didn’t allude to (but are herein) is making murder mirthful. Our natural bent is to make something funny. That said, playing murder for laughs is well, murder, because unless the offer or off-ee is a stand-up comic, it’s hard to generate a giggle when presenting the reader with a stiff. Worse, the more descriptive you are about random missing or maimed body parts, the harder it is to play it for laughs without generating a high (and highly unfunny) “ick” factor—unless of course the depraved murderer managed to cut off all the victim’s cellulite, in which case it becomes a fat-free murder, ba-da-bing! Though in one of our novels, With Murder You Get Sushi, we went for a laugh after a car bomb exploded at a gold course by having a “hand”—in reality, a golf club cover—land near our part-time sleuth, Emma Jones. Eew.

You can definitely play murder for laughs, if not 18 holes.

In truth, some of our short stories are taking a decidedly dark tone, like a recent one in which a loving couple find out that signing up for TrueSociopathLove dating service wasn’t a wise move. Never fear, the evil couple walk into the sunset together, holding hands and gazing longingly into each other’s … gun barrels. (Just kidding, let’s just say that it’s a rude awakening for each of them to realize he/she is dating another wacko – I mean, “misunderstood yet sensitive homicidal being” and…but we won’t spoil the ending except to note that at last one of them gets what he/she deserves.) So, our ending is perhaps ironic but that doesn’t count as funny, strictly speaking. Does it?

There are of course, ways to make murder funny, besides have the victims suffocate in a surfeit of sloth sh- …OK, we admit to overdoing the alliteration. One of them is through ancillary characters. Specifically, snarky comments made by ancillary characters. One short story we did featured murder in a white out. The search and rescue team recovering the body had choice—and funny—comments about the deceased, which we used to paint an idea of just how unpleasant the playboy perp was. (Ok, it’s bad now, one of us needs to join Alliteration Anonymous.) We used wordplay at the end—the murderer’s shoe size being used to nail the “heel”—to add a last humorous touch to the story.

But we do have standards when it comes to ridding the planet excess human beings.

  1. No dog can be harmed in any way during the story. Even a tick bite is out. Well, maybe not a tick bite, but no real harm, AND
  2. The deceased has to deserve the killing. Okay, biblically we know that all deserve to die, but we’re referring to a looser standard here. No mothers with young children will be offed, unless they are cruel stepmothers (a tried and true trope). No sweet old ladies. In fact, sweet old ladies are allowed to get away with murder in our stories.

You need not ask about lawyers, politicians, drug dealers, used-car salesmen, and agents of the IRS. They are all fair game. So are slimy ex-boyfriends, the Costco clerk who was just rude to you, the neighbor who has sicced the planning commission on you because of recent yard work, the insecure ex-boss who micro-managed you, and the next person to irritate you.

In short, murder can be a stress-relieving activity, and a total scream.

 

 

 

Eating People is Wrong

We’ve been reading a number of How-To books lately on what it takes to get a non-fiction book published, and come across an interesting factoid: a potential customer perusing a table of books on average looks at the cover of a book for 1.4 seconds. Self-evident is that the title of the book matters. A lot. So does having a picture of a hot hunk or hunkette on the cover wearing skimpy clothing. Although that cover art may not work for all books, such as Brain Surgery in 10 Easy Lessons.

With that in mind, we’ve been trying on titles for our new non-fiction book. The site http://www.boredpanda.com/funny-book-titles-covers/ is a great resource for what not to do. Designated worst book titles include:

  1. Eating People is Wrong (Not sure why this is the case, as people are local, sustainable, non-GMO and gluten-free.)
  2. Reusing Old Graves (You know, for authentic Halloween decorations, nothing beats a real skeleton!)
  3. How to Avoid Huge Ships (It’s so, like, obvious: just don’t hang around with mean people who are total shi…I mean. Oops, never mind.)
  4. Why Cats Paint (Because dogs sculpt?)
  5. Mommy Drinks Because You’re Bad (…or Daddy is.)
  6. The Practical Pyromaniac: Build Fire Tornadoes, One-Candlepower Engines, Great Balls of Fire, and More Incendiary Devices (Whoa! Where can we buy that?)
  7. Old Tractors and the Men Who Love Them (With the photo of a fifty-something farmer in overalls on the cover, they might have consider Geezers and Gardening Gears: alliteration always makes for a catchy title.)
  8. Wearing Thongs Well: Your Key to a Successful Job Interview (Especially if you are planning a career as a stripp…ah, er…’clothing-optional entertainer.’)

Ok, we made the last one up. But it got your attention, right?

One of us still looking for Finding, Landing and Dispatching The Rich Old Coot of Your Dreams (strictly for literary purposes, of course). Okay, we made that one up too, though clearly, Grade ‘A’ Gold-Digging would work better as a title.

To come up with something eye-catching and unforgettable we spend hours and hours brainstorming. No, we didn’t. We turned to the Internet and found a random title generator for suggestions (http://mdbenoit.com/rtg.htm). We were given Slave of Mist, The Emerald Years, The Female of the Shards, and Prized Snow, all of which sounded great for Romance Novels, which means we definitely could use scantily-clad hunk or hunkette covers.

Not satisfied with those, we tried an Internet site that promised to generate unique names: http://unique-names.com/word-mixer.php. We popped in several words about the book and out popped a new words we could use for the title: Gamgamemen, Womlelete, Socfucer, and Enbeer, none of which is particularly catchy and at least one of which sounds like a perversion involving pink bunny slippers.

We thought it would be a good idea to canvass friends and colleagues for title ideas, but ran into a bit of a snag. Under the assumption that the title should reflect the subject matter, we would have to explain the thrust of the book. In order to properly summarize one’s book, it’s necessary to develop a selling handle or elevator pitch that in one sentence will convince readers to buy, bookstores to stock, and libraries to purchase.

Fortunately, the How-To books are rife with examples of pitch lines:

  • Die Hard: A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists.
  • Pretty Woman: A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.
  • Into Thin Air: Alive without the cannibalism.
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary: Pride and Prejudice in modern London.

Easy-peasie, right? Sort of. We couldn’t agree on the elevator pitch, so we’re giving you two:

  • War and Peace meets Pollyanna; or
  • How we stopped worrying about what to do with our lives and learned to feel downright cheery about large scale armed conflict

Let us know you title suggestions. We’ll consider anything.

Envious of the Dead?

Every writer has “favorites” that inspire him or her. “Inspire” can be of the monetary, notoriety or just plain, “how (s)he do dat?” variety. We prefer not to engage in literary envy, “thou shalt not covet” being the 10th commandment—“commandment” being a stronger level of prohibition than “spiffy tip for self empowerment.”

Our dream is to approximate the first line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, …”). Our nightmare is to write like the oft-parodied first line of Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”) Bulwer-Lytton did have a writing contest named after him … for atrocious first lines.

That said, we admit to having our literary inspirations, mostly in the vein of, “Wow, I wish I could write like that.” Noting of course, that in some cases of particularly lofty writers, there is fat chance of it to the point where we might be better off entering the Bulwer-Lytton contest where the www means wretched writers welcome.

At the top of our list of writers to emulate is C.J. Box. He writes mysteries, just like us, only better. Way better, it pains us to admit. Box’s Joe Pickett books are so well written, you want to read them more than once, even though you already know whodunnit and howdunnit and that the bad guy really, really deserved to get eaten by a mountain lion. Just picking a couple of things to like (and there’s a lot to like) in his writing, it’s not an exaggeration to say that wilderness is, a character in his Joe Pickett stories––Pickett is a Wyoming game warden. The descriptions of nature, and the way Box weaves nature into his stories makes you want to drop everything and head to Wyoming, even on a freakin’ freezing winter day. Because the wilderness is part and parcel of his writing, he weaves in issues such as the environmental protection, competing interests in land usage, and endangered species. And he does so Without Hitting You Over The Head With His Opinion. Thoughtful, interesting, never fails to entertain, in a “go away and don’t bother me I want to finish this book and I ain’t budging until I do (unless there is chocolate involved)” way.

Not surprisingly, C.J. Box has multiple awards. A partial list includes the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel (Blue Heaven, 2009) as well as the Anthony Award, Prix Calibre 38 (France), and the Macavity Award. His novels have been translated into 27 languages and been optioned for film and television. Envious? Ah, er…let’s say, his writing is something to aspire to. We don’t envy, we aspire.

Another writer we like is John Buchan. One of us is an outright fanatic, nearly cleaning out the “B” shelf in an Edinburgh bookshop on one occasion (he is a native son). Probably best known for The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan has written so much more than that and had an interesting life; he worked in naval intelligence in WWI and was the Governor-General of Canada. Buchan weaves in history, political intrigue, and comes up with plot devices that are intriguing and then some. One book, John MacNab, involves a contest among four rather bored aristocratic types to poach a salmon or a stag from a friend’s estate but turns into – well, much more than that. Warning: once you start on Buchan, you won’t be able to stop. Book that trip to Edinburgh right now – it’s not so easy to find all his work in the US – and sign up for that 12-step Buchan Detox program, because you will become an addict. He’s a dang good writer, but we don’t envy him. He’s dead. But we envy the ability to spin a great story.

 

Lessons from HGTV

No, we’re not writing a blog about buying, flipping, destroying, restoring, or being elected to houses of any kind. Sorry to disappoint, but we’re still writing about writing.

One of us will confess to watching HGTV. About ten in the evening, it’s time to unwind from the day by snuggling up with the dog, sinking down on the coach, and watching something mindless on TV, which is pretty much everything on TV. Knowing that the outcome of House Hunters is, like a short story—predetermined— we often enjoy watching the drama unfold. [Our favorite moments are when a couple encounters the horror of kitchen appliances that are not stainless steel: goodbye, cruel world), or when they decide the perfectly functional five-year old kitchen is not to their taste and will have to be completely gutted before they move in.] We confess to learning critical life lessons, such as the fact that you can hardly hold your head up in public if you don’t have granite counter tops. Similarly, one of us is ashamed to admit that she feels her life is—sob —incomplete without a spa tub. These little dramas, and comedies, have lessons for writers.

Lesson 1: Characters have to be realistic. It’s hard to watch a program or read a story about a character that seems to be from a different planet, unless you are reading Sci-fi. One episode of House Hunters International featured a couple that had moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with no savings and no jobs. The man wanted a place close to a club where he hoped to make a living as a stand-up comedian, in English. The woman wanted a quiet place amidst the other 1.5 million residents so she could practice her yoga for hours at a time. We couldn’t watch: how does one identify with or care about such characters? A good short story need believable characters or the reader will have no faith or interest in the story that follows. (Moving to Phnom Penh to start a drug cartel would have at least been plausible: how else to afford the Must Have walk-in closet?)

Lesson 2: The resolution must make sense. We watched a couple debate their way through the usual three homes offered for sale. Usually, the TV viewer has a good idea which way the couple will go, but this time, it was a surprise. The husband loved one house and the wife loved another. They talked it over and, we kid you not, decided to go for the house that neither of them liked as much. Even though the outcome is foreordained, but the pretension for the viewer is she is watching reality. Is reality that a couple makes their largest financial investment in a house neither much likes? Since they were both Polish [NOT an ethnic slur] is there a cultural dynamic we don’t understand? In a short story or novel, the resolution must make sense to the reader, particularly in a mystery where the reader likes to be able to find hints of the outcome and ‘solve’ the case before the end. We’ve all invested time reading a story to discover the ending is implausible. Naturally, we feel cheated and are less likely to read that author’s work in the future. In this case, we feel it would have been more plausible if one killed the other for not getting the house with the “neutral palette throughout and the open floor plan.” Religious (housing) differences can well and truly scuttle a marriage.

With that, we are off to design our next short story, the plot of which will not at all revolve around the importance of hardwood floors.

Got Any Chloroform?

With our move to short stories––as the next Emma Jones book simmers on the back burner––comes tighter writing, a shorter turnaround, and more opportunities to contemplate how to off someone. In a delightful literary sense, of course, as we have no plans to do a dry run, even if one feels especially homicidally inspired when being tailgated at high speed by a real %#&^%$$er. It is so difficult to visualize world peace in those situations, don’t you think?

One of our inspirations is Cruella De Vil who, while a real baddie, was a baddie with style. The title of this blog entry comes from a scene in (the original animated) 101 Dalmatians, wherein Cruella De Vil is contemplating offing the Dalmatian puppies she has amassed for their coats. She exclaims to her henchmen, Horace and Jasper: “I don’t care how you kill the little beasts, just do it. Poison them! Drown them! Got any chloroform?”

Says Jasper, “Not a drop.”

Never fear, Cruella, there are so many more delightful ways to dispatch someone (but leave the cute doggies alone, please!)

It’s astonishing where we get our inspiration. A summer of hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains made us contemplate how you’d kill someone on a hike and get away with it (and make natural phenomena like eclipses work for you). Skiing together made us think about how to off someone in a blizzard. In one story, we used animals to finger the perp after one of us read a book about how intelligent corvidae are, and that they remember faces and hold a grudge.

It isn’t merely humans we consider dispatching: a current short story under development involves an act of revenge for killing someone’s pet. After long and exhaustive market research and big data analytics (okay, we didn’t use big data analytics but it’s a techno-sexy term we wanted to use), we decided to dispatch a cat (because we both like doggies too much to––gulp––kill one, even in a literary cause). We also decided the cat would be really nasty, so we don’t feel the slightest bit bad for offing Satan, er, Fluffy. (For you ailurophiles: never fear, the cat will be avenged.)

Poisoning, long a favorite tool of mystery writers, is becoming harder to execute. The sales of many poisonous substances are controlled, and others one might cultivate in the garden are easy for the medical examiner to detect. Planning murders requires one to consider more exotic methods of dispatch. Some of the following we’ve actually used: faulty medical devices, robots with an attitude, hacked self-driving cars, lightning strikes, rampaging elephants, meteors, Hawaiian spirits in the form of sharks, super glue, and creamed corn. Okay, we haven’t worked out how the last one could kill anyone, but the last time one of us ate it, she was convinced her mother was trying to kill her.

We are happy to consider suggested methods of killing off people who deserve it. Feel free to leave a comment with your ideas, and please don’t feel the need to check its validity by conducting a test run.