i’m a sucker for stories about reporters

The Front Page/His Girl Friday. Nothing But the Truth (an underrated movie, by the way). Some others I can’t think of right now.

So, I was especially please by this in the Washington Post:

Reporter Hilde Kate Lysiak got the tip early Saturday afternoon that there was heavy police activity on Ninth Street. She hustled over with her pen and camera, as any good reporter would, and soon she posted something short online, beating all her competitors. Then, working the neighbors and the cops, she nailed down her scoop with a full-length story and this headline:


The online story not only beat the local daily paper, but she also included a short video from the crime scene, assuring viewers that “I’m working hard on this investigation.”

Then Monday came and Hilde had to go back to third grade. She is 9.

Hilde has received a lot of comments about how a girl as “cute” as her should be having tea parties or playing with dolls, but, as she says, “I think a lot of adults tell their kids they can do anything, but at the end of the day don’t actually let them do anything.”

And people may have qualms (or stronger feelings) about whether a girl of her age should be reporting on serious crime, but nobody in the articles I’ve read has criticized her actual journalism.

Hilde has also been written up in the New York Times, and she wrote a guest column in the Guardian.

On an unrelated note, I’m not that interested in dance, but I read this because the headline mentioned Agatha Christie: “Dance legend Twyla Tharp on truculent men, selling hot dogs and her idol Agatha Christie.” Here are Tharp’s thoughts about Christie:

“I’ve just found seven new mysteries that I haven’t read and I’m so grateful for them. It’s how I try to keep myself from thinking. Christie is phenomenal, she’s absolutely consistent. I always say that the structure of her mysteries is as exact as a sonnet. She has it clocked which paragraph, which page, the twist has to happen.”

I always think of that as the Alfred Hitchcock effect — the very comfortable feeling that the person telling the story is in complete command of his or her tools. It’s surprising how rare that feeling is.

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the right tool for the task

I guess I’m old school when it comes to writing and computers. I like to have my files stored locally, not just up in the clouds somewhere. And I never write in Word, since everything I write is destined, at least in theory, for the web.

But every project is different. As the saying goes, you don’t learn how to write a story — you just learn how to write the story you’re writing now.

My project right now is “The Bus Station Mystery.” It’s done, yes, but it’s not done. It needs more work — mostly it needs to be filled out. I listened to it recently, and my main note to myself was: “This story sure whizzes along!”

And not only the pace but the pacing seems off — the big scene where we learn who all the suspects are comes more than three quarters of the way through the story. [And now a pause for me to consider the words “pace” and “pacing”…]


I’ve been figuring out the best way to edit this story. It’s divided up into ten blog posts, so that doesn’t work for making any sort of substantial changes. I can create an HTML file with the whole thing (I wrote a script to pull the parts out of the WordPress database and combine them), but editing a story once all the HTML codes are in place is awkward.

So, I settled on a Google Doc. That seems to be working pretty well so far. I can make notes and edits on my phone during the day and then do more on the computer at night. A whole new way of writing (for me) seems to be working fine.

I’m writing some new scenes (well, one so far) in Google Keep, so I can easily decide later on where they should go in the story, if anywhere.

But I do export the current Google Doc draft to a Word file on my computer from time to time. Just to be safe.

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new yorkers

I was raised in a New Yorker family.

We were New Yorkers, yes, but we were also devotees of the New Yorker magazine. The one story I ever submitted for publication was submitted to the New Yorker. (We had a family connection to the magazine, I have no memory of how. The story was rejected anyway, thank goodness.)

The magazine has had its ups and downs over the years. There were periods when I read very little of it, but I always kept the subscription. I tried to switch to a Kindle subscription at one point, but it wasn’t the same, so I switched back to print.

The writing has been good recently, though. Here are some samples:

1. “The Occult Roots of Modernism“: This is one thing that the New Yorker does very well — bring me to good writing about subjects I’d never heard of before. For another example, as I’ve mentioned before, I always enjoy Joan Acocella’s pieces about dance, despite the fact that I have almost no interest in dance.

2. “George Strait’s Long Ride“: I came into this one knowing a little bit more about George Strait than I’d known about Joséphin Péladan, but I still learned a lot.

3. “The Pleasures of New York by Car“: Very enjoyable piece about driving in New York (not generally known as a car-friendly city), but I particularly enjoyed how it identified one of the appeals of the Fast and Furious film series: that it’s about people doing over-the-top heroic things while driving cars (as opposed to while flying in spaceships or with superpowers or magic or whatever). So, you know, “relatable,” as they say.

4. “Hemingway, the Sensualist“: I’m fairly well informed about Hemingway, but this reminded me of how much I’d like to read the original manuscript of The Garden of Eden (which I read about in the New York Times Magazine in the 1970s, long before a much, much shorter version of the book was published). I’d love to read the real thing.

And one more thing: Maggie over at Maggie Madly Writing just got married (congratulations, Maggie!), and she changed the URL of her blog, to reflect her married name, and, at least so far, the WordPress folks haven’t managed a redirect, so every link from this site to that one is broken (I have a plugin for that, so I get notifications when a link is broken). So, for now, here’s the URL: maajohnson.com.

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a story completed, and some links

Well, “The Bus Station Mystery” is done, and I will admit that it took quite a bit of doing. It’s been a somewhat trying year, though things are better now, but I think it discombobulated the story somewhat. So, now that it’s done, I’m going to step back and take my time to look at it.

It’s not quite what I expected, but of course that’s not always a bad thing…

Here are some links that I’ve found interesting recently:

1) “Alexa, Where Have You Been All My Life?“: The thing that strikes me about the current acceptance of Siri and Alexa and the rest is how primitive they are now. In ten years, how will we relate to these voices?

(This part of the article did strike me funny, though:

Ms. Quinn realized the device had reached a tipping point in the collective consciousness when she was on vacation in March with some of these friends in the Dominican Republic. During a dinner, one suddenly blurted out, “Alexa, what time is it?”

Ms. Quinn was incredulous. “Wait, you brought your Alexa?” she said.

“No, I just really miss her,” the friend said.)

2) “Facebook’s war on free will“: Long, but interesting (and it kind of goes with the first one). It reminded me somewhat of the movie Ex Machina (or at least how I interpreted it). 

3) “Darren Aronofsky Says ‘Mother!’ Is About Climate Change, But He’s Wrong“: The idea of seeing the movie Mother! doesn’t really appeal to me, but I do enjoy reading all about the different interpretations people have for it. Biblical allegory, climate change metaphor, critique of how male artists often exploit the women in their lives, etc.

Of course, as we can see in the films of David Lynch, for example, there are often no definitive answers to these questions.

Which is fine.

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the bus station mystery — conclusion

This story started here.

Mr. Randall stood up as Stephanie and Kelly came into the waiting room. “Mrs. Coe went to the rest room,” he said, gesturing in that direction, “but she didn’t come back. When Miss Powell went to look for her, she wasn’t there. We were–”

“Mrs. Coe is outside, in the bus, handcuffed. And she’s not Mrs. Coe. Mrs. Coe is dead, in your office.”

Mr. Randall shook his head — almost a shiver. “What?” he demanded after a moment.

“Let’s sit down. Billy, is there any coffee? Or tea?”

Billy looked as if he wasn’t sure what to say, and Stephanie smiled. “The case is solved, the murderer is caught, and there’s no more danger.”

Billy nodded. “There’s some hot coffee, which is now lukewarm, and there’s iced tea, which is probably also lukewarm, and it’s nasty (the tea).”

Stephanie laughed. “You’ve sold me on the coffee, though feel free to make it a small cup if we’re running out.”

“Never mind all that–” Dr. Grassi began.

“You’re right,” Stephanie said. “The short story is this: Cody was killed by his wife, Amelia. She had climbed out the window of the ladies room and surprised her husband on the bus after the passengers all came in here. She was then surprised by Mrs. Coe when she climbed back into the ladies room.

“She — Amelia Nugent — killed Mrs. Coe and switched identification and outer clothes with her. She left Mrs. Coe’s body in Mr. Randall’s office and passed herself off as Mrs. Coe, who nobody here knew.

“When I said I knew who it was — who the murderer was — she went to the ladies room and climbed out the window again. She saw someone, or something, moving around in the bus — which was not lighted — and tried to shoot, but I subdued her. What she saw was Kelly moving an overcoat around, draped over a pole. Kelly herself was crouching down, to be safe.”

“Wait a minute,” Lombard said. “Was she just assuming that nobody would be in there? In the ladies room?”

“No. I don’t think she expected to come back, after she killed her husband. It sounded like her plan was to leave after the murder. Her car was in the parking lot. But she hadn’t planned on the storm getting so bad. She should have dropped the plan, but apparently she was determined to carry it through, no matter what. So, she snuck back into the ladies room, and then apparently had to kill Mrs. Coe.

“Then, as I said, she had her big idea — to switch places with Mrs. Coe. After all, if she was discovered here, as herself, everyone would figure out she was the killer. And they did look a little alike. So, she switched the clothes and so on, and she put the body in Mr. Randall’s office. She could move it there without being seen from most of the waiting room, and she wanted to shift attention away from the ladies room, so nobody would think too much about the window.”

Kelly frowned. “But that window is always locked. Last year there was a pervy guy who used to lurk around outside, trying to peek in.”

“The lock is on the inside,” Mr. Randall said. “It’s easy enough to unlock it to get out — the point was to keep people from getting in, not out.” He shrugged. “Fire regulations, too.”

Stephanie looked around. “Wait. Where are…”

Lombard held up three fingers, pointed at the rear of the building, where the garage was, made a hand gesture indicating drinking, and then, before he could bring his other hand into action for a further gesture, Kelly quickly brought up both of her hands to signal “Time out.”

“Is she dead?” Ms. Powell asked after a moment.

“Who?” Stephanie asked. “The murderer? No, of course not. As I said, she’s handcuffed on the bus.”

“Has she admitted anything?”

“No. She’s denied that she killed her husband, and she’s trying to figure out a reason she was lurking around in the rain with a gun in her hand. When I asked her about that, she decided that I didn’t have enough authority to question her, and she’d wait until somebody arrived who did — by which time maybe she’ll have figured out a story.”

“Where did you get handcuffs?” Billy asked.

“From my luggage. The same place I got my gun.”

“So, how did you figure it out?” Dr. Grassi asked. “Or were you just saying that you knew who did it?”

She laughed. “I was going to try to hide that part, because I really just got lucky, but here it is. I hadn’t been paying close attention on the bus — I didn’t know two people were going to be killed, after all — and I got Mrs. Coe and Ms. Powell mixed up.

“Mrs. Coe’s most obvious identifier was her bright yellow rain slicker, which of course she didn’t wear on the bus. Ms. Powell’s was her large purse, which she’d stowed away somewhere. I knew one of them had slept — fitfully — and the other one had been reading a book, but I got confused about which one.

“When I mentioned that Mrs. Coe had been sleeping — which she hadn’t — the false Mrs. Coe seized on that and added the very convincing bit about working in the hospital all night. She knew about the hospital job because she had Mrs. Coe’s wallet, including her hospital identification.

“But then Ms. Powell said she’d been sleeping also (though in fact it wasn’t ‘also’ — she was the only sleeper), and I suddenly realized that I’d made a mistake. I’d set a trap, entirely by accident, and she — Amelia Nugent, pretending that she was Mrs. Coe — had stepped into it. Because I knew one of the two women had not been sleeping. She’d been sitting right in front of me, her reading light on, reading her book, and she’d got up at least once to go to the toilet. But of course Amelia had no idea what had happened on the bus — she’d been right here, hiding in the bus station, waiting for her husband to arrive so she could kill him.

“But then what? That wasn’t exactly evidence. So, I said I’d solved it, and set up a trap, with the brave assistance of Kelly here, to lure her into making a move.”

“That sounds pretty dangerous,” Billy said, frowning. “Why not just wait for the police to come and solve it?”

Stephanie ducked her head. “I have reasons,” she said slowly. She looked up, smiling awkwardly. “Stupid reasons, maybe, but reasons.”

“So, ‘reasons’?” Kelly asked Stephanie later. They were sitting on a bench outside of the building. The overhang shielded them from the rain, which seemed to be letting up.

Stephanie nodded. “Yeah. I mean, there was also the possibility of another murder — that she’d kill again. So, I was trying to make sure that didn’t happen, too. I didn’t want to just wait around. But there were also the reasons.”

She made a face. “My father is the sheriff of Huron County. I grew up wanting to be his deputy. So, he got me the ID and everything, and he trained me, though I was too young to be a real deputy back then.

“But then… some things happened, and I ran away… I left home, and then I wasn’t going to be his deputy.” She paused, and Kelly made a “keep it rolling” motion with her hands.

“I would have been the first girl deputy in our part of the state — as far as I could find out. Anyway, my roommate — where I live now — is still in touch with her father, who is one of my Dad’s deputies, and she found out that one of my sisters is getting married.

“I decided to call, and maybe I’d go home for the wedding, if I’d be welcome. I called… and, well, my dad and I talked for a long time. He said that everybody would be very happy if I was there. So, I was going back for the wedding, and he knew which bus I was going to be on, because he was going to pick me up.”

Kelly nodded. “That was him on the phone before, calling you, right?”

Stephanie nodded. “When he found out that I’d made it this far, he wanted to make sure I’d shelter in place here until the storm died down. The flooding was really bad, he said, and they expected it to get worse.”

Kelly nodded slowly, then she looked up.

“So, you’re not a detective, right? Though you did pretty good here. And you travel with a gun and handcuffs — and who knows what else — even to a wedding.” Stephanie started to say something, but Kelly held up her hand. “So, you’re not a real detective — even though, yes, I know, you’ve met Jan Sleet — and you never really became a deputy. And I… I’m pretty sure you’re not a crook…”

“I’m involved in law enforcement, a little, in kind of an unofficial way, where I live, and…”

“And you knew your dad would find out what happened here. That’s the point. But let’s get back to you. Not a cop, or a deputy, or a crook, and you leap from tall buildings–”

“It was not a ‘tall building,'” corrected Stephanie, who was starting to turn pink. “It’s a bus.”

Kelly ignored her. “If it wasn’t for the fact that there isn’t any such thing, I’d almost think you were a…” Her voice trailed off.

Stephanie put her hand over Kelly’s mouth.

The End

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solve the clues, not just the crime

I’ve been listening to an old-time radio detective show called Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. It was on for many years,* but the episodes I’ve been listening to most recently are from the period when it was on for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Each story ran for one week, starting on Monday and ending on Friday.

Yesterday I was listening to one story, and I thought it was surprisingly weak and disorganized. I was listening at work, and I thought maybe I had allowed my attention to wander (to, you know, work stuff). So, I listened to it again from the beginning. And it became obvious (since each episode ends with a teaser for the following day’s installment) that the five episodes were mislabeled — they were out of order.

One, three, and five were correct, but two and four were switched. No wonder it hadn’t seemed to hold together.** I reordered the files and listened to the story again.

And I was still dissatisfied, so I tried to figure out why. I find you learn a lot about stories by trying to figure out why the bad ones don’t work, and how they could be fixed.

(By the way, I finally figured out a satisfying — at least for me — ending to the movie Suicide Squad. It took a while.)

In the Johnny Dollar story, there is a murder, in the victim’s apartment. One wall of the apartment is full of photographs, of the victim’s past life. But when the body is discovered, some of the photos are missing, and some are defaced.

This is confusing, because it seems that some photos were removed in an effort to conceal a certain fact, and other ones were defaced in order to highlight the same fact.

So, had two different people been in the apartment that night, with different agendas? Johnny Dollar and the local cop investigating the murder toss around different explanations over the course of the story.

But at the end, when the murderer is revealed, the pictures are never mentioned. There is an explanation that you can figure out — though not a really great one — but you have to go back and piece it together yourself (and remember, radio audiences back then wouldn’t have had that option).

In real life, I imagine, if you’re looking for a criminal, you’re happy when you succeed. But in a story, if there’s a clue, there needs to be an explanation at the end, particularly if the clue has been built up over the course of the story as the thing that’s particularly baffling about the case.

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ran much longer than most of the detective shows that I listen to — clear to 1962. The broadcast of the last episode, followed by the show Suspense right after it, is generally regarded as the end of old-time radio. Television had taken over drama and comedy and variety by then, and radio was focused on music, news, and talk, as it is today.

** This reminds me of the time when my father was reading a mystery novel before bed every night. He said that he thought the writing was good, but the plot didn’t really hold together. He was most of the way through the book, reading a little bit before sleep every night, when he realized it was not a novel at all but a book of short stories.

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