Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Close, but no cigar


Here's a phrase that one hears on occasion, particularly when someone has just missed the mark:
Close, but no cigar.

It sounds pretty old-timey, right? Maybe even used in the 19th century? After all, cigars have been around for a looooong time.
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As it turns out, close, but no cigar is a relative newcomer, and of U.S. origin to boot... At least, according to The Phrase Finder, which says:
The phrase, and its variant 'nice try, but no cigar', are of US origin and date from the mid-20th century. Fairground stalls gave out cigars as prizes, and this is the most likely source, although there's no definitive evidence to prove that.
It is very much an American expression and is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of 'close but no cigar' in print is in Sayre and Twist's publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: "Close, Colonel, but no cigar!"

Mid-20th century??

I don't believe it. It's got to be older than that.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms places it in early 1900s, which pushes it back some. After some digging, I found the phrase in a 1929 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly:



And another mention in a 1925 issue of The New Yorker:



This post by Barry Popik (a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Yale Book of Quotations and Dictionary of Modern Proverbs) has some fascinating detail about the origin of the phrase. Popik notes that carnival games featuring cigars for prizes dates to late 1800s, early 1900s. Still, even assuming the phrase was in use in speech before it finally appeared in print, I'd better not have the words fly out of my 1880s characters' mouths (or intrude on their thoughts). That would DEFINITELY be a "no cigar" situation.

Good try, lads, but I don't think she's interested. (Close, but no cigar.)
By Peter Baumgartner - Palais Dorotheum, Wien, 12. April 2011, lot 67, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16052963


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

"Kitten Britches" and other Southern slang by Guest Author Jane Tesh


Please welcome guest author Jane Tesh! A retired media specialist, Jane lives in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, Andy Griffith’s hometown, the real Mayberry.  She is the author of the Madeline MaclinMystery series featuring former beauty queen, Madeline “Mac” Maclin and her con man husband, Jerry Fairweather, as well as the Grace Street series, featuring struggling PI David Randall, his friend Camden, a reluctant psychic, and an ever-changing assortment of tenants who move in and out of Cam’s boarding house on Grace Street. (You can buy the 6th Grace Street book, Death by Dragonfly, here.) Her mysteries, published by Poisoned Pen Press, are set in fictional North Carolina towns and are on the light side with a little humor and romance. She is also the author of four fantasy novels, Butterfly Waltz, A Small Holiday, The Monsters of Spiders’ Rest, and Over the Edge, published by Silver Leaf Books.  When she isn’t writing, Jane enjoys playing the piano and conducting the orchestra for productions at the Andy Griffith Playhouse.

For more about Jane and her books, visit Jane’s website and her Facebook page. She also blogs and occasionally tweets.
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What in the world are "kitten britches?"
Image by Edwin Valencia from Pixabay
I’ve lived in North Carolina all my life, and I grew up with lots of Southern sayings. I didn’t think much about them until my friends from other parts of the country would say, “Um, Jane, what do you mean ‘tight as a tick’?” or “Why do you say you ‘might could’? You might and you could, but ‘might could’?” and “What in the world are ‘kitten britches’?”

As a writer, I love words, and I realized my Southern heritage had bequeathed a goldmine to me.

When I started writing my Grace Street Mystery Series, I knew I wanted one of the characters to be what we in the South call a Good Old Boy. A Good Old Boy is a big old friendly fellow you can always count on if your tractor breaks down or you need help moving heavy furniture or getting the crop in. You can find them hanging around gas stations and repair shops, chewing tobacco and having a beer or two, chatting about hunting and fishing. This type of man often looks deceptively slow but has a razor sharp wit and a fondness for Southern slang. My Good Old Boy is Rufus Jackson and he’s one of the tenants in Camden’s boarding house at 302 Grace Street in the fictional city of Parkland, NC.

Happy goat!
Image by christels from Pixabay
Having a boarding house allows me to move characters in and out as the series progresses. My PI, David Randall, is also a tenant and has his office in the downstairs parlor. Cam is psychic and helps Randall solve his cases. Sometimes Rufus helps out, too, but he’s mainly there to provide the color commentary. Here are a few of my favorite sayings, so they are Rufus’s favorites, too.

My mother had two favorites that I borrowed. One is “He’s as happy as a goat eatin’ briars.” (My brother raises goats, and they are happy eating anything.) The other is “It’s a poor dog that don’t bury a bone.” I think she wanted her children to prepare for the future!

I’m sure most of you have heard “The porch light’s on but nobody’s home” to describe someone who might not be very smart. “Not enough buckwheat in his pancakes” or “A pickle short of a jar.” There are so many sayings like this I couldn’t list them all.
  • “He’s so dumb, he couldn’t find his ass with both hands in his back pockets.”
  • “Her cornbread ain’t cooked in the middle.”
  • “He’s got a hole in his screen door.”
  • “She’s parked too far from the curb.”
  • “His belt don’t go through all the loops.”
  • “Got a hole in her screen door.”
  • “The cheese done slid off her cracker.”
  • “If brains were dynamite, he wouldn’t have enough to blow his nose.”
  • “He’s three gallons of crazy in a two gallon bucket.”
Then there are the “so” sayings for folks with special talents or attributes.
  • “She’s so tall, if she fell down she’d be halfway home.”
  • “He’s so stingy he wouldn’t give you air out of a jug.”
  • “She’s so cross-eyed, when she cries the tears roll down her back.”
  • “He’s so narrow-minded, he can look through a keyhole with both eyes at the same time.”
  • “She’s so late, she’d hold up a two-car funeral.”
  • “I’m so hungry I could eat a raw dog backwards” or “I’m so hungry I could eat the stuffin’ out of a rag doll.” (Neither option sounds appealing.)
  • “I’m so poor I can’t afford to pay attention.”
  • “There’s so much food here it’s more than I can say grace over.”
  • “I’m gonna slap you so hard when you quit rollin’ your clothes’ll be outta style.”
And my all time favorite saying which describes someone who looks unwell is “She looked like Death eatin’ a cracker.” Why a cracker, I don’t know. I’ve also heard “She looked like Death suckin’ a sponge.” But I prefer eating a cracker. I can just imagine the Grim Reaper chomping on a Saltine.

As for “Kitten britches,” this is one my Mother always used. After a storm, if you see enough blue sky to make a pair of kitten britches, then the storm is over.

If you have a favorite saying, I’d love to hear it. Perhaps Rufus will use it in a future Grace Street adventure. And be careful if you’re having too much fun because “Sometimes whee is a rat in your pocket.” 

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Plotting or Pantsing? Or both? by Guest Author Michael Stanley (aka Michael Sears and Stan Trollip)

Michael Sears
Stanley Trollip
Please welcome authors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write under the name Michael Stanley. Their award-winning mystery series, featuring Detective Kubu, is set in Botswana, a fascinating country with magnificent conservation areas and varied peoples. The latest book in the series is a prequel, titled Facets of Death. It starts the first day Kubu joins the Botswana CID, and he’s immediately thrown into solving a violent heist of rough diamonds from Jwaneng—the world’s richest diamond mine. Their latest thriller Shoot the Bastards introduces Minnesotan environmental journalist Crystal Nguyen. Set mainly in South Africa, it has as backstory the vicious trade in rhino horn.

Michael has lived in South Africa, Kenya, Australia, and the US. He now lives in Knysna on the Cape south coast of South Africa. Stanley splits his time between Minneapolis and Cape Town. For more information, check out their website or their Amazon author page. You can also find them on Facebook, Twitter, and at the blog Murder Is Everywhere.
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When we started our first book, A Carrion Death, we didn’t have much idea about how to write a mystery. We’d written lots of non-fiction, but we’d never tried our hands at fiction. What we had was a premise. The premise had come to us in Botswana’s Chobe National Park after watching hyenas devour a young wildebeest. They ate everything except the horns and hooves. We speculated on what they would do to a human corpse. Nothing would be left. Nothing at all. What a wonderful way of getting rid of a body, we thought! Especially if you had a particular reason that the body should not under any circumstances be recognized.

Michael wrote the first chapter and sent it to Stanley. He was as intrigued and puzzled about the half eaten corpse found in the desert as were the ranger and scientist who found it. What happens next? he asked. Michael didn’t have the faintest idea...
What happens next??

When Detective Kubu went out to the area to investigate, we still didn’t know. We had lots of ideas, but we were coming to grips with all the issues around writing fiction. We’d been told to write about what we knew, so our plan was to have the scientist as hero. But Kubu ignored us and took over, shouldered the academic out of the limelight, and started investigating. He made one discovery after another, leaving a trail of dead plots in his wake.

We can’t imagine a more seat-of-the-pants (pantsing) approach than this. Kubu pulled us up by his bootstraps. Or is that our bootstraps? It was great fun! Maybe there was a freshness and excitement that came from the plot twisting and turning around us as it coalesced. It was also scary, but we weren’t working to a deadline. In the end, after three years, we were left with a plot that we were comfortable with, but also with a strong feeling that this was a very inefficient way to write a book.

When we started the second book, we were convinced that all this chaos was a spinoff of the fact that we knew nothing about writing fiction. It was only much later that we discovered that many
Mind maps!
mystery writers do it that way—pantsing to enjoy the discovery of what’s going on as much as the reader. By the second book, we thought we were experts. We knew better. We spent a lot of time plotting and arguing, rejecting ideas, following twists, taking turns. We had mind maps that couldn’t fit on the dining room table. And eventually we had a plot that we felt held up and that would lead to none of the dead ends that had cost us tens of thousands of discarded words in the first book. We sent our publisher an outline of The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu and while a few extra embellishments occurred during writing as the characters developed and insisted on doing things their way, the final manuscript followed it pretty closely. We felt that now we understood how to write mystery novels. This, we decided, must be how all the professionals do it!


Our third book was a compromise between the two approaches. The first book was chaos, enjoyable chaos, and ultimately successful chaos—a true example of writing by the seat of your pants. Our second was planned and manicured. Successful too, we believe. An example of plotting and careful execution. Our third was somewhere in between. Our careful plot didn’t work, and we had to pants it out in the end.

Since then, we’ve become committed pantsers.

One result of this rather unstructured writing style, and the fact that Kubu took over as our protagonist without asking us, is that Kubu was quite unplanned. As we went along, we learned more about him, his school, his parents and his wife, but we had no idea how he’d developed into the Criminal Investigation Department’s star detective. Did he make mistakes? How did he learn? We felt that we needed to know the answers, so we decided to write a prequel that starts on the day Kubu joins the police as a new detective in 1998 (Facets of Death).


We also had the idea of a huge diamond heist from the Jwaneng mine in Botswana—the world’s richest diamond mine. If that had happened at the height of the diamond boom, could it have led to a collapse in the Botswana economy? That was a premise we could explore in a pantsing style. We started with the heist and let it play out, feeling the familiar panic when we neared the end of the book and realized that we had no way of catching the kingpin behind the crime.

The book had a plotting aspect as well, forced on us by it being a prequel. We wanted to explore Kubu as a young detective, but we knew where he would end up. He had to become a successful detective. He had to find his wife. His boss had to become director of the Criminal Investigation Department. In short, he had to develop into the present-day character our readers know and enjoy.


What we’ve learned over eight books is that there is no right or wrong way to develop a story. The majority of mystery writers seem to be pantsers, but there are plenty of big names who are plotters. For example, Jeffrey Deaver writes an extensive outline of each book, and then fleshes it out over a few months to get the complete novel.

Writing is a very personal process. Probably each writer (or writing team) has to find the style that works best for them. And it may change from book to book… 


Thursday, January 30, 2020

The curtain rises and the music begins

Interrupting my usual every-Wednesday schedule to say...

Silver Rush series covers with newest, Mortal Music, prominent

I have buy links for all the usual venues here.

Wishing you all a good weekend!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: For a song


When you can obtain something for a song, you expect to get it inexpensively, right? In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer defines the phrase as meaning "very cheaply, for little money, especially for less than something is worth" and gives an example straight out of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well:
I know a man... sold a goodly manor for a song.
So how long has this idiom been around, and why would it refer to buying on the cheap?

Any guesses?
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Ammer places its first appearance in the late 1500s (well, Shakespeare, after all) and notes:
"This idiom alludes to the pennies given to street singers or to the small cost of sheet music." The Free Dictionary says pretty much the same: "The ultimate origin of this phrase is probably the practice, in former times, of selling written copies of ballads very cheaply at fairs." According to this entry, the expression was in common use by the mid-17th century.

TheIdioms.com goes with a first appearance in the 1500s and agrees that the phrase probably refers to street singers, adding, "They would stand on the side of the street and people would give them pennies. Singing was not seen as a large accomplishment as it could be done by everyone. Therefore, you would not be paid much for it."


Singing... not a large accomplishment???
The idiom is probably related to street singers. They would stand on the side of the street and people would give them pennies. Singing was not seen as a large accomplishment as it could be done by everyone. Therefor, you would not be paid much for it. You would also have to pay for sheet music (1500s.) (Theidioms.com)
The idiom is probably related to street singers. They would stand on the side of the street and people would give them pennies. Singing was not seen as a large accomplishment as it could be done by everyone. Therefor, you would not be paid much for it. You would also have to pay for sheet music (1500s.) (Theidioms.com)
The idiom is probably related to street singers. They would stand on the side of the street and people would give them pennies. Singing was not seen as a large accomplishment as it could be done by everyone. Therefor, you would not be paid much for it. You would also have to pay for sheet music (1500s.) (Theidioms.com)
The idiom is probably related to street singers. They would stand on the side of the street and people would give them pennies. Singing was not seen as a large accomplishment as it could be done by everyone. Therefor, you would not be paid much for it. You would also have to pay for sheet music (1500s.) (Theidioms.com)
The idiom is probably related to street singers. They would stand on the side of the street and people would give them pennies. Singing was not seen as a large accomplishment as it could be done by everyone. Therefor, you would not be paid much for it. You would also have to pay for sheet music (1500s.) (Theidioms.com)
The idiom is probably related to street singers. They would stand on the side of the street and people would give them pennies. Singing was not seen as a large accomplishment as it could be done by everyone. Therefor, you would not be paid much for it. You would also have to pay for sheet music (1500s.) (Theidioms.com)
The idiom is probably related to street singers. They would stand on the side of the street and people would give them pennies. Singing was not seen as a large accomplishment as it could be done by everyone. Therefor, you would not be paid much for it. You would also have to pay for sheet music (1500s.) (Theidioms.com)
The idiom is probably related to street singers. They would stand on the side of the street and people would give them pennies. Singing was not seen as a large accomplishment as it could be done by everyone. Therefor, you would not be paid much for it. You would also have to pay for sheet music (1500s.) (Theidioms.com)

Theia Carrington Drake, my fictional prima donna who takes center stage in my newest Silver Rush historical mystery, MORTAL MUSIC, would vehemently disagree.


You won't get this kind of singing for a song.
By Thomas Rowlandson - JwFP_imNhhV_iw at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, Link




Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Face the music


In my newest Silver Rush novel MORTAL MUSIC, several characters—including prima donna Theia Carrington Drake—must face the music as the story unfolds.

Since I'm exploring music-related slang this month, this seems like the perfect time to dig into the origins of this idiom. On the surface, to face the music sounds enjoyable—what's not to like about experiencing a musical interlude? (Unless it's really loud or not to your liking, of course.) But the definition of this phrase is anything but pleasant: to meet, take, or accept the consequences of one's mistakes, actions. 

So, what's the origin, and why isn't facing the music a more welcome prospect?
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PhraseFinder's thorough entry reflects my musing before giving a shrug:
The phrase 'face the music' has an agreeable imagery. We feel that we can picture who was facing what and what music was playing at the time. Regrettably, the documentary records don't point to any clear source for the phrase and we are, as so often, at the mercy of plausible speculation...
 Two possibilities offered up are:
  1. It reflects the tradition of disgraced officers being "drummed out" of their regiment
  2. It originated in the theater world: Actors "face the music" when they go onstage and face the orchestra pit.
The PhraseFinder notes the phrase first popped up in U.S., with one of its earliest appearances in The New Hampshire Statesman & State Journal in August 1834:
Will the editor of the Courier explain this black affair. We want no equivocation - 'face the music' this time.
My copy of American Slang: Second Edition, edited by Robert L. Chapman, has the phrase in use by 1850 and offers two possible sources:
  1. It might have come about from the necessity of forcing a cavalry horse to steadily face the regimental band.
  2. It refers to the plight of a performer on stage.
I'm going to go with the second suggestions in both cases. For me and MORTAL MUSIC, it hits the right note!

Unlike some of my characters, this singer is prepared to face the music.
By Ivan Kramskoi - The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6359697
POSTSCRIPT: In the comments to this post, Liz V notes she found another "origin story" for face the music on the World Wide Words blog site. Theory: That it comes from contra dancing (which I also had to look up... :-) ). Thank you, Liz!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Chin music


As promised, here's another musical idiom to herald the upcoming release of the seventh book in my Silver Rush series, MORTAL MUSIC:

 Chin music.

I'll confess, this is a new one to me. Not that it's "new." In fact, it apparently first appeared almost two centuries ago...

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According to American Slang, Second Edition, edited by Robert L. Chapman Ph.D., chin music has several definitions, depending on the context. It can mean:
  1. talk, especially inconsequential chatter or chitchat (first appeared in 1830s)
  2. various kinds of raucous shouting at a baseball game, from the crowd, from the players to each other, from the players or manager to the umpires, etc. (by 1880s)
  3. a pitched ball that passes close to the batter's face; a beanball (by the 1980s)
I checked this one on Google's ngram, and sure enough, there it is, going waaaay back.



I dug a little deeper and found several 19th-century examples, including the one below from Potter's American Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine of History, Literature, Science and Art, Volumes 10–11 (1878).

Chin music would fit right in with my Silver Rush series. So is this idiom new to you as well? Or is it just me?
A chin-music ensemble? (Cue the accompanist, entering the room.)
By Eugene de Blaas - Art Renewal Center, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7753932