Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Long Winding Road

POW cemetery, Fort Reno, August 2008, Pat Browning photo.

"Jammin'" with the locals,Tangier, mid-1970s

Two things stand out in my mind when I think of Tangier.

One, is the first time I set foot in that little bit of North Africa just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain. I checked into the hotel, unpacked, put on my caftan and strolled into the bar. The piano player looked up, smiled, and began to play “As Time Goes By.” I was flattered, and flustered, and I fell in love with Morocco. As I wrote in a travel article, “If Morocco had not existed, Hollywood would have invented it.”

The second thing that sticks in my mind came a couple of years later, when I was one of three American tourists on the boat from Spain. We were surrounded by a group of boisterous German tourists. I said to my friends – loudly, to be heard over the noise – “I wonder what Rommel and Patton would think.”

Sudden silence, with everyone staring at me. I don’t know how much English the Germans understood, but the name “Rommel” struck a chord with them. That was in the late 1970s, when World War II was within living memory of most people. I’m tempted to say that today’s Germans wouldn’t turn a hair at the mention of Rommel and Patton.

Then again … Rommel is a legendary figure, the “Desert Fox” whose Afrika Korps drove the British out of Libya, the dissident who was allowed to commit suicide and save his family from the shame of a trial for treason. Or did he commit suicide? There’s one story that the choice given him was not suicide or a trial, but a bullet in the head or a trial, and he chose the bullet. Just a story. We will never know for sure. Everyone involved is dead.

But the result was the same. It was announced that he had died of a brain seizure. He was given a hero’s funeral, and his family name was untarnished. His son, Manfred, grew up to become a popular political figure, serving as mayor of Stuttgart from 1976 to 1994.

In a strange twist to the story, Gen. George S. Patton IV became commanding officer of the U.S. 2nd Armored Division, a unit his father had commanded in North Africa against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The 2nd Armored Division at the time of Patton's command was billeted near the city of Stuttgart. Manfred Rommel and George S.Patton IV, the sons of the two former adversaries, became friends.

Now, long after the battle for North Africa, and long after my trip through the Strait of Gibraltar with a boatload of Germans, I’m living within 20 miles of Fort Reno, last resting place of 70 POWS from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The graves are lined up neatly in a stone-walled enclosure at the back of the post cemetery.

Fort Reno has been an agricultural research station since 1947, but in its heyday, during the Indian Wars and two World Wars, it was a thriving community of horses, mules, military men, Buffalo Soldiers, Indians, and prisoners of war.
In 1943, with World War II in full swing, 1,000 German prisoners captured in North Africa arrived at the Fort Reno POW camp. The camp was almost like a country club, with prisoners enjoying considerable freedom. After all, escape was useless. They were in the middle of nowhere, on the rolling Oklahoma plains, and if they managed to walk away, there was no place to go. Their stay at Fort Reno is an interesting story, but too long to tell here.

For more than 50 years, the POW graves have been in a quiet, peaceful place. I think, if they weren’t so far from home, the German soldiers would like it there.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

First, You Have to Buy a Ticket

I heard a joke once about a woman who prayed to win the lottery. Her prayers were fervent, and she prayed them every day. "Please, God, let me win the lottery." Finally, after years of this, the woman died. She stood before the pearly gates and said, "Lord, I prayed and prayed. Why didn't you ever let me win the lottery?"

And God said, "Well, first, you have to buy a ticket."

I've been thinking about this a lot, because my second book is finished and looking for a home, a traditional publisher this time, because the self-publishing route is really a difficult row to hoe, at least for fiction. I've written query letters, pitched agents, even sent the manuscript off a few times and gotten the inevitable rejections. I really felt like I was putting it out there.

Then a friend of mine went to Thrillerfest and came back with a story from bestselling thriller writer Jim Rollins. I believe I mentioned it last week, the one where Jim was describing his road to publication and said that the agent who accepted his first novel was agent number 50. That's when I realized that sending a manuscript to two agents in two years is not really "putting it out there." In essence, I've been trying to win the lottery without buying a ticket.

I've been treating finding a publisher like something I'd like to do and not something I really want. There is a huge difference in those two things. I'd like to lose 50 pounds, but I want a pint of Haagen Dazs chocolate chocolate chip ice cream. I'd like to go rafting down the Amazon, but I want to snuggle with my puppy in a temperature-controlled, mosquito-free environment where I am unlikely to be sucked under the rapids and bashed brainless against a rock. The things we'd like to do rarely get done; it's the things we want that we work to achieve.

So here's what I've done to move finding a publisher from my list of "like-to's" to my list of "do at all costs." I've submitted a partial to a publisher who requested it; I made a list of 100 agents and small presses that take unagented responses (James Rollins did it in 50, but it's always good to have a spare, right?); I'm in the process of looking up each agent's submission requirements and enough information about them to personalize my query letter and explain why I chose them. I've written a generic query I can tweak and four synopses of different lengths. And I've begin submitting. I expect to have a publisher before I get to agent 100, but if I don't, guess what? I'll make a new list.

I'm finally buying a ticket.

Maybe the thing you want is different from mine. Maybe it's a college degree or to see your artwork in a gallery or to win a blue ribbon in a horsemanship class. Maybe you're already on your way to achieving it. But if you're still wishing and waiting, the first step is always the same: get out there and buy a ticket.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I Knew I Was Dead

A funny thing happened on the way back from an airshow. It was years ago, but the photo in my office still makes me smile—and shudder.

At the time, I was an Air Force pilot instructing advanced jet students, but this particular flight made my apprentices look brilliant. I had fabricated a military “strip chart” to fly the bi-plane I built from Lubbock, Texas, to Marana airpark near Phoenix. My compass was so-so, but since I navigated by the sun and section lines, it was never a problem. (Okay, I’ll admit I also read road signs and the names on water towers, but none existed during this particular adventure.)

All was fine on the way out, but the cold front that pushed through the morning I was leaving forced me to deviate off my strip chart. No problem, I mused, having gone through pilot training in that region. But that “warm and fuzzy” feeling quickly vanished as everything looks different at the altitude I was flying. The strong tailwind was great for heading east, but posed a significant problem if I turned back, so I pressed on, hoping I’d make Albuquerque before my fuel tanks ran dry.

When I rounded a mountainous bend, a wall of weather closed the door on my plans. My only choice was to land and wait it out. At times like this, it’s best to have an airfield nearby, but today, a two-lane road would do. All I needed was a break in the traffic. While waiting for that to happen, I spotted a turnoff where I could pull the plane off the road. I ended up landing behind an RV that probably bore a bumper sticker reading, “Spending Our Kid’s Inheritance.” I swung the tail around at the turnoff and pulled the plane behind the stop sign, in front of the cattle crossing.

So there I was, somewhere in New Mexico at 7,000 feet, freezing in my cotton Tee and denim jacket. All I needed was someone to point me towards Albuquerque and the weather to clear. I figured my first need would have been the easiest, but no one wanted to approach me or my airplane. Apparently, they figured my red, white, and blue bi-plane was the perfect rig for running drugs. Yeah, right.

I must have stared at the “no trespassing” signs across the street for an hour before getting the courage to ignore them. I parted the cattle inside like Moses did the Red Sea, marching toward the ranch house, certain its owner would fire a warning shot, followed by one through my chest. With my heart hammering, I rang the doorbell, knocked on the door, and peered into windows, but that wasn’t enough to convince me the gun-toting rancher wouldn’t appear from behind a wall. But with no sign of human life anywhere, I had no choice but to retreat.

By now, the weather had cleared and I was eager to leave. I was about forty feet from my airplane when a car pulled up to it. I sprinted directly at my plane, flinging mud off my shoes and onto my head. Apparently my running spooked the driver because the car sped off just before I got there. But just to show that God was enjoying my predicament, a pickup truck drove down the same dirt road my airplane and I were blocking. Thankfully, the driver stopped, and I was able to ask for a vector to Albuquerque. He pointed toward a hill, I thanked him, fired up my plane, and took off, spotting New Mexico’s capitol thirty minutes later. When I landed, I pictured the pickup driver sharing a drink with the RV’s occupants.

Thankfully, I never got shot, the cattle didn’t stampede, and I never ran out of gas, but I must admit those things had me going for a while. Then again, isn’t it the element of uncertainty that makes stories fun?

The Making of a Character

By Chester Campbell

Where do fictional characters come from? Technically, I suppose they boil out of that scrambled egg-looking gray matter known as our right brain. That’s generally acknowledged as the creative hot spot. But how do they get to be who they are? Sometimes they are based loosely on a real person we know, someone who possesses the characteristics we’re looking for. But for me, at least, most of them are manufactured out of pure imagination from the get-go.

There are good software programs that lead you through the process of creating characters, but I’m a seat-of-the-pants type of writer. I don’t do detailed plotting, so it is a given for me that I would bypass detailed devices for use in character development. You might say I prefer spontaneity.

If it’s a primary character, I usually start with a sketch. I write down most of the essentials, such as where and when he or she was born, who were the parents, what kind of schooling did the person have, work experience, personal entanglements—marriage, divorce, lovers, etc.

Interestingly enough, any of this may change during the writing process. For example, a character may become involved in some activity that requires prior knowledge or experience. I wasn’t aware this might happen, so I’m not prepared for it. Which brings up the beauty of fiction writing. If you need something to have happened in the past, you go back and put it in the past. Or, if necessary, you go back and change the past.

Such power! No wonder some writers tend to ooze an aura of godliness.

There are many other facets of a character that need to be worked into the story, such as an idiosyncrasy that sets him apart from others. He may have a different pattern of speech, some favorite expression, or a physical abnormality. The most memorable characters are those the reader is able to remember as uniquely different from others she has encountered.

I should add that not all of the information contained in the sketch will find its way onto the printed page. However, all of that good stuff is there to add depth if needed. Also, characters tend to mature and change as the story develops. One thing I should point out here is that although I don’t consciously plot in advance, when I’m writing a character sketch, the person’s actions involving certain plot points inevitably sneak into the picture. It’s part of the process I call unfolding of the story. I guess it’s the old right brain in action.

For more minor characters, less background is needed. Perhaps a few descriptive sentences and a brief mention of his past. The object, of course, is to create living, breathing people. If you don’t make them seem real, reviewers will thrash you for writing “cardboard” characters. Those are the literary equivalent of stick characters that kids draw.

I’m aware that several whole books have been written on how to build characters, so my little blog can only skim the surface. It’s simply my attempt to answer the number two question readers ask of writers. Number One, of course, is where do you get your ideas? That’s a whole ‘nother ballgame that’s been played so many times it will probably be an Olympic sport at the 2012 games in London..

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sword of Damocles

Having failed to murder my neighbor, for the moment at least ― I gotta give this effort some time, since my wife’s now visiting him on a regular basis and I think he suspects I’ve been trying to kill him ― I’m fixing my sights on others who need to go. I’ll be the Sword of Damocles, hanging with my blade ― or a Glock if it suits me better ― by a horsehair over useless people of power. Power To The People, huh? How about reversing that a bit.

Heh, heh, heh. A role I’ll relish.

Targets. Gotta find targets if my blade is gonna swing.

Politicians are too easy. Everybody wants to kill them. I’d have to stand in line. And no lawyers. I’m a lawyer. Put your guns down.

How about realtors? Nobody likes them. And I’ve got a couple in my sights now.

What is it about realtors? They tell you what you want to hear when they’re looking for a listing. “What? You think that trailer with the leaky roof sitting on a fire ant mound is worth three million dollars? Sounds good to me.” Then, as soon as you sign the listing agreement, they start tearing your place down. “Well, you did live in that house, you know, and it only has seven bedrooms. And your marble bathroom floors are slippery. That’s a safety defect. We can’t let anyone walk in there. The market is telling you three dollars is the right price. You should accept that offer.”

And what about the offer/counteroffer scenario? You know these realtors go back and forth on their iPhones and then sit around sipping wine, playing Tetris, and cracking jokes with the office staff until enough time passes that they can call their client and say they had a long, heated negotiation with the other side and their panel of experts.

Negotiation? Hah! Pricing was decided in about three seconds. “Well, increase our offer by a dollar.” The rest of the "negotiation" focused on dreaming up new criticisms to pass on to the seller. “Oh, and your Venetian Plaster looks old. The stuccoing might flake sometime in the next ten years.” Or “the buyers think your chimney may fall on the children next door during the next hundred year storm.” Or “the buyers want you to warrant that no chemicals have ever been used on the lawn.” Or “your view of the lake isn’t the best. You can’t see any fish from any of the third story windows.” Or "the fish look smaller here than elsewhere on the lake." Or "your boathouse is near the water. It may be damp inside." Or "you're on the windy side. A breeze might blow out the buyers' candles."

The realtor's license exam must have a section on creative criticisms, plus one on the art of the smile during a client's disembowelment.

Recently, we had a real kicker. Seems the buyers’ realtor snuck somebody in to look over a house we’re selling. A structural engineer, they told us later. No permission sought. Then the “structural engineer” claimed our deck was unsafe. No report, no reason why. Our realtor called us in a panic, said she’d have to put safety tape across the deck so nobody would walk on it. We should accept the buyer’s low ball offer. “Who is this guy?” we asked. Our realtor hadn’t bothered to inquire, and hadn’t raised any objection to the buyers’ bringing in a “home inspector” without our knowledge or presence. So we did a little research ourselves. Turns out, this guy’s not a structural engineer at all, not even an engineer. Heck, he’s not even a licensed home inspector. He’s some schmo who bought a house just south of ours and then remodeled it. No experience or savvy on what changes pay off, and his place became the proverbial Money Pit. Now he can't sell it; it's been on the market for three years. So not only is Schmo-boy no expert or possess any license as one, he's a competitor. Our neighbor, who knows Schmo-boy and talked to him while he was at our place, says the guy was promoting his place and bad mouthing ours. But do you think our realtor looked into any of this, or even whether there was any safety defect at all?

Hah! It doesn’t work that way. Seems claiming a safety defect where there is none is just another tool in a realtor’s box of tricks.

So why not have a few less realtors? Heck, nothing’s moving in this real estate market anyway. Maybe nobody will miss ‘em.

Arranging this murder should be easy. I’ll just call a realtor and say I want to look at some houses. Give a fake name. But I’ll have to whisper. If I’m overheard, I might be trampled in the rush. Not many buyers these days.

The next step is even easier. We’ll just look at some houses. I won’t touch anything, and I’ll stuff a plastic rain poncho in my back pocket. And then when we get to a really nice house, I’ll unscabbard my sword and go medieval. Slice and dice. Sausage for the doggies.

And the best thing is, other realtors will applaud me. The buyers' and sellers' representatives will get together and register a new complaint about the property: “Well, you know, somebody was murdered on those floors.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Wormwood: A Little Dab'll Do Ya

1)My wormwood plant, 2007.

2)A glass of absinthe. Photo from the web site

of The Wormwood Society (Absinthe Assn.)

(From Full Circle by Pat Browning, Chapter 28.)

"Artemisia absinthium." Dr. Heff beamed. "Wonderful tonic. An old standby for digestive upset. Just here." He pointed with his clipper at several sturdy bushes, about three feet high, with pale yellow flowers and silver-green leaves that reminded me of Italian flat leaf parsley.

"Is there a downside?" I asked. "Is it safe?"

"Best left in the hands of experts," he said. "Oil of wormwood is extremely toxic, quite deadly. It's a traditional folk medicine but modern medicine replaces it with synthetics. It's still used for fragrance in soaps and cosmetics. And, of course, a minute amount for that bitter taste in vermouth."

No tape recorder. How could I be so stupid? "What happens if you get too much?"

"Convulsions, vomiting, hallucinations. Not a pleasant death." Sharing the information seemed to give him great pleasure.
By Pat Browning
How could I resist buying a wormwood plant when I used wormwood as a murder weapon in Full Circle? It's a summer bloomer so my plant looks a bit bedraggled in the photo I snapped. The morning I bought it the nurseryman had just turned the sprinkler on it, and it glistened like silver in the sunlight.

That was months ago, and our wild winter finally destroyed it, but at least I owned a legendary plant for a brief time. I was satisfied. I didn’t really want to keep it. There are kids and dogs everywhere in this apartment complex, and wormwood is not a friendly plant.
While I was researching wormwood for Full Circle, I came across some links for absinthe. Now there’s a name to conjure with. Wormwood is a basic ingredient in absinthe, and absinthe was illegal for years, except in Spain and one or two other countries. "The Green Fairy," it was called, and it took the rap, perhaps unjust, for destroying the minds of those who imbibed on a regular basis.

I thought back to my first visit to New Orleans years ago, and a famous bar, The Old Absinthe House, with its secret room where Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte plotted the Battle of New Orleans. New Orleans and its most famous dish, Oysters Rockefeller, made with absinthe—when absinthe was legal.

It didn’t take much imagination to introduce something called Oysters Merrily to my plot, with homemade absinthe concocted by a character whose herb garden contained wormwood.

Research also turned up a hereditary disease called porphyria. It has to do with metabolism disorders, and a form of it can lurk in the blood for years. An acute attack can be triggered by such everyday things as alcohol, dieting, infection, even herbal remedies.

All made to order for my book. My use of porphyria led to a surprising response after the book was published, but that's another story.

Meanwhile, absinthe has been declared legal again. It’s not something you just gulp down like a shot of Jack Daniels. For absinthe, you need a fancy glass, a fancy spoon, a sugar cube, ice water, patience, and a certain flair for the dramatic.

If you want an other-wordly experience, click on You Tube for a video of the preparation of absinthe. The background music is Chopin, Nocturne in D-flat Major, and it’s positively hypnotic. For Absinthe Ritual-Jade PF1901, click on:

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Dumbing Down of America

Submitted by Jean Henry Mead

You may have seen the following statistics, but they’re worth repeating. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents were fortunate to have only received an eighth grade education, which qualified them to teach, particularly in rural areas. But could any of us, present teachers included, pass the following exam for eighth grade graduation? (Salina, Kansas, 1895).

The grammar test time limit was one hour and consisted of the following questions:

1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters.
2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph.
4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of 'lie, 'play,' and 'run.'
5. Define case; illustrate each case.
6. What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation.
7. - 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

The arithmetic test time limit was one hour and fifteen minutes:

1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1,050 lbs. for tare?
4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find the cost of 6,720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards, 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per metre?
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods?
10. Write a bank check, a promissory note, and a receipt.

The U.S. History test time limit was 45 minutes:

1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided.
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus.
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States.
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas.
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton , Bell , Lincoln, Penn,and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

The Orthography test time limit was one hour:

1. What is meant by the following: alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication?
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals?
4. Give four substitutes for caret 'u.'
5 Give two rules for spelling words with final 'e.' Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi, dis, mis, pre, se mi, post, non, inter, mono, sup.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane , vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

The Geography quiz time limit was one hour:

1. What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of North America.
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia , Odessa , Denver, Manitoba , Hecla , Yukon , St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
7. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.

(Source: Salina, Kansas Journal newspaper)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Write?

By Beth Terrell

A few years ago, I went to a small conference in North Carolina. In the drawing room of a lovely old hotel, several authors spoke about the process and business of writing. I talked about editing and the multiple drafts it takes to get a book to the polished level professional authors strive to achieve. (Granted, a privileged few get it perfect the first time, every time, but they are mutant geniuses who must be course, I mean "honored.")

Anyway, I spoke about editing and gave out a handout with a number of steps toward, one hopes, scintillating writing. Then another talked about the process of finding an agent or publisher and getting your book accepted. Still another spoke on marketing and what it takes to make a living as a novelist.

One woman in the audience finally raised her hand, and said in a voice of quiet desperation, "But what if I don't want to do all that? What if I just want to write?"

At another conference, a would-be novelist said to me, "Our critique leader said I needed to read a lot if I want to write. But I hate to read. Do you think she's right?" Over the years, I've heard multiple variations on this theme. I love to write, but it seems so hard. Do I really have to do all this?

My answer is always, "It depends on what you want from your writing."

Yes, if you want to be successfully published, you have to read, you have to write, you have to edit and polish and edit again. You have to pursue a writing contract (or publish your book on your own), and once the book is out there, you have to market the heck out of it. It's a lot of work, and if you want to be the next Dennis Lehane or Janet Evanovitch, you have to make a real commitment to do it. Jim Rollins was accepted by the fiftieth agent he submitted to. J.K. Rowling submitted the first Harry Potter novel over 100 times. If your goal is to be a professional writer, you must do what it takes to make your work as good as it can be, and then never give up.

But if what you want is to put ideas down on paper for your own enjoyment, for catharsis, or so your children and grandchildren will someday read your words and know who you are, then all you have to do is put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and let fly. Writing is fun, and it's for everybody. There's no sign on the door that says "AMATEURS KEEP OUT."

That word, amateur, is sometimes used in a pejorative way, but it is not a pejorative term. My dictionary defines "amateur" as "a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons." That sounds like a great reason for writing--or doing any other form of art, for that matter. Oil painting, for example. I suspect there are millions of amateur painters out there, some of whom paint well, some of whom paint poorly, some of whom create exquisite works of art, but all of whom paint only for themselves or a few friends. No one thinks they should give up painting just because their work will never hang in a museum. The process of painting brings them joy, and that's enough.

But with writing, for some reason, there's a sense that, if you aren't writing for publication, you might as well hang up your laptop. Want proof? Every year, thousands of people join in a joyful frenzy of writing called NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month), in which the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. And every year, like clockwork, the "I-Hate-NaNoWriMo" blogs spring up like mushrooms. "These people have no business writing," they say. And, "The flood of horrible books makes it harder for us real writers to get published."

You never read rants by fine artists about how the millions of people for whom painting is a hobby are screwing it up for the real artists. So why do some writers think putting words on a page is the sole purview of the professionals?

There are a million reasons to write: creating characters that come to life on the page, building a world that once only existed in your mind, setting down a history of family stories that will otherwise be lost, getting an email that says, "I was reading snatches of your book at stoplights; I couldn't put it down." Of course, we mustn't forget the accolades and the six million dollar movie deal.

Me, I want the whole shebang--to be a full-time, published author, making a living doing the thing I love the most. The woman in my North Carolina audience wanted something different, and that's okay too.

That's the great thing about writing. Amateur or professional, we are richer for having done it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Man Beneath The Skin

A recent trip to the auto shop revealed an interesting aspect of the man I trust with my car. (Okay—the guy I mostly trust—or at least sometimes trust.) Chuck [not his real name] is a gentle giant. Always calm; very personable. He’s worked on my car for years, but I only know him at the surface level. The real question is who is the man beneath the skin?

Chuck’s C-5 Corvette offers some interesting insight into his character. Understandably, his windshield bears the dragon icon from his business, but then the car’s nose bears enough skulls to rival Notre Dame’s catacombs. And the skulls don’t stop there. Somehow they managed to sneak into the engine compartment, reproduce on the back side of the hood, and then migrate to some of the engine parts of this mega-charged 8000 horsepower machine. (Okay—perhaps 8000 is a slight exaggeration, but it’s still a big honkin’ engine.) Did I mention that there are more skulls on the back bumper? Hmmm—this guy’s spooky.

Seeing Chuck’s car creates a paradox about the man who drives this monster machine. Who is he really—a gentle giant or an ax murderer? Honestly, I’m not sure how I would define Chuck’s character if I had to testify about him in court. But that’s the beauty of it. Chuck doesn’t fall into the status quo.

In my younger days, I was on the receiving end of this paradox by outfitting myself in black leather and driving a motorcycle. On longer drives, I’d also wear my revolver to help ward off tailgaters. The problem came when I removed my helmet because my hair was short and I was polite, just like Chuck. So, in some people’s minds, both Chuck and I were, or at least could be, ax murderers. The reality is write about murder, and Chuck paints skulls on his car. (At least I think that’s all there is to it.)

Good writing incorporates characters like Chuck. They keep us guessing as to “who-done-it.” In fiction, Chuck could become the character that snaps and starts shooting from the bell tower or murders his family; a character from everyday life—someone we can relate to. So, the next time you’re out and about, think about what you really know about the people you trust, let your mind wander a bit, and see what kind of scenarios you come up with. When you approach writing this way, it’s never a struggle to find interesting characters.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

My Crime Scene Analysis Sucks

By Chester Campbell

It’s a good thing my fictional sleuths are seasoned pros at their jobs. I would need a lot more training and experience to take on a case. That became obvious when I visited the mock crime scene set up for the Killer Nashville conference last weekend.

The scenario and the mock-up were devised by Dan Royse, who heads a CSI unit called the Violent Crime Response Team for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. He’s a 27-year-veteran forensic investigator. To give myself a little consolation, I was in a hurry and didn’t spend as much time as I should have in checking out the scene. I also didn’t follow Dan’s hint at one point, something that would have made a difference.

A small meeting room at the Marriott provided the setting. Several printed sheets gave all the necessary details, including everyone who had visited the crime scene. It was taped off, though we were allowed access since we were the CSI agents.

When you walked through the door, you saw chairs set up for a meeting, with a lectern in front. A few chairs were overturned. A fully-clothed body (okay, a dummy) lay on its back in front of the lectern. Blood, some kind of red stuff, anyway, discolored the shirt where a bullet had gone in. An apparent knife slash cut through the right pants leg and the leg itself, above the knee, leaving a large pool of blood on the floor (if you’re with Marriott, don’t worry—the entire room was covered with plastic).

A chair held four plastic containers with the contents of the dead guy’s pockets. An open briefcase lay on a table at the back of the setup. Several sheets promoting a self-publishing deal spread out next to it. A McDonald’s bag with wadded up burger wrappers and a receipt sat on the floor beside the table.

In brief, here’s the scenario:

The deceased had booked the room for a seminar that evening. He was seen entering the room earlier in the day, but no one reported observing him leave. Nobody heard any kind of disturbance. Late in the afternoon, a maid came in to check the room, saw the body, and freaked out. The manager arrived, saw the blood, and called 911. Paramedics came, a crime scene investigator, and a detective. Dan Royse provided the CSI’s tool box, which we were free to use. It included a small but intense flashlight, which he suggested would help find clues.

Good (for nothing) investigator that I am, I checked the pocket contents and found a small bag of white powder (aha, a user?). His billfold held lots of nice fake money. I don’t think Dan trusted us—a wise choice considering mystery writers aren’t well paid. It also included a condom and photos of small kids. The corpse wore a wedding band. A philanderer, no doubt.

Moving through the scene, I noted a pair of blue rubber gloves on the floor where they had been pulled off and dropped. A few feet from the body, beside the overturned chairs, shreds of a raw sweet potato were scattered about. Being as dense as the dummy, I had no idea what that meant. I saw one of my fellow writers shining the flashlight around the body, but he didn’t seem to find anything of interest.

I went through the briefcase next. His checkbook showed lots of payments for similar seminars at motels around the country. Leafing through the remaining checks, I noted one missing that had not been entered in the register. It had to be a significant clue, I thought.

A letter in the case detailed several lawsuits he faced from people who had paid him big money to produce books but received nothing in return. Hmm, sounded like some publishers I knew of. The authors were listed and the names of their books. Other papers indicated the scammer had operated under several different publisher names.

At that point, I had to leave to attend another panel session and didn’t make it back before the competition ended. The one who came closest to describing what had happened would win free registration for next year’s Killer Nashville conference. Chicken that I am, I didn’t try to figure it out but came back for Dan’s briefing on the solution.

As he pointed out the clues, I shook my head. I missed a large blood-stained, military-style knife lying beneath a chair. I also missed a cartridge case on the floor near the table, and Dan got down, laying his flashlight on the floor, to show how it illuminated a metal jacket separated from the lead bullet in back of the lectern. It was a 9mm fired from a semiautomatic (Dan is a firearms specialist). I had seen blood on a newspaper at the body’s feet but didn’t notice it contained the shoe print of a military boot.

The real kicker, which I never even considered, involved the checkbook. If you held up the next check and shined the light on it, you could clearly read the impression made from the writing on the missing check. It showed the amount owed to one of the defrauded writers, plus his name on the “For” line.

Here’s what happened:

The murderer came into the room, his gun hidden by the McDonald’s bag, and demanded his money. When the scammer gave a lame excuse, the pulled the gun and tossed the bag on the floor. The “publisher” said he’d write a check for what he owed. Which he did. But the writer knew as soon as he left, the guy would stop payment on the check. So he took a sweet potato from his pocket, jammed it into the gun barrel as a silencer and pointed it at the victim, who began to back away, knocking over chairs. The murderer fired a shot into his chest and he stumbled, falling in front of the lectern.

From the military clues (the guy’s book title involved Desert Storm), it appeared he was a savvy fighter. Though the victim was disabled, he wasn’t dead. The ex-Green Beret, or whatever, took out the knife, knowing exactly how to use it, and slashed the femoral artery. The scammer quickly bled out.

The killer tossed the knife on the floor, knowing it couldn’t be traced to him but the blood would be hard to explain if found on him. He unwisely left the McDonald’s bag. The receipt showed he had bought it in Lebanon, some fifty miles away, after 11 a.m., and the surveillance cameras would confirm it. He came to the Cool Springs Marriott in Franklin with malice aforethought.

As it turned out, I picked up the key clue, just didn’t pursue it. Guess I need to brush up on my forensic skills before I start writing any CSI Wherever episodes. Incidentally, Dan Royse, like most professionals, can’t stomach what goes on with the TV shows. He says it really makes things difficult when facing jurors who have unreal expectations after watching CSI shows.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Best Spot For A Murder

by Ben Small

I was talking to Carl Brizzi, Marion County Prosecutor, on his weekly radio program a few weeks ago. (That’s the Greater Indianapolis area for those geographically challenged or who didn’t grow up there.) Carl asked me about the inspiration for Alibi On Ice. I told him I was standing next to a three-hundred-foot-deep, football-field-wide crevasse on Mount Rainier’s steep slopes and the thought came to me: You could put a lot of bodies in there.

Carl laughed and said he doesn’t drive by a culvert without wondering if there’s a body there.

This high level intellectual discussion led me to ponder: Where’s the best place for a murder?

I’ve got a theory: A desert’s the best spot for a murder. And I am prepared to support my theory.

1) Joe Pesci said as a threat in Casino, “There are a lot of holes in the desert.” And if Joe Pesci said it, you can take it to the bank. Did you see what Pesci did to the guy in Goodfellas who told him to get his shine box? You don’t mess with Joe Pesci.

2) Nobody wants to search in the desert. Rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, javelina, coyote, scorpions, lynx, mountain lions, fire ants, and tarantulas. Not to mention spikes on everything that grows. Heck, it took the Army many years to find Cochise in his Dragoon Mountains stronghold. But truth be told, the Army wasn’t trying so hard. Why do you think they blew those bugles?

3) Look what happened to Johnny Ringo, one of the most feared gunfighters in the Old West. He was found at the base of a tree with a single bullet hole in his forehead, his feet wrapped in his shirt. His horse, with his boots tied around the saddle horn, was found twenty miles away. Nobody ever solved that one.

4) Nobody got prosecuted for killing ole Frank Stillwell at the Tucson stage depot. Everybody knew Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday filled poor Frank full of holes, but nobody went after Earp, and Bat Masterson trumped up a phony Colorado charge against Doc to prevent extradition. Justice works funny in the desert.

5) Wide areas of the desert are just empty. It’s hot and dry. Nothing will grow. So a gunshot may not be heard, and a body will quickly be eaten if you’re too lazy to dig a shallow grave. DNA won’t help if there’s no DNA left, or if what’s left is scattered over a hundred mile range in so much vulture or coyote poop. In the words of the Sudanese prince to General Gordon in the movie Khartoum, "May you die in the desert. May the vultures consume your flesh, and the sands your blood."

I suppose one might argue that the sea is just as good a choice, maybe even better. But according to Vince Bugliosi, the sea will tell. And Bugliosi never lies.

Do I need to mention that nobody floats in the desert?

6) Even if somebody hears a gunshot, they won’t pay attention. Everyone in Arizona and Nevada and New Mexico owns guns, and the deserts are where they shoot them. (Side note: Arizonans and Nevadans usually point their weapons toward California. Old habits die hard.) So a gunshot’s no big deal. Or maybe people will just think it’s more fun and games between the Border Patrol and illegals or smugglers. Maybe they got Osama this time, disguised as a Mexican. He looks a bit Hispanic, doesn’t he?

7) The desert is disorienting. Everything looks alike. Got a victim in mind? Slip him or her a diuretic and go for a back roads drive. Scenic stuff. Then when your victim has to pee, back a few hundred yards off the road and just drive away. Think char-broil steak. Think Bogie in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Waste a little time and visit a gas station somewhere down the road. Report a missing person, be a bit vague, and sip a cool one while your victim’s scratching out “w-a-t-e-r” in the sand.

Or take your victim for a trail bike ride out in the boonies. Find a good spot miles from civilization, say you see a trail and point at it, and then claim your knee is hurting, he’d be better off alone. (This works best with guys. Testosterone, you know. Not many women will fall for it.) As you’re unloading your soon-to-be late buddy's bike, just spike a hole in his plastic water bottle. If anyone ever finds him, they’ll think a cactus spike pierced the bottle. Then, as before, wait until your victim leaves, and just drive off. Do the gas station bit again, but this time wait a little longer. You left your victim some water, after all. Give the desert some time to work its magic.

8) You could always just knock somebody on the head and drive their body out to the desert, but that’s a given. And it shows no imagination at all. Where’s the suffering? Where’s the glee? Hah. No satisfaction at all.

Well, I think I’ve won this argument hands down. Any debate? If so, why don’t you come visit. We’ll sort this thing out.

Maybe go for a drive...

Saturday, August 16, 2008


(Stork on a nest, Hungary - Photo 1979 by Pat [Cokely] Browning)

By Pat Browning
Are you ready? Experts got together in July at Microsoft headquarters to talk about sending an elevator into space along a 60,000-mile carbon fiber ribbon.

I have three words for them: Tower of Babel. (Genesis 11:4 for those who haven’t read their King James lately.)

If an elevator into space isn’t enough to send us reeling, here’s a quote from an AP story:

“Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have engineered 3-D materials that can reverse the natural direction of visible and near-infrared light. As a result, the research raises the possibility that someday people can use the material in cloaking devices that render objects invisible to the human eye. That type of tactical technology goes well beyond the realm of H.G. Wells and Harry Potter, especially considering that some of the project's funding came from the U.S. Army Research Office and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research.”

Now, those people I can help. The easiest, cheapest way to make a man invisible is to put him in an Olympic swimming pool with Michael Phelps. Example: Laszlo Cseh of Hungary.

In the 200-meter butterfly, Phelps takes the gold. Huzzah, huzzah! Cseh takes the silver. Yawn. The time difference is a matter of seconds. Same thing in the 200-meter individual medley. Ditto the 400-meter medley. Cseh is a shadow behind.

A commentator carries on with news that Phelps is double-jointed at the knees and elbows, his heart pumps more blood than an ordinary mortal’s, he stands 6 feet four, and has a wingspan of 6 feet eight.

WINGspan? Well, there’s a clue. Laszlo Cseh should have brought a stork to Beijing. Seriously. The stork is a good luck symbol in Hungary. It brings babies, prevents house fires. No word on a stork’s opinion of Olympic swimming, but it’s worth a shot.

Storks love people. Hungarians love them back. Year after year, storks fly in from Africa to spend summer in Hungarian villages, usually in nests on top of telephone poles.

The photo here was one of those lucky shots a tourist seldom gets. I put my cheap little camera against a tour bus window and clicked. That was almost 30 years ago. To be sure the storks still nest on telephone poles, I did some Internet research.

At, a Hungarian news and culture web site, I found several photos, plus information on the Hungarian Ornithology Association’s campaign to protect Hungary’s nesting storks.

Hungary has an old and checkered past. Russia claimed it after World War II, and rolled tanks into Budapest to crush a 1956 uprising. When I was there, Hungary operated under a kind of “goulash communism.” Shell holes still pocked the Citadella, an old fortress overlooking the Danube, and a Russian statue stood on the roof.

Hungary was finally free of Moscow in 1989, and is now a parliamentary democracy. It joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. Through it all, the storks came back to nest on telephone poles. In this rapidly changing world, that’s nice to know.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Killer Conference

By Beth Terrell

Wednesday. Time to write the blog entry, because I am the Thursday person and I positively promised Chester that I would not wait until midnight of "the day of" to post my offering.

I wracked my poor cluttered brain for a topic of interest: How can we create riveting plots that keep readers on the edge of their seats? What makes such diverse characters as Jack Reacher and Stephanie Plum beloved by readers? Will Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the handsome actor from the ill-fated T.V. show New Amsterdam, ever call to option my book for the movie in which he plays my Nashville-based private detective? Oops, sorry. A soupcon of fantasy crept in.

What about Amazon's new plot to take over the world? Everybody's talking about that, right?

Then the distractions begin their assault.

Oh, my gosh! Did I remember to pick up the name tags?
Did I send out the emails with directions to the Guest of Honor dinner?
Did I remember to update the database and send out the last batch of confirmation letters and...

Well, you get the gist of it. The reason for all this angst is also the highlight of my summer--and maybe some of yours. I've been helping producer Clay Stafford and Assistant Producer Phillip Lacy coordinate the 2008 Killer Nashville Mystery and Thriller Conference. Clay even gave me my very own title: Associate Producer. It makes me feel all warm and important. And if that sounds like sarcasm, it's not.

I never realized what went into the making of a conference. I've been to some great ones: Sleuthfest, Cape Fear, Bouchercon, Harriett Austin, and the Lost State Writer's Conference. Events magically occurred, and I went to and enjoyed them. But thanks to Killer Nashville, I have a much better idea of what it takes to attract a Guest of Honor (world-renowned forensic anthropologist Dr. Bill Bass), contact agents and editors (there will be one of each available for pitches at the conference), get panelists assigned, answer questions from attendees, arrange critiques and pitch times and schedules, assemble conference materials, contact sponsors, and the host of other tasks it takes to get a thing like this up and running. Not that I did all those things myself. We all did them: Clay (whose vision it is), Phillip, PJ Parrish, me, and an army of wonderful, dedicated volunteers (including our beloved Chester Campbell, author of the Greg McKenzie mystery series and the Tuesday writer for this blog). For months, we've eaten, drunk, and breathed Killer Nashville. Our to-do lists have gone from scribbles on Post-its to page-long treatises.

Even so, I know we've probably overlooked some things, that minor things will go awry, and that, in spite of this--or even because of it--this is going to be an incredible conference. With Body Farm creator Bill Bass, a killer schedule (see it at, and authors like PJ Parrish, Mary Saums, Don Bruns, Edgar-nominee David J. Walker, and two of our own (Chester Campbell and Ben Small), how could it not be?

So if you're in the neighborhood and would like a chance to hobnob with fellow mystery and thriller lovers, hone your writing and marketing skills, vote on the first annual Silver Falcion Award (best novel written in 2007-2008 by a registered attendee), or just say hi, we'd love to have you hurry on over to the website and register. Besides, Don has promised to play his guitar, and Ben just might be persuaded to tell us where the bodies are hidden.

(And Nikolaj, if you're reading this, please stop by. There's a movie option I'd like to discuss.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On Writing

For those who enjoy writing fiction, I recommend Stephen King’s book, On Writing. It is rare for a best selling author to share his secrets, but Mr. King does that in this very personal and insightful hardback. As he puts it (referring to his childhood and near-fatal accident), “I came through all the stuff I told you about . . . and now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job . . . It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” If that doesn’t convince you that Mr. King is a guy who loves writing, nothing will. He couldn’t stop if he wanted to.

I don’t know of any other author who offers you free feedback on your writing. If you follow the writing assignment in On Writing, Mr. King, or one of his staff, will give you their impressions, no holds bared. His book is truly a bargain, and no, he knows nothing of my promoting it.

Mr. King encourages us to bang out our manuscripts and then hide them for months. Only after they’ve had time to ferment can you can view them objectively and determine whether its content is what you really intended. I’ve found this advice useful in all of my writing, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or business related. Repeatedly reading over the same document can give a myopic view.

The one thing Mr. King doesn’t emphasize in his book is reading your work aloud. Call it the acid test, but reading aloud reveals errors you may not otherwise find. It also confirms whether your dialogue is realistic. Be aware that even this may not reveal inaccuracies that will instantly destroy an author’s credibility. For example, one of Tom Wolfe’s books described El Cerrito, California, as a “warm and sunny” place. Clearly, Mr. Wolfe never spent any time there, for the fifteen years I spent growing up there, the fog headed straight for our house, spread, and then retreated in the reverse order. It’s been years since I read Mr. Wolfe’s story, but that inaccuracy is all I remember of the book. So, whatever you write, make sure it’s accurate and plausible. You only get one shot with your reader.

But writing novels is the easy part of the business. Becoming a household name is the result of dedication and a series of fortunate events. I accept that, and offer this final thought by comparing writing to ice skating. Ice skaters spend years perfecting their sport to make it look graceful. A well-written story flows effortlessly, like the ice skater. And while every author strives for Olympic Gold, only a few will place. But like the athletes, we must analyze any set backs and keep going. I’m sure Mr. King would agree.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My Peek into Hoover's FBI

By Chester D. Campbell

I’ve encountered zillions of people during my sixty years in the writing business, but none more intriguing than an ex-FBI agent we’ll call Scotty. I first met him during my days of editing Nashville Magazine. He was a friend of one of my equally intriguing staff members. She would relate stories about him that sounded a bit off the wall but still believable.

After a few years, she asked me to meet with him at her place one night to talk about a book he wanted me to co-write. We talked for hours and the strange tale unfolded.

Scotty went to Washington just out of school and got a job as a clerk at the FBI. He worked there while getting a degree in accounting. According to his story, he got close to Director J. Edgar Hoover in the process, often delivering files to the director's home. After graduation, he took the FBI training course and became an agent.

At some point, he was assigned to the Nashville office, which is how my magazine staffer met him. This was during the Cold War, and she reported some suspicious activity she encountered. Scotty met her on assignment. But back to his story.

Scotty was chosen to participate in a small group of agents known as Hoover’s Goon Squad. They were tasked to do jobs that were not exactly in the rule book. That included assignments outside the country for counterespionage, something that should have been in the CIA’s bailiwick. But, as Scotty said, the CIA was ignoring the Bureau’s sole jurisdiction in the U.S. Records of the operations were buried in a special group of restricted safes known as the T Files.

One of the weird stories he told was of an agent who was sent out to Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah to pick up a package containing a chemical compound for use in some kind of skullduggery. They figured the guy must have gotten curious and opened the package. He was found a day or so later wandering naked around a little town in the Provo area, babbling like the village idiot.

Scotty said Hoover and Asst. Director Bill Sulllivan picked him to try to infiltrate the Cosa Nostra, a favorite Hoover target they had been unable to crack. First he had to resign from the FBI. He was instructed to commit a few crimes like bank robbery to build some bona fides, but not get caught. He said it was easy. Then he hung out in Las Vegas and tried to weasel his way into the mob but was never successful.

When he gave up and went back to report to Hoover, the man he had idolized all those years, the director refused to see him. Apparently Hoover had written him off and didn’t want to admit what they had done.

The last I heard of Scotty, he was trying to get copies of his personal files from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. He sent me copies of his correspondence, including a request for $50 to cover duplication at ten cents per page. That was in March of 1985. We never made it to the point of putting anything down on paper. I had contact with his friend in later years and heard that Scotty had died. She died not long after that, and the strange saga ended. But it would have made one hell of a story.

I used Scotty as the model for the protagonist in the first novel I wrote after retirement. It was a post-Cold War thriller, which went out of vogue about the time I sent it to an agent. I may resurrect it one of these days and try again.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Tips On Murdering Your Neighbor

by Ben Small

I’ve come to a decision: My neighbor needs to go.

And soon.

Sorry, but I’m tired of the guy. Don’t like his looks; can’t stand his accent, and his dog poops in my yard. No, I haven’t actually met him yet, just seen him over the fence and heard him talking on his cell phone. But so what? I can still hate him. Plenty of people hate me. Why can’t I hate back? Everybody’s gotta hate somebody, after all. If not, there’d be no politics. And then what would we talk about?

So I choose my neighbor. I've got dibs on 'im.

And when I decide to hate, I plot to murder. Sometimes just pretend-murder; you know scenarios I play out in my head. Like sneaking over at dusk and hiding behind a saguaro, and then when what’s-his-name gets outta his car, I jump out and garrote him with my bolo tie. Jus’ slip the braided leather cord around his pencil neck, slide that polished Turquoise cabochon up, and hold on like I was riding a bull. Um… Okay, maybe a calf... He’s a little guy.

But the bolo-tie-murder scenario isn’t practical this time. Have to save that one for when I won’t have to carry the body someplace else. With the pool guy my wife murdered two weeks ago still rotting in the ground next to my neighbor’s driveway, I’m better off catching the guy somewhere else. Besides, I like my bolo tie. I don’t want the cord stretched out. The cabochon might bounce off my Bluto-bling belt buckle, and how could I sneak up on anybody if I was clanging like a cowbell?

So, two tips so far:

Don’t murder your neighbor close to other bodies you’ve put in his yard.

Don’t use a bolo tie you want to wear again.

More ideas, more problems. But they’ve yielded more tips:

Don’t attempt to drown your neighbor when you can’t swim.

Don’t use the claw-head side of a hammer. Don’t ask why. Trust me on this one.

Don’t hit your neighbor with a Smart Car. For that matter, don’t hit a rabbit or even a rodent with a Smart Car.

Don’t use a throwing knife if you throw like a girl.

Don’t throw a Molotov Cocktail when the wind’s blowing your way.

Don’t take out Hit Man Wanted ads in Soldier of Fortune. Your HOA may not approve a larger mail box.

Don’t put a taser in a tight pants pocket. Ooooh. And while we’re on the subject of Erectile Dysfunction, I should mention that switchblades do not belong in the front pocket of your jeans.

Don’t put a rattlesnake in your neighbor’s mailbox unless your hand’s much quicker than mine. Anti-venom costs about thirty-five grand. And, oh yeah, if it turns out you don’t know the difference between a rattler and a bull snake, you become the poster child for Stupid. Every time I go by that hospital, I still hear the laughter.

All right, I’ve had enough; I’ve got to give this a rest. Too many blind alleys. I’m not going to tell you which of these tips came from my imagination and which came from actual attempts. Bottom line: I’m too busy to deal with my neighbor now. My HOA is threatening an injunction, my burned head needs salve and I’ve got to change some bandages.

Besides, I’ve got a better idea. My wife dispatched the pool guy so effectively, I’ll just ask her to do it. “Oh honey, can you come here a moment?”

* * *

One last tip for today:

Don’t ask your wife to murder your neighbor if he looks like Matthew McConaughey, owns a cat, drives a Beamer convertible, and has lots of money and a southern accent. Better yet, keep that woman chained up and away from doors, windows and weapons of any kind.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Her Name Was Dorothy

Today's guest blogger is Robert, better known as Bob, Middlemiss, a large, gentle Englishman educated in Canada and a U.S. citizen since 1970. He is the epitome of what editors should be, as you will see from his comments about Dorothy. Besides editing for a small press, he is the author of several spy novels and the mainstream novel A Common Glory. He has taught fiction and non-fiction for more than twenty-five years at Emory, Oglethorpe, Columbus State, George Mason and for the Virginia Department of Parks and Recreation, and has served as an advisory board member for the Tennessee Mountain Writers Conference. As editor for three members of our Murderous Musings team, he used a keen eye for detail, a logical approach to plotting, and a teacher's skill at prodding to help mold us into the writers we are today. Thanks, Bob.

By Bob Middlemiss

Her name was Dorothy. I met her when I was fiction leader at a writing conference. After a grand week of workshops with talented writers, she approached me. She wanted to know if she could send me some sample chapters of her novel after the conference was over. I said sure. I liked Dorothy very much. She was about seventy-five years old, carried herself with a bearing we don't see much of these days, and when she looked at you with cataract prone eyes, you felt her heart and wanted to help. Even more, you wanted to share in her life.

A few weeks after the conference Dorothy sent me her first chapters and we were off and running. I helped out where I could, made a few suggestions, drafted a couple of ways to handle a scene differently, and we were really moving along. After a couple of months she wrote me a letter, the appearance of which I hadn't seen since I was a boy in England. Black ink from a Waterman's pen; a spidery hand touched with age. She told me that she had talked with her doctor and found out she had terminal cancer. She wrote, "But I will finish my novel, Bob - I will!" And so we worked together. Over the weeks on her good days, I pushed her, challenged her; on bad days we laid back, gentle with each other, talking about life. Then the day came when the chapters ceased . . .

I always mention Dorothy in my lectures and workshops. I bring her in proudly, hoping somehow she hears me. I say that Dorothy was a true professional writer: imaginative, disciplined, productive, open to learning her craft, modest in accomplishment, and generous in her praise for others. I tell the writers sitting in front of me that Dorothy was the most professional writer I've known. Never published, never a manuscript completed, I can honestly say that no one that I've worked with, since losing her twenty-five years ago, has matched her grace and guts.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

This Year's Blonde

By Pat Browning

Marilyn Monroe, she’s everywhere. And why not? She was never just last year’s blonde. She was more than “a mess in a beaded dress.”

That judgment comes from gossip columnist Liz Smith, whose article, “The Marilyn You Don’t Know,” was the cover story for Parade magazine on July 27. Smith writes, “I don’t believe Marilyn planned to die. I think it simply happened to her that night—one wretchedly unhappy night she couldn’t escape.”

Homicide, suicide, or accident? Who can say? All the players are dead. Does it really matter? Probably not, but somewhere in all this is the nut of a novel. It could be a ripping good mystery in the right hands.

What we do know is that she died young—beautiful, famous, and unhappy—but her ex-husbands lived long and prospered. Baseball legend Joe DiMaggio died in 1999 at age 83. Playwright Arthur Miller died in 2005 at age 89. James Dougherty … James who?

James Dougherty lived in the shadows cast by Marilyn’s white-hot spotlight. He wasn’t as famous as DiMaggio, or as brainy as Miller, but he did very well for a man destined to go through life as Marilyn Monroe’s first husband.

Miller painted an unflattering portrait of Marilyn in his play, “After The Fall.” It seemed a tacky thing to do, but everything’s grist for a writer’s mill. DiMaggio apparently was jealous of her fame, but he didn’t kiss and tell. From Broadway Joe to Joltin’ Joe to Gentleman Joe, he seemed to be one of the few constants in her life.

James Dougherty must have been dumbstruck when his child bride, Norma Jeane Baker, reinvented herself as Marilyn Monroe but if he had regrets, he kept them to himself for most of his life. He was a Los Angeles cop for 25 years, retired, and settled in Maine, where he was a county commissioner and taught at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Dougherty died in 2005 at age 84, but not before co-authoring a book, To Norma Jean with Love, Jimmy. In it, he claimed they were madly in love when they married. If you can believe what you read on the Internet, Marilyn always said it was a marriage of convenience.

In a 2004 documentary “Marilyn’s Man,” Dougherty claimed to be her true love, and the inventor of "Marilyn Monroe." The New York Times is quoted as saying that when he was informed of her death, Dougherty replied, "I'm sorry."

That’s hardly sinister or even callous. What would you expect him to say? Joe DiMaggio took charge of Marilyn’s funeral, and the guest list apparently didn’t include Dougherty.

Why the ongoing public interest in Marilyn Monroe, who died 46 years ago? She was beautiful. She was famous. Her life was a mess. It’s the stuff of romance novels and TV series. It’s some kind of comfort to know that the goddesses are not so different from the rest of us. Life dumps on everyone. It brings to mind a famous exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway:

Fitzgerald: The rich are different from you and me.
Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.

Whatever her problems, Marilyn Monroe left us some wonderfully funny and romantic movies: Bus Stop, Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Some Like It Hot, one of the funniest movies ever made.

There’s a great YouTube video of a scene with Marilyn singing “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis arguing in the background, and Joe E. Brown waving from the audience. You can find it at:

You can watch the entire movie at There’s a little Search box in the upper right corner. Just type in “Some Like It Hot.”

Marilyn had a reputation for showing up late, or not at all, for filming. We can thank her for showing up long enough to make this one. She’s at her beautiful best, and we get one of the best lines in movie history—Joe E. Brown’s parting shot: “Nobody’s perfect.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Pencil, We Hardly Knew Ye

By Beth Terrell

This is a story about a snake.

It began in driest part of August, when the office I work in was empty except for the five full-time employees and a few die-hard temporary employees. Scotty, one of my co-workers, came into my office and said, “Could you come out here and see if this snake is real? Because I’ve passed it three times and it looks more real every time I pass it.” I did go, and it was real, but the confusion was understandable, because the snake was lying perfectly still, its head slightly lifted. It looked kinked (though there was some discussion later as to whether it was actually kinked, crinkly, or crinkled). As it turns out, this is what happens to snakes when they are stressed and dehydrated. They crinkle. Who knew?

At any rate, Scott and I looked at the snake, and though neither of us thought it was of the poisonous type, neither of us was quite certain enough to be willing to pick it up and see. (It was too small--and I am too nearsighted--for us to be certain of the shape of the head.) So we brought in an expert, or the closest thing we had to an expert: Scott went in and got our site manager, Steve. Much discussion ensued. No conclusions were reached. We finally decided to sweep the little snake into a box, after which I would take him down to the Aquatic Critter’s Reptile Zoo and find out what he was. Scotty was in charge of acquiring the box, I was in charge of holding it open, and Steve was in charge of gently, oh so gently sweeping the snake into the box.

Then I loaded the box into my car and drove to the Aquatic Critter, quite possibly the coolest store in Nashville, with tropical fish in one half of the building and a reptile zoo in the other (caiman feedings on weekends; I am too squeamish to go). The experts behind the desk said
our visitor was a rat snake, a harmless, reasonably docile snake. They took him out of the box and we passed him around, and I'm happy to say that the docile part was true, because he didn't try to bite, even when I held him in my hand. The experts also said he was too small and dehydrated to survive the winter, so what could we do but buy a little tank and some snake accouterments and bring him back to live in my office until the next spring? Besides, our project monitor, Mary Beth, was out of town, and we knew she would want to see him, because she is wild about reptiles.

The snake, having come to live with us for a time, now required a name. We tried on several for size. At various times, he was called, Chris Crinkle, Kinky Friedman, Earl Whirly, and a number of other equally fitting names, but the one that stuck was the one Mary Beth gave him: Pencil. This was fitting, because, even though he lived in my office, she loved him best. She would come into the office and point out the cute shapes he would make, or the way he would squeeze himself into the tiniest crevice of his cage, or the way he was growing so strong and healthy that one day we realized he wasn’t kinked at all. And so the bittersweet day came when Pencil was to be set free. Mary Beth and I took him to a walking trail far from the site (which will come as a relief to many of my co-workers). We walked some distance down the trail and climbed down a little embankment to the creek. She was carrying him and wearing a purple glove, because he didn’t enjoy the ride over and was making what she called "bitey faces." She set him down on the ground beside the water. To our surprise, he didn’t race away. Instead, he glided into and out of the water, away from us and then back toward us, as if he knew he was being set free. Then he swam across the creek and disappeared into the brush on the other side. We miss him already.

I wrote about this in our office newsletter a few months ago, but I thought of it again today as I was thinking about the book I've been working on. There is no real mystery in this little story, except the everyday mystery of why we (both human and animal) do the things we do. Why did Pencil come into our office building? Why did we adopt him instead of chucking him out the back door (or worse)? Why was Mary Beth so enthralled?

But these are the kinds of mysteries that keep us reading. While good plotting is essential, it's the human mysteries that keep me coming back for more. For me, at least, the question is not, "Will Jack Reacher defeat the bad guys?", but "What is it in himself that Jack Reacher is really running from?" Not, "Will Stephanie Plum survive?"--I assume she will--but "Does Stephanie's heart lie with Morelli or Ranger?" I want the action and the plot twists and the puzzle too, but it is the quiet moments, like the rescue and release of a little office snake, that show me who the characters really are.

A Child's Book Says It All

As odd as it may seem, I found a child’s book called Little Bear Paints a Picture summarized all that I needed to know about writing. Of course, I didn’t realize it when I was reading it to my children. In 1988, I had other things on my mind, like flying Navy jets, and writing for non-fiction periodicals. But looking back, this read-along book offers the perfect analogy for how I view my creative work.

In this story, Little Bear paints a picture of his mother, and does a very respectable job. He is so proud of his work that he shows it to his friend Owl. Owl looks it over and says, “Why it’s beautiful—except the eyes are too small.” So Little Bear re-does the eyes to suit Owl and leaves. He then shows it to his friend Gator. Gator exclaims, “It’s wonderful—except the mouth is too small.” Once again, Bear changes his painting to suit Gator. Next, he takes it to Giraffe. You can guess the outcome from that one. By the time Mother Bear sees the edited work, it looks hideous, but she smiles and hugs her cub as only a mother can. “It’s beautiful!” she exclaims. Little Bear cocks his head, gazing deep into her eyes. “Really? I don’t need to change anything?” Mother Bear smiles and says, “No, it’s perfect as it is.”

Years later, when I began writing fiction, I found that every friend was eager to offer advice, but their honesty depended upon how close we were. Of course, my mother always loved my work, but her unconditional love has its bias. That’s when I turned to an editor.

I paid several thousand dollars that I couldn’t spare to a highly recommended editorial service. It was my first experience working with an editor, so like Little Bear, I changed whatever she said without giving it much thought. She cut volumes from my story, and then wrote, “Congratulations, Mark, you did it!” But really, all I did was write her a fat check, for the edited book was crap. My next editor saw promise in my work and spent a year nurturing me, teaching me the craft, and in the end, we got it right. He is as much a friend as he is an editor, but people like him are hard to find. After all, time is money, and most prefer money over time.

Years later, I reflected on Little Bear, realizing that no matter what you’re creating, you must believe in your work. You also need an editor who will guide you, not chop your book like a Benihana chef. My first editor was like Owl, Gator, and Giraffe, all saying it was perfect, so long as I changed everything to suit their views. But that’s not what creating is about. Whether I’m doing a story or a painting, my work comes from the heart, and I need the final say. So, Little Bear, I thank you for your insight, and for staying with me through the years. I’ve learned a lot, and am still learning, but I’ll never forget your lesson.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Horrors, It's Scary Stuff

By Chester Campbell

Horror is one category of the mystery scene that I’ve never really cared for. I think Carrie is the only one of Stephen King’s books I’ve read. I also recall reading William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, but few others.

I suspect my lack of interest in horror stories may stem from my experience with that classic horror movie, The Mummy.

Maybe it was fate, or karma, or whatever you want to call it, but the story takes place in Egypt in 1925, the year I was born. The movie came out in 1932, when I was seven years old. I suspect my parents regretted taking me to see it. I had nightmares for weeks afterward.

I still have vivid memories of several scenes from the movie, most from the part where the mummified Imhotep, played by Boris Karloff, comes to life. The scene took place in an ancient tomb. It was filmed in black and white, of course, with minimal light, giving it quite an eerie feel. I can still see the archaeologist reading the ancient spell and the mummy beginning to move.

When his arm reached out, I wanted to climb under the seat.

Another sequence I recall was one of the characters starting to laugh hysterically. He kept it up until he literally dropped dead laughing. I still think of that when somebody uses the expression “died laughing.”

I’ll have to say The Mummy thing wound up with a happy ending, however. After my first wife died from complications of Parkinson’s Disease, I struck up a friendship with a member of my Sunday School class who had lost her husband. I wanted to invite her out, but it had been more than forty years since I’d done any dating. I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it.

Then I saw the ads for a remake of The Mummy, the 1999 version. I couldn’t resist it. I invited her to see the movie, explaining my problem with the earlier film. I found it entertaining but not at all scary. In fact some of it was quite funny. My date enjoyed it, though, and we went out to dinner the next week. That was early summer. We were married on September 4, so we’ll soon celebrate our tenth anniversary.

And though The Mummy doesn’t scare me any longer, I’m still not fond of horror stories.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ever Get The Jitters?

by Ben Small

Feel like somebody’s watching you? Like maybe Judgment Day is sneaking up and about to pounce. I’m sensing this, and I don’t think I’m just paranoid. Besides, I’m current on my meds.

No, I’m acutely aware of a pending threat, and I think I know from where it’s coming.

(Drum roll, please)

It’s my wife. (A final boom, if you will)

She’s been looking at me funny. You know, with one eye cocked, a small curl of her upper lip. Then she’ll go outside and pick up the machete, run its blade ― I cleaned it after the pool guy episode ― across an Arkansas stone, seemingly a perfect fifteen degrees of angle. Smooth strokes, smooth and sure, despite her eyes never leaving me. She’s been watching The Tudors lately, the last few episodes of the Anne Boleyn saga. Over and over. So I snuck a peak at her computer, saw webpages of decorative lawn ornaments. They looked suspiciously like pikes.

Why would my wife be plotting against me? I treat her like a queen. Gifts, compliments and guidance. Hallmarks of my love.

You want examples? Pleased to accommodate. Just last Christmas, I gave her a new vacuum cleaner. Bagless. Flat. It will sweep under the couches. She seemed so happy. I caught her crying in the bathroom. And for her birthday, I gave her a rolling tool box. No more having to lug that heavy old one to where she needs it.

“Jewelry?” you ask. So cliché. Frivolous, too. And jewelry doesn’t hold up. See, I bought my wife a Rolex once, but she disregarded my instructions and got it wet. Stopped working almost immediately. There went fifty bucks down the drain. Maybe a lesson learned though. Regardless, there’s no more room in my gun safe.

No, my gifts tend to be more practical. Like me. Tools, maybe a new pair of flip flops, gardening implements. Heck, last spring I sprung her a special surprise: a new pool robot. She was so happy ― the whole bathroom weep-thing again. Touching. I gave her a hug and a nice squeeze on the fanny flab.

But I buy my wife sexy clothing. Some Victoria Secret slinkies. And I tell her that when she loses twenty pounds, that stuff will fit. No more sweats then, by golly. My baby will be a nylon-and-lace princess.

See, practical gifts and those which provide incentives are the way to go. What good are plastic baubles when we don’t go out much? My wife would look sorta silly waltzing around the grocery store in long chains, bubble ear bobs and jeweled flip flops, now wouldn’t she? And restaurants? We don’t go. Salmonella, you know. I’m careful about my wife’s health. I don’t even let her drive. Too many nuts on the road. Besides, the bus stop is only two blocks away, and it runs right by the grocery store. Al Gore would be proud of me.

But I do take my wife’s health seriously. I suggested breast enhancement, a tummy-tuck and some lipo, and even went so far as to make an appointment for her. And what gratitude did she show? A snort, some muttering, and then shouting, something about me being a pig. “Male Chopin pig,” I think she called me. Whatever that is. My name’s not even Fred.

But it got worse. My wife canceled the appointment. Talk about embarrassing. What if the doctor cancels my next chin reduction?

Ah, she’s put down the machete and is slipping into her gardening gloves. Thick ones, green, plastic, the kind that cover half one's forearm. “What now, dear?” I ask, flashing her a warm smile.

“Herb garden. Need some roots and leaves for tonight's salad,” she says. She breezes by me to the back yard, and I watch her digging under the red flowering bush, gathering some roots, snipping some leaves, some of the flowers, too.

How nice. A salad from the herb garden. Maybe a nice Balsamic to go with it. And color from the pretty red flowers. Maybe I’ll give her a reward, put on some Frank, open a bottle of Riunite, maybe even slip into a thong. A little after-dinner-delight, huh?

Oh, she’s heading inside, her fixings in a pail. A thin-lipped smile is set on her face. I hold the door open and toss her a passing kiss. Her smile grows but she dodges my eyes. “Nice salad,” I say.

A big grin. “Only the best for you, honey.” She walks to the sink, turns on the water. Her gloved hands rub the roots, massage the leaves, and smooth the flowers.

“What will you call this masterpiece?” I ask. “Something so beautiful should have a special name.”

She looks out the window, and her hands go still. The slippery-wet green of her gloves blend with the waxy-slick leaves in the sink, creating the impression that my wife's got more than ten fingers. Nice leaves, long and slender. I'll bet they're tasty.

She stands like that for a moment, just staring. Then she turns her head. There's a devilish sparkle in her eye. “How about Oleander Express?” A pucker, a blown kiss.

I feel so relieved, almost giddy. How could I have been so suspicious of her? My trusted wife. So silly. Just paranoia, I guess. I’ll take another pill, maybe two. That'll make me right.

It'll all be over soon.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Outlaws, Indians and Family Fables

Jailers and guards in "Hanging Judge" Isaac C. Parker's court in Ft. Smith, Arkansas

By Pat Browning

Grandpa was Scots-Irish, and illiterate. Grandma was full-blood Muscogee Creek, educated in the white man’s mission school. They lived in interesting times, on a farm at Greasy Creek, Oklahoma.

I’d like to say Greasy Creek got its name because oil ran under the land, but I don’t want to start another family fable. More likely, the name came west with Creeks who were removed from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States.

The Creeks are great storytellers even today. As my Cousin Doug says, they can be a little windy. Take the legend of Grandpa, the illiterate Scots-Irishman with a reputation for reading the Bible, speaking French and curing sick horses.

At a family dinner last week I sat with my brother Tom, who loves those old fairy tales, and Cousin Doug, who can probably recite family history in his sleep. Tom heard this story from an elderly relative who merely smiles when you catch her in a flight of fancy.

The story goes that Grandpa was fetched to treat a horse lying prone in a barn. Grandpa said a few words in French, read a few Bible verses, and “laid hands” on the horse. Then he went up to the farmer’s house for a hearty supper. After supper, lo and behold – Grandpa found the horse up eating hay and swishing his tail.

Tom later double-checked the story with an aunt, who said, “That’s absurd. Dad couldn’t read or write, and the only languages he spoke were English and Creek.”

We had a good laugh. “So much for his fluency in 28 Indian dialects,” I said.

Tom’s wife, who was half-listening, said, “I heard it was nine.”

I did hear a couple of true stories. One concerned my great-grandfather, Old Frank, who was some kind of deputy marshal when Indian Territory outlaws were tried in federal court at Fort Smith, Arkansas. The judge there was Isaac C. Parker, the famous “hanging judge.”

Old Frank was either a volunteer or appointee who transported non-Indian miscreants from Indian Territory to Fort Smith. Since there was no jail in his neck of the woods, he kept the prisoners in his home. It’s said that he let them borrow his rifles to go hunting while they waited for the trip to Arkansas. When it was time to go, Old Frank chained them to the horses and away they went.

Indians had their own tribal courts and tribal police for Indian lawbreakers. In the Creek Nation, a tribal member guilty of a violent crime was given a year to put his affairs in order and make arrangements for his family. At an appointed time, he appeared before the council and chose his one-man firing squad. It was usually a friend, or a marksman who could make one shot do the job.

So why didn’t they teach that stuff when Oklahoma History was a required subject in the seventh grade? I remember absolutely nothing about it, that’s how boring it was. Now I have a long list of books to read as soon as I can get to them.

The birthday dinner was last Saturday. Today, the invitation was for a family wedding, on the hottest day of the year, low 100s in the shade. I came home from Wal-Mart pouring sweat, thinking there was no way I could cool off in time for a wedding. Closed the blinds, shucked off my clothes, and took a nap.

Fast-forward 50 years. A little kid says, “Grandma, tell us about your wedding and the old auntie who stood up and took off all her clothes when the preacher said, ‘Who gives this woman.’” A family legend is born. Didn’t happen, but who will be around to say so?

The truth is, it was lovely. The chapel was once a dance hall, designed like a Spanish hacienda, with ornately carved doors and massive furniture. The ceiling was draped with twinkle-lights and Japanese lanterns. The couple wrote their own commitment vows, and I liked this: “I promise to love you as you are, and not as I want you to be.”

Five generations occupied the pews – from babes in arms and little girls with flowers in their hair and glitter on their shoes, to a couple of old cowboys wearing straw hats. The bride’s friends had arrived earlier with trays of homemade hors d’oeuvres. When the ceremony ended there was a rush to the bar. Guess who got to the food first. That’s right. You’re looking at her.

And I was home before dark. Families, God bless ‘em, fables, foibles and all.