Saturday, February 28, 2009


Top photo: Geronimo, legendary Apache warrior of the late 19th century; bottom photo: Geronimo's grave near Lawton, Oklahoma.)


By Pat Browning

That cry dates back to World War 2. To this day it remains the motto of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. Their ceremonial chief is still “Chief Geronimo.” For the record, Geronimo was never a chief but he might as well have been. He was a legendary figure in his lifetime, and he’s still making news.

I never met Geronimo. I’m old, just not that old. But once upon a lifetime I knew a feisty little newspaper reporter who had shared a meal with him.

Her name was May Case. She was almost 90 when I met her, and still working for The Clovis (California) Independent, a newspaper she and her husband founded in 1918. In her small way, she was as legendary as Geronimo.

The 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death on Feb. 17 generated newspaper and TV stories about the old warrior. As a prisoner at the Fort Sill military base near Lawton, Oklahoma, Geronimo had his own little cabin. He farmed, raised cattle, and even enlisted as a soldier in Troop L, 7th U.S. Cavalry. This was the same regiment that was almost demolished at The Little Big Horn in 1876. Fortunately for tales of the wild, wild west, Geronimo was on the San Carlos reservation in Arizona Territory at the time.

Time and again between 1876 and 1886, Geronimo and his Apache followers left San Carlos, raiding ranches and wagon trains from mountain hideouts. At one point 5,000 U.S. troops (a quarter of all American military forces) were hunting Geronimo and his small band. Late in 1886 Geronimo and Chief Naiche, son of Cochise, surrendered. By 1894 they were settled at Fort Sill.

It’s been said that Geronimo was part P.T. Barnum. During his time at Fort Sill, Geronimo charged for his autograph and sold the buttons on his coats. He made a public appearance at the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904), appeared in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade (1905) and met with Roosevelt to plead for returning his people to their native Arizona Territory.

Roosevelt denied the request, but Geronimo was getting too old just to head for the hills, as he had done so often. He died in 1909. It was not a spectacular ending to a spectacular life. He was drunk and fell off his horse, spent the night lying in a puddle of water, and developed pneumonia.

He’s as controversial in death as in life. His grave at Fort Sill is a popular tourist attraction, but all of Geronimo may or may not be buried there. Geronimo’s great-grandson Harlyn Geronimo and other descendants filed a federal lawsuit last Tuesday against the secretive Skull and Bones society, Yale University and the U.S. government in a quest to return their ancestor’s remains to his purported birthplace in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness.

There’s an old, old rumor that members of the Yale secret society, Skull and Bones, stole Geronimo’s skull from his grave at Fort Still. One of the culprits was said to be Prescott Bush, father of the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, and grandfather of George W. Bush.

The lawsuit is not Harlyn G.’s only problem at the moment. The chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma reportedly said moving the remains would be desecration of a grave. Somewhere, Geronimo must be smiling at all the publicity generated 100 years after his ignominious death.

I hadn’t thought about May Case in a long time. My one newspaper clipping about her probably disappeared into a California dumpster. I typed her name into the search box at Dogpile and up popped an article from the Independent’s 2008 retrospective on its 103 years as the Clovis newspaper. The article describes May this way:

“She had a love for adventure and a natural curiosity. She had dined with Apache Chief Geronimo, was the confidant of outlaws, peace officers and gamblers, and fought her way into the work against her husband's great objections. But her determination and addiction to local news kept Case working for The Independent until three months prior to her death in 1967. She was 93 years old, the oldest working newspaper reporter in the nation.
To this day, many still remember May Case walking about town with her straw press hat on and notepad in hand asking people about the news.”

That’s just how I remember May – wearing that straw boater-style hat with a press card stuck in the band. And I remember the twinkle in her eyes.

I also remember the night we hitched a ride with a couple of other reporters to a Los Angeles meeting of California Press Women. May liked to read palms, so while we killed time in the back seat, she read my palm. She studied my lifeline and love line, and predicted my future. Time has proved she was right on the money.

(Note: Most of the information about Geronimo came from a front-page feature in the Oklahoman [which cited numerous sources], bolstered by Internet research. Photos are from Wikipedia.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Advice from Hemingway

by Jean Henry Mead

I recently came across a forgotten book in my library, titled On Being a Writer by Will Blythe. Thumbing through, I noticed a chapter about Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is a favorite author, not only because he changed the face of literature, but because I was born on his birthday, July 21. Leather bound copies of his work are among my most prized possessions.

Elmore Leonard reveres Hemingway so much that a portrait of him hangs in his writing den, and he claims that rereading For Whom the Bell Tolls taught him to write western novels. Thousands of writers have followed “Papa” Hemingway‘s lead and learned to write succinctly rather than imitate writers of the past such as Washington Irving, whose flowery phrases give me a headache.

Hemingway was no saint but his candor and truth in writing are traits to be admired. Questioned about his drinking habits, he said the only writer he knew who drank while he wrote was Faulkner, and that he could tell from reading his work when his drinking began during the writing process.

He wrote from 7 a.m. until noon and stressed the fact that writers should write every day, no matter where they were. During the afternoons he would swim or go fishing, explaining that “the best way is always to stop when you are doing good. If you do that, you’ll never be stuck. And don’t think or worry about it until you start the next day. That way your subconscious will be working on it all the time. But if you worry about it, your brain will get tired before you start again. You have to work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite the nail.”

When writing about something monumental like a current war, he said at first it’s too fresh and you’re too close to what has happened. When you have sorted out your feelings about your subject, it’s time to write before the freshness wears off.

“When you write, your objective is to convey every sensation, sight, feeling, and emotion to the reader." He stressed rewriting and keeping your work fluid so that you can always improve upon it. Calling writing the hardest trade in the world when writing about fellow human beings, he said that wordsmiths can train themselves by recalling memories of walking into a room and experiencing the sights, smells and emotions present there.

“Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too, and have the same feelings you had.” Hemingway also stressed watching people and attempting to insert yourself in someone else’s head, and above all, never take sides in an argument. See the problem from all sides and allow the reader to determine who’s right and wrong.

“As a writer you should not judge, you should understand.”

Hemingway encouraged writers to talk to one another about their craft, but not about the stories they were writing. If you tell it, you won’t write it. Writers should work alone, then talk about their work. He also discouraged writers from imitating what others have written unless they know they can do a better job. It’s important to keep a journal if you’re writing about actual historical events because you have to write "an exact, detailed and specific account" of the story. And above all, you have to be serious about your subject as well as your craft.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mysterious Disappearance at Men of Mystery

By Mark W. Danielson

For the past six years, I’ve been privileged to participate in Irvine, California’s, Men of Mystery event. Each year, fifty authors gather to dine with five hundred wonderful mystery fans. The highlight is hearing two famous authors, such as Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Vince Flynn, and Martin Cruz Smith, speak about the business of writing. This spectacular event is the brainchild of Raven Award recipient, Joan Hansen, but would not be possible without her many devoted volunteers. Open to the public, it is normally sold out months before its November date. I am fortunate to be attending again this year.
My latest book, Diablo’s Shadow, was released just two months before the 2008 event. The week before, my book received a five star review from Mysterious Reviews, so we made an information sheet to help promote it at Mysterious Galaxy Books’ event book store. My wife and I checked with the book store that morning to make sure our acrylic-covered information sheet was properly displayed with my books. It was, and looked great.
The MOM event began with the authors introducing themselves, followed by a break where its attendees could wander through the book store and chat with the authors. This was followed by lunch and the featured authors’ presentations. At its conclusion, the book store remained open for a brief period before the authors checked out. This is where the mystery began . . .
When we went to gather my display items, our acrylic Diablo’s Shadow information sheet was nowhere to be found. Since the book store had relocated my books from their original location, we thought that perhaps my display sheet may have been at the previous site, but alas, this was not the case. We looked under the tables, but there was nothing there. We scoured the trash bins. Not there, either. Not even in any empty boxes. Nope, the trail was cold. Now, as one might imagine, the competition among authors is fierce, but I can’t imagine any of them sabotaging my display. Then again, we are talking about murderous people who possess unlimited imaginations . . . How about an obsessed fan? Highly unlikely, considering their polished etiquette and the fact I’m hardly a household name. Besides, these attendees are some of the nicest people I’ve met. So, what about the book store folks? Get serious; they had plenty to pack, and my display is of no value to them. The hotel staff? Oh, please. Why would any of them risk their jobs to take a silly information sheet home? And so the mystery lingers . . .
Months have passed since this mysterious disappearance, so I must let it go. But I vow to return next year with a new and more stunning display! Perhaps I’ll taint it with dye so that anyone caught moving it would have purple hands. Or maybe I shall connect it to an electric current . . . Yeah, that would work if I framed it in metal. Okay, I won’t do either of those things. After all, displays are easily replaced. But beware—whoever you are. I will be watching, and if I find you, you may find yourself written into one of my future novels. Ah, a mysterious mind never stops plotting . . .

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Selling Outside the Box

By Chester Campbell

What do mystery writers do these days when bookstores are shuttering or cutting back, singing the blues about book sales? Following what many are doing, I’ve been looking for non-store events where I can sell books. A recent one, depicted above, took place at the Manchester (TN) Public Library as they kicked off their Third Annual Adult Reading Program.

Five members of our Sisters in Crime Chapter from Nashville took part. Seated from left are Jenny Bentley (a.k.a. Bente Gallagher), J.T. Ellison, and Scott Pearson. Standing are Beth Terrell and myself.

Manchester is about seventy miles south of Nashville, not far from Arnold Air Force Base, home of Arnold Engineering Development Center, the world’s largest complex of wind tunnels for testing all sorts of airplanes and space vehicles.

The library provided our lunch, tasty fare prepared by volunteers and staff, and there was a steady flow of Starbucks . There were twenty-four authors representing all kinds of books. We sold and signed from 10:00 till 2:00. The crowd wasn’t overly large, but we sold enough books to make it well worthwhile and met a lot of nice people.

I have another coming up a week from Saturday. Our grandson goes to Goodpasture Christian School, which is sponsoring its second annual Marketplace. After a Ladies Luncheon and Fashion Show, the Marketplace will feature more than fifty vendors selling all kinds of stuff. Fellow Murderous Musings blogger Beth Terrell and I will be the only booksellers on hand.

Since this is a private school, the ladies who attend the event will be people who can afford to buy what they want. Our job is to make them want mystery novels.

The next event on my calendar is the Southern Kentucky BookFest in Bowling Green, KY, about the same distance north of Nashville as Manchester is south. This one will feature around 200 authors lined up at tables in the Sloan Convention Center. It is sponsored by Western Kentucky University with books provided by the local Barnes & Noble..

Following my appearance at the Kentucky Book Fair last November (the top venue for bookselling in my experience), I received an invitation to the Estill County Reading Celebration in Irvine, KY on May 22. Designed to promote literacy and the love of reading, it will feature author signings and an awards ceremony for top readers from each school in the county.

Festivals and fairs and all sorts of events at libraries and other places with booths or tables make great places to sell books. It may take a little digging to find them, but it’s worth the effort. Tell us where you’ve been selling outside the box, i.e. the normal brick-and-mortar locations.

Check out Mystery Mania

Monday, February 23, 2009


by Ben Small

Many mystery and thriller writers use guns in their stories. Guns are perceived as simple, deadly and hard to track, assuming the murder weapon is not found.

But that’s not always true, just as it’s not always true that ballistics can match the gun to the bullet. And in some cases, DNA might be a bigger threat to the perp than ballistics.

Many writers don’t use the research tools available to provide realism to their character’s gun use. Ignorance or error may cause the writer to overlook what might be a fascinating plot turn, or worse yet, there's an error that turns off the reader. Trial judges usually give juries a form of the following instruction, “If you find that a witness has been untruthful in one part of his or her testimony, you may disregard the testimony in whole or in part.”

Many readers apply the same rule to the books they’re reading.

So let’s discuss some interesting aspects of gun use, some mis-conceptions, and I’ll toss in some research resources where you can learn other tidbits useful in your writing.

First, DNA may be as large a hazard to the gun-toting perp as ballistics. Probably the most famous and best American gun designer to date was John Moses Browning. The famed 1911 pistol was a Browning design, as are most non-striker-fired semi-automatic pistols. A recent enhancement, most notably developed by Ed Brown, a high-end custom gun manufacturer, is the beavertail, a looping attachment at the butt end of a gun that looks like an extended thumb. (See image on right.)
The purpose of the beavertail is to protect the shooter's hand from slide-bite, caused by a meaty hand or a high grip on many semi-automatic pistols. As the trigger is pulled, hot gases from the discharge rocket the slide backward. Anything caught in this movement, like the webbing of the hand between the thumb and first finger, will be torn, leaving the shooter’s DNA on the slide and the perp wearing a bandage. Slide-bite can occur on any most any semi-automatic pistol lacking a beavertail, even on a Glock or Sig Sauer, but it’s most prevalent with guns that follow Browning’s designs more closely, guns like the Browning Hi-Power, still with a high market share, and the famous Sig Sauer P-210, perhaps the most accurate production pistol ever made.

These babies can take some skin.

For this reason, many shooters use shooting gloves, usually possessing nylon webbing where slide-bite may occur and thinner material for the trigger finger, so the shooting finger will still fit within the trigger guard.

But slide-bite isn’t the only DNA risk. If you’ve loaded many semi-auto mags, you no doubt know how sore your loading thumb gets. If you’re not wearing gloves, you’ll not only leave prints on the cartridge casing, you may leave some skin, too. Saavy shooters use auto-loaders for their semi-auto pistols, little plastic devices that fit over the magazine. A bullet is inserted and you push down; the bullet slides into place. Easy on thumbs, but no protection against prints.

The shooter may wear gloves as he’s loading the cartridges, but will he wear them when he’s removing the cartridges from the box? Not doing so will leave at least partial prints and maybe some loose skin tissue on the bottom of the cartridge. Wearing gloves will make cartridge removal awkward, unless the shooter just dumps the box out, in which case a cartridge or two may roll away, perhaps rolling under a couch or chair.

Another hazard exists in racking a semi-auto’s slide. While slide grooves or serrations usually exist front and back, to provide traction with a somewhat difficult slide, racking the slide using the front grooves exposes the meat of the hand to hangfire risk. A hangfire is an accidental discharge caused by something striking the bullet primer hard enough to fire the round. Note, the trigger has not been pulled. Until recently, when Hornaday developed the LeverEvolution bullet, lever guns with tube feed used rounded, soft lead bullets. The guns were loaded in a horizontal position. All this because of hangfire danger, risk that the tip of one bullet might bump the primer of the bullet on top of it. Well, hangfire can occur in semi-automatic pistols, too, which is why experts caution people to only rack the slide using the rear serrations. Needless to say, a semi-automatic pistol hangfire can do serious damage to a hand exposed to an open slide via the front serration pull. The problem is that some guns, especially 1911s, custom guns, and new guns are tight, the slides don’t move easily. Many women and men with small hands have difficulty racking these slides. So they use the front serrations.

That can be an oops the shooter will remember.

Another oops can arise from shooting a revolver the same way one usually shoots a semi-auto. Many semi-auto instructors teach one to use the support hand to point at the target and support the firing hand in anticipating recoil. This positions at least one finger in front of the trigger guard. Do this with a revolver, and you may be missing some fingers, or you’ll at least suffer a bad burn. Why? Because there’s a gap between the cylinder and the barrel, and hot gases explode out of the revolver’s cylinder and leak around the barrel. The preferred support hand positioning for a revolver is below the firing hand, not in front of it. Screw up this rule and your perp will be in a bad way.

And what about ballistics? It’s not foolproof, you know.

First, one must find the bullet. If the perp used a FMJ (full metal jacket) bullet, the traditional ball ammo, the bullet probably passed through the victim and may never be found. If a JHP (jacketed hollow point) bullet was used, it may be a mostly flat blob of metal inside the victim’s body. Some barrel marks may be visible under magnification, but maybe not. If a .223 round was used, the bullet will likely fragment, break up into little pieces. These bullets don’t often pass through windshields or body armor, one of the reasons the M-4 and M-16 rifles aren’t popular with troops.

Did you know replacement barrels are available? Barsto is one company that makes replacement barrels for almost any semi-auto pistol. And gun manufacturers sell replacement barrels, too. Some of these barrels may have to be fitted by a gunsmith, but others are drop-in. It would be easy for a perp to switch gun barrels, kill someone, then replace his old barrel and dispose of the new one. Ballistics might be able to match a strange firing pin profile on the primer, but they’d never match the barrels. Replacement barrels can be ordered by anybody, and some gun shops have them on hand. Nothing to sign, no background check required. Throw that into your ballistics stew and chew on it.

Another company, Otis Technology, has come out with a ceramic barrel liner. Just coat a bunch of bullets, fire them, and whamo, you’ve got new life in an old barrel. And new life in the old barrel probably means a new ballistics pattern, although there may be some carryover. Can ballistics determine if this ceramic coated barrel is from the same gun before the ceramic treatment? Stay tuned. This stuff is too new for anyone to say with certainty.

It’s widely believed that hollow point bullets are rare, that usage of them demonstrates intent to kill. This is just false. In fact, hollow points are considered the standard defense round and the round cops carry in their guns. Why? Because they’re safer to bystanders than ball ammo; they tend to keep the damage limited to the target.

Many people don’t believe the 9mm bullet to be a man-stopper. While proponents complain it’s all about aim, and protest that a 9mm bullet aimed correctly will do the job, most people believe the 9mm bullet is not the preferred man-stopper. In fact, the FBI developed the .40 cal S&W cartridge after a fatal Miami bad guy encounter. The bad guys were pumped full of 9mm bullets, but still managed to keep firing and killing FBI agents.

Many people feel the primary risk associated with a .45 acp round is over-penetration, the likelihood that a round will penetrate walls and strike people even at distance. But tests with ballistic gelatin show that .45 acp bullets, because of their mass, travel at slower speeds than 9mm bullets and penetrate less. Make that bullet a hollow point, and there will likely be no .45 acp over-penetration at all.

I’ve often heard the statement made by experts that mystery writers who claim a gun can be identified by a bullet alone are wrong. And in most cases, that’s a correct statement. But as with most things, this isn’t the full story. In fact, in some cases, the crime investigators and CSI folks can come mighty close.

For instance, short barreled pistols are popular for concealed carry, for obvious reasons. But hollow point bullets shot out of a Baby Glock (G26, G27, G28, G29, G30, G33 and G36) for instance, may not open up. Hollow points need to reach a certain velocity to open upon impact, and the extremely short barrel of some guns prevents the velocity from reaching terminal energy limits of the round. These hollow point bullets may perform like ball ammo. An investigator who sees an unopened hollow point will likely determine it was shot out of a short-barreled gun.

That narrows the field somewhat, but let’s carry this scenario further. What if someone is shooting a .357 round? The .357 round was designed for a revolver; the semi-auto version is the .357 Sig. They’re different bullets. There are very few short barreled revolvers shooting a .357 round; fewer still semi-auto models shooting the .357 Sig round. (A side note is necessary here. If you’re an investigator investigating a .357 indoor shooting, look for someone who’s deaf. Most crimes are spontaneous, and even if not, how many mysteries or thrillers have someone wearing hearing protection? The deafening affect was recently used very successfully as a plot point in Jeff Deaver's latest book The Bodies Left Behind.)

What if the bullet was lead? Well, if you’re thinking Glock, which has the largest gun market share, lead bullets should not be used. Most guns have lands and grooves inside the barrel. These are used to start the bullet spinning, which like a spiral pass in football, makes the bullet more accurate. But Glocks use a proprietary system, different from the typical lands and grooves found in pistols. Read your Glock manual; it says not to use lead bullets. Lead bullets in a Glock, even just one firing, will foul a Glock barrel, affecting accuracy and velocity. Only someone who doesn’t know much about Glocks would fire a lead bullet in one.

Issues like these abound in shooting investigations. If you’re looking for ways to trip up your perp and make your protag more brilliant, knowledge of some of these facts or issues may be of help. In future columns, I may add some more interesting factoids that make your book a little more special.

But you can also research these things yourself. I got interested in guns when my editor excoriated me for a gun safety error I'd made in an early draft of Alibi On Ice. So I researched guns, bought some and found I'd caught the addiction. No, I haven’t shot anybody, and I don’t intend to. But the gun is America’s weapon of choice, and I decided if I was going to write about them, I should learn something about them. And I’ve found some really good resources.

I subscribe to many gun magazines. The three best, I believe, are Combat Handguns, Guns and Ammo, and The American Rifleman, the magazine of the NRA. Additionally, Personal Defense, Guns and Ammo, and The American Rifleman are television programs broadcast weekly. Another good television program is Tactical Impact, where not only are stalking skills taught but also comparative analysis of the positives and negatives associated with various weapons assigned various missions. Interesting and useful stuff.

But by far the best resource I’ve found is the internet. My favorite site is Http:// You’ll find over forty-five thousand members talking guns, not limited to Sig Sauers, and most of the members are military or law enforcement. Ask a question, you’ll get an answer. Or use the search function. This site is extremely well run and is focused on being helpful. Jerks are not tolerated.

Other useful sites are Http://, Http://The, Http://, Http://, and Http:// to name a few.

Bottom line: If your perp used a gun, make sure you know what you’re writing about.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fat Tuesday

Top, Rio de Janeiro Carnival 2004, photo released to public domain by photographer Alan Betensley.
Bottom, author Alice Duncan’s wiener dogs are decked out in their Mardi Gras necklaces.
By Pat Browning

It’s summer in Rio de Janeiro. Some people have all the fun. Oh-well. Put on your swim suit and hum a few bars of “The Girl from Ipanema.” Carnival starts today and winds up on Fat Tuesday, and then it’s "farewell to the flesh” for the 40 days of Lent.

“Flesh farewell” is a translation of the Portuguese word CARNAVAL.
Portugal has a long history with Brazil. In fact, the language is Portuguese, not Spanish. I call it Portuguese with a Spanish accent because it’s spoken trippingly on the tongue, as opposed to continental Portuguese. Continental Portuguese, when spoken, is lush and plush and almost impossible to understand.

My vast experience in that matter comes from a year of night school Portuguese, which led to a trip to the Iberian Peninsula, which is a whole other story. How did I fall onto that tangent? Let’s move on to New Orleans.

New Orleans takes Mardi Gras seriously. According to a history published last month in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Carnival begins Jan. 6, on the Feast of the Ephiphany.

Quoting from a bylined article by Becky Retz:

Also known as Kings' Day or Twelfth Night, Jan. 6 celebrates the arrival of the three kings at Jesus' birthplace, thus ending the Christmas season. And in New Orleans, simultaneously starting Carnival. This festival of fun finds its roots in various pagan celebrations of spring, dating back 5,000 years.

But it was Pope Gregory XIII who made it a Christian holiday when, in 1582, he put it on his Gregorian calendar (the 12-month one we still use today).
He placed Mardi Gras on the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. That way, all the debauchery would be finished when it came time to fast and pray.

Much of the first part of the Carnival season is invitation-only coronation balls and supper dances hosted by private clubs known as krewes.
The public portion comes to life a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras when the krewes hit the streets, staging more than 70 parades in metropolitan New Orleans.

Mardi Gras arrived in North America with the LeMoyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, in the late 17th century, when King Louis XIV sent the pair to defend France's claim on the territory of Louisiana.The explorers eventually found the mouth of the Mississippi River on March 3, 1699, Mardi Gras of that year. They made camp a few miles upriver, named the spot Point d'Mardi Gras and partook in a spontaneous party. This is often referred to as North America's first Mardi Gras.

A couple of decades later, Bienville founded New Orleans and soon Carnival celebrations were an annual event highlighted by lavish balls and masked spectacles. Some were small, private parties with select guest lists, while others were raucous, public affairs.
Collectively, they reflected such a propensity for frolic in the local citizenry that historian Robert Tallant wrote in his book “Mardi Gras” that natives would step over a corpse on the way to a ball or the opera and think nothing of it. Parades officially began in 1838.

There’s more but that gives you an idea of how seriously New Orleans takes Mardi Gras. Parades are going on even as we speak, with costumed revelers tossing beads to bystanders who call out, “Throw me something, mister!”

A little footnote: In comments posted to the article, there’s quite an argument going on among people who insist that Mobile, Alabama held the first Mardi Gras, long before the LeMoyne brothers showed up. I can’t say for sure. I wasn’t there.

In New Mexico, author Alice Duncan got into the spirit of things by decking out her wiener dogs with necklaces. Alice is a former Californian who also writes as Anne Robins, Emma Craig, Rachel Wilson and Jon Sharpe, sets her whimsical Southern California novels in the 1920s.

To give you an idea, the first one is HIGH SPIRITS and she blurbs it this way:

**Daisy Gumm Majesty, spiritualist to folks with more money than sense, can scarcely believe that her best client wants her to get her spiritual control, Rolly, to appear at a séance in a speakeasy. Bad enough that Daisy made up Rolly when she was ten, but now Rolly has to perform for a bunch of murdering gangsters? When the place is raided, Daisy’s troubles multiply.

Add to the mix Daisy’s nemesis (and her husband’s best friend) Detective Sam Rotondo; Vicenzo Maggiori, leader of the bootlegging racket in the area; and Flossie Mosser, befuddled floozy; and you have a rollicking adventure that Daisy isn’t sure she’s going to survive. **

I like it already!

You can read more about it at Alice’s web site:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Butch Cassidy and The Hole in the Wall Gangs

by Jean Henry Mead

Wyoming’s infamous Hole in the Wall Canyon was inhabited by a number of outlaws during the second half of the 19th Century. The Big Horn Mountain hideout was a sanctuary for Civil War Deserters during the 1860s, followed by “Big Nose” George Parrot’s Powder River Gang from 1874 until 1885. Frank and Jesse James also used the outlaw cave following their 1878 Carbon, Wyoming, train robbery.

Word of the outlaw hideout soon spread and Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch took refuge within the red sandstone walls. Robert Leroy Parker, aka George “Butch” Cassidy, is credited with first realizing the Hole’s potential for fattening and rebranding cattle before selling them in Montana. Aided by Harve Logan and other Wild Bunch members, Cassidy set up a series of relay stations with friendly ranchers so that fresh horses were available after a robbery, which enabled the gang to outdistance any posse. Once inside the Hole in the Wall canyon, several men with rifles could hold off their pursuers.

The Hole in the Wall is actually a misnomer for no hole exists. A rock littered valley stretches between two high cliffs. One is the thirty-mile long sandstone ledge called Red Wall, the other the southern end of the Big Horn Mountains. Buffalo Creek winds its way between the two ridges until it reaches a break in the wall near the Natrona-Johnson counties line.

Those who ranched along the outskirts of the Hole in the Wall noticed strange events taking place in conjunction with cattle thefts. Every spring, when Upper Buffalo Creek thawed, they would find huge bundles of weighted cowhide bound with baling wire that had floated out of the canyon. The rustlers tied the hides to large rocks and dropped them into deep pools within the canyon before selling the butchered beef to the Union Pacific and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad construction camps. The hides were carefully examined and found to have been rebranded. When the brands were impossible to disguise, patches of hide were cut from the cattle and new brands were stitched to the cattle with needle and thread.

The news media had a field day reporting on the ruggedly beautiful outlaw hideaway, claiming that every bandit in the Rocky Mountains was on his way there. But the hideout was no place for apprentice outlaws. The rough terrain is more suited to mountain goats than a rider astride a horse. Loose rocks and earth slides force inexperienced riders to dismount and scramble on foot to the opening in the wall.

My book, Escape, a Wyoming Historical
Novel, closely follows actual events of the late 1890s, the Wild Bunch’s ill-fated Belle Fourche, South Dakota, bank robbery as well as their exodus from the Hole in the Wall Canyon. A ten-page epilogue details all the Wild Bunch members' fates.

The Hole in the Wall was abandoned shortly before the 20th Century when the Four-State Governor’s Pact was enacted to exterminate outlaws. It was then that the Wild Bunch and most outlaws of their era left the country for Alaska and South America.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Character Creation and the Enneagram

By Beth Terrell

When I was a teenager, I discovered a book called Linda Goodman's Sun Signs. Despite being a rather stereotypical Taurus, I never bought into the idea that everyone born in a certain month would behave a certain way, but I loved the part of each chapter that described the strengths, weaknesses, and characteristics of each sign. I would devise various characters of each type, then put characters of different types in the same situation and explore how each would react.

Looking back, I realize those characterizations worked because they were based on the idea that people who have certain qualities generally have a specific constellation of interrelated qualities. In essence, I was using the Sun Signs descriptions as a rudimentary way of personality typing. There are a number of more scientific ways to classify personality. The Meyers-Briggs method of personality typing divides people into categories based on the following categories: introversion vs. extroversion, intuiting vs. sensing, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving.

My favorite method of typing personality is the Enneagram of Personality. Many writers have found this system helpful in creating complex, multi-dimensional characters. Cindi Brown, who co-teaches an Enneagram class with Mary Beth Ross and authors a blog called the Enneagram Agency (, says, "The Enneagram is good for developing realistic characters for the same reasons it is good for understanding real people -- it's a complex and nuanced model of the human psyche that is amazingly predictive. It can tell you how a certain type of person will likely change, for better or worse, over the course of their 'story arc.'"

According to the Enneagram Institute, the nine types are as follows:

One: The Reformer (principled, purposeful, self-controlled, perfectionistic)

Two: The Helper (demonstrative, generous, people-pleasing, possessive)

Three: The Achiever (adaptive, excelling, driven, image-conscious)

Four: The Individualist (expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, temperamental)

Five: The Investigator (perceptive, innovative, secretive, isolated)

Six: The Loyalist (engaging, responsible, anxious, suspicious)

Seven: The Enthusiast ((spontaneous, versatile, distractible, scattered)

Eight: The Challenger (self-confident, decisive, willful, confrontational)

Nine: The Peacemaker (receptive, reassuring, agreeable, complacent)

The thing I like best about the Enneagram of Personality is that it doesn't stop at describing a person's basic traits. It also explores how each type thinks and behaves at each of nine levels of mental/emotional/spiritual health. For example, an Eight at the highest level of health might be the noble protector, using his strength to defend the weak. An Eight at the lowest level of health might be a terrorist or mass murderer, striking out viciously at others . Robert Crais's beloved character Joe Pike might be an example of a healthy Eight. At the extreme low end of the Eight continuum, we might find someone like the BTK killer.

Judith Searle, the author of The Literary Enneagram: Characters From the Inside Out, says, "Unlike standard typologies, which provide only static lists of traits, the Enneagram of Personality offers insights into the ways individuals of different temperaments change under stress and when feeling secure."

Susan Reynolds and Paula Munier have written a book called The Enneagram for Writers: Using an Ancient Personality System to Create Unforgettable Characters. The book explains how to use the nine Enneagram types to create characters with depth and realism. Unfortunately, as of this writing, it has yet to be released, but keep your eyes open, since it promises to be a good one.

While you're waiting, though, here are two very useful books on using the Enneagram to create three-dimensional characters. The first is Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams by Laurie Schnebly. The second, by Anne Hart, is targeted to writers of mysteries and suspense: Tools for Mystery Writers: Writing Suspense Using Hidden Personality Traits.

Finally, one of the most popular books for anyone with an interest in learning more about the Enneagram is The Wisdom of the Enneagram by Don Richard Riso.

Whatever your feelings about personality typing, even a cursory study of the enneagram is sure to inspire a host of intriguing characters and plots to put them in.

And my protagonist, Jared McKean? Healthy Eight with a Nine wing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Preserving our Constitution

By Mark W. Danielson

With a new president in office who has taught Constitutional law, one might think that I’m referring to our country’s governing document, but this story is about the USS Constitution; one of our nation’s most valuable artifacts. Amazingly, this proud ship was never boarded by enemy forces or lost a battle, yet she barely survived her post-war days. This is a brief look at her unique history.

George Washington may have argued to form the US Navy, but that service branch wasn’t established until 1794. Congress approved its foundation after our merchant ships were repeatedly harassed off of Africa’s Barbary Coast. In the same year, plans were drawn to build a warship that could defeat a ship of the same size or out sail a stronger opponent. On October 21, 1797, that ship, named the USS Constitution, was launched for the staggering sum of $302,718.

Tripoli declared war on the United States over the issue of merchant ship tariffs in 1801, and in response, the USS Constitution joined the US naval blockade in 1803, making her presence known by bombarding Tripoli’s forts. The war ended on June 3, 1805, when Tripoli officials signed the treaty aboard the USS Constitution.

While her action in Tripoli was a significant event in her history, it was the War of 1812 that earned the USS Constitution her notoriety. In spite of being severely outnumbered, the US Navy sailed into a far superior British fleet to defend our nation’s freedom. In one of her most memorable battles, the USS Constitution pulled alongside one of Britain’s largest warship. Cannons blazing, the USS Constitution’s cannon balls tore into the HMS Guerriere while the enemy’s shots bounced off her hull. Observing this, one of the HMS Guerriere’s crew exclaimed, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” From that point on, the USS Constitution became known as “Old Ironsides”. This historic thirty-five minute clash left 78 Brits dead or injured compared to the US Navy’s minimal loss of 14.

In 1830, Old Ironsides was declared unseaworthy, but a poem of her nickname by Oliver Wendell Holmes saved her from being scrapped. In 1833, under pressure from its constituents, Congress approved money for Old Ironsides’ restoration. From 1835 to 1855, she made numerous voyages, including a record journey of 495 days at sea that covered 52,279 miles. From 1853 to 1855, she patrolled the African Coast in search of illegal slave traders, but then sat out the Civil War. Later, she became a training ship at the US Naval Academy, and in 1878 made her last cruise abroad, sailing to Paris for the Universal Exposition. Sadly, her sailing days ended in 1881 when she became a navy barracks ship in Portsmouth, NH. (photo below)

In 1887, Massachusetts Senator and grandfather of future president John F. Kennedy, John Fitzgerald, spearheaded the effort to bring Old Ironsides back to her birthplace of Boston harbor. This action may have bought the warship some time, but in 1905, the Secretary of the Navy planned to use her as a target until she was sunk. Once again, the public’s outcry meant the US Navy had no choice but to keep her afloat.

In the late 1920’s, America’s citizens funded another major restoration, and from 1931 to 1934, the USS Constitution toured 75 cities along all three US coastlines, covering 22,000 miles. By the time she returned to Boston harbor, six million visitors had walked her decks. In 1997, during her 200th birthday celebration, she sailed under her own power for the first time in over a century. Today, the USS Constitution still graces Boston harbor as the US Navy’s oldest commissioned ship, and on every July 4th, makes way into the harbor to celebrate our Nation’s birthday. She returns to her dock one hundred-eighty out to ensure that she weathers evenly. Her present mission as the US Navy’s ambassador is suiting, for there is no better symbol to represent our American spirit.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Bailout for Hitmen?

By Chester Campbell

I wonder if President Obama will come up with a bailout plan for hitmen? Don't you suppose they're getting laid off as well as everybody else? The way the Dow Jones is falling off a cliff, there's probably a shortage of funds for paying hired killers.

Any day now I expect to see one standing on the corner at a busy intersection with a crudely lettered cardboard sign:

"Will Kill for Food." Or maybe, "Will Knock Off Your Old Lady for a Six-Pack."

The times are getting desperate. With all the travel cutbacks we've been hearing about, it might even be iffy for a Harvard symbologist to travel to Paris. Think what that would mean for Dan Brown. Might jeopardize any reprise of Leonardo's decoder ring. Or am I thinking about something I got out of a cereal box years ago.

With the cost of guns and ammunition going up as people rush to the dealers before the Democrats can gum up the Second Amendment, murderers may have to turn to cheaper methods for disposing of those who stand in their way. Knives are probably less expensive, but they leave all that bloody mess and DNA lying around.

Poisoning might be more tidy and cheaper, if the bad guys could pick up a little cyanide at a jeweler's. Or maybe pilfer some strychnine from a pest control outfit.

Even cheaper would be strangulation (known as "throttling" in the UK). The classic method involves a ligature or garrote. It could be a chain or rope or wire. All materials that won't break a slayer's budget. And if he's really strapped for cash, he can use his hands.

Let's face it, with the economy heading downhill like a Utah avalanche, the murder business may be falling on hard times. But mystery writers are a hardy lot. I'm sure we'll find the wherewithal to keep assassins plying their trade as usual, even if they might be forced to resort to doing it on the cheap.

But don't rule out a bailout. I saw where the auto parts industry is talking about asking for one. No telling who might be next.

If you'd like to find out how the bad guy does it in The Surest Poison, the book is now available for pre-order at and And the guy is no piker.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Limp Wristing

by Ben Small

No, this note is not about a casual evening stroll along the walk on Venice Beach, nor is it about San Francisco culture. And it’s not about a punk rock band either, although I understand there’s one with the name “Limp Wrist.”

No, I’m talking about a shooting phenomenon which affects every shooter, which I’ve yet to see affect any protagonist or antagonist using a gun. The term “Limp Wrist,” in its various versions may even be a verb: "I limp wristed my pistol, the best grip I could manage the circumstances."

Limp wristing is the failure to grip your automatic handgun tightly enough, causing the pistol to fail to extract a spent casing from the chamber.

A semi-automatic pistol fired limp wristing will either not fire at all, or if it does fire, it will not cycle for a second shot. In other words, you either have a weapon that will not fire, or you’ve got a jammed gun.

Oops. That can get your character killed.

In order to fire, semi-autos need a stable base. Wasn’t it Sir Issac Newton who decreed, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction?”

Well, Newton was right. If you were to suspend a pistol in the air and pull the trigger by string, the bullet would fly, but so would the gun… in the opposite direction. And the semi-auto would fail to cycle because the resistance it needs to move the slide back and eject and feed has been removed. That means a jam that can only be cleared by removing the magazine and racking the slide.

Limp wristing happens to the strongest people; indeed, it happens to everybody. Often when a character is moving or distracted or panicked, he’s more focused on his target and what he’s doing than on how he’s holding his gun. Maybe the protag or perp is leading a victim, or ducking and dodging. A momentary lapse, and the grip on the pistol loosens.

Many modern semi-auto pistols, such as high end 1911s or the new Springfield XD series, have wrist safeties, which will not permit the pistol to fire if it is being held with less than a firm grip. See the picture on the right. The short but distinct separation at the upper end of the grip under the beaver tail, is the grip safety. This safety arm must be depressed before the gun will fire. Look at the structure. The grip safety is at the top of the grip, meaning the upper part of the shooting hand is what depresses the safety. So a firm grip with the bottom part of the hand is irrelevant, at least relating to operation of the grip safety. With pistols containing this safety, limp wristing will mean a failure to fire.

On semi-autos without a grip safety, as for instance with Glock, HK or Sig Sauer Classic or Sig Pro pistols, a soft grip will fire the pistol but cause it to fail to eject, thereby jamming the gun and preventing a second or follow-on shot until the pistol is cleared.

In many of our books, we see characters shooting under stress. And stress is one of the causes of limp wristing, because stress causes the shooter to focus on something other than a firm pistol grip. It’s not about strength, not a gender factor at all; it’s about distraction. If the character has been wrestling with someone for the gun and the gun goes off, odds are the shot was limp wristed, so the gun will be jammed. And of course, if it was one of those guns with a grip safety, the first shot wouldn’t have fired at all.

In most of these situations, the author will have someone (the perp, the protag, or a third character) grab the pistol and struggle to fire, in a hurry, probably with a bad grip.

When, if ever, are we shown the gun jamming in this scenario? Yet, that’s what would likely happen. And the jam is the more critical of these issues because the pistol must be cleared before it will shoot again. With a wrist safety, the gun didn’t fire, so there’s no jam. A firm grip = Bang.

So, beware the dangers of the limp wrist. Or use a limp wristed shot (or non-shot as the case may be) for a little more drama and realism in your story.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Blogging A Storm: Knock It Off, Zeus!

Oklahoma hail storm, photo by Bill Waugh, AP
By Pat Browning

Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2:19 p.m.
Lovely rainy day here in Oklahoma. Warm spring rain, the best kind. But also thunder and lightning. Imagine that, and just as archeologists announced they have found the probable birthplace of Zeus, god of thunder and lightning. It's on top of Mt. Lykaion. In Greece, naturally. Quoting Yahoo News:

***Excavating a trench on Mount Lykaion, in an area which ancient Greek historians later called "the ash altar of Zeus," archaeologists found more than 50 drinking vessels, fragments of human and animal figurines, as well as burned sheep and goat bones. All of the artifacts are consistent with cult ceremonies of the Mycenaean people, who settled Greece approximately between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, historians say.
*** The period also coincides with the first historical mentions of the god Zeus in Greek texts, suggesting that the Mount Lykaion ceremonies were to honor the man himself.
***Younger, higher levels of the trench have yielded silver coins, a bronze hand holding a lightning bolt and petrified lightning in past dig seasons. All are clear dedications to Zeus, indicating that the use of the god's altar on Mount Lykaion was likely unbroken for several millennia.

I love it when they talk like that. Anyway, it's a perfect day to make vegetable soup, otherwise known as Clean Out The Fridge-Freezer Soup, and cornbread.

2:51 p.m.
Whoa! What happened to spring? I glanced out the window and it was black outside. Then the tornado siren went off and I turned on TV loud enough so I could hear it all over the apartment. Got my purse and shoes and plodded into my walk-in closet with the TV blaring TAKE SHELTER, STAY LOW etc. etc. etc. and that siren making my ears ring.

Once again, Yukon escaped with only rain, thunder, lightning and softball-size hail. Man, did it thump on my roof. If the people upstairs are home they must have crawled under the bed. It's odd, but those tornado rotations always go down I-40, about 2 miles south of me, past the Xerox plant. Those poor people at Xerox must be half-deaf by now. The tornado rotation has now moved slightly east of Yukon into the OKC area. So I'm safe, for now. Just hail hitting my window. I'd better pull the blinds. Human nature -- I have to resist opening the door to watch.

3:30 p.m.
I remembered to turn off the burner under the soup pot when the first siren went off. When things cleared up it poured rain, melting down the hail before I could venture out to take pictures. Pity. My side yard looked like the weather gods upturned a giant bowl of popcorn.

So I put on the kettle for coffee and I’m dipped if the siren didn't go off again. Storm #2! Meanwhile Storm #1 spawned a tornado north of Oklahoma City. A few pictures already coming in. Schools are in lockdown, with the kids in safe places inside the buildings in the entire metro.

Oklahoma is catching hell this afternoon. The storms seem to be moving in almost a straight line, south to north, so I guess they’re coming up from Texas. Storm #3 just reared its ugly head.

3:40 p.m.
The siren guy’s finger must be stuck on the button. Tornado touched down 10 miles south of here and Storm #3 is hovering. Every time I trudge to my closet I take something else with me. Last time I took my lantern. If this keeps up, everything I own will be in that closet.

4:02 p.m.
Siren just stopped. Ears still ringing.
Some school kids put on buses to go home. Others are still locked down.
Hello, Texas. We’re getting a line of storms forming in Wichita Falls.

Hail is huge. Good picture on TV. Looks like the weather gods got tired of popcorn and are now bouncing tennis balls. Can basketballs be far behind?

5:48 p.m.
OMG. Zeus threw a blockbuster this time. Probably to remind us who’s in charge. Most school kids have been sent home. I had time to finish cooking my vegetable soup, and have cornbread in the oven as we speak.

But we’re still on storm watch for another couple of hours. It will be a long night for police, firemen, EMTs, utility workers …

7 p.m.
Up and down, up and down. Poured rain and hail where I am. Dark, light, dark again as clouds pass over. We’re only on the edge of the danger zone and the local CBS station is actually running NCIS and The Mentalist, so we must be safe for now. My soup and cornbread are delicious.

But things got ugly in a hurry down in southwestern Oklahoma. A humongous tornado is tearing up the place, moving slowly across the state, headed east, to wreak havoc in neighboring states. This is serious business, folks. Even where tornados don’t touch down, fierce winds uproot trees and blow off roofs, blow out walls, and pounding rains cause flooding.

I’ll read about it tomorrow, and watch it on TV. Storm chasers, reporters, photographers, chopper pilots are either brave or nuts, but they are out in force.

Nothing’s ever a complete loss. Sitting in the closet all afternoon gave me time to think about books.

DEAD MAN’S ISLAND by Carolyn Hart: Henrie O, a retired foreign correspondent, answers a call for help from her first love, a famous publishing tycoon. They meet on a remote island off the South Carolina coast – with a hurricane on the way. Hart’s description of the hurricane is terrifying. I had just read it when our own tornados blew through. Shudder, shudder.

More pleasant was the prospect of receiving an ARC of Debby Atkinson’s latest book, PLEASING THE DEAD. Like all of Debby’s books, it’s set in Hawaii. Golden sands, balmy breezes, gorgeous sunsets … ah ... you betcha-boots I want to read it. With storms piling up here, one after the other, I’ll just think of Debby’s book as "Pleasing the Living."

But that’s fiction. In real life, I’m sleeping in my clothes tonight.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday the 13th

By Jean Henry Mead

An estimated 20 million people in this country fear Friday the 13th. Some are so paralyzed with fear that they avoid going to work, traveling or even getting out of bed, according to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina. The fear results in an $800 to $900 million lost in business for the day.

The fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskavedekatriaphobia or friggatriskaidekaphobia. According to folklorists, there is no written evidence of a Friday the 13th superstition in the U.S. before the 19th century. The earliest known documented reference in English occurred in an 1869 biography of Gioachino Rossin, according to the Wikipedia:

[Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring and affectionate friends; and if it be true that, like so many other Italians, he regarded Friday as an unlucky day, and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday, the 13th of November, he died.

There is also a myth that having thirteen people seated at a table will result in the death of one of the diners. Were there not thirteen people at The Last Supper?

Friday has been considered an unlucky day since the 14th century when The Canterbury Tales was published. Friday has also been considered an unfortunate day to travel or start new projects. Black Friday has been associated with stock market crashes and other disasters since the 1800s. And Friday has also been known as the day that Jesus was crucified.

Another theory involves the arrest of the legendary Knights Templar. According to one expert the Knights Templar was a monastic military order founded in 1118 C.E. in Jerusalem. Their goal was to protect Christian pilgrims during the Crusades. The Knights Templar was a powerful as well as wealthy group over the next two centuries. King Phillip felt threatened by them and was determined to acquire their wealth. And on Friday, October 13, 1307, he ordered the arrest of all Knights Templar.

Today, although a large number of us are afraid to leave home on Friday the 13th, Dutch insurers report that fewer accidents are reported on this day because people are consciously more careful. However, the British Medical Journal reported in a 1993 study that there was a significant increase in traffic accidents between Friday the 6th and Friday the 13th.

So, whether you consider black cats and walking under ladders unlucky on Friday the 13th, take heart. If you toss salt over your left shoulder, carry a four leaf clover in your lapel and drink a blender full of goat’s milk seasoned with grated frog’s tongue and gnat’s eyelashes, you'll forestall any unfortunate occurrences that may happen on this day, particularly if you stay in bed and read a good book until sundown.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Deepening Character Through Relationships

By Beth Terrell

At the Murder in the Magic City conference in Birmingham, several of us were chatting over dinner, and the talk turned toward character development. Not surprising, considering I was in a room full of writers. "Relationships," Liz Zevlin said. "There's no better way to show character."

I remembered her words today when a new acquaintance asked me what my book was about. I gave him my tag line, how Jared "has a son with Down Syndrome, a best friend with AIDS, an ex-wife he can't fall out of love with, and a weakness for women in jeopardy--until one frames him for murder." On the face of it, the book is about a man trying to clear himself of a murder he didn't commit, but beneath the surface is a web of relationships that reveal Jared's character and show the reader how much he has to lose. His tenderness toward his son and his ex-wife reveal a deeper dimension of the "tough-guy" P.I. who dipatches street thugs with perfect spin kicks to the head.

Spencer's relationships with Susan and with Hawk play a huge role in the Spencer books. Matthew Scudder's character is deepened by his love for his wife, his uneasy ties to his ex, and his multifaceted relationship with the sons he failed--sons who both love and resent him. "The World's Greatest Dectective" Elvis Cole reveals himself through his love for Lucy and Ben Chenier and his long friendship with Joe Pike. Jonathan Kellerman's psychologist protagonist, Alex Delaware, has complex and enduring relationships with on-again, off-again, on-again girlfriend Robin and gay police detective Milo Sturgis. Even Jack Reacher, the consumate loner, has ties from the past. Who can forget Reacher's loyalty to the tight-knit Army special investigations unit he was once a member of? The one whose motto was, "You do not mess with the special investigators." Reacher's desire for (and resistance to) human connections has never been more poignant.

Mark Billingham enriched his police detective protagonist through an ongoing relationship with his father, who has progressive dementia. The hero's love for his father is mixed with guilt, sorrow, frustration, regret, and a host of other emotions that make him rich and real. I could go on and on, but the number of examples is vast, and it would take a lifetime to exhaust them.

The trick, of course, is to weave the relationships into the book so seamlessly they enhance the story rather than detract from it. In my opinion, the authors mentioned above--Crais and Kellerman, Billingham, Block, and Child--do it beautifully.

What do you think? Who uses relationships well? How do your favorite authors use relationships to reveal character?

How do you?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Character Beneath the Surface

By Mark W. Danielson

This is a photo of the man I trust with my car. Okay—he’s the guy I mostly trust—or at least sometimes trust. Chuck [not his real name] is barely recognizable in this photo because he hasn’t shaved in a while, but I assure you that he’s a gentle giant. Always calm, very personable, patiently waits for his meals to be served . . . Chuck has worked on my car for years, and yet I only know him on the surface level. Still, based upon some other aspects, I’m convinced that he’s a real animal once he’s away from work.

You see, Chuck’s C-5 Corvette offers an interesting insight into his character. Understandably, his car's windshield bears the dragon icon from his business, but its 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 his mega-charged 8000 horsepower machine. Well, perhaps 8000 is a slight exaggeration, but it’s still a big honkin’ engine with an honest 1000 ponies.) Did I mention that there are more skulls on the back bumper? Hmmm—this guy is spooky.

Seeing Chuck’s car generates a paradox about the man who drives this monster machine. Who is he really—a gentle giant, a black bear, 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 found myself 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 .38 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 to some people, Chuck and I were both ax murderers—or at least could be. Ironically, I write about murder, and as far as I know, Chuck just likes skulls on his car.

Good fiction incorporates characters like Chuck because they’ll keep us guessing all the way through the story. It’s quite possible that Chuck’s character may snap and start shooting from the bell tower, or perhaps he murders his family, yet at the same time, he’s a guy from everyday life that we can all relate to. Who knows? Chuck may just turn out to be the hero of the story; a total fake-out from beginning to end. So, the next time you’re out and about thinking about character development, consider all of the people around you. Let your mind wander a bit, and see what kind of scenarios you come up with that involve the little old lady that’s crossing the street, the beggars, the punks, or the soccer mom that fumbles with the keys to her Escalade with seven kids waiting to board. Everything imaginable is directly in front of you. All you have to do is open your eyes.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Much More Difficult Time

by Ben Small

I paid another visit to my friend John Weber just outside Tombstone. He’s the licensed rattlesnake hunter I mentioned in a prior article. But this time I went not for rattlesnake wallets, although I bought some for family members, but for his outdoor museum. John and I spent a couple hours staring at the implements he’s collected, evidence of the hard life experienced by desert settlers during Tombstone’s boom time. I also spent some time at Wyatt Earp’s house, a small two room house with no kitchen or bathroom. For meals, Wyatt and his live-in mate, had to cross the street to Virgil Earp’s home where family meals were cooked. That house burned down in 1998 and wasn’t rebuilt. It’s a vacant field now.

Here’s a section of Wyatt Earp’s wallpaper.

And here's one of Earp's buggies. Wyatt sold it when the Earps left Tombstone, and the not-for-profit that runs his house was able to track it and buy it back and restore it. Note: no shock absorbers.

Yuk. But Tombstone wasn’t a “feel good” sort of place in the 1880s, unless you were Ed Schieffelin and his partners, who were among the few who actually made money from the mines. They cashed in early for what now would approximate one billion dollars.
For the rest, Tombstone was, indeed, the “Town Too Tough To Die.”

These pictures show various tools used to de-horn and remove testicles from bulls. Evidently, from the number and variety of these in John's collection, this was a regular activity in Tombstone days. Don't know why I took pictures of so many of them. Maybe I identify with the bulls...

Here are some actual Tombstone posters which were nailed to posts throughout the town. These are the real thing, not something printed up post-period.

Branding was the name of the game for both ranchers and rustlers in those days. Cattle were free-range, so branding was essential. Problem was the rustlers were excellent at making their own brands, which would duplicate an existing brand but add a bar or circle, so the rustlers could claim the cattle were theirs. And cattle farming or stealing was profitable; the miners needed food. So, naturally, John Weber has many brands, some of which are remarkably similar. While I've got pictures after pictures of these different brands, I'll just flash one for you.

Of course, as shown by one of the posters above, Tombstone was a gun-free town, unless you were a Clanton or McLaurey and you wanted a gunfight over the issue. But outside town, hog-legs and Winchesters were essential tools. Between the Apache, rustlers and mine raiders, this was a very dangerous territory. John has some cartridges from the period.

Everyday existence in Tombstone was a struggle. There was no water; it was carried in from the San Pedro River via wagon and cost 3c/gallon. Ironically, water led to the closing of the mines in 1887, just nine or so years after the town was founded. The Tombstone silver mines were not closed because of the plunge in silver prices, as is commonly stated. The mines were flooded when a massive 1887 earthquake tore open a fault and part of the underground San Pedro flow streamed upward.

When a cattleman, miner or traveler had to spend a night in the desert, there was the issue of what to do with the horses? Unless one was staying along the river where large mesquite or cottonwood trees would provide a tie-up, the traveler had to carry the means for keeping his horse nearby. But the river was an especially dangerous area, because brigands, marauders and predators (mountain lions, rattlesnakes and bears) prowled the river banks. So it was much safer to sleep out in the desert. But how to tie up the horses? Here's an example of how that was done. The traveler would screw these posts into the ground and tie his horse to it.

If you were a miner or a cattleman who caught a claim jumper or rustler, and you didn't shoot him, you had to have some way to keep the bad guy captive until the town or county marshal could take over. Here's one way this was done.

The miners were afraid to leave their mines, lest claim jumpers settle in, so the miner had to keep nearby all his pots, pans, tents, and mining equipment. So much like the movies, travelers during this period usually trailed a mule laden with all this hardware. Here are some of the things those poor beasts had to carry.

If you happen to travel to Southern Arizona, I highly recommend visiting John Weber's outdoor museum and rattlesnake crafts store. Admission is free, and what you see will leave lasting impressions. Contact John at You may recognize him; he's been on both The Today Show and PBS.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with a picture of the entrance to his museum. It's quite a place, and a reminder that no matter how tough we think times are now, they were much more demanding a hundred twenty-five years ago...

Note: Sorry for the dis-jointed positioning of some of these pictures. This was the best I could do given the limitations of Blogger.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Which Way To The Lions?

By Pat Browning

Somewhere in that happy throng at this weekend’s Love Is Murder walks the witty and erudite Jonathan E. Quist. By his sport coat – a fine tweed coat with leather elbow pads – you shall know him.

Jonathan is writing his first mystery novel. He prepared for LIM by watching a Monty Python sketch on YouTube, and shopping for a sport coat that would make him look authorial. I persuaded him to let me post his e-mail on the subject, and when I asked for a mini-bio, he sent the following.


Jonathan E. Quist is a lifelong resident of Illinois,
where he learned everything he knows about
government ethics. A graduate of Northwestern
University, he has spent the past twenty years
failing to escape Information Technology for a
less lucrative field.

He wrote his first mystery nearly forty years ago,
to critical acclaim, but similarity to another story
prevented publication. Similarity. That's a laugh.
It was lifted outright from “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken”,
is what it was. But “plagiarism” wasn't in his
fourth-grade vocabulary list, until Mrs. Christensen
explained it.

Mr. Quist's turn-ons include sunny days
and playful kittens. His turn-offs are mean people
and wiggly seats on public toilets.

He currently lives 31.3 miles from the hospital
in which he was born, where by day he works for a
telecommunications equipment manufacturer,
and by night is writing the first novel in a
humorous historical traditional mystery series,
set in the world of small-time Vaudeville.


(In Monty Python's "Vocational Guidance Counsellor" sketch, Mr. Anchovy wants to make a career change away from chartered accountancy. The counselor asks if he has any idea what new career he would like to pursue.)

Anchovy: Yes, yes I have.

Counselor: What?

Anchovy: (boldly) Lion taming.

Counselor: Well yes. Yes. Of course, it's a bit of a jump isn't it? I mean, er, chartered accountancy to lion taming in one go. You don't think it might be better if you worked your way towards lion taming, say, via banking …

Anchovy: No, no, no, no. No. I don't want to wait. At nine o'clock tomorrow I want to be in there, taming.

Counselor: Fine, fine. But do you, do you have any qualifications?

Anchovy: Yes, I've got a hat.

Counselor: A hat?

Anchovy: Yes, a hat. A lion taming hat. A hat with ‘lion tamer’ on it. I got it at Harrods.

( Watch it all at

(Here Jonathan picks up his story … )

In preparation for Love is Murder
I went shopping at the local thrift store. I had an idea that I want to begin presenting a somewhat more professional, or if possible, authorial image at conferences.So I went in search of a tweed sport coat.

Looking through the racks, I began to despair -- nearly all the tags were marked “M”. Then I started looking for the maker's label, and discovered that whoever was tagging the goods was just guessing, “Medium”, and I began trying things on. I found a few genuine Harris Tweeds ( ) though they were all in rather medium sizes.

Then I found a coat that fit. I hung it on my cart, and continued to look. The notion of finding a coat with leather elbow pads was out of my mind; I figured I'd have to buy new for that.

But as I compared one of the Harris garments with mine, I picked up the sleeve to compare buttons, and lo and behold -- the elbow had a patch of suede …

And the coat was marked down. It was still a bit of a sum, but I got the coat for -- $2.56. Wasn't that the name of a beauty pageant?

So. Now I am a writer. I've got my coat, that says "Writer" on it, in bright neon letters.

Which way to the lions?

Jonathan blogs at

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Patty Hearst Kidnapping

by Jean Henry Mead

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 35 years since newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley, California, apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

For those too young to remember, the 19-year-old was abducted February 4, 1974 from her apartment after the left-wing guerrlla group assaulted her fiancé Steven Weed. At least four shots were fired at people on the street as the screaming teen was blindfolded by two men and tossed into the trunk of their car.

Patty was reportedly brainwashed by the SLA and came to identify with the group. In April of 1974, she took part in a bank robbery, later claiming that the gun she held was empty, and that her apparent complicity with the group was a ruse to ensure her safety. She was, however, arrested the following year and eventually convicted of the crime. Her seven-year prison sentence was later commuted by President Jimmy Carter and she was fully pardoned by Bill Clinton on his last day in office.

The granddaughter of publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst and great-granddaughter of millionaire George Hearst, Patricia was the third of five daughters born to Randollph Hearst and Catherine Campbell. She grew up in the wealthy San Francisco suburb of Hillborough and attended girls schools in San Francisco as well as Monterey. Among her friends was Patricia Tobin, whose family founded the Hibernia Bank, a branch which Patty later helped to rob.

The SLA demanded the release of jailed SLA members for Patty’s return. When that failed, they demanded that the Hearst family donate $400 million worth of food for California's less fortunate residents. Randolph Hearst immediately donated $6 million worth of food to the Bay Area poor, but the SLA refused to release his daughter. In a subsequent recording sent to the press, Patty said that her father could have done better. She also said that she had joined the guerrilla group and taken the name of Tania.

Two months later, on April 15, Patty was photographed holding an M1 Carbine during the robbery of the Sunset District branch of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Newspapers later printed alleged reports from “Tania” that she was committed to the SLA goals. Warrants were subsequently issued for her arrest in September of 1975. The folowing year she was arrested in a San Francisco apartment with other members of the group and imprisoned. Listing her occupation as “Urban Guerilla,” she asked her attorney to “Tell everybody that I’m smiling, that I feel free and strong and I send my greetings to all the sisters and brothers out there.”

F. Lee Bailey defended Patty Hearst during her trial, which began on January 15, 1976. Bailey said that his client had been blindfolded and kept in a closet, and that she had been physically and sexually abused. Her defense was that she had been the victim of concerted brainwashing which contributed to the Stockholm syndrome, when hostages sympathize with their captors.

Bailey argued that Patty had been coerced or intimidated into taking part in the bank robbery, but she refused to give evidence against the other captured SLA members, which was seen as complicity by the prosecution. The jury obviously felt the same way for Patty was sentenced to 35 years in prison, later commuted to seven. Legal analysts later said that Bailey had done a poor job defending her because he gave a short, incompetent closing argument, but Patty Hearst served less than two years of her sentence when pardoned by Jimmy Carter on February 1, 1979.