Thursday, April 30, 2009

Time to Write

by Beth Terrell

The soap opera Grandma watched when I was a child opened with a big hourglass that filled the screen. "Like sand through the hourglass," the voice-over actor intoned, "so are the days of our lives."

Remember how time used to stretch out in front of us like a never-ending landscape? Summers lasted forever. We had all the time in the world to be artists and astronauts, teachers and rodeo riders, circus performers and writers. But time is fuller than it used to be. And it seems so much shorter. In the past two weeks, when I've been working both shifts at work and dealing with the death of our beloved Tibetan Spaniel, Karma, I've also been feeling the ache of not writing.

This morning, I saw a book on my kitchen table called Time to Write by Kelly L. Stone. In it, Stone interviews more than 100 professional writers from all genres. Among them are Tess Gerritsen, Hallie Ephron , C.J. Box, Jodi Picoult, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Rick Mofina, and Rhonda Pollero. I picked up the book and flipped through it. I'd read it before, but just skimming the pages made me feel better.

The book reminded me that there are as many ways of carving out writing time as there writers. Roxanne St. Claire (Thrill Me to Death) wrote her first published novel betwwen 4:45 and 7:00 AM. Sabrina Jeffries (Only a Duke Will Do) wrote after her husband and son went to bed. Bestselling author Tess Gerritson was a physician who wrote whenever she could--"weekends, early mornings, and late nights. After I got home, as soon as the kids were put down, I'd start writing."

Jodi Picoult used to "do a little work," close her office door, and then write. (I don't advise this for anyone who actually needs his or her job!)

Life sometimes seems determined to get in the way of writing. A child needs help with a science project; a parent or grandparent is diagnosed with Alzheimer's; a big project with a looming deadline crops up at the office. It is, as my friend Christina once said, like being nibbled to death by geese. For any writer who struggles to find time for the writing amidst job obligations, family time, housekeeping (what's that?), yard work, pet care, and all the other geese life throws our way, Time to Write delivers a simple message: If you have a Burning Desire to Write, there is a way.

Today, I scribbled a few paragraphs on the back of a memo. Tomorrow, I'll scribble a few more. It's the only way to defeat the geese.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I've Been Violated!

By Maxx Danielson

My life has been tough. Two months ago, my sister, brother, and I were separated from our mother and were taken to a strange place called the “pet ranch”. On our first day there, my brother disappeared, and then sissy vanished on the second. On the third, a nice couple picked me up and played with me for a long time, but then left me behind. Heartbroken and alone, I dreamed that better days lie ahead.

The next day, the lady from the couple came back and I ended up going home with her. (I overheard her tell the sales lady that her husband was out of town.) I was happy to be living in a nice home, except my adopted parents call me Maxx. Naming someone my size Maxx seems really stupid, but they insist that I was named for the protagonist Maxx Watts in my dad’s upcoming book. Even if it’s true, I still think it’s dumb. But you want to know something even dumber? My adopted niece is a big lab mix and her name is Minnie. She towers over me like the Goodyear blimp! Do you have any idea how many times Minnie and I have been laughed at because of our names? It’s humiliating!

Of course, I’d take humiliation any day over what happened next. Today, Mom and Dad dropped me off at the foo-foo center. Being four months old, I had no idea what to expect, so I greeted this apron lady with bubbly enthusiasm. All seemed fine until my parents left, and suddenly everything changed. In minutes, I was subjected to yet another bath, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, they started cutting my hair! Actually, cutting is an understatement because they shaved my privates! Clearly this is a violation, with emphasis on vile! When they finished, they dressed me in a camouflaged bandana, as though it would make me more manly. Dad and Mom laughed when they saw me, and no matter how much Dad loves me, he still calls me a foo-foo dog. (Mom disagrees, and since I’m in the middle, maybe someone can clear this up for me.)

I was really glad to get home, but my ears felt different without their hair, so I keep shaking my head. And my privates feel different, too, so I have to keep inspecting them. But worst of all, I have to drag my rear around because it feels really weird. Of course, Mom and Dad laugh at this, too, saying I look like a pull toy. I can only hope this humiliation stops in two months when I go to the vet to get tutored. Geez, there is still so much to learn!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An old saw is worth a thousand blades

By Chester Campbell

As writers we often insert expressions into our manuscripts without thinking about where they came from. They may have been buried back in our subconscious from many years ago. One I’ve used in at least one book is “guaran-damn-tee.” It struck me as really funny when I heard it back in 1944 and it just came rolling out on the page 60 years later.

I volunteered for the Army in the summer of 1943, shortly after graduation from high school. I wasn’t called to active duty, however, until I turned 18. When I reported to Camp Shelby, Mississippi in early January, I found my new home consisted of a large olive drab tent occupied by several other neophyte soldiers, mostly draftees. It was cold and rainy, and the area had been worn down to a muddy goop by thousands of souls wandering about in wonder of what lay ahead.

I soon met a few of the other boys named in my orders. Most of our fellow G.I.s figured they were headed for the infantry. They gave us a big horse laughs when we said we were headed for Miami Beach. But we had it right there in our orders:

“By direction of the President and pursuant to authority contained in War Department radiogram, SPXPR-I, 30 December 1943, each of the following named enlisted reservists (ACER), having been found qualified for Pre-Aviation Cadet (Air Crew) training, is ordered to active duty affective 6 January 1944, in grade of private, and will proceed on that date from the address shown after his name to the station indicated, reporting upon arrival to the Commanding Officer, Reception Center, for processing and assignment to the Army Air Forces Basic Training Center #4, Miami Beach, Fla., reporting on 13 January 1944, to the Commanding Officer for Pre-Aviation Cadet (Air Crew) training.”

We were only at Camp Shelby to draw uniforms, have the medics treat our arms like dart boards, and get indoctrinated into the Army way. That occurred each morning at roll call, when we stood on the muddy ground in a cold drizzle and listened to a burly First Sergeant give us hell. He wore the Smoky Bear hat popular in pre-war years. One morning as he ranted about something, he bellowed this warning. “If you do that, I’ll guaran-damn-tee you it won’t happen again.”

That’s what’s known as an indelible memory.

One I have used more as a personal aphorism than as a phrase in books is “he who hesitates is lost.” It was a familiar saying of my high school science teacher, Miss Roberta Kirkpatrick. I use it as an excuse to move ahead whenever somebody wants to wait on something. The idea in the saying, though not the exact phrase, is credited to the English writer Joseph Addison. It’s first appearance in the U.S. is given to Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table.

Do you have any favorite old sayings from the past?

Monday, April 27, 2009

HOA Meeting

by Ben Small

Is there any more fertile ground for a ripening murder plot than a home ownership association meeting?

This is good stuff: Just watch and jot notes. Sooner or later, an argument, no doubt fueled by past resentments, will break out.

Mrs. X: “Mrs. Y’s bird feeder is higher than the architectural committee let me build. She’s gotta take it down.”

Mrs. Y: “You’re just being mean spirited because I complained last year that you use too much charcoal lighter on your barbeque.” She looks across the crowd of twenty-some people, some of whom are whispering, some nodding off, some checking for dirt under their fingernails. “We were choking to death on her fumes… and she did it on purpose.” She takes a breath, and then sniffs. “She’s also complaining because I have more birds than she does.” She nods, a slow smile crawls across her lips. “I’m greener.”

Mrs. Y isn’t finished yet. Wrinkles deepen at the edge of her mouth and her lips purse. There’s a dismissive wave. “And that’s just like them. They’re awful neighbors. They taunt us, talk about us behind our backs and they look through our windows at night. They even leave their crummy newspapers with those ugly yellow plastic wrappers all over our yard.”

Mrs. X leans forward, stretching the fabric over her stomach to its expansion limits. Her jowls quiver and the bulb of her nose turns the color of a ripe pomegranate. “You do not… attract more birds than we do.” She’s breathing heavily, her melon-ish breasts rising and falling like bobbing balloons. A bead of sweat rolls down her cheek. “And you cheated. You can’t build a bird feeder that high.” She sits back, bulging the red plastic backing of her chair. She waves a sausage finger at Mrs. Y. “We don’t even use charcoal lighter, you bitch. It’s an electric grill.” She slaps her knees, and then folds her arms, tries to grasp her elbows but can’t quite reach them. She turns to the woman next to her, the HOA secretary, who’s busy scribbling notes on the seventh or eighth page of what had been new legal pad just a hour ago. “We don’t throw our papers in her yard,” she says, her tone low. “She hides them there, so we can’t find them.”

The Secretary continues scratching on her pad, turns over another sheet, and fills more blue lines with black ink.

The HOA president sighs. “Mrs. X, it wasn’t the height that bothered the architectural committee. You wanted to shine spotlights on your bird feeder, and that would have bothered Mrs. Y’s peaceful enjoyment of the night.”

Mrs. X: “No, I distinctly remember the architectural committee said my bird feeder couldn’t be higher than six feet.” She’s sitting rigid, her fists balled, a foot tapping a beat. “When I was chair of the architectural committee, we approved lighted bird feeders.” She nods around the room, slicing the pie.

The HOA president looks at the two large file boxes sitting on the floor. Another sigh. “Look, Mrs. X, you were chair of the architectural committee before most of us built our homes, and nobody has a lighted bird feeder now. I’m not going to look at past precedents, if any, it’s enough that the architectural committee said you couldn’t light up your bird feeder.”

Mrs. X’s chins are quivering, and she wipes away a tear. “But she’s getting all the cardinals, wrens and doves.”

Mrs. Y snorts. “I am not! I saw a dove at your bird feeder last night, just before dusk. If you’re not getting more birds, maybe you should change birdfood.” She laughs and says to the group, “Maybe she’s feeding the birds what she eats.” Another snort. “Maybe they get so fat they can’t fly.”

Dead silence in the room.

President: “Motion to adjourn?”

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Casablanca -- Pure Poetry

Photo of the Casa Blanca Oriental Lilies from the web page of Wild Flower Farm, Litchfield, CT.
By Pat Browning

A couple of paeans to Casablanca, the movie, the city, the legend.

First, a poem, THE MOVIE by Jim Spurr, which appears in the Red Dirt (Oklahoma Character) Anthology 2007, hot off the press. Spurr’s poem is funny, with a bittersweet edge, just like the 1942 movie.

Second, my own remembrance of Casablanca from a visit 30 years ago. Brief excerpts from an article I wrote for The Hanford (Calif.) Sentinel.

By Jim Spurr

Why argue about it? There was only one great one.
Who would interrupt a conversation
about Casablanca?
Or worse, change the subject?
The others were all short shorts in comparison.
The whole movie has been put to memory by some people.
There ain’t a literate person on the planet who can’t
quote at least one line from it.
Bogie. Bogie? Could he act? Who cares.
He could light a cigarette (ok, ok so it killed him),
hold it and smoke it better than the Marlboro Man
ever dreamed.
Women loved him (Not my grandmother. She was into
Don Ameche. Who can account for bad taste?)
Today’s women still love ole Bogie and long for the day
they can admit it. (Okay, so I don’t really know that.)
“Here’s lookin’ at you kid.”
“We’ll always have Paris.”
And Louie:
“There is gambling here. I am shocked
(as the croupier hands him his winnings).”
“Round up the usual suspects!”
And we all know that Louie knew one sure way
for a good-looking dame to get out of Casablanca.
Louie was a very heterosexual guy.
And there were Nazis singing
while holding cigarettes between thumb and index finger.
Damn little can look more absurd than that.
The fog! The trenchcoats! The song. That great song!
And a story with continuity.
And only one subplot.
And it all came together in a glorious ending
just as the dawn of WWII darkened the world.

Herewith, my personal remembrance of Casablanca, a lovely lady with a shady past.

I first set foot in Casablanca in 1978 as part of a tour group, and fell in love with Morocco. Some excerpts from an article I wrote for The Hanford (Calif.) Sentinel giving my first impressions of Casablanca:

In the case of “Casa,” as everyone calls it, if you liked the movie, the city may be something of a disappointment. It’s like meeting a lovely lady with a shady past – your imagination keeps trying to bridge the gap between appearance and reputation.

There is, alas, no “Rick’s Place" in Casablanca. Nobody named Sam plays piano and the plane to Lisbon is a Boeing jet … On boulevards lined with palm trees, businessmen in dark suits mingle with local folk wearing djellabas, burnooses and caftans. A veil here, a fez there, slippers and sunglasses everywhere …

And what of the old image? Well, if you knock on the door of a disco at midnight, you may see a pair of dark eyes peering through a slot, while you stand there wondering if “American” is a proper password. (It is.) You may hear an occasional guarded reference to the “white market,” which apparently still exists, like a skeleton that keeps falling out of the closet. Guides warn against “long fingers,” as they call pickpockets.

But this is tame stuff in today’s world. You are as safe in Casablanca as you are in your own hometown, and how safe that is depends on some extent on you.
Keep in mind, that was written 30 years ago. How much, if at all, Casablanca may have changed is not for me to say.

But thank our lucky stars – we’ll always have Bogie and Bergman – as time goes by.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Art of Verbal Judo

By Jean Henry Mead

Wyoming’s statewide newspaper, the Casper Star-Tribune, recently ran a lengthy article titled, “Tongue Fu.” The staff writer, Thomas Lacock, reported that the Casper Police Department was becoming expert in overcoming rage issues.

For the past six years, 81 officers have been taught the art of verbal judo, which in Japanese means “the soft way.” It’s an appropriate title for a program that teaches officers how to deflect and redirect citizen anger. Although the course is put to work in the field, training officer, Lt. Jack Branson, doesn’t consider the course a “kinder, gentler” way of handling complaints and offenders.

Branson says there’s a misconception about the Tongue Fu course and that he’s not teaching a “warm and fuzzy program.” Instead, it’s tactical communication with specific goals in mind. The objects are to enhance professionalism, decrease citizen complaints and police liability in court as well as increase police morale.

The program’s instigator, George Thompson, was an Olympic-class swimmer with a black belt in judo. Thompson also has a doctorate in Rhetoric and Persuasion from Princeton. A former English teacher, Thompson drifted into law enforcement and used his police experience to put his program together.

Thompson insists that the key to verbal judo is to avoid what he calls “natural language,” which is the usual response to someone else’s actions. Officers are taught to stay focused and steer people toward positive actions. At the very least, they’re supposed to give them options.

By telling people that you understand how they feel, and avoiding taking anything they say personally, you can deflect their anger away from yourself. He admits that the techniques he outlines aren’t easy to follow, but with practice, they become a way of life.

There are two approaches to verbal judo:

At a routine traffic stop, the officer approaches the car and introduces himself, planning to change a possible confrontation to simply person-to-person dialogue. The officer than tells the offender why he stopped him or her and explains which traffic rules have been broken. Drivers are then asked why they were breaking the law (wife in labor, child with serious injury, etc.). In case of an emergency, the officer will try to help. If not a legitimate emergency, officers ask for the usual license, registration, etc., then write a citation and wish the driver well. Patrolemn are advised not to say, “Have a nice day,” but rather “I hope the rest of your day goes better.”

At a confrontational stop, such as a potential drunk driver, the officer introduces him or herself and makes a formal statement of the actions needed to be addressed. Possible options are offered, which may not be what the offender wants to hear, but at least they may be better than they anticipate, Branson said.

Officers then try to learn if there is anything they can say to “modify the citizen’s illegal behavior” and get confirmation whether the behavior will change. The officer again offers options before action is taken, whether it’s arrest, a warning, or sending the offender home with friends. Branson says that confirmation that behavior won’t voluntarily change is necessary because it will be used in court.

The course has reportedly made things easier for the Casper PD. Branson admitted to being an “acid-tongued cop” prior to his own training, and said the department will continue to teach a refresher course every two years, as most police academies are now doing.

“It seems to calm people from their rage,” Branson said. Not completely, but down to a level where they can understand their options.

But what about police rage?

Law enforcement agencies in other areas should take note of the Verbal Judo course, particularly in the southern border states, where numerous incidents of abuse have been reported. At least one of them was recently caught on tape, where TV newsmen were roughed up and handcuffed at the scene of an accident: An El Paso incident.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

By Mark W. Danielson

I had something else in mind for this week’s blog, but a recent Youtube performance convinced me that it should be postponed. The name Susan Boyle had never been heard until she sang on Britain’s Got Talent, but now the world has been introduced to a woman with a gift, not in physical beautify, but of extraordinary talent.

There is a lesson in this—on how we place too much emphasis on outer beauty and not enough on the beauty within. On how we prejudge people based on their appearance. On how we take so little time to know strangers because it’s easier to bypass them. Susan’s remarkable performance of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables was not only flawless, but its lyrics could not have been more suiting.

Authors have a distinct advantage over others in the entertainment industry because we remain behind the scenes. It matters not what our physical appearance is, but rather how our words flow. If a scene stirs as much emotion as Susan Boyle’s performance did her listeners, then it was well written. I believe that’s the goal of every writer, though few actually achieve it.

For those who have not been fortunate enough to watch Susan’s performance, then please take a moment to view the brief Youtube video at It is rare when something as innocent as this can teach us so much about life. Take a lesson from Susan and dream your dreams.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Seek and ye shall find

By Chester Campbell

Do you harness the power of your word processor’s search and replace function? Every writer knows he or she can change a character’s name throughout the book with a simple click of the mouse. And most of us have learned the hard way to specify “whole words only.” Otherwise, if Art is changed to Will, we wind up with words like “pWillnership.”

Beyond this simple but valuable strategy, using only the search feature can save lots of headaches. My first mystery came back from the editor with the comment (among lots of others) that I must have an affinity for the color blue. I had numerous blue eyes, blue cars, blue suits, blue whatevers. When I searched on the word “blue,” it came up 51 times in a 261-page manuscript.

I then searched for other colors, finding green 23 times, brown 21, red 17, and yellow 8. I combed through the book and toned down my color palette until the scorecard read brown 18, blue 17, green 17, and red 17. Yellow remained a respectable eight. When the manuscript went back to the editor, he was pleased.

Another literary bugaboo is the use of adverbs. I agree, they should be toned down, though an occasional adverb is useful in clarifying an action. In that first book I mentioned above, I searched for “ly” words and found 12 in the first three pages. My new book, The Surest Poison, has only four “ly” adverbs in the same number of pages.

I didn’t feel too badly (to use a good adverb), however. F. Scott Fitzgerald used 12 in the first three pages of his classic novel, The Great Gatsby. A random check of some popular current authors showed the following three-page results:

Harlan Coben – nine
Barbara Parker – six
Ian Rankin – five
James Lee Burke – four

I could say more about adverbs, but I'll leave that for another time.

One use I make of the search feature is to find a particular scene during the revision process. I may not remember where it is, but I can recall a character in the scene, or a place name, or some unique descriptive term. I’ll enter that in the search field and a few clicks on the “next” button will take me to the scene.

I’m only familiar with the search and replace feature in Word for Windows, but I’m sure the other word processors have something similar. If you click the “More” button, you get lots of different options. You can search up or down or through the whole file. You can choose to match the case of what you type in the search field. If you’re looking for a proper name, that will make sure the first letter is capitalized. Another option is “sounds like,” so you don’t even need to spell the word correctly.

A handy feature is the “Special” button, which allows you to search for a particular font or a special character such as an em dash or an ellipsis.

Search and replace is a powerful feature for the writer. Make full use of it if you want to save time and get things right. It no doubt offers plenty of other possibilities. Have you found particular uses that I haven’t mentioned?

By the way, I’m in the sixth day of my blog book tour for The Surest Poison. You’ll find me today at Ann Parker’s Silver Rush Mysteries blog talking about Writing the Private Eye.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Murderous Thoughts – Car Dealer Version

by Ben Small

Perhaps nothing causes one to think about murder as much as buying a car.

This thought was recently refreshed for my wife and me during the last week. After realizing that our nine year old Mercedes was going to need major repairs, we decided to trade the thing in and buy a new car.

Being red-blooded Americans, we tried the GM dealers first. But none of their models seemed to fit our needs: too large, too ugly or too small. My wife could live with small, but I’m six foot six, so my height complicates matters. What fits me often is cavernous for her.

Don’cha just love the feeling when you drive into a car dealer’s lot and six overweight guys with fixed fake smiles rush up to greet you like you’re they’re the long lost hometown buddy you used to shoot in the ass with a BB gun?

The final straw at GM was when I pointed to the listing of safety ratings, three out of five in two of the three categories, and the salesman tried to pass the two adverse ratings as being three out of four, not five. The sticker was wrong.

“Uh huh,” we said. “Nice try. We’re gone.”

A new guy for my list of victims next time I get the urge.

His parting shot: “Oh, if you come back and I’m not here, make sure to tell the sales manager I deserve some money.”

One notch higher on the list…

So off we went to Ford. Same story there, except without the blatant lie about safety ratings or the suggested pitch to the sales manager.

We didn’t try Chrysler. I can never remember who owns them, and who wants a car that eats more gas than Al Gore’s house during a spring blizzard?

Toyota was next. Same group of fat guys leering at us as we parked. Funny watching them dance. We changed parking slots, and they moved in unison like Rockettes to cover our transition.

We liked the Rav 4, but my knees were up against the dash. One positive, however, the front and back seats lay down like the old Nash Rambler, so I can spread out, lie down and not see the road, a plus for me when my wife is driving.

Then Volkswagon. We liked the Tiguan, whatever that is, but it’s got a turbo-charged four-banger, which spells “m-a-i-n-t-e-n-a-n-c-e” to me, and it’s got a fancy price tag to boot. But I had leg room, even if the storage space wouldn’t hold Paris Hilton’s dog. And I couldn’t help but wonder what Adolph Hitler would say about the new designs added to his bugs.

Finally, we made it across town to the Nissan dealer, where we fell in love with the Murano. The wife wanted one in Saharan Stone, which is the same as Sonoran Sand in another model, both of which look like metallic gold to me.

And the features…oh my! We tend to drive our cars into the ground, which is essentially where the Mercedes is going. And we use TIVO. So we had no idea of the technology changes in modern automobiles: rear sensors and video; an in-car garage opener buried inside the rear-view mirror; blue-tooth technology, so my wife can yell at me on the phone without ever having to take her hands off the wheel; four height settings on the headlights; XM played through a Bose system; umpteen seat settings and seat warmers – this in the Arizona desert, no less – and no key, just some bob-thingee that doesn’t have to be inserted anywhere, and will start the car if the car’s nearby. (A downside to the key-bob-thingee is that you can start the car, run inside to grab something you’ve forgotten, put the thingee down, forget to pick it up, and drive off, only to discover once you’ve pushed the stop button at the mall that you can’t start the car again, because you left “Bob” at home. I can assure you, between the wife and me, that will happen.)

The Murano doesn’t have a transmission as we know it, no linkages to break, seals to leak, no hump running down the middle of the car. The hump, as most people know is not skirt-friendly for women ― just ask Britney Spears ― but it’s very skirt-friendly for men.

Alas, my loss.

Back to the transmission… It’s called Constant Variable Transmission, allegedly the future of automatic transmissions. My son tells me this technology came to us from ATVs. Supposedly, there are no gear changes, no fluid. Belts and pulleys drive the car, supposedly in unison with the accelerator. Can we spell “m-a-i-n-t-e-n-a-n-c-e” again? Allegedly, the thing works, but let’s give it a few years before we jump in the air with yay-rahs.

Oh, and it’s got a high definition navigation system, so we may be able to find our way out of our driveway, I guess.

Okay, we’d made our pick. We wanted a Sonoran Sand, Saharan Stone, metallic gold Murano. With beige leather interior.

Why beige? Because we live in the Arizona Desert.

Duh. Who wants to melt into their seat or have to take a shower after a trip to the mall?

Guess what? All the Muranos on the lot had a black interior. Every single one of them. What were these people thinking?

But there was one that fit the bill in Phoenix. It could be driven down the next day.

Deal time. The most enjoyable part of the experience.

Well, we’d planned ahead for this one. We were buying through the Costco Plan, one hundred bucks over dealer invoice.

Ever try to get an invoice from a car dealer? You might be better served investigating who leaked Valerie Plane’s CIA status.

So we reach a deal on options and pricing, everything except the trade-in value on the Mercedes.

Do you feel it coming? Of course you do. The old Bend-Over-I’ll-Drive-You-Home car dealer shuffle.

We were told we had a deal on the trade-in value. “But just let me borrow the key, so the sales manager can confirm.”


Thirty minutes later, we were still waiting, just sitting, twiddling our thumbs. Then the salesman, an African-American old pro we actually liked, came back. “Let’s start the paperwork,” he said.

No key. Not returned. I bumped my wife, flashed a “turn the key” hand signal. She nodded; she knew what was coming, too.

We got to the end price, what we’d actually have to fork over. The salesman did a start, said, “Oh, I didn’t give you the key back.” He walked out the door.

Twenty more minutes go by. Making the customer wait is part of the car dealer’s plan, as most buyers realize. The more impatient one becomes to actually get the car and stop drooling, the more one is willing to pay more for it. Drool can ruin some fabrics, you know.

So the guy comes back, keyless, looking as if he’s just been informed his first born was beheaded by Mexican drug lords. Says, “There’s a problem. The sales manager says he can’t give you that high a figure on the trade-in. He has to go five hundred less. He says I was way too generous, and I think I’m in trouble.”

We’d already planned for this. “Tell your sales manager that he’s cost you a sale, and he’s managed to make my list,” I said.

“What list?”

I grinned. “Nevermind.”

My wife and I stood up. “We know when we’re being played,” I said. “Give us the key and we’re out of here.”

“Wait!” Said our guy. “I’ll be right back.”

Another fifteen minutes, and we’re pacing outside. We’re now playing the game, too. The assistant sales manager walks up to us, a big grin spread across his face. He’s got slicked back hair, a few beads of sweat under his prominent nose and polished nails. The guy is wearing black patent leather shoes. He extends his hand and begins pumping mine. Then he introduces himself, asks for our names, asks about our kids, how long we’ve been around, the whole magula. Then he sees I’m wearing a SigSauer tee shirt. “You a shooter?” he says, his smile never fading.

I nodded my assent.

“Me, too.” And then he tells us about all his guns.

Buddy-time. The guy wouldn’t shut up.

Another addition to my list…

Do I need to say they wouldn’t let us leave? That we got the deal?

Of course not. You’ve been there; you know how the game is played.

And people wonder why car dealers are less popular than lawyers…

Okay, maybe a smidge more popular. I’m a lawyer; somebody’s gotta be below us, don’t they?

I’ll give you the rest of the story in another segment. For now, let me just say, my list is getting a bit crowded. I’d best get the urge soon.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Murder She Wrote ... and wrote ... and wrote

By Pat Browning

Recently Lee Lofland of The Graveyard Shift had guest posts from a couple of veterans of the old Murder She Wrote TV show. Their behind-the-scenes stories are fun, and here are excerpts:

From Thomas B. Sawyer, who was Head Writer/Showrunner, and wrote 24 episodes:

Oddly, though not entirely unusual, the way I became a writer for MURDER, SHE WROTE before it began to air was the result of my agent sending the show’s co-creator, Peter Fischer, a non-mystery pilot script I’d written for CBS. Peter ‘saw’ something in it -- presumably, that I could write scenes that worked -- and he gave me a ‘blind assignment’ to write an episode …

All that aside, MSW looked to me like a hit, and I said so. I also offered that given my limited writing credits in the genre (a QUINCY and a MIKE HAMMER), he’d probably have to hold my hand. He assured me that that wouldn’t be a problem and, in response to my question about the approach, the show’s style, Peter explained -- as I feared -- that he envisioned it in the mold of traditional Agatha Christie puzzle mysteries -- what are known in the mystery genre as ‘Cozies’ ...

Which prompted -- with no hesitation -- a remark from me, the sheer chutzpah of which I really didn’t wonder at until I recalled the incident several years later. And having wondered, I realized that it was pretty much the way I’ve operated for most if not all of my life:

“Peter, I have to tell you, when I was a kid I read a couple of Christies and one or two locked-room mysteries, and they bored the shit out of me. I’m not going to write that for you.”

His response betrayed no sign that I’d offended. “Okay. What will you write?”

“I’ll write The Maltese Falcon.”

Peter replied without missing a beat: “That’ll be fine.”

And that’s what I did for the next twelve years -- seven of them with Peter’s on-the-job blessing.
(End Quote)

And this from actor Ron Masak, who played Sheriff Mort Metzger of Cabot Cove for 8 seasons:

Murder, She Wrote though is the role I will be identified with forever I guess for a day doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t yell out “Hey Sheriff, How’s Jessica?” and you know what? I love it.

I couldn’t wait to go to work with that great lady. Angela is the Rolls Royce of our business, and the last 2 seasons I got to write 2 story ideas that were bought. I was proud of that for I always felt we had the very best writers in the business and the most loyal following…including a couple of administrations in the White House.

Now for those who care … Here is how I got the role. I had worked for Peter Fischer before, but the first time I went on location with him was when I played a detective on The Law and Harry McGraw.

We were in Massachusetts at a closed resort. A small staff was trying to feed breakfast to a film crew so I pitched in serving coffee, telling jokes and having a ball. A couple of months after we returned, Creator Peter Fischer called me and this is what he said on the phone:

“Ron? Peter Fischer … Tom Bosley is leaving the show to do a new series and I am creating a new sheriff. The role is yours if you want it but I have to know in the next 24 hours as I am leaving for Europe, so I have to know your answer before I leave.”

I responded “OK”

He said “Then you will call and let me know?”

I responded “I JUST DID” … And as the late Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

(End Quote)

And now, just because this is the end of a week that was a Hell Sandwich, here’s a laugh from Leah Garchik’s column at

(Quoting) At San Francisco Suicide Prevention's annual “Laughs for Life” fundraiser ... Executive Director Eve Meyer will end the evening, as she always does, “by asking everyone to join me in honoring the memory of my mother by taking a dinner roll and putting it in their purse.” (End Quote)

That won’t make you laugh unless your mother was like mine. She never left a restaurant without putting something left over in her purse. Used to embarrass me half to death. And now I do the same thing. Only now I simply ask for a to-go box and take everything – leftover salad, fries, green beans, butter pats …

By the way, you can read Lee Lofland’s blog at

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Just for Fun

I was trying to decide what to write about tonight. “Write about dogs,” my husband suggested, partly because we were watching a dog show on Animal Planet and (I imagine) partly because dogs are among my favorite creatures in the world. While I liked the idea, my brain, which has, in the last few weeks, become something vaguely resembling butterscotch pudding, found it impossible to come up with anything more than a rambling monologue about how dogs make the world brighter. If I’m going to write anything readable about dogs, I think it will have to simmer a bit.

Finally, I remembered a “story starter” from an online class I once took a few sessions of. I thought you might enjoy trying your hand at it.

Here's the Story Starter. It’s just a simple situation: "A man dressed in coveralls and carrying a gym bag steps out of an alley."

For giggles and grins, here’s the short story I wrote from that beginning. I hope you'll try your hand at it and share yours too.

The Good Partner

"Hey, Buddy, what's in the bag?"

I shifted the wriggling duffel and looked up into the ruddy face of a uniformed policeman. Damn. I'd peeled off my blood-splashed boots and coveralls and exchanged them for jeans and a perfectly respectable chambray shirt. Stuffed the bloody garments into Tony Corelli's garbage chute. Surely they hadn’t been found already. My mouth was dry. I pressed the tip of my tongue against the space behind my lower teeth to get the juices flowing and said, "Excuse me?"

"The bag." The cop gestured. "What's in it?"

It was early, the street just beginning to wake. Only a few scurrying passers-by, and not a single hero among them. The cop had sixty pounds on me, most of it flab. I could probably outrun him, but that would attract attention.

"You don't want to know, Officer . . ." I peered at his badge. "Dougherty."

"You're an expert on what I do and don’t want to know?"

"There’s nothing illegal in here."

"I'm sure. Being's how you're such an honest-looking fellow."

He meant it sarcastic, but it was true. I am an honest-looking fellow. It's a useful characteristic, in my line of work. We appraised each other. Then he said, "I wanna see what's in the bag."

"If you say so." I handed it over. The contents shifted, and the side of the bag bulged out as if something inside had punched it.

He yelped and fumbled the duffel. I lunged to catch it. He yanked it away and set it awkwardly on the ground.
“Don’t move,” he said. “And keep your hands where I can see them.” He flipped up the safety strap and drew his weapon. Pointed it at my chest.

My heart thumped a smidgen faster. “No need for that.”

“Let me decide that.” He unzipped the bag.

I’m not sure what he expected. A kidnapped child. A small collection of severed heads. Whatever he expected, it wasn’t Emily.

Corelli had kept her in too small a cage, and when Dougherty opened the bag, she uncoiled like a spring. Eleven feet of angry python, albino scales all smooth and shiny in the light. Dougherty snatched his hand away, and her jaws snapped on air. Another day, she would have had him, but she was betrayed by metabolism--the small but tell-tale bulge in her belly where the rat Corelli had given her was slowly digesting.
Dougherty cursed and kicked the bag, which riled her more. It ticked me off, too. Snakes have delicate spines. He might have hurt her, kicking her that way.

I scooped her up and draped her around my shoulders. "She's perfectly gentle. And perfectly legal."

His ruddy face flushed even ruddier. He ran a trembling hand across his jaw. Trying to regain his sense of machismo. "Where’d you get that thing?"

"Reptile Palace, down on Seventh. Check with them."

"Why’s it in that bag?"

This was where it got dicey. I decided on the truth—or at least, a portion of it. "I've been out of town. A friend of mine was keeping her. His Rottie destroyed her cage. Almost got Emily."

It wasn't hard to look upset because, in fact, I was upset. Corelli had promised to take good care of Emily, and he had shirked his duty.

It took Dougherty mere minutes to verify my ownership of Emily and let me go with a stern warning.

I breathed a sigh of relief when he climbed into his patrol car. By the time they found Corelli's body, Emily and I would be basking on a beach in Mexico. In time, her marvelous stomach would digest the rat and expel a small of amount of uric acid, rat hair, and the stolen diamonds Corelli had stuffed into the rat. It was one of the frozen specimens I’d left with him. He’d warmed it in the microwave and dipped it in hot chicken broth, per my instructions, then fed the thing to Emily.

I was a bit worried about the diamonds, but I knew a good vet in Mexico, a discreet vet, who would know what to do if the diamonds caused stomach ulcers or an impaction.

It wasn't the smuggling I minded, or even the fact that Corelli had cut me out of his diamond deal. That was a clear violation of our arrangement, but Tony was a good partner, and I could have forgiven all that.

But to risk my Emily's life for a fistful of sparkling stones... well, that was going too far.

Now it’s your turn. Wanna play? Just take the initial situation--a man in coveralls steps out of an alley carrying a gym bag--and write a short story about what happens afterward.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Puff the Magic Dragon

By Mark W. Danielson

The song said Puff the Magic Dragon lived in Hanalei, and while controversy remains over whether this song is about a dragon befriending a child or one about drugs, I’m taking a different approach, claiming that Puff is really a magical volcano who created Hanalei’s birthplace in Kauai, pictured above. But my tale is really about a much bigger picture, for our world has many “puffs”. The Ring of Fire that encircles our globe is alive and well with fire-spitting volcanoes and ground-splitting earthquakes. Take away the fear and the subject becomes fascinating.

A few years ago I was writing a novel about an earthquake on California’s Hayward Fault. This fault parallels the infamous San Andreas and is just as deadly. In fact, one could argue that a major quake on the Bay Area’s Hayward Fault could cause more chaos than one of the same magnitude on the San Andreas. To get a sense of this, I visited the University of California, Berkeley’s seismology lab, which sits directly atop the Hayward Fault. The seismologists there showed me how they and the US Geological Survey both monitor the Earth’s pulse 24/7. During a follow-on visit to USGS’ Golden, Colorado, branch, I witnessed a major earthquake in South America that killed over five hundred people. It was numbing to watch, knowing that all they could do was pinpoint the epicenter and accumulate data. Whether volcanoes or earthquakes, seismologists may warn that something is imminent, but there is nothing anyone can do to prevent it.

Right now, the Ring of Fire is quite active, but its cycle is endless. Seismic events are the result of constantly shifting tectonic plates riding over a magma core. As such, we should welcome the smaller “Earth adjustments”, for they relieve pressure and help prevent larger ones. The quakes and volcanoes we hear about in the news do not signal the end of the world, but rather create life, as they did in the Hawaiian Islands. Only our ever-increasing population has made these natural occurrences so devastating.

Alaska’s Mount Redoubt is an example of a volcano that has caused serious economic ramifications, even though all it’s done is huff and puff. Located near Anchorage, this volcano has yet to blow the house down, and yet its talcum-like fallout has caused countless flight cancellations because it can damage jet engines. As a major Asian transportation hub, whenever the volcano re-routes flights, Anchorage’s economy takes a huge hit, as do businesses like FedEx, UPS, Northwest Airlines, Alaskan Airlines, and many foreign carriers. Normally the FedEx ramp has eight to twelve airplanes parked there, but mine was the only one when I flew it in the other day. The next day we had three planes, but I had to be at the airport two hours ahead of time in case the volcano blew. These days, Mount Redoubt has made it a crap shoot for airline operations into or out of Anchorage.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about global warming. No doubt we can do a lot more to clean up our air and use our fuels more efficiently. However, one large volcano eruption can send enough pollutants into the atmosphere to block the sun and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. I don’t mean to cause alarm, but rather remind people that our mountains, canyons, plains, and seas are all the result of ancient seismic activity. To put it bluntly, our planet is as stable as a suicide bomber, so accept it.

The best non-fiction fiction book I’ve ever read is Michael Crichton’s State of Fear. To this day, I’ve never seen another novel with such an extensive bibliography and footnotes. If you have any questions about the Ring of Fire, then read this book for its entertainment value, and then review the bibliography for its available resources.

Perhaps the biggest lesson here is to understand that mankind is no match for Mother Nature. As such, rather than panic or worry as the media would have us do, we should be grateful for every day we have. As a writer, I take pleasure in jotting things down to document the things I’ve witnessed. As a husband and father, I do my best to enjoy the time I have with my family. Each day we make the choice of either living or going through the motions. Since no one can predict what tomorrow will bring, then live for today while planning for the future. Most importantly, don’t sweat the things you can’t control.

(All photos courtesy of Paul Danielson)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tomorrow Is the Fateful Day

By Chester Campbell

Before Congress in all its beneficence gave us another month to get ready for the IRS, Tax Day was March 15, the Ides of March. It brought to mind the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March.” That was the fateful that Brutus and his co-conspirators assassinated the Roman ruler in 44 B.C.

But, according to the Roman calendar, the Ides of April falls on the 13th. So tomorrow is simply the middle of April and the day our 1040s are to be off to the taxman. I’ve had mine ready to go for about a week, awaiting only a final K-1 form, which came by email a couple of days ago. Now I have to get my mind re-engineered from blogging to e-filing. Somehow I suspect the IRS doesn’t give a big fat rat’s.

Your friendly taxman is offering all kinds of “Last Minute Tips” on his handy website. Some of them relate to the few recent congressional giveaways that benefit the little guy (or big guy if you happen to be Ben Small). “Buy New Car, Get Tax Break” says one. Another touts a big credit for first-time homebuyers. And they advise that people who lost their jobs may (emphasis mine) get help with insurance premiums.

I wonder what the monster banks and insurance firms who got billions in bailouts put on their returns? “Gift from Uncle Sam (giver pays the tax).” When’s the last time anybody gave you a billion dollars?

I lived through the Great Depression as a kid. My father was what we now call a small businessman. He ran a tiny electrical shop, repairing burned-out motors and answering trouble calls from businesses with electrical problems. Unfortunately, he was not much of a businessman. If somebody couldn’t pay, he’d take a dozen eggs, or whatever. As a result, when things got really bad, his business just about went under.

My mother told me later how an anonymous friend left envelopes of cash that got him through. It was no government bailout, but the generosity of a compassionate acquaintance. As far as I know, he never learned the giver’s identity.

There are still plenty of decent folks around doing good deeds because they want to, not because they have to. That’s why I’m confident this current depression/recession will end in the hopefully not-too-distant future with America bouncing back better than ever. But pending that fateful day, I’d better get prepared for the one coming up tomorrow.

Happy 1040, y’all!

P.S. Tomorrow is also the day I start my blog book tour for The Surest Poison. I’ll be at the Book Roast blogsite. Drop by and say hi.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Surest Poison

I want to say something about Chester Campbell's The Surest Poison.

Sid Chance and Jaz LeMieux are fresh, new characters, and fun folks to follow. And I know something about the subject matter of the book: TCE and tracking down from whence it came. For twenty years I defended TCE pollution cases, as TCE was the most commonly used degreaser in the world up until the mid-eighties and it's found its way into the groundwater in many areas.

How did it get there? Sometimes from dumping, but usually from plant spills, leaking pipes or product stored outside.

And the chemical is interesting. While it's allegedly harmful to many systems in the body, it's like beer; it's not stored. It quickly leaves the body through urination. The original EPA mouse/rat studies which led to the "Possible Carcinogen" determination, were flawed, seriously flawed. The studys' flaws were similar to those which led to the erroneous determination that saccharin was cancer causing, which it took the EPA over thirty years to correct. Indeed, TCE used to be the decaffeinating agent in coffee. If you drank Sanka, you drank TCE. And it was used in the dry cleaning process. If you wore dry-cleaned clothing, you wore TCE.

But there's a more dangerous aspect to TCE than its immediate harmful affects on the body or even its effects over time. TCE changes its chemical composition, and when it does so, it evolves into much more dangerous chemicals, known cancer causing agents, agents like PCE or vinyl chloride. Allow TCE to percolate long enough in your ground water and you will find these chemicals there. And they can kill you. And this is just the groundwater. Soil gases, gas percolating upward, is also dangerous.

So Chester's spot on, and the problem with TCE cleanup is finding who to blame. Cleaning the groundwater, so it's free of these chemicals is very expensive. It requires pumping stations and filtration equipment. You have to draw the flow in, clean it and then disperse it so it flows naturally, not an easy thing to do. And in many cases, the party responsible for the TCE leaching into the soil and groundwater is dead or ceased operations many, many years ago. In some cases, the government is even responsible, because the government took over the operation of some plants during the Second World War. Chemical procurement records must be researched, aerial views, if they exist, must be studied, loan and property ownership records, and trucking company records. It's a tough job. We had a case in Rockford, Il where we found over eighty companies had used TCE during the period 1940-1980. The groundflow was from the industrial area into suburbs that didn't exist during most of that period. The cost of cleanup was in the hundred million dollar range. The cost and number of companies involved was so high, the city, in conjunction with the EPA, organized a special cooperative arrangement to manage cleanup and funding.

So the problems Sid and Jaz face in The Surest Poison are real. Many companies have gone bankrupt facing the prospect of TCE cleanup. The opportunity for crime is high.

Bravo, Chester, for bringing this to light and for the opportunity to meet folks like Sid Chance and Jaz LeMieux.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Note From Pat Browning

No, that's not Pat Browning. That's Robert W. Walker and his dog, Pongo.

I turned my usual Saturday space over to multi-published author ROBERT R.WALKER for his advice on the dread synopsis. It is Part 1 of his post on the synopsis and the outline, which are two completely different things.

Today, Sunday, we go to Part 2, with Rob’s “bullet outline” for his upcoming book, DEAD ON, to be published in July by Five Star.

AND HERE'S A TIP: On Rob’s web site ( you can download DEAD ON for free. The book itself, together with these two posts, make up a mini-writing course. You can literally follow the book from the “brag sheet” to the outline to the finished product.

DEAD ON is a thriller, and may be a tad graphic in a place or two for the squeamish. Don’t be misled by the cozy photo of Rob and his dog. Behind Rob’s angelic mug lies a devilish imagination!

A happy holiday to all, and great success with your writing --
----- Pat Browning

Part 2 - The Outline

Part 2 – The OUTLINE
By Robert W. Walker

The outline is for many far, far harder and more grueling to create than either the book itself or the synopsis and for good reason or reasons. While many authors outline and do so BEFORE the novel is written, many find such a task so off-putting as to lead to putting the entire effort of writing said book aside—often for good.

I make no judgments on those who routinely outline a novel before ever writing a word. I salute such people who have found a comfort zone with this process, but for me and many another author to outline a novel before writing at least several chapters and often at least those crucial first 100 pages, … well … it is just as awful as torture.

I can’t speak to how others organize a novel via an outline before getting the book underway except to say that for most of these “artists” they have struggled with many elements they wish to see in the story in their minds and with notes and perhaps even 3 by 5 cards (which I detest), and sometimes these cards are character cards, plot note cards, setting note cards, dialogue moment cards, thematic cards—to keep track of various threads one “plans” on using in the story.

I submit that for many another “artistic mind” such accounting work is about as torturous as having to do an index for a book—a job for people with another set of brain cells than I possess. I personally believe that many who are wonderful at outlining are also great at keeping their checkbook straight (again something I suck at). I also believe, especially among mystery, suspense, thriller writers who tightly organize a novel this way know the ending and the outcomes and they write to that end (any means to an end).

And there’s nothing wrong with that, but most novels begin with a What IF, a set of circumstances that in chapter one raises 20 questions, far more questions than answers, and the subsequent chapters grow out of what is typically an outrageous and highly dramatic moment seen so clearly in the mind’s eye of the author but he does not have any idea where he will go next until he gets there.

This method I call “Going Where No One Has Gone Before” and this means the story grows and enlarges from the seeds planted in chapter one—organically it has been called. I don’t know the final outcome except a general notion that some will die and some will survive, and it’s nice to know that at least fifty percent and perhaps more authors than that who I have met and talked to about these matters doesn’t know the ending much less the middle and often the next chapter of the work in progress.

Yet the artist who works in this manner, his mind often in a surging fever that looks like a parabola or figure 8 as the author works up to page fifty, rewrites to fifty, goes on to 100, rewrites to 100, goes on, rewrites, goes forth, etc. while not knowing what’s going to happen on the page until it happens—often about who lives and who dies, and absolutely no idea how he will arrive at a satisfactory ending except to GET THERE, knowing that once it is on paper, a product, he can begin to massage and manipulate and make it all work on subsequent rewrites.

In this process rewriting is writing, not to suggest that people who organize better than I and write complete whole outlines are not doing many, many rewrites as well—often to “get the seams” of organized writing out of sight! I see the seas in a Robert Ludlum novel for instance; do you?

Now years ago, I learned that I had to do an Outline for my editor/publisher; that he or she needed it for that all-important editorial and/or marketing and PR or cover art meeting—that outlines and synopsis were used again and again by the person in-house who is trying her level best to present your story in succinct manner to business folks responsible for preparing the complete “package” of your book down to the font they will use on your name—and the size, color and even texture of the title, and how Press Releases will look. If your synopsis is done well, whole sections may go on the back of the actual book!

Now I do outlines but not until I am at least well into the writing first. It may be at the conclusion of Chapter Three or Four or it might be after I complete page 100—at which time I have a far clearer picture of where the story may wind up, where characters might fall or survive, what the ending may look like. The beauty of it is that most editors, once they get the actual pages, seldom to never hold you hostage to your outline, and if they do it is folded in as part of the rewriting process.

This is my method, and it works for me, and I stand by it. In my head, once a story has been told, it can’t help but get old … and if I am doing an extensive outline (or struggling to do so) for a novel I have not yet written a word on, I know I am setting myself up for failure—that my mind and artistic process and imagination demands I outline only after I have literally “lived with” my characters in their time and place on actual pages produced before I can make “predictions” on where the story might go from there. The good news is that if you “think” as I do, you know that it is a viable and a time-honored way to work the novel.

Final word on Outlines is that I got freed up by an editor at Berkley with whom I worked for many years on my Instinct and Edge Series titles, and John used the term when pleading for an outline from me to accompany him into meetings, one he could duplicate for his fellows in New York, that I simply do a “bullet outline.” This is in its simplest terms a paragraph covering plot points for each chapter. I found this approach very helpful and adopted it after I would complete those first 100 pages or at least three chapters to accompany the synopsis and outline in so many efforts to “green light” a project.

As an example, I will put up the bullet outline for DEAD ON. Anyone wishing to see an outline done on another of my titles, please contact me with a query line to that effect. You can find me at or at
Rob Walker

Rob Walker's Bullet Outline

BULLET OUTLINE for DEAD ON by Robert W. Walker
Retired Atlanta Police Detective Marcus Rydell has been doing PI work since he left the force under a cloud some four years previously. After Rydell decides to put off his suicide to help out a child in distress in the apartment overhead, he discovers that the child in need has already “helped” herself by beating her attacker to death with a claw hammer. He does what he can for the preteen named Kim. While at the scene of the killing, Marcus meets Dr. Katrina “Kat” Holley who talks him into meeting her later for drinks at an Atlanta neighborhood bar and grill called O’Dule’s.
Scene cuts back to Rydell’s darkened room where he is weighing up suicide against seeing Kat Holley again. He decides to put off the inevitable suicide, shower instead, and to meet Dr. Holley for drinks. Rydell revisits on a surface level the incident, which eventually costs him his badge and standing in the APD. He’d blacked out at a crucial moment during what had started out as a routine domestic dispute that’d escalated into a shootout, leaving his partner and two uniformed cops dead around his inert form.

Neither his personal physician, specialists, nor the departmental shrink can diagnose the cause of his “mysterious” blackout. Now, years later, he still blacks out from time to time, losing a minute here, six there, and the cause remains undetermined. This will continue as an ongoing mystery in itself, and the blackouts could get him and anyone around him killed (again).
Cuts to O’Dule’s where he meets she. Dr. Holley is an intern and “too young” for him, Marcus feels. Still, he has his fantasies even at his age—over fifty. Far from being his dream girl, Dr. Holley turns out to be a fraud, as her real name is Mallory, and she is the wife of an officer who’d died in the line of duty during the incident that led to Rydell’s removal from the force. Aside from this, Dr. Mallory, holds a gun on Rydell. He talks her out of killing him and going with her plan B, which is to hire him instead. Hire him to locate, capture, and turn over her husband’s killer.

She wants to take a scalpel to the killer, a fiend named Iden Cantu, who has also slaughtered his own family as well as three cops. After an exhaustive and interesting conversation, the two, PI and intern, strike a bargain which goes against Marcus’s best instincts, as she wants to be with him every step of the way during his investigation.

In the end, they both compromise and Marcus feels he has a case worth living for or dying for. So long as it keeps him from his depression and suicidal tendencies, he’s up for it. They agree that his deceased parents’ woodsy cabin outside the city is the safest place to launch their full-throttle manhunt for Cantu, who has eluded police all these years but who has surfaced. Cantu has sent Mrs. Mallory a series of letters, letters that Marcus is very much interested in examining for clues. He has a heart full of rage and hatred toward this man as does Dr. Mallory. Together they team up for the day when they have justice and closure and revenge.
From here, the team of Rydell and Holley continue to have sparks fly between them. She still holds Rydell partially responsible for her young husband’s death. And as with his superiors, IAD, and peers, Rydell is sick and tired of being the scapegoat. So their arguments will be a major factor as the story continues. As will the mystery of his blackouts and the fear of losing time at a crucial moment.

The brain is wired for this growing fear; it feels inevitable, fated. The scars of his past will determine his future, he keeps telling himself. Finally, the active investigation—far from the sort of gutter case, he’d been working—is in a sense keeping him alive. This is another thread that runs through the story—his depression and suicidal tendencies put off for the excitement and “good” of the chase/case. The question is: does the depression have any connection to his mystery disorder?
It has been established in the first few chapters that both Holley and Rydell have reason to feel paranoid over Cantu’s perhaps watching them and perhaps coming after them. It is a cat and mouse game, but Rydell might be the cat one day, the mouse the next. Dr. Mallory’s letters certainly suggests that Cantu has come out of hiding and is willing to risk everything to taunt and torment her.

For this reason, they go to the safe house, a cabin in the woods—beautiful place once owned by Rydell’s parents. They open up the place and settle in. Kitchen needs stocking, sleeping arrangements need be made, and as there is an upstairs and a down, they “mark” their territory. A large wraparound porch looks out on the forests and the road leading in on one side, a beautiful lake on the other. It’s an idyllic place, one they trust the killer knows nothing about.

Once settled in, Rydell tears into the letters, searching for any fragment of a clue that might give him the upper hand. After reading the letters and listening to the nesting sounds of Holley inside, Rydell is losing the light on the porch when he hears something in the woods, something coming their way. Is it Cantu? Holley had learned so much about Rydell simply by surfing the web. Could Cantu have known their move to this place even before he did? Rydell is unarmed.

Holley steps out to announce she’s made a soufflĂ© of some sort, when he slams her to the ground. She takes exception to this, her face in the porch boards when she sees the source of his fears—a stray black German Shepherd has inched its way to the house to beg scraps. She asks Rydell, “What kind of a private eye are you?” They argue until the dog becomes comfortable around them and licks up the soufflĂ© where it lay in the overturned plate.

Rydell curses the dog. Holley gives it a name—Paco. And Paco takes up residence on the porch. Pooch squatters’ rights.
Aside from the insights we get on Iden Cantu from the letters, Rydell gets all the information ever gathered on the man via computer, thanks to the one holdout friend in the department at the Atlanta PD, an acerbic younger detective who had “studied” under Rydell when Marcus was at the height of his career, solving cases. The kid is now in his late thirties and his name is Jonathan Thomas, “JT” for short. He gets the information to Rydell in quick time, and Marcus downloads it onto his G-5 Mac that Kat has brought to the cabin.
Scenes will shift to Cantu and his doings from time to time. He has plans of his own for Marcus, Dr. Mallory, and some others he feels haven’t suffered enough already. In fact, his diabolical plan has already been put into motion and will make headlines in the morning papers. His master plan is to watch Rydell slowly come apart at the seams as he had after the gun battle that cost him his career. He had allowed the detective who “fainted” to live in order that he live through the disgrace of it all and the torment of living on while everyone with him had died. He had luxuriated in the news that Rydell had to step down from the department.

He had gone into hiding in the Georgia forest. A former Marine, he knows how to survive in any terrain. But he’s lived like a mountain man long enough. Now he is back, and he feels his “calling”—a need to inflict more pain on those listed in the obituary he pulled from his wallet and read daily—the loved ones, those the dead were survived by—like Mallory’s wife. Like the black female cop’s intended. Like Detective Miersky’s family, including the children. The true purpose of his revealing himself through letters to Katrina Holley Mallory—to terrorize her and to challenge Rydell. He’d been bored long enough.

He had not only killed the stockbroker boyfriend of the one cop, but he’d made a spectacle of the body. Authorities would be babbling to one another, baffled, but Rydell and Mallory would know in an instant what was what, the moment they heard it on the tube or read it in the papers.
Scene shifts to a crime scene that involves Detective John Thomas and his partner, Jim Hanrahan. The two are in shock, not an easy emotion to drive hardened, seasoned investigators into. But whoever killed Lawrence T. Milton, an Atlanta stockbroker with no known ties to drugs, gangs, or illegal activity of any sort had trussed his body up like a Christmas turkey.

Limbs had been broken. Legs and arms folded in like matchsticks. Neck broken. Head tucked into the torso with the rest. The entire “package” had been left dangling from a Buckhead area high school flagpole where Milton had once been a star basketball player. His body had been set ablaze with an accelerant as a last act of defilement.

Prior to this, prior to the final indignities done the body, the horror of what Milton had endured, at this point, no one knew. Attached to the tether that held the twirling, charred body was a note. Simple hospital tape held the note firmly in place. It reads in blood: So it begins.

A CSI unit comes in after the detectives. Everyone is disturbed to his and her core at the macabre murder. Someone back of the barrier with a zoom lens gets a photo.
Rydell and Holley see the news reports on an unidentified body dangling from a flagpole “trussed up like a Christmas turkey” as the reporter says. This strikes a note with them as this same description of murder had been in Cantu’s letters.

He asks Mallory if she knows Milton, indicating the news. Together, they piece the facts into place. Slowly, it dawns on them both that Milton’s extreme “makeover” is a message to them. That he is just the first. That Cantu is behind it, and he is coming for them all—all the survivors of the previous attack. Cantu is like a force of nature and must be stopped.

Marcus Rydell now knows that there are other possible victims here. He thinks of Nora Miersky and her children. He hasn’t seen or spoken with her in years. Stan’s death ought to’ve brought them closer together; instead, it had created a rift that had only evolved into a chasm. He has to warn her, and he has to get her and her kids to a safe place before Cantu gets to them. All of this comes out while he is pacing, and Holley is arguing that Milton could be another Milton, and that it could all be just a coincidence.

Rydell had not been a stranger to Milton altogether. He’d contacted Milton as he had all the survivors of the victims of the infamous incident that had been created not by Marcus Rydell but by Iden Cantu. Milton would have none of it, saying, “You cops make mistakes that no absolution from any quarter can help. So leave me be.”

That had been right after the incident. It had had such an effect on Rydell that he decided then and there he’d go to none of the funerals, that his presence would only make things worse. Instead, he sat in dark rooms after that and grew more and more pensive with each passing day, until he’d begun to have thoughts of suicide. Milton had not moved away, had not changed jobs, had not married or changed his lifestyle. He’d be the easiest of them to locate along with Holley.

Why wasn’t Kat Holley dead? Was Cantu saving her and Rydell for last? Unable to sleep, worried, Rydell takes his boat across the lake to the area airport at Blue Ridge where he takes his Cessna back to Atlanta to be on hand for what remained of the crime scene investigation, to hopefully get some information out of JT. He’s not welcomed with open arms by those processing the scene, but he does learn that the dead man is the Lawrence he feared.

While at the scene, he spots a suspicious man, Cantu, in disguise, and he gives chase only to black out and find himself on a stretcher. He has left without telling Katrina, believing he can return before she awakes. He almost makes it but not quite the next morning.
Scene shifts back to the cabin, Holley and the dog. Kat sees things now in the forest she’d never seen before, phantoms not there before. She experiences even more terror when she thinks of how Larry Milton died, and the manner in which he died left no doubt of his suffering, torturous pain. She wondered if he’d given any warnings of a like nature to the black stockbroker, Milton or if it was just to her that he chose to write, and if so, why her and not the others?

Now she hears more sounds in the woods. Each new sound has Paco, her newly acquired dog, alerting, barking. The woods are crawling with sounds now. Her terror is mounting. Then Paco races off the porch and out into the woods after whatever is out there. Rabbits, maybe…maybe squirrels, who knows.

Holley tries to get hold of her fear and paranoia. She goes back inside, toys with her loaded gun and pours a cup of steaming coffee and curses Rydell for having simply left her here all alone. Some shining knight. More like a rusty court jester. Damn him.

She hears Paco’s incessant barking out near the front gate again. She feels exposed on the large open porch. She goes to the window, coffee in one hand, .38 in the other. Under her breath, she dares the bastard Cantu to come near her. But she knows she wants him alive, wounded but alive.

She’d taken lessons now for over a year in how to bring a man down without killing him. The kneecaps. He’d be as helpless as a spineless worm then. He’d still be alive long enough for her to use her scalpel on him, the gold plated one that her father had given her at graduation that day so long ago now.

The last time she’d visited mom and dad at the gravesite, she’d found the first of the letters there on their double headstone, clearly addressed to her, held against the wind by several long strips of blanketing tape, the kind of tape she and every medical professional used every day at the hospital, commonly called Nurse’s tape.

The night before, Rydell wanted to know about how she had received the letters as none had a postmark as none were delivered through the mail. She’d recounted how she’d found each one; each had come to her “hand” delivered.

“You got good reason to be paranoid then,” he’d said.

She stared out at the dog now, trying to determine what lay at Paco’s feet, as he now stood vigilant at the bottom of the porch. He’d obviously caught something, brought it back for her to admire and perhaps make a stew of—inwardly laughing at this notion—and Paco wanted her thanks.

She slipped the gun into the narrow of her back where her jeans held it tight against her spine, and with coffee cooling in her hand, she stepped out onto the porch again. If Cantu is out here, bring it on, she thought. Coming closer to the steps and looking at what the dog dragged in from the bush, she gasped. It was a snake the size of her right arm, dead, half chewed up by Paco who’d obviously not been poisoned by the bites he no doubt suffered.

Then she hears the motorboat engine over the lake, looks up and sees that it’s Rydell. He was about to get a piece of her mind and good.
From her point of view, Rydell left Holley unprotected at the lake, and she’d experienced a period or horrible fear. They argue but he’s too fatigued to keep up. He takes a nap and later tells her the horrid details of what he’d seen. How Milton had died. How he had given chase to Cantu.

He again tells her they must locate Nora Miersky and her children, as they too must be targets of the madman. He convinces her he must go to Nashville to convince Nora and her new husband, Carl Schramick, along with the two kids to return to the cabin here, the only safe place they know of until they can sort things out.

Holley agrees but only if she and Paco can board the Cessna with him, but the dog balks at getting into the boat and runs off. They make the trip to Nashville where Nora’s son is auditioning for a talent search. There they convince the family, including the stepfather, Schramick, to return with them to Blue Ridge Lake.
The scene shifts to Cantu’s point of view. He is also in search of Nora and the kids to do to them what he’s done to Milton. But he fails to find them at their Marietta, Georgia home. While pretending to be a day laborer, as he has killed a man for his truck, Cantu is frustrated in his efforts and is “spotted” in the neighborhood by an early riser walking her dog.
Holley and Marcus arrive in Nashville to locate the traveling Mierskys, but Nora doesn’t want anything to do with Rydell. Holley takes charge, takes the woman aside, gets her to listen. When Nora learns her children’s lives, her own and her husband’s, are at stake, she agrees to Marcus’s plan—that they go back to the large cabin in the woods until they can draw a bead on Cantu and take him out before he can get near her or her children. It takes some doing, and both Holley and Rydell agrue against going to the cops for protection as it wouldn’t be enough.

Back at the homestead on the lake, the “team” assesses the new set of circumstances. Now they have the lives of children in their hands. Rydell even takes the kids out on the lake for fishing, takes them swimming. He is enjoying life again for the first time in years.

Some paragraphs here devoted to how the children revitalize Marcus and his interest in life, in possibilities of future interests and life with someone; he begins to focus outward rather than inward.
Cantu already has his plan in place; in fact, his plan was to have all his victims huddle together at the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Rydell, and he has been privy to every move Rydell has made thanks to the microphone he’d implanted in Big, his black shepherd dog.

The mic’s not perfect, having to work from inside the dog’s skin and beneath all that fur, but it’s good enough to learn what Cantu needs in order to mount a full frontal attack. He has an uncanny ability to know what “the enemy” is doing and precisely what they are planning, and this explains it.

What he knows comes clear as the story progresses, but it has all to do with Paco, the “damn” dog. Later…much later…too late in fact, Dr. Kat Holley notices a scar on Paco’s shoulder. On closer examination, she sees the sutures. On closer examination, she sees no reason for the sutures, no scar or swelling, just the recent sutures.

“Open up the sutures, now!” orders Rydell.
“What’re you thinking?”
“That bastard lunatic after us has known our every move since we’ve gotten here or soon after. The dog is bugged.”
The final scenes are a “war” and read like a B-horror film as the killer isolates those holed up at the cabin on the lake. Little things at first are no more. Phones are blocked. Electric lines are cut.Cars sabotaged. Boats are cut adrift. Paco aka Big (Cantu’s name for his dog) is being used on both sides now. Ultimately, Paco has to make a choice and he “fails” Cantu.

Mr. Schramick is picked off by Cantu who comes posing as a local cop, using the uniform of a friend of Rydell’s who’d made an earlier visit to the lake home, asking questions. Rydell has come to feel trapped with a dog, children, and women on his hands while he must face a psycho with the skills of a Rambo.

Holley gets Nora and the children across the lake, but she returns to be in on the kill. She still wants to slice him up. Earlier, as Rydell armed himself, she had taken a modern day, state of the art, hunting bow, and now she joins in on the hunt, using the bow and arrows.
Now it turns into a real manhunt. They’ve left the cabin for this hunt, but they know Cantu is more dangerous out here in the wilds than he is anywhere else. He has the distinct advantage. Through a series of encounters and near misses, Rydell and Holley confront Cantu, whose evil knows no boundaries.

When the final confrontation happens, it is a thing of beauty to see Cantu slip up, be made incapacitated as Holley saves Marcus from certain death, putting two successive arrows through Cantu’s knees—making good her plan to shatter his kneecaps, and to capture the beast alive. She wants to give him a taste of his own medicine.

Kat Holley wants to make good on her desire to torture him to death, but Rydell convinces her that if she went ahead with it, she’d never be the same afterwards, that it would change her and not for the better, that she’d end up sitting in a dark room still controlled by this bastard as she pulled a trigger against herself.

After arguments and revelations of an emotion nature, Rydell convinces her that they should take Cantu into the authorities and see that he be placed in an asylum for the criminally insane for the rest of his life, else given the death penalty.

She puts one more arrow into Cantu’s crotch before she is totally convinced. At this time JT and other cops from Atlanta and the area converge on them, ending this part of the story.
The final scene has Rydell alone now out at the lake house, staring out at the lake at dusk. Nora, her children and Kat Mallory have all returned to their normal, busy lives while he has no life to return to. He studies the marvelously beautiful purple sky, his gun pointed to his head, preparing to check out as is his habit nowadays as boredom has set in.

He puts force on the trigger when he hears someone in distress out on the lake. Screams are wafting across the lake from the deck of a large pleasure craft getting closer and closer. He puts aside his suicide, shoves his gun into the small of his back, and rushes down to his small boat and begins rowing for the larger boat intent on setting things aright.

He imagines his suicide can wait until morning, and he thinks about calling Kat—just to check in on her. Perhaps call Nora after that, chat with the kids. Perhaps call Beverly then in Ohio, chat with his own kids. Then he sees the lake cops closing in on the disturbance on the boat.

He returns to his drink and his chair on the deck where he falls asleep. He is awakened to the sound of a car pulling into the gravel driveway and the barking of a dog. It’s Paco and Holley. She’s kept her promise after all of returning once she finished her residency. They embrace with him hiding the gun.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Guest Blogger Rob Walker - Part 1

Rob Walker is making the blog rounds, so I snagged him for help on synopses and outlines, two bugaboos for many authors.

Rob teaches, edits, and has written too many books to count, using his name and four pseudonyms – Evan Kingsbury, Glenn Hale, Stephen Robertson and Geoffrey Caine. His work includes three series. His newest crime fiction novel is DEAD ON, to be published this summer.

And heeeeree’s Rob …

“Blurbs, Synopsis, Outline & Selling It
With a Look -- Advice to Publish By”
By Robert W. Walker

Part 1 – The Synopsis

First blurbs – you can accumulate useful buzz even before your book is sold or published if you have worked to create a network, a support group, so to speak, of people you meet at writers/readers events and conferences and/or online.

Once you have established a relationship either at the hotel bar or the online deCafe since you are on Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Crimespace, Plaxo, Linkdin, blogs and chat rooms, and conferencing, then you have to take that brave, nervy step—you have to ASK. Ask for a read—even a cursory read and comment on your book from folks who will either say yes or no.

Do so with the attitude that you will get some turn downs and you must make NO judgment on “turndowns” (as they feel a lot like a rejection letter) and let that one go, and go on to the next. Try your best to gain 3 to 5 blurbs or at least 2 strong ones from your pool of acquaintances.

Finally, if you are resourceful in this age of information and you locate the author you most admire and contact me…I mean him or her…this person might be finessed into reading maybe your first three chapters with a synopsis and an outline—and you might again never hear from this person, but then again shock, awe, and surprise along with lightning striking happens from time to time.

This then below is an example of blurbs gathered long before the publication of my DEAD ON due out in July from Five Star/Tekno Books. Three blurbs from three extremely busy authors:

“Whip-smart dialogue, vivid characters, and ever-building tension make Dead On a terrifically compelling read.” – Tess Gerritsen, bestselling author of The Keepsake & more.

“What happens in this book shouldn’t happen even to a fictional character. In addition, Walker’s prose cuts like a garrote; he is a master at the top of his game.” —J.A. Konrath, author of Whiskey Sour, Dirty Martini, and Afraid.

“Walker’s a master of fiction, and that’s the holy all of it.” —Ken Bruen, author of The Killing of the Tinkers & more.

Now let’s take up the SinNOPSIS or Synopsis. Why do many authors find this so hard to write? It amounts to a single page, two at the most, so it’s not like writing a 300 page novel. It is less than 500 words and never longer than 700, so it’s no BIG deal, right?

Yet it confounds writers, so we first ask why the mayhem and chaos over this and outlining (which we will get to). Here’s the deal as to why our palms sweat when we are asked to write up this “pitch” for our novel. It is not fiction. It is a kind of brag sheet that walks a tightrope between overwhelming arrogance at one extreme and boring matter-of-fact essay on just the facts, ma’am!

So it is an entirely different hat the author needs to wear when writing this the “shortest” and “most important” short story s/he will ever write—the story about your story. You have to remove the fictionalist’s hat and slap on the marketeer’s cap, the PR person’s peaked hat, that of the crafty sales person’s slick Fedora.

Indeed this is a grand opportunity to turn the book over in your head (or do it literally with the manuscript and craft/create/imagine and produce what you would most like to see on the back flap or back copy of your soon to be “sold” (if that’s the manuscript status) or soon see light of publication (if that’s the book’s status).

You know the character(s), setting, plot, sound and sense of your book better than any stranger as in a copyeditor who is likely making far more money writing your back copy than you will make on the book! So set yourself up as a Stranger, a Copyeditor with a job to do—to write decent copy on the book.

Sure, some might say the author knows his/her book too well, and so falls into too much detail, but sit down and read twenty or forty or sixty or a hundred models of copy writing on the backsides of books, and after modeling these, decide on what sort of bell you want to ring on the backside of your book.

Setting and characters named in sentence one—establishing time and place and who it is about immediately? Or do you want some moody tonal sentences leading to a last sentence in that paragraph, which hammers home the character(s), setting, time and place?

Here you give the appetizer for the reader who has an opportunity to “sample” the five questions about any novel—Who, What, Where, Why, and sometimes How—the same five questions found in any newspaper story. In short, this “shortest, most important” story fills a needed job, one the novelist can’t deliver on so well as the PR person or writer who can learn the non-fictional elements and art of writing a story about the story.

Now get thee to a newsroom in your head and think News Release, PR, marketing. Put the feather from the pen to your newsman’s cap.

Below is the actual Synopsis for DEAD ON. As you read it, imagine an acquiring editor getting this covering the first three chapters. Will it move an editor to ask for the entire manuscript? Will it get a green light.
PI Marcus Rydell is out to reclaim his hold on life, as for the moment only suicide offers an escape from his pain. Dr. Kat Holley seeks a fiery revenge on a maniac who has destroyed both their lives. Together, hero and heroine become hunters who come to respect and understand one another, and to share a bond that colors this suspense-thriller filled as it is with bright touches of romance, light banter, and laugh-out-loud humor alongside terror from without and battles within. And as in any good noir thriller, there figures a black dog; this one’s named Paco.

Just when disgraced Atlanta cop-turned-PI Marcus Rydell prepares to eat his gun, a kid in trouble, a call to duty, and a dirty blonde named Kat Holley stop him cold. Kat Holley pulls Marcus from a suicidal depression, and his soon-to-be demolished apartment building—only to make him face a past he cannot come to terms with without her. But not before she leads him on a deadly hunt deep into the blackest forests of the Red Earth State. Near the Georgia–Tennessee border in the breathtaking Blue Ridge Lake countryside, the pair witness a safe paradise become their death trap, as their prey is no ordinary man. They seek to destroy a local legend, a cave-dwelling ex-marine who happens to be a multiple murderer. In fact, their prey is a monster whose instincts and military training have allowed him to survive in the wilderness for four years, eluding the Feds as well as the Atlanta PD.

However, the hunt for the evil torturer and executioner, Iden Cantu, pivots. And now Cantu comes for them, leaving the dead in his wake. In the end, they must duel with this psychotic deviant, who is equipped with night-vision, a high-powered Bushman, and a cruel intent to kill by means of mental and physical pain.
Such a “synopsis” can be used again and again as an oral or written “pitch” for the manuscript. It can do double and triple duty, used each time you present it to an editor in whatever form—written or verbal. In fact, at a pitch—as you leave, you can and should leave a single page synopsis/pitch with that lady from Bantam. It can make a great, delayed impact (so be sure your contact information is on the page as well).

If your synopsis is getting too long and involved, you are getting into fine and wonderful details that belong in the novel; the synopsis is about creating a CAPTION that enraptures and enthralls a reader—like the stuff found on the back of a book is supposed to do. Which leads us into the less than enrapturing and enthralling, often despised-by-its-author OUTLINE, and the difference between outline and synopsis.

(Check back for Part 2/The Outline on Sunday)