Thursday, October 30, 2008

On Research: Notes from a Congenital Geek

When I was seven years old, a television show called Sunrise Semester came on every morning just after Farm Digest. The show consisted of a university professor teaching college-level math and science classes. These were strictly lecture-style lessons--no bells, whistles, or special effects. I got up early every morning to watch it and sat riveted in front of the TV, despite the fact that I never understood a word of it. Recently, I shared this with my friend Cindi, who shook her head and said, "There was never any hope for you, was there? You were born a geek."

It probably tells you something about both of us that we considered this a compliment.

For a congenital geek like me, one of the great pleasures of being a writer is that it provides an excuse to spend hours doing what is generally called "research." Yesterday, for example, I researched how to pick up, hold, and release a venomous snake. This is an activity best experienced vicariously. (Never try this at home!) I also learned that a timber rattlesnake (Latin name Crotalus horridus) is a kind of viper, that the viperids have longer fangs than the elapids (such as coral snakes) and that, because of this, each type requires a separate and specific kind of hold. The number of people who keep venomous snakes (they call them "hot" snakes) is truly remarkable.

Why was I looking up ways to catch and release venomous snakes? In this case, there's a scene in the book I'm working on that involves an angry timber rattler and a very unhappy detective. I had very specific question in mind when I embarked on my virtual quest. That's the tye of research I do most often. I need to know something about how police process a crime scene or how to determine the time of death or methods of carrying concealed firearms, so I go in search of an appropriate site (check out for good information on autopsy procedures), an appropriate book, or an appropriate person to interview. The Writer's Digest Books Howdunit series is an excellent source of information for any crime writer. These include Lee Lofland's excellent book, Police Procedure & Investigation, Poisons by Serita Stevens and Anne Bannon, and Forensics by D.P. Lyle.

There's another kind of research--the serendipitous kind. This kind of research can be likened to taking your camera and going for a liesurely ramble in the woods. You don't know what you might find, but there's a pretty good chance you'll turn up something wonderful. I think of it as "found research." Another great thing about being a writer is that everything you learn becomes grist for the mill. Nothing is wasted. It may not find its way into this book or next, but it may lead you to something that will. Or it may find its way into another plot line years down the road. You just never know.

A great place for a crime writer to do this type of research is truTV Crime Library. This site has a wealth of information about criminal psychology and modern and historic crimes. Want the real scoop on Bonnie and Clyde, Leopold and Loeb, or the real Sweeney Todd? This is the place to go. Reading through old cases can spark the imagination of a crime writer. I may not want to write about a pair of Depression-era criminals, but a couple of modern-day lovebirds with antisocial tendencies might be just the ticket.

But information doesn't have to be crime-related to be valuable to a mystery writer. A site about Native America legends might inspire a historical novel based on Native American culture, a modernization of the Blue Corn Maiden legend, or a mystery about a missing Native American artifact. A visit to a site that shows a line drawing of a woman being created from the skeleton outward might inspire a character based on the woman being drawn or on the artist who might be drawing her. For the congenital geek (or the self-made writer), everything is fodder.

So go ahead, take a ramble through the internet or through the shelves of your local library. Invite your muse to come out and play. After all, that's one of the great things about being a writer.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Little Engine That Could

By Mark W. Danielson

Everyone knows this inspirational story by Watty Piper. It’s one of determination; mind over matter. It applies to virtually everything in life, and especially to creative writing.

I dare say that every author has been approached by someone claiming they want to write, but can’t. Their excuse is they don’t have a creative bone in their body. As I’ve said before, all you need to do is recall how many stories you made up when you were trying to get out of trouble and you’ll realize that isn’t true. Yes, they were lies, but they were creative lies usually made up on the spot, and if that’s not fiction, what is?

The problem with most would-be authors is they view writing a novel as an insurmountable task. My goal today is to break that notion into an understandable equation. One you can take to the bank. (You may as well take something – your money’s not there anymore.)

Most publishers consider the ideal length for manuscripts is between eighty five and one hundred thousand words. Why? Because of production cost and retail pricing. A one hundred thousand word manuscript using a twelve pitch font, double-spaced, usually equates to about 350 pages. “Three hundred fifty pages!” you say. “I couldn’t write a three page book report in school!” Well, I’m sure you’re right, but that book report was something you were required to write; not something you wanted to write. Therein lies the difference.

So pick a topic and let it flow. It doesn’t matter what you write; only that you do write. By my calculations, if you write one page a day for a year, you will have exceeded the word limit by two weeks. If you write more than one page a day, your time table will be reduced accordingly. The key to writing is discipline and determination, just like the little engine in the story. “You can because you think you can” was a slogan painted on one of my flying squadron’s walls. Like the little engine, it applies equally to everything in life. When considering this timetable, you realize there is nothing magic about writing a short story, or even a novel. It’s just a matter of setting time aside to set your mind free, and record your thoughts in a computer. So go on and give it a try. You have nothing to lose.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hauntings at The Hermitage

The Hermitage

By Chester Campbell

I got a different slant on Halloween Saturday night when my wife, Sarah, and I took our grandson to the 8th Annual Hauntings at The Hermitage. If you aren’t familiar with The Hermitage, it’s the restored 1,000-acre plantation home of Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh President. It was my first visit there in over forty years, and the place had really changed.

You arrive at an attractive, modern Visitor Center complete with Museum Store, Auditorium and Garden Gate Café. After paying for admission, you walk through the grounds to the Mansion, originally built between 1821 and 1831 and enlarged to its present size in 1834. Jackson bought the property in 1804 for $3,400 and lived in a two-story log cabin with his wife, Rachel, until building the Mansion. He was living in the cabin when he became the hero of the Battle of New Orleans.

After General Jackson’s death in 1845, following two terms as President, his adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr., took over. Junior sold the core 500 acres to the State of Tennessee in 1855. In 1889, the state turned over the Mansion and 25 acres to the Ladies’ Hermitage Association, a group modeled after the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union that bought George Washington’s estate. Over the years, the state or LHA acquired the remainder of the original plantation where Jackson grew cotton and other crops and ran various businesse enterprises.

Plopped down in the midst of a suburban residential community only twenty minutes from downtown Nashville, this is a large project. It has similarities to the Presidential Libraries and Museums dedicated to those since Herbert Hoover, but The Hermitage has no library, only a small number of documents. Jackson’s papers are at the National Archives, the Library of Congress and various university and private collections. The Papers of Andrew Jackson project at the University of Tennessee has cataloged them over the past several years and is compiling them in printed volumes.

End of history lesson. Just thought that would help set the stage.

It was getting dark when we started our Hauntings venture. There was no moon. The pathway winding through trees and lawns was lighted by lanterns placed every 100 feet or so. Somewhere back on the propery a canon fired now and then. The first thing we encountered was a group of Confederate soldiers gathered around their tents. (Historical note: the Civil War was ten years after Jackson's death, and no battles were fought around The Hermitage.) Our grandson, Justin, wore a ghoulish costume. They commented on how fierce he looked.

“We’d better let him pass,” said the sergeant.

When we strolled by a large shrub, a character who looked like he’d been spray-painted silver jumped out and screamed. We glanced back as we walked on and he stood stiff as a statue, awaiting his next victim.

We toured the mansion, where period-dressed women described how each room was used. We saw bedrooms with elaborate canopied beds, General Jackson’s office, dining rooms, sitting rooms, etc. A bluegrass ensemble played lively music next to the back porch.

After that, we headed down another lighted path to a barn where we boarded a haywagon pulled by a tractor. Sitting on bales of straw, we rode through the dark along a narrow road that wound around the farm. Every few hundred feet, ghosts and goblins jumped up from the roadside screaming like banshees.

As we passed one of them, Justin shouted, “You didn’t scare me.”

To which came the ghoulish reply, “Yes I did.”

We rode under the overhanging roof of a hay barn, where lights flashed and the demons were particularly noisy. Along the way we saw other figures beside the road that didn’t move, so we decided they were dummies.

Afterward, there were ghost stories in a candlelit cabin, pumpkin decorating in another area, and palm reading in the fortune telling tent. I skipped the latter, figuring my palms were too worn to have anything of value left to read. They should have bought one of my mystery books. Now that would have been worth reading.

Sending Justin off with a friend to do two more hayrides and visit the cemetery, Sarah and I retreated to the café for pie and coffee. The temperature had dropped considerably outside. We heard that General Jackson normally appeared along the haunting tour, but the impersonator who played the part wasn’t available that night. Too bad. I read that in his early days, the future President had a propensity for pulling pranks, cursing, and fighting. Might have made for a livelier evening.

Monday, October 27, 2008


by Ben Small

How would you like to commit a murder and fool the crime lab into believing that the murder weapon could not have fired the fatal shot? In other words, how would you like to create a new ballistics setup on your murder gun?

Think of all the fun you could have: arrest, booking, fingerprints, and collaborations with the Bluto Brothers in the holding tank. Then you walk free ― okay, so maybe you’re a bit sore and bowlegged ― and you sue for false arrest, harassment, deprivation of civil rights, and personal injury.

You recover big bucks, retire to Palm Springs and live a life of luxury.

Not bad, eh? And if you get lonely, you’ve got the Bluto Brothers’ phone number in your back pocket.

How is this miracle achieved?

You can thank Otis Technology, Inc., a company that makes gun cleaning systems. They’ve got a new product: Lifeliner. And it comes in a tube. It’s a nano-ceramic fusion lifetime gun bore liner.

Michael-Crichton-ish stuff.

Take an old Mosin, Mauser, or Model 70 Winchester, or a handgun for that matter, and shoot somebody. Anybody. Doesn’t have to be the friend who seduced your wife or the paperboy who keeps throwing your paper into the jumping cholla in your front yard. You’re free to be creative here.

Then go out to the range and apply Otis’ Lifeliner to the barrel. Apply this goop also to a bullet. Then fire the weapon and clean it. Reapply the goop, fire, and clean. Do this ten times or until all the Lifeliner has been used. Ballistically, you’ve got a new barrel, at least new enough to fool Quincy.

Yes, the bore’s lands and grooves are the same, and yes, those lands and grooves make identifying marks on a bullet. But other bore scratches, rust spots, and imperfections make marks on that bullet, too. And it’s these marks, all of them, that are used in matching a bullet to a specific gun in ballistics testing.

So what we’ve got after Lifeliner application is a new barrel bore. A bullet passing through now will not look the same as one that passed through the untreated bore.

Yippee-ki-ay, Quincy’s going to lose his mind today.

Yes, the lands and grooves are the same, so some markings will be similar, but most others, the ones which give distinctive patterning to each bullet, will have changed.

Applied in an aerosolized liquid form, atomic sized particles have embedded themselves in the metal surface of the bore and formed a ceramic metal fusion composite that nears 80 Rockwell hardness, effectively nearly 800% harder than the best chromium plated barrels available. Friction is reduced and the bullet slides through the barrel faster and more accurately.

And there will be new passage patterns on the bullet.

Ballistics, smallistics. Quincy’s gonna have a headache.

Of course, you could avoid all this by using a fragmenting bullet, like a .223 round or a hollow point. It’s hard to analyze those bullets, because fragmenting bullets spread out and break apart, sending fragments everywhere, and a hollow point flattens to a slug upon impact.

But what fun is that? Ball ammo passes right through a body and carries on to hit bystanders. In Obama’s language, this is called “spreading the wealth.”

So I can shoot my neighbor on the way to the range, and by the time I return, my gun has a new barrel, or at least one that will test new or different during ballistics testing.


Now the trick to this thing is to use your oldest or worst cared for gun, the one you bought out of a crate for seventy bucks, the one which hasn’t been fired since WW II, the one you cleaned only to be sure there wasn’t some obstruction that would cause the barrel to blow up in your face.

Use that gun on your neighbor or your paperboy, not your new gun. Use your head here. Lifelining a clean new bore may change nothing. The key to this trick is the difference between a bullet shot out of an old, dirty, dinged up bore and one shot out of a new or changed bore.

Viva la difference, dummy.

Sure Quincy could cut up the barrel and determine that its molecular structure had changed since the 1930s, but Quincy couldn’t prove when the change was performed, nor could he shoot out of the barrel in its prior unaltered state.


And the best thing: It’s a ceramic bore.

Doesn’t that mean it’s microwave safe?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Strangers in the Night

Chester Campbell’s post describing a hotel robbery during a convention gave me pause. I tramped through some pretty exotic places during my traveling years, sometimes with a group, sometimes alone. I was careful (usually), and I was never afraid.

Looking back, I don’t know whether I was just lucky, or whether a whole platoon of guardian angels went into action every time I started packing a suitcase.

Anyone old enough to remember the 1940 movie WATERLOO BRIDGE? Or maybe you’ve seen it on cable TV late some night. A real tear-jerker, with Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh as star-crossed lovers during World War I. I don't remember when or where I saw it, but it left a lasting impression.

I associate it with a brief, bright memory of London, on a night when our tour group visited a wine bar located in a boat docked on the River Thames. At some point I went outside for fresh air, and stood at the bridge railing to look across the black water at lights on the other side.

I was lost in thought, remembering that old movie, oblivious to the world around me. I dug a cigarette out of my purse, put it between my lips, and click! There was a man standing beside me, lighting my cigarette. I have no idea where he came from. I didn’t hear him walk up. There was just a quick glimpse of his face in the flame from the lighter. Then he tipped his hat, and strolled off across the bridge.

It was right out of an old movie—lucky for me, not a movie about Jack the Ripper.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Interview Bloopers and Strange Settings

by Jean Henry Mead

I've interviewed hundreds of people as a journalist and, if awards were given for bloopers, I’m sure I would win a trophy.

Most of my bloopers were the result of malfunctining tape recorders. While interviewing sportscaster Curt Gowdy during a bank reception one evening, the batteries fell from my recorder and rolled under a massive desk. They were unretrievable and I had no spares, so I returned the following day to conduct the interview in the middle of a busy lobby. Talk about distractions!

Equally distracting was my Gerry Spence interview in the lobby of the Ramada Inn where he had previously delivered a lawyer’s convention speech. His western boots rested on a coffee table while he held court as I was trying to interview him. His wife sat knitting nearby while a number of people stopped to exchange pleasantries. Spence bought the three of us Cokes and I was forced to reach over his legs to get at mine, without spilling a drop on his new Lucchese boots. (Of course, I did.)

He must have liked what I wrote because I was given permission the following year to interview his client, Ed Cantrell. The Wyoming safety director had killed one of his undercover agents by shooting him between the eyes in the backseat of his patrol car. The four-hour interview was conducted in Cantrell’s garage with his family present. So I had the honor of conducting the only interview with him before the trial, for which I took a lot of flak. Although he was later acquitted, most people considered Cantrell a murderer. His law enforcement career was ruined as well as his reputation, but I still believe he thought he was shooting in self defense.

Another tape recording blooper happened in 1987 when I flew to Los Angeles for an interview with Louis L’Amour. My equipment was stolen at the airport and I grabbed a recorder at Wal-Mart on the way to his home in Bel Air. I was unaware it was voice activated and much of the interview was garbled. Fortunately, L’Amour agreed to answer my questions by mail when I discovered what had happened. His interview is among my favorites and is featured @ Jean Henry Mead's Web Page

My first book was a collection of interviews with Wyoming’s V.I.P.s, including Dick Cheney, then a congressman. Traveling the state alone, I reached Jackson at night during a mortician’s convention, and those people know how to party. All night long! Next morning I reached Yellowstone Park in the middle of tourist season, and followed a road stripper nearly the length of the park at 5-10 miles an hour. By the time I reached Cody, I was exhausted and subsequently pushed the wrong button on my tape recorder when I interviewed artist Conrad Schweiring. A visiting Texas artist, sitting in on the interview, remarked, “You don’t want to miss a single word this man has to say.” Once again, I had to return the following morning, for an even better interview.

I’m not sure whether it was the ‘luck of the Irish” or dumb beginner’s luck, but I managed to survive as a journalist. I’m now content to write mysteries and western historical novels, leaving celebrity interviews to the young journalists with much better recording skills.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Plus C'est la Meme Chose, Plus ca Change

By Beth Terrell

In John Knowles's A Separate Peace, the narrator, Gene, says, "Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ca change." It means, "The more things remain the same, the more they change." I interpret this to mean that our own changing perceptions make even the most familiar things unfamiliar. I love that saying, but I always get it backwards. I mean to get it right, but instead I say, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." These days I think both versions are true.

Our world has gone through a lot of changes in the past century or so. Messages that once took months to deliver can now be "instant messaged" in the blink of an eye. When I think about the fact that my Honda Accord can take me across the Kentucky line in less than an hour, it boggles my mind to realize that my grandmother personally knew a woman who had gone west in a covered wagon and survived being scalped by Indians. The more things change...

We've been talking about our personal brushes with crime lately, and sometimes it seems that the world is getting more and more brutal. Sometimes it seems there's a Ted Bundy or a BTK killer under every rock. It's easy to think of serial and spree killers as thoroughly modern inventions. But a few days ago as I was tooling around on the internet (I like to call this "research"), I came across an unsolved homicide in a Nashville community called Paradise Ridge. This coldest of cold cases dates from 1897, more than a century ago. ...The more they stay the same.

The article reminded me of the Clutter family murders Truman Capote wrote about in In Cold Blood, but in this case, the killer or killers torched the house after committing their crimes. It was ten o'clock at night on March 23 when a neighbor, Justice Simpson, came outside to get a drink of water and noticed that the nearby Ade house was ablaze. He rode the half mile to the house, which was already collapsing. The fire had been burning for about an hour and a half, and had spread to the smokehouse and several other small outbuildings. Simpson called out for the family to help him douse the flames. When there was no answer, he apparently went into the burning house and found five bodies.

The victims were 60-year-old Jacob Ade, his 50-year-old wife, Pauline, their two children (Lizze, 20, and Henry, 13), and a 10-year-old girl, Rosa Moirer. Rosa was the daughter of a neighbor, and I was unable to find out why she was at the Ade house that night. It was the wounds found on Rosa's body, which was less badly burned than the rest, that convinced investigators that the family had been murdered. Although there was no way to be certain, investigators pieced together the crime. It looked like the entire family had been in the parlor when the murderer entered the house and killed Mr. Ade. The others attempted to escape through the windows but were either struck down before they could escape or forced back by an accomplice. Because of the condition and position of little Rosa's body, investigators surmised that she had escaped the initial attack, then been caught and killed and her body thrown into the already burning house.

The motive? Surely a murder so brutal must have been prompted by personal animosity. But no. The Ades were well-liked and well-respected in their community. John had once accused a neighbor of stealing hogs, but that issue had been resolved, and besides, the neighbor had an alibi. Robbery, perhaps? Maybe. John Ade had recently withdrawn $300 from a bank in Nashville. He'd planned to lend the money to a friend. If the killer(s) had known about the withdrawal, might they have gone to the Ade home to take it by force? If so, they were frustrated in the attempt, because the money was later found in an oyster can in what remained of the bedroom closet.

But the killers did not go away empty-handed. John was said to have been storing a large quantity of meat, which was never found. I don't know what a large quantity of meat would have been, but surely there is no amount of meat that would have been worth the lives of five human beings. Surely nothing would have been worth that.

The killers were never apprehended. The fire and a rainstorm destroyed any evidence investigators may have found. The murderers will never be brought to justice--not in this life anyway, not in the courts of men. They, like their victims, are long dead. I wonder if they were haunted by the memory of what they'd done, or if they simply moved from Paradise Ridge to some other small town, some other easy mark. With no FBI databases, no national media, and no internet, how would anyone ever have known?

The more things change, the more they remain the same. There have always been monsters among us. I hold out the hope that one day this will no longer be true.

In the meantime...I'd like to thank those real-life heroes--the police officers, detectives, and special agents--who stand between us and the monsters. We don't say it enough, but we're glad you're out there, doing what you do.

Dream Weaver

By Mark W. Danielson

Dreams are Utopian in nature. Here, everyone plays on a level field. The blind see, the physically challenged run, dogs catch their mailman, and pigs fly. This is the surreal dimension that lies between our conscious and unconscious realms. It’s where the brain is free from our behavioral boundaries. A place of creativity. I cannot explain why people dream, or why so few of our dreams are remembered. All I know is they happen.

Psychologists love to analyze our dreams, giving their interpretation of reason to our every unreasonable thought. Others believe our dreams can predict future events. Still others believe that dreams provide a link between the living and the dead. Again, I am no authority, but from my experience, whenever I have the presence of mind to jot down a word or two about my dream, I will nearly always remember it in vivid detail. My simple note becomes a direct link to that thought, whatever it may be, and from it, I can write about it.

Gary Wright’s song “Dream Weaver” offers yet another perspective on dreams. The song begins, “I just closed my eyes again. Climbed aboard the dream weaver train. Driver take away my worries of today. And leave tomorrow behind . . .” This song’s take on dreams is escapism, and for some this may be the case, but I prefer looking at dreams as an opportunity to get in touch with my subconscious. Whenever I write, I allow these subconscious thoughts to flow through my keyboard, bringing my characters and events to life. It’s an amazing process, if you think about it. But thinking can stifle that connection, so I simply let loose and see what happens. The result is piles of connected words and thoughts that ultimately become a story.

The joy in writing is allowing my brain the freedom to roam. I never worry about first drafts because I don’t want to deprive my characters of anything. In my current murder mystery, I was three quarters of the way through my first draft before I discovered who the assailant was. Suspense translates better that way. After all, if I’m not surprised, the reader won’t be either.

Last week, I wrote about sleep deprivation and Beth Terrell wrote about dreams. To me, “In your dreams” is more of an opportunity than a phrase. I find I dream more when I’m away than when I’m at home. I am probably a light sleeper because my mind never shuts down, but when it does and offers me some interesting clips, I watch, listen, and allow myself to be inspired.
The above photo is of a Vision Seeker’s Dream Catcher from Peaceful Path’s Native American Crafts. In Native American legend, bad dreams become entangled within the web-like patterns of the loop and perish at the first light of dawn, whereas good dreams and thoughts pass through to the sleeper below. Perhaps I would sleep better if I packed one of these in my suitcase . . .

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Close Encounter with the Wrong Kind

By Chester Campbell

Ben’s post about his home invasion got me thinking about my only close encounter with the wrong kind. It took place at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC back in the 1980s.

I was executive vice president of the Tennessee Association of Life Underwriters, a trade association made up of life and health insurance agents, general agents and managers. Our national association was having its annual convention at the Shoreham, which is adjacent to Rock Creek Park near the Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street intersection.

One of my tasks, along with a volunteer leader, was to look after the “Tennessee Suite,” which had a large reception area that was a gathering place for Tennessee delegates, wives, and others. I always arrived a few days early to attend an association executives conference and get the suite set up. My room, which I shared with the volunteer in charge, was just down the hallway.

It was on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in late September. Most of the delegates would arrive the following day, but I had opened the suite for a few early birds. My roommate would not get in until later in the afternoon, when we would go out to buy snacks and booze for our bar.

One of the early arrivals paid me for something he owed with three twenties. I stuck them in my pocket and headed back to my room to pick up some literature for the suite. I unlocked the door and walked in but didn’t close it since I would only be a minute.

Hearing the door close behind me, I looked around. A black man, his face covered with a handkerchief, stood there with a shiny revolver aimed at me. He wore a white jacket like a room service employee.

“Turn around,” he ordered.

I did.

“Empty your wallet on the bed.”

I dropped my bankroll of $23 as instructed.

“Take off your shoes. Hand me your belt and put your hands behind you.”

He tied my hands with the belt and ordered me to lie on my stomach on the floor. All the while I’m remembering those stories I’d read about robbers getting upset with their take and shooting their victims. But I wasn’t about to argue with that shiny pistol, probably a .38.

“You have any money in your pockets?” he asked.

Having quickly forgotten what I’d been doing, I said, “No.”

His answer was to reach in my pocket and pull out the three twenties. Then he said, “Stay where you are for five minutes, or I’ll shoot you.”

When I was sure he had left, I freed my hands and called the front desk to report what had happened. Then I went up the hallway and told my story to a group of wide-eyed life underwriters. Soon the hotel called to tell everyone to stay in their rooms until they were cleared.

Within minutes, a police helicopter appeared overhead and police cars swarmed about the hotel. Shortly afterward, a whole troop of motorized cops crowded the street in front. SWAT officers in paramilitary outfits combed the corridors, knocking on doors, checking out the rooms.

Later in the afternoon, after my roommate had arrived, two D.C. detectives came up to question me, and we learned the reason for all the commotion. The robber had entered the room of a delegate and his family two floors above me just before he caught me. Our calls to the front desk came at nearly the same time, and they assumed there were multiple robbers hitting the hotel.

The motorized cops had been attending some sort of celebration a few blocks away and were diverted to the scene.

The robber got away, of course. Neither victim could identify him because of the handkerchief. The lead detective said he had a pretty good idea who it was, but they wouldn’t likely be able to do anything about it.

The hotel sent me an apology and the money I’d lost. The lesson I took away was always close the door when you enter a hotel room. Fortunately, I've had no more encounters of that kind. But I still remember the lesson.

Monday, October 20, 2008


by Ben Small

It was the last days of winter, 1997, and I was sprawled out on the couch, just a month away from the back surgery that would once again make me whole. Deadened by heavy doses of Vicodin and Naproxin, I could walk, but just barely. My pain was constant, like that from a knife wedged in my lower lumbar vertebrae slowly twisting, sending off currents of agony down my legs. Sleep came in spurts and in strange positions, usually curled around or on top of pillows, with my legs flopped over or around one of those large sitting pillows with arms.

At my feet sat my wife, watching me carefully, hurting from watching me suffer, helping by comforting me and periodically refreshing my ice pack.

We were watching a movie… or trying to.

My twenty—one year old son walked in with a date trailing behind him. Three large young men followed them in. I turned from the movie and waved.

“Dad,” my son said. “I think we have a problem.” My son was still walking, and was beginning to look like he and his date were being chased.

Somehow, I twisted around and sat up. You forget pain when you have to. My wife scooted over to give me room, and so she could see what was happening.

“Dad,” my son said, his tone more urgent. “We got a problem.”

The lead man, a youth in his early twenties, huge, probably my size but bigger ala a steroidal Charles Atlas, stayed hot on my son’s trail. My son was hurrying into the living room, trying to shield his date from the onrushing Bluto.

I saw fear in my son’s face, something I’d not seen before. I started to rise.

“Sit down, old man,” said the brute. His tone was deep, threatening. And for effect, he stopped and gave me a hard stare. Meanwhile, his two buddies closed the gap behind him.

Instinct, anger and the need to protect my wife and firstborn drove me up, through the fog of pain, fully to my feet. Adrenalin pumped through my system, flushing me with attitude and action.

Time moves in slow motion during an adrenalin flush. Alternatives flashed through my head. Our only conventional weapons were some knives in the kitchen, more in a bedroom drawer, my father’s unloaded snub-nose .38 under the bedroom laundry basket, and an unloaded shotgun in the mudroom closet. I could fashion a make-shift weapon, perhaps, from maybe a piece of steel artwork or a busted up chair, but I’d never be able to overcome all three of these guys. The two companions of the lead brute didn’t have his size ― few people do ― but they looked as if they may have played high school football some years ago.

All three goons were drunk. They were shouting slurred curses and threats against my son and me, and their movements were wobbly.

I got between my son and Bluto where the living room met the kitchen, and as I moved forward, Bluto had a choice: stand still and take me on when I got too close, or move backwards into the kitchen. I closed to where I could smell the stale beer on Bluto’s breath before he budged.

But he moved backward.

I followed Bluto and his buddies into the kitchen, and motioned my wife to take care of my son’s date and to grab our two monstrous dogs. Two hundred pound Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, the hardiest and strongest of the Retriever family. Strangely, the dogs hadn’t sensed a threat. But I worried they soon would. Snarling, barking monster dogs wouldn’t ease raw tensions.

As my wife rushed to corral the date and the dogs, I whispered to my son to stay behind me, and when he saw an opportunity, to grab the phone and dial 911. As my son tucked behind me, I pushed forward, driving Bluto and his buddies back, issuing a steady stream of threats as I moved. “You know I’m a lawyer, don’t you?” I said. “I know criminal law, a lot better than you idiots do. Lemme see, you’re currently guilty of trespass, assault and home invasion, misdemeanors, which means you may not go to jail for much beyond six months. But you or your buddies touch one hair on my head or anybody else in this house, and battery is added to the offenses, they all become felonies, and you will spend ten to twenty years in jail being raped by your cellmates.”

One of Bluto’s buddies grabbed him by the shoulder, but Bluto shrugged him off. He took a swing at my son, who’d picked up the phone and was dialing, but I managed to shove him and throw off his aim. He caught air. Once more, I moved between Bluto and my son.

I repeated my message over and over, adding to it that the police had just been notified and were now on their way. “Time’s running out,” I said. “Get on it, or get out. But remember, you touch one hair, and it’s felonies all round. Most of your lives in jail.”

I stepped forward, my movement something of a dare. I wanted them on defense.

“Hey, man,” one of Bluto’s pals said. “Come on, we didn’t bargain for this. Let’s go back to her place. C’mon, this isn’t worth it. She’s hot; we’ll have more fun there.

I didn’t know who “her” was and didn’t particularly care, except that any diversion was certainly welcome.

“Yeah, tough guy,” I said. “The cops will be here any second. Maybe you better go back and tell your girlfriend how tough you were to break into a stranger’s house and threaten him, his wife and his son.”

Bluto was still talking tough, pointing his finger at my son, threatening him, pointing at me, threatening, starting forward like to charge, then stepping back. But his progress was backward, a retreat into the mudroom and then the garage.

I followed them, repeating the trouble they were in, their need to get away quickly.

And my son followed me, ignoring my hand signals to get back, to shut the mud room door and lock it. He wasn’t going to leave me alone with three drunken brutes.

As I passed the mud room closet, I reached inside and pulled my shotgun. Empty, but our invaders didn’t know that. And besides, even without shells, the Browning made a good club.

The invaders’ eyes went wide, and Bluto’s two buddies tugged harder on him, one of them grabbing him by the belt, one by the shoulders.

They passed into the garage, and that’s when I saw someone I knew: my son’s former girlfriend. They’d broken up two weeks prior. Sally looked a bit worse for wear, rumpled, like from a rollicking sexual marathon, drunk, so bombed she could barely stand. And she was bawling.

“Sally,” I said. “What have you done?”

She was so upset she couldn’t talk.

Bluto had been trying to climb into the front seat of Sally’s car, but when he saw me talking to her, he charged out and ran at me. CIack, clack, I racked the shotgun’s slide, and pointed the gun at him. Bluto tried to slap the barrel away, and as he did, I swung the butt around and drove it toward his head.

Both of us missed.

Bluto’s two buddies managed to grab him and pull him back to the car. He resisted, but they succeeded in pushing him into the back seat. My son handed me a couple twelve gauge shells, but I slipped them into my pocket rather than up the tube.

One of Bluto’s pals held up his hands. “Look,” he said, “we’re sorry. Sally got us drunk and promised us sex if we hurt your son. We’re leaving now, and we won’t be back. Just let us go.”

I lowered the shotgun, and Sally, still bawling, managed to slip behind the wheel. Her engine roared, and her tires spun. She fish-tailed as she turned the corner. I heard the car rocket down the street.

About an hour later, a sheriff’s deputy showed up. They’d caught the invaders and arrested them. He wanted statements from all of us.

As he readied himself to leave, the deputy turned to me. “Oh, one more thing...”

“Yes, officer,” I said.

“The kids said you pulled a shotgun on them, racked the slide and pointed it at them. They remember that shotgun very well.”

“Yes. It wasn’t loaded, but they didn’t know that.”

The deputy stared at me.

“Officer, what would you do if three guys that size invaded your house and said they wanted to hurt your family?”

“I’d have loaded the shotgun,” he said.

Years have gone by since that incident, but it still looms large in my memory. An event like a home invasion is a shock to the system, an unsettling cause for great reflection. There’s the vulnerability, the parental and spousal protection instincts, the male ego… Over the years, I’ve broken down this event second by second, wondering if there was anything else I should have done, or could have done. This time, everybody survived, and the matter ended well. Nobody was hurt, and the bad guys were caught.

But what about next time?

We no longer leave our doors open. We once felt safe in the wilderness boonies of rural Wisconsin, yet we were victims, at the mercy of three drunk guys with an agenda. Now we live in Tucson, with an illegals problem so bad, our city is among the leaders in home invasions.

I vowed that Wisconsin night that we would never again suffer a home invasion. And we haven’t. We hear about them on the news every night, and they’re on the increase, but we’re better prepared now. We now have complex security systems, and I’ve got small finger-pad gun safes in the rooms we usually occupy. I read recently in a police magazine that a victim of a typical home invasion has approximately eight to twenty seconds to react. I can open my safes in three seconds. The magazine also said that if the victims aren’t immediately killed, they’re often stashed in the master bedroom closet. So I’ve got a shotgun hidden there, and shells nearby. There are no kids in my house, so I don’t worry about them finding the shotgun. Besides, when children do visit, the shotgun goes into the master safe, the one bolted to the floor in my garage.

Call me paranoid if you want, but my wife and I have lived through a home invasion.

We refuse to be anybody’s victim.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Back To The Future

Yukon, Oklahoma is an old mill town. Flour hasn’t been made there in years, but the mill whistle still blows at noon every Saturday. Even after three years, I still jump when I hear it. Sounds like a tornado warning.

At a small shopping plaza in the shadow of the old mill, there’s a new café called Miller’s Grill. My sister and I ate lunch there today. It’s a time warp, back to the Fifties.

Miller’s special “small” hamburger is a meal for $2.65. A half-order of fries comes piled in what looks like a bushel basket when the waitress sets it on the table. Coffee is 60 cents a cup, if you order it with your meal, and they grind their own coffee beans. Today the waitress joked that Juan Valdez is in charge of the brew. How many people remember Juan Valdez?

And pie. Oh, my. Coconut pie with real meringue. Home. Made. All that, and Little Richard singing “Tutti Fruitti” on the sound system.

I keep reading that Oklahoma is more or less recession proof. I figure that’s because the natives are naturally careful with money. Memories run deep here. Many stories of The Great Depression and World War II were featured during the recent Centennial year, 2007.

But there are more recent memories of an Okahoma crash, in the late1970s. Farmers who had bought marvelous machines and expanded operations as if there were no more tomorrow, suddenly found banks calling in loans. The bottom literally fell out.

I was living in California at the time, so I don’t know how it happened. California was riding high, with property values shooting up, with interest rates on CDs and savings accounts reaching for the stars.

Back in Oklahoma, my sister recalled today, her husband said that he would be better off if his cattle just laid down and died. Her husband was a cattleman in the old mold. There was nothing he didn’t know about cows, and he was able to survive the ‘70s disaster, even prosper, by putting that knowledge to work.

They left their farm in western Oklahoma and moved to Oklahoma City, where he started a new business as a cattle broker for a vast network of friends. He did well enough to put their three boys through college, and help them get set up in business, jobs, professions, whatever they chose to do.

One of them stayed in agriculture in western Oklahoma, and makes the weekly cattle sale at the stockyards in Oklahoma City. One is a veterinarian. One works for a building supply company. They are typical Oklahomans – family-centered, hard-working, caring. There is always room for one more at their tables.

In that respect, Oklahoma never left the Fifties. Oklahoma, gotta love it. Recession-proof? I hope so.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sweet Dreams

By Beth Terrell

When I was a little girl, a family friend once told me, "If you tell your dreams before breakfast, the three bears will come down from the hills and eat you." This was enough to make me hold my tongue until after the table was cleared, but not enough to keep me from sharing my dreams.

I've been told that no one likes to hear other people's dreams. Apparently, I'm an exception to the rule. Dreams fascinate me--my dreams, your dreams, everybody's dreams. Listening to someone else's dream is like a glimpse into another person's mind.

They say everyone dreams, though not everyone remembers. I've also heard that you can increase the chances of remembering your dreams by keeping a journal by the bed and writing down everything you remember about your dream the moment you wake up. The more frequently you do this, the easier it becomes to remember your dreams.

Betty Webb, author of Desert Cut and Desert Wives, dreamed Lena Jones, the protagonist of her Arizona-based mystery series. I've heard of other writers who dreamed the plots of their novels. I don't remember all my dreams, and some of the ones I do remember aren't interesting enough to share. But every now and again, I have a dream that seems like a gift, a dream that has a plot and characters, a dream that makes me open my eyes and think, "Thank you, God."

I usually dream in close third person, and while there is a protagonist with whom I identify and whose emotions I share, it is more like watching a movie than anything else. Friends who don't write are often baffled by this. An artist friend dreams in pictures, all light and form and color. This makes me wonder if writers dream differently from accountants or architects or attorneys or visual artists, not only in content but in structure.

Because of this fascination with dreams, I put a dream journal on my website: I've been thinking of doing a Dream Project, in which people email me their dreams, genders, hobbies, and occupations, and we compare and contrast the types of dreams different people have.

Dreams can reveal character in our stories as well, but they must be used with caution. The action-packed beginning scene that turns out to be a dream is not only a cliche, but a sure way to make the reader feel cheated. Long, detailed dream sequences are more likely to interrupt the action and feel self-indulgent than to rivet the reader to the page. On the other hand, a few lines or a paragraph about a troubling dream can illustrate a character's inner turmoil: Even in sleep, Elise couldn't escape her ex-husband. He chased her through her dreams, his belly distended with other women's rotting flesh, so close behind her that his grasping fingers brushed the back of her shirt. She woke up gasping, voiceless, tangled in the bedclothes, the sour smell of fear and sweat rising from the sheets.

Okay, that's not great writing, but doesn't it show how much Elise fears her ex-husband? Much more than this, though, and we risk losing the reader. Not every story needs a dream, and even those that do rarely benefit from excessive detail. Dreams in fiction are like fine spices, which can enhance a good meal--or ruin it.

Sweet dreams!

A Day In The Life

By Mark W. Danielson

People often ask me what it’s like being an international airline pilot. In a nut shell, it’s like being a celebrity. Kids ask for my autograph, women clamor over me, strangers flock to have their picture taken with me . . . Well, maybe that was true for a Pan Am captain during the Golden Age of Aviation, but it doesn’t happen now. Fifty years ago, First Class was exactly that. Passengers dressed up, and no kids were allowed. Attractive stewardesses greeted you, waiting on you as though in a fine restaurant, and pilots flew their airplanes from the cockpit. So much has changed since then.

Nowadays, the cockpit is the flight deck, stewardesses are known as flight attendants and pursers, and pilots are captains and first officers. Sadly, First Class turned into Romper Room, and respect seems to be a thing of the past. So, no—kids don’t ask for my autograph, women don’t fight over me, and I’m the one offering to take pictures so that couples can be photographed together.

I wrote this from Frankfurt after four hours of sleep. I was gone a week and never slept longer than five hours at a time during my entire trip around the world. When I landed in Memphis just before midnight, I had traveled twenty-four time zones in eight days, and then spent the rest of the night jump-seating home to Denver.

Our MD-11s are equipped with the finest navigation systems available. Our “electronic flight bags” display instrument approaches and route maps for any airport in our global data base. FedEx is also installing infra-red heads-up displays so that I can see through the dark and weather, and lower our already near-zero visibility landing requirements to better deliver “The World On Time.” We are well catered in flight, and when we land, our transportation is ready to whisk us off to our world class hotel. To the layman, we seem spoiled.

Flights over eight hours require an extra pilot. Add one more when it exceeds twelve. This allows us to rotate sleep periods because for some reason, the FAA determined it was wise if we are awake for the landing and taxi in. (I’m pretty sure that happens most of the time, but sometimes I’m too dazed to remember.) To accommodate our sleep, we have the finest rest facilities available—a floor mat. (See photo.) Okay, a few airplanes do have a retractable bunk bed that resembles a giant Tylenol capsule when extended, but those are normally reserved for the double-crewed airplanes.

Since we sleep on the floor, we change into grubby clothes once we are leveled off. This is acceptable because our wrinkled, drooled on uniforms wouldn’t enhance our image at the hotel. Of course, sleeping on the floor does offer its perks. The leaks around the door provide plenty of fresh air; so much so that it wouldn’t matter if someone shot a hole in our airplane. So, after plugging the leak with an airline blanket, which more closely resembles an oversized bib, I build my nest with as many blankets as I can find, don my sleep mask, and start counting backwards from one hundred hoping to fall asleep. But getting a turbulence massage is only half the fun. When my time is up, I switch places with another pilot and spend the next twenty minutes waking up, trying to determine where I am and what I’m doing. By that time, I’m sleepy again.

Sometimes washing my face helps, except our airplane’s water level has been minimized to save weight (AKA fuel), so I get splattered when I press the faucet lever. But the fun really starts when I’m flying an animal charter. You see, FedEx flies anything and everything, and animal charters generate big bucks. Unfortunately for the crew, these horses and cattle also generate big smells. In fact, it is so bad that we have to wrap our suitcases in plastic bags before the flight or their stench will permeate its contents. Afterwards, we get a fantastic greeting at the hotel. So much so that other customers step aside just to give us priority service. Heck, we even get our own private elevators! Ah yes—home on the range never smelled so good.

On rare occasions, things don’t always go smoothly. Recently, I stayed at an international hotel where a notice was slid under my door stating that I had overstayed my visit, and they need me out of my room in two hours. Their note said they would be “happy to assist me with storing my belongings.” Never mind that my airplane wouldn’t arrive for another forty hours. Hmmm, do I call the company, or should I stay at the embassy suites—as in U.S. Embassy? Oh, the decisions to be made when I’m bleary eyed. The language issues only complicate matters.

Controlling my hotel room’s temperature is only part of my sleep problem. Actually, temperature control implies that I have the means of doing so, but that isn’t always the case. Opening my door provides cooler air, but then the noise keeps me awake, even with earplugs and my head buried in pillows. Closing the door dampens the noise, but then it’s too hot, so instead of sleeping, I end up reliving Goldilocks episodes, struggling to find an acceptable balance. When my layover is up, I will spend three or more hours getting to the airport, through security, reviewing the weather, loading my flight plan, and finally getting airborne so that I can fly for seven hours.

I know; it’s a hard life. Blah, blah, whine, whine—would I like some cheese with that? But seriously, I love my job. There is no better profession, especially for a writer. What other job gives me so much undistracted free time? And on those rare occasions when I have an extended layover in a great location like Paris, Frankfurt, Sydney, or Honolulu, it almost becomes a paid vacation. Did I say I loved my job? I can't imagine doing anything else. Oh, and those kids who want my autograph? Well, that still only happens in my dreams.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How To Get Buzz

By Chester Campbell

My younger son, Mark, is creative and innovative. Don’t know where he gets it. When he was a teenager, he saw a picture of a small rowboat in a magazine and promptly went about building one just like it. A natural outdoor type, he took his boat to the lake on fishing trips.

After getting a commission from ROTC in college, he followed this penchant for the rugged life by volunteering for Army Special Forces. He took parachute training, Ranger training, and all the good stuff the SF folks taught at Fort Bragg. Sent to Okinawa, he led an A Team that trained Special Forces in Thailand.

He tells some wild tales of things he ate while living off the land during training. And in Thailand he chomped on some creatures you wouldn’t think about having for dinner.

After thirteen years in the Army, he settled back in the Nashville area with his Korean wife and two boys. My daughter-in-law, I Pun, is ambitious and entrepreneurial. Over a period of several years, they ran a dry-cleaning business, an Asian food store, a karaoke lounge, a convenience market, and a Korean restaurant.

Also during that time, Mark bought 80 acres of hillside property in a rural county fifty miles east of Nashville. With a little help from his sons, and working at odd times, mostly weekends, he built a cabin near the top of his hill (which we call Campbell Mountain). It has no electricity or running water, but he enjoys staying there when he can. He has planted fruit trees and a vegetable garden at the foot of the hill.

All of the above is prologue to his newest venture. Within the next week, he will open a new business on Myatt Drive in Madison, the Nashville suburb where I live. Are you ready for this? It will be:

The Flat Possum Roadkill Café

We visited the place yesterday (I had to teach him how to make coffee). Besides sandwiches and coffee and tea and other such light fare, it will feature tobacco, beer, and lotto. He’s having a ball with it. The Health Department inspectors said it was the talk of the office when they got back.

Mark’s reasoning is that if you’re a new small business with no advertising budget, you have to create some buzz. He figures The Flat Possum Roadkill Café should get it.

It’s the same with mystery books. Buzz is the word. My Greg McKenzie mysteries will be available at the café. I might even put stickers on them “Bought at The Roadkill Café.”

Remember the old Broadway saying, “Will it play in Peoria?” Here’s a photo from the Peoria newspaper that Mark is thinking about displaying at the café (the poor possum earned his stripes but he isn’t playing any longer):

Monday, October 13, 2008

Full Frontal Freddy

by Ben Small

My best friend’s named Al. Formal version is Alfred, but after “Fred”, “Freddy”, and “Alfie”, we mostly settled on Al.

Mostly. And no, you don’t know Al.

I’ve known Al since our sophomore year in high school. Lotta tracks in the trail between Al and me over the years. Al even met his wife at my house, after I’d roped some buddies into coming to my sister’s sixteenth birthday dance party.

My dad’s idea.

Man, I called in every favor I had. I bargained, threatened, begged, and even bribed a guy. Me, desperation's seed. See, I knew my dad's meaning: no guys, no double date-night weekends.

My social schedule was at risk.

But I got 'em there, enough for all my sister's dorky friends. One big happy night, me and my buddies dancin' with girls with braces.


And Al fell in love. Yeah, one of my sister's friends.

Imagine my shame.

Al? The guy's been down for the count ever since.

The things Al and I know about each other, the jokes we’ve played, the fun we’ve had together and at each other’s expense, well, the memories floweth over. Neither Al or his poor, long suffering wife will be pleased that I'm telling our stories, but so what? Not the first time I’ve busted his chops.

Besides, Al can tell his own stories. Mean as you may think I am to have put such clever tortures upon Al, rest assured each one was payback for something worse that he'd done to me.

Perhaps, the best-and-longest running gotcha started at my lake place years ago. Al and his family were staying the weekend. Two women, two men, four male children aged between seven and twelve. Three days of boys, boats, booze, and blather.

One of those weekends you recover from on Wednesday.

Late Saturday night, after wives and children had tucked themselves in, and with the spa was still running, Al and I put down our fishing poles, grabbed some brandy and snuck out to the spa. Our swimsuits were chilly, still wet from a long day in the water, so we didn’t wear them.

We sat out in the lakeside spa until probably three. Lots of world problems solved.

When we’d suitably withered…and run out of booze, we staggered inside, Al leading the way. His oldest boy called out to him, and Al turned.

A camera’s flash, the telltale shutter clicks.

Full Frontal Freddy.

Laughter among the boys.

Now, this was in the day before digital cameras, so Al’s camera had film. And when Al’s family left come Sunday evening, their camera stayed behind.

No, I did not steal it. I borrowed its film.

Now, Al’s family had just returned from Europe, and I knew they wanted their missing pictures. So before I returned their camera, I planted a new film pack, and clicked off some blank exposures. They’d think their camera had mis-fired. The real film went to a camera store. I asked for a double set of prints, the negatives, and an 8 X 10 blow up.

You can see where this is going.

When the pictures printed, I dressed myself up. Long black London Fog overcoat ― this was a hot Midwestern summer, mind you ― a long brim dark leather hat, black gloves and black boots. I was masked. My wife’s red bandanna belt worked well, and when I walked, its trail flowed behind me.

I looked cool in the mirror. An urban Zorro. Yeah, Zorro with a flair.

I strolled over to Al’s house, three two-story middle class homes between us. My fingers clutched an envelope. Inside, Full Frontal Freddy, normal print size, and a pasted-letter note.

The note said: “$1 or public humiliation.” It was signed. “Red Zorro.”

Al and his oldest boy were working outside in the yard. They saw me approach and put down their tools. Al was to my far left, his son back further toward the planted berm marking their property line. They stood watching me.

I pulled down the mailbox lid and inserted my note.

Al picked up his shovel and waved it in the air. “Hey!”

Already running, I headed to the right, toward the rear of the first house between my place and Al’s. My arms were pumping, and I was doing that silly knee-high run that girls and Richard Simmons do. Oh yeah, and I cackled, too.

I had a big lead; I could be as silly as I wanted to be.

About that time, the neighbor on Al’s left pulled in, saw Al and his son in chase of a hooligan wearing a flowing London Fog and red bandanna. The newcomer jumped out of his Beamer and joined the chase.

I made it home, and ran upstairs. My breaths were coming in heaving waves. I heard my wife say, “I’ll get it,” when the doorbell rang.

She took her time ― a good thing; I was really out of breath. She bought me so much time, I managed to compose myself before I was called downstairs. Yeah, I was still sweating, but sweat’s normal for a Midwest summer day.

I played dummy. (Yeah, it comes natural. So what?) What? Who? When? I didn’t know anything.

Later, in the early twilight, Al’s son, wearing one of Al’s hoodies, dark sweatpants, and dark gloves, placed an envelope in my mailbox.

Inside was a crisp dollar bill.

I donned my gear and walked once more over to Al’s mailbox. No one yelled at me this time, as I inserted a dot-matrix-printed blackmail note into the dark metal hole. On the note, I’d typed something like, “Two dollars, now.”

Three days later, USPS dropped a stamped envelope in my mailbox. Made out to “Occupant”, it listed my address. Inside was a type written note: “Red Zorro, I have great dignity and honor. Do your worst.” It was unsigned.

A dare. Al was asking for it.


Several years passed. One of our secretaries got some mail delivered to her office address. Lots of us did that in those days. Easier to pay bills. Anyway, included in her mail was a magazine subscription for Playgirl. There was a letter in the package. On Playgirl stationary.

Too good to pass up.

I called Roger, a New York friend. Playgirl had a NYC address. For maximum impact, I needed someone there. Roger knew Al, too. I told him my plans. He was happy to help.

I copied the stationary, so I had a blank letterhead to play with. Black and white, yeah, but Al wouldn’t know Playgirl’s colors. I mailed the second regular size photograph, along with a business letter from a fictional Playgirl art department vice president to Roger, with instructions to mail the stamped, addressed envelope I enclosed.

A few days later, Al came into my office. He bent over laughing, red in the face. He handed me the package I’d sent him through Roger, and he clapped me on the back. “Good one,” he said. He burst out laughing again.

I showed serious curiosity. Knotted brows, a tight mouth. I’m a lawyer, after all. Gotta look lawyerly.

I picked up my reading glasses and made a production of looking first at the letter and then at the picture. I frowned. “Al,” I said, “you should be ashamed of yourself. Playgirl Magazine? What were you thinking?”

I dug my fingers into my palm to keep a straight face, and I read the letter out loud, as my secretary and a few other in-the-know departmental folks listened in my doorway. “Dear [Al], Thanks for your photo submission. We regret to inform you that our centerfold team has determined the only part of your withered body our readership might find interesting would be covered by the staple. We are therefore returning your photo. Signed, Hope B. Dash, Vice President, Art Department.”

Al’s face colored like a steroidal beet. I handed him back his package and said to the room. “Maybe Al should try surgery.”

I’ve never admitted that the Playgirl mailing was a put up job, but Al knows the truth. I gave him the Europe pictures and negatives his family thought they’d lost. Told him I’d found them at our house, that he must have left them there sometime. Yes, he asks me once in a while if I really sent the picture to Playgirl, and I play along, denying all knowledge. But Al’s also swearing he’ll get even some day, so I think he knows.

Every once in a while, Al’s wife will look at me and say, “You sent that Playgirl letter, didn’t you?”

I just look away.

And, yeah, I still have the 8 X 10…

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Stalking The Wild DNA

By Pat Browning

Polishing FULL CIRCLE for its debut as a “new” book with a new publisher, I’ve been going through the original, page by page, deleting some signature tags and making other small adjustments. A reexamination of my DNA research brought everything else to a halt this week.

When I was writing the original book, I came across a 1996 article at, headlined “DNA Attache is the Beginning of a Revolution.” The article described a DNA Analysis Kit developed by the Army for battlefield forensic tests. It was the size of a briefcase, cost $80,000, and, among other things, could detect Hepatitis C or HIV in about 20 minutes.

I was so intrigued by the idea that I wrote it into my book. Unfortunately, I overlooked one small item. Part of the kit was a hand-held DNA copier that performed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) “from traces of blood or other cells.”

I blithely applied it to bones that had been buried for almost 40 years. Fortunately, solving the mystery didn’t depend on DNA, so the average reader wouldn’t have noticed my mistake. Now, seven years later, I get a chance to correct it.

Right off the bat I learned two things: (1) There’s more than one kind of DNA; and (2) Forensics DNA is a subject best left to experts.

Paternity and ancestry DNA tests are fairly simple and quick. They can be done at home, and turned over to a private commercial laboratory for testing. One such lab, with 1800 specimen collection sites scattered throughout the U.S., posts its rates on the Internet -- starting with $99 for a paternity test, results promised in 3 to 5 days., with a cheek-swab kit, offers access to your personal interactive world map showing possible genetic cousins and your probable familial connection to them. You also get your ancient ancestral migration map, and ancestral Haplogroup names. If you want to get a headache, look up “Haplogroup” and try to figure out what it means.

One of the best web sites from a layman’s viewpoint is run by a Vietnam vet named Col. Joe Schlatter, U.S. Army, Retired, who was involved with POWs-MIAs during two assignments from 1986 to 1990.

In a section of his web site titled “The Identification Process,” he notes that from a skeleton, a forensic specialist can determine race, sex, age, height, musculature, and previous injury. He explains each of those procedures in detail and plain English.

Here’s an excerpt from his section on DNA:

Complicating matters are the fact that there are two types of DNA: nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Nuclear DNA is in the nucleus of the cell and it decays as the flesh decays. MtDNA is in the mitochondria, or the wall, of the cell. It survives for a long time and can be recovered from bones.

And here is an important point: mtDNA is transmitted through the maternal line. Thus. your mtDNA will match that of your mother and grandmother but not of your father … MtDNA testing is destructive. You have to cut off a small piece of the bone and treat it with chemicals, basically dissolving it in the process.”
(End quote)

Col. Schlatter includes a chart showing how mtDNA is passed through the maternal side of a family. The web site is at

For writers of crime fiction, a more complete explanation of forensic DNA can be found at the web page for the Human Genome Project at:

The site is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, and it’s heavy stuff. There are side discussions of some interesting uses of DNA forensic identification, ranging from identifying September 11th victims, to the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, to the Romanovs of Russia.

And lest we forget: the NFL used DNA technology to tag all the Super Bowl XXXIV balls, to prevent sports memorabilia fraud. Quoting from the web site: “The footballs were marked with an invisible, yet permanent, strand of synthetic DNA. The DNA strand is unique and is verifiable any time in the future using a specially calibrated laser.”

This week’s research is a good example of a writer knowing more than he or she can put into a mystery scene. In my “new” book it will be reduced to a few lines of dialogue. I’ll know the difference, though, which makes the delay worthwhile.

And the beat goes on.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Follow the Love

By Beth Terrell

Once, in a book about acting, I read that, when performing a scene, you have to find the love.

Let's say Bob and Melanie are fighting. If they're fighting just because they hate each other, it isn't especially interesting. There's not much depth or complexity in that. But if they're fighting because he loves her but he's afraid she's in love with another man, and she does love the other man but she also loves Bob, there are all kinds of levels to work with. If John murders Sarah because he hates her, it's flat. And by extension, he seems flat. But if John murders Sarah because he loves Stephanie, and Sarah caused the accident that left Stephanie in a vegetative state...See? Layers. John becomes more complex, more interesting, more believable.

Follow the love.

This advice is useful for writers as well. Thomas Harris's earlier works, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs make good use of this premise. In Red Dragon, Francis Dolarhyde is a monster, but he is driven by a yearning for love. Silence of the Lambs is made more chilling (and gripping) by the sense that Hannibal Lecter, in his horrible way, loves Clarice Starling. When he tells her, "The world is a more interesting place with you in it," it sends a shiver through the reader. What could be more terrifying than Lecter's love?

Would Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum series be as popular without the Stephanie/Morelli/Ranger love triangle? I doubt it. I suspect Stephanie's zany antics as a singularly unconventional bounty hunter would wear thin if not for her loving relationships with Morelli, Ranger, her parents, Grandma Mazur, Lula, and even Rex the Hamster. Readers want to know which man Stephanie will choose, what outlandish outfit Lula will wear, what manner of mischief Grandma Mazur will get herself into. We care because Stephanie cares.

Jonathan Kellerman writes a mystery/suspense series about psychologist and police consultant Alex Delaware. Throughout the series, Alex has a deep friendship with a gay detective named Milo and an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman named Robin. These relationships are what bring me back to this series again and again. When Milo, pale and out of shape, puffs up a hill behind Alex in pursuit of a villain, I worry for him. I think, Oh no! Is Milo going to have a heart attack? Whym, oh why did he eat that double cheeseburger?! I know what it would mean to Alex to lose his good friend, and because I know this, every time I read one of Kellerman's books, the stakes are high. It's not the plots that keep me turning the pages book after book (though the plots are intriguing). It's the love.

Writers and critics often complain about Nicholas Sparks. He isn't even a good writer, some say. His writing is simplistic, his plots are dull, and his characters lack depth. Yet, his books strike a chord with readers, who flock to the bookstores to buy his latest works. Hollywood makes poignant movies based on his novels. People openly weep at his endings. They know they are being blatantly manipulated by the author, but they cry anyway. And they can hardly wait for the next book. Why? Could it be because Sparks has a gift for finding and following the love?

It is only when we love that we have anything to lose, and only when a character has something to lose that readers begin to care.

Nicholas Sparks knows that. Readers know it too.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

By Mark W. Danielson

Few places I travel to have greater contrasts than Shanghai and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty rates high in natural resources, and yet looks much the same as it did when it was part of the Soviet empire, whereas Shanghai has reinvented itself to become one of the world’s premier cities in the last two decades. The contrast between the two cities is as steep as the mountains that rise above Almaty. So, why are they so different?

I believe the answer lies within the people as much as the infrastructure. China welcomes foreigners, and is eager to show off its cities. The people of Shanghai smile and take photos of each other. They wear colorful clothing, fuss over their children, pack shopping malls, and publicly display their affection. Their hotels are world class, and their employees seem genuinely enthusiastic to serve. The city is a plethora of brilliant colors; on buildings, signs, parks, and temples. There is clean public transportation, fine restaurants, and neatly trimmed parks. Music plays from street speakers. Flowers are common. It’s always a pleasure taking walks here. I can go anywhere in Shanghai, day or night, and not feel threatened. Oddly, in spite of Almaty’s mixed Anglo/Mongol population, I can blend easier in Shanghai.

With few exceptions, everyone in China has a job, and doing it well seems important to them. Sentries on airport ramps stand at attention, laborers hand-wash sidewalks and hang decorations; still others deliver goods on bicycles. And while there is diversity in Shanghai’s wealth, it is evident that poverty is limited, and that working brings a purpose to their lives. There is pride is everything they do. The Beijing Olympics is a grand example of this.

By comparison, Almaty appears to operate as if the Cold War never ended. The run-down buildings I saw six years ago are even worse now. While there is some new construction here, it is minimal by comparison. There is a cold feel to this place, and it’s echoed throughout its people. With the exception of those working within the service industries, most carry dour expressions. When I walk the streets, my smiles aren’t returned. Shopping malls are few; their customers scarce. There is constant noise from blaring horns, squealing brakes, and grinding engines. A thunderstorm cleansed the air so I saw Almaty’s mountains for the first time. Only five miles from my hotel, these majestic peaks rise over sixteen thousand feet. I enjoyed this view for over an hour until darkness swallowed them. Sadly, the smog returned a day later and they were no longer visible.

In spite of its external appearances, there is plenty of money in Almaty. Their amazing night clubs, stretch limos, beautiful women dressed in fur coats, and Mercedes dealerships, all vouch for that. On the way to my hotel, my van passed a convoy of white Mercedes that were following a stretched Hummer limousine. All of these vehicles were dolled up for a wedding that few can afford. The night clubs, which are reserved for the beautiful people, are protected by the mafia.

The faces of the people on city busses tell a different story from those driving cars. It isn’t desperation that I see, though. It’s more like apathy. Stone faces press against the windows while others stand in packed buses. But this isn’t to imply their lives are forsaken. These people are the laborers; the lower class, as in any city. As with Shanghai, I have never witnessed any poverty here, and everyone I see is well dressed. They’re just not colorful as in Shanghai.

Our security briefings highly discourage us from walking alone here, and when we do go out, we must supplement our passports with a “Get out of Jail Free” paper, which is written in Russian. Numerous airline crews have been shaken down by the local police who force them to pay fines for made-up violations. We are easy targets here, with little recourse. It’s easier to pay the fine than risk an international incident. Even so, I doubt this money is accounted for at the end of the day.

Like Shanghai, Almaty has some beautiful sights, but most require a cab ride to get there. Cabs are plentiful, but their prices vary significantly. Curiously, any civilian car can pick up passengers up for a fair. It’s risky, but plenty of people do it. It’s helpful if you speak Russian because not many people speak English.

The world is shrinking, yet Almaty still feels desolate. I spent more time writing there than in any other location. On this trip, I wrote over 170 pages in the 76 hours I was here, and I’m grateful I had that opportunity. Seeing Almaty’s beautiful mountains was the highlight of my most recent trip. Walking its streets with three other pilots was uneventful. Flying into Communist countries always provides interesting insights, and I am privileged to have a job where I can share this part of the world.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Editor - a Writer's Best Friend

By Chester Campbell

I just received the edited manuscript for my fifth novel, The Surest Poison. Some writers might think that’s an appropriate title for a bunch of pages with red marks scattered about. I view it as an opportunity to make the story more exciting and more compelling for readers.

I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated back in 2002 when I got the edit of my first published book from the editor. It looked like the Wreck of the Hesperus, figuratively speaking. Some whole pages crossed out. Three pages of notes referencing various points. It took two more revisions before I got the all clear.

But I learned a lot in the process, and the edit marks showed up less and less in the next three books.

I’ll have to confess I’m not the best of editors, except when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I honed my craft in that phase as a copy editor on a newspaper. That part of the process involves mostly superficial stuff. It’s the more subtle aspects of character motivation and relationships that sometimes pass me by. I don’t read with a critical eye. As long as the plot is plausible and the story is entertaining, I’m not disturbed by characters who get a bit quirky at times. If they get overboard ridiculous, that’s different.

Some readers are as critical as editors, however. They are turned off by characters whose actions don’t fit the picture of them that has been drawn in earlier scenes. So I’m headed back to the drawing board (or laptop) to make a few actions appear more in line with the dictates of logic.

One thing my editor appreciates is words and phrases that paint vivid pictures. I try to use them wherever possible, though I occasionally find I’ve gotten a bit too flamboyant and wind up applying the old delete key. It’s easy to fall in love with a beautiful phrase, but chances are it will end up sounding a little too cute. When that happens, it’s ax time.

Another of the editor’s jobs is to look at the big picture and decide if the story flows properly from beginning to end. Sometimes switching a couple of scenes can heighten the tension. Occasionally, a chapter might be switched to another location.

With my first book, I was a bit intimidated by the editorial process. I had to admit the editor was right on nearly everything he suggested, but I wasn’t sure what to do when I strongly disagreed. I talked to the publisher and was told, “It’s your book. Do what you have to.”

On those few points, I had my way, but overall the book was infinitely better for the editing it received. My friend Chris Roerden’s books, Don’t Murder Your Mystery and the updated Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, give lots of good advice on self-editing, which has helped improve my writing in many respects. But it takes the unbiased eyes of an outside editor to get the story ready for the printer.

Thank God or good editors.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Visitor Season

by Ben Small

Fall marks the start of Visitor Season in Arizona, that lovely time of year when one can actually stand outside during daylight hours without wearing an air conditioned NASA suit. Which means, of course, that anybody who can trace any sort of lineage to an Arizona resident comes to visit. The family tree doesn’t have to be straight; there can be missing or mangled branches, even shoots from other trees. Try tracking oak leaves to specific trees in a forest. Last year, a girl showed up claiming to be my daughter. So what she had a DNA report? Those things can be faked, can’t they? Even the FBI makes mistakes. But Benjamina didn’t stay long. The rubber-snake-in-the-bed trick soon sent her screaming.

Didn’t even leave a forwarding address.

Friends visit, too. I’ve had folks who said they’d last seen me when I hit ‘em with a dodgeball during kindergarten recess stay for a week. Once, a guy I’d sued showed up. Said he wanted clarification of the settlement agreement’s release language. He stayed a month.

But with the pool guy my wife murdered rotting next to my neighbor’s driveway, we have to be a bit careful when visitors come to the premises. We tell ‘em that the yard adjoining ours is full of scorpions ― you know, the man-eating ones. If they’re still curious, either my wife or I will follow, and we’ll be carrying a shovel. Shovelsaurus Rex. A big old spade, heavy, with sharpened edges. When my wife and I talk three-way, the only swinging we’re doing is with Rex. Clubbing, dicing or digging: Shovelsaurus Rex has no peer.

Usually we distract our visitors by taking them somewhere else, like for instance, the Sonoran Desert Museum, Arizona’s second leading tourist attraction. But that’s been a bit on-and-off this year ever since a wild javelina strolled past the bronze ones at the museum’s entrance and bit a paying customer. Worse yet, the customer’s wife saw the javelina coming and fainted. She said later she’d heard Benny Hinn was in town and figured he’d performed a miracle. She’s still kneeling at the entrance. Meanwhile, anxious attendants are searching for the pig. Since the museum uses invisible fencing, it’s near impossible to determine what’s captured and what’s hunting.

Tombstone’s a good distraction, and it’s got special advantages. Lots of OK Corral re-enactments. So if one needs or wants to shoot somebody, there’s covering fire. Just pretend to be part of the act. Slap a few backs, spit some tobaccy, and walk away. I always wear cowboy gear to Tombstone. Boy scout motto: Be prepared.

Same with Old Tucson, just down the road from the Desert Museum. Old Tucson is a movie studio, where Tombstone, 3:10 To Yuma, and hundreds of other movies have been shot. The gun blasts there provide good cover, too, and you may get paid for shooting someone.

Need I say that Shovelsaurus Rex travels with us in the Tahoe? I wanted to strap Rex on as a hood ornament, but the wife vetoed the idea. No sense of humor at all. Instead, Rex rides on top. The Tahoe’s so big, the shovel’s only visible to bridge-jumpers.

Of course Spring is visiting season too, but Spring’s second to Fall for most folks. People from Wisconsin and Minnesota like to come in Spring, because they want to feel their feet again. But most other visitors prefer autumn, perhaps because they want their neighbors to rake their leaves.

Having visitors means a lot of work, or at least my wife says so. But I came up with a plan. We don’t exactly run a B&B; we just charge for use of the restrooms. We use a graduated scale, the more our guests drink, the more we charge for the bathroom.

Sorta Pay As You Go.

Some guys try to cheat ― you can probably guess how ― but I’ve got a fix for that. I set up robo-rattlers outside every door. They’re not snakes at all; rather, they’re little radios that play a rattling sound. I’ve got ‘em hooked into Radio Shack motion sensors. One trip outside at night, and cheaters pay up. During the day, there’s not so much a problem. As you know if you read this blog regularly, my wife wears a machete. Twirling her blade like a baton, her soft words “Not in my yard” seem to carry extra meaning.

So please come visit this Fall. Watered down margaritas are on us.

And be sure to bring dollar bills…

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Perfect Protagonist

By Beth Terrell

I’ve heard it said that the most important character in any work of fiction is the villain, because the villain is the catalyst for the action and the one who forces change on the protagonist. But for me, the most important character in any novel is the protagonist. The most menacing villain in the world won’t save a book if we don’t care about the protagonist. (Think of Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter was a fascinating villain, but only because we cared about Clarice Starling. The later Lecter books don’t strike the same chord, because there’s no one we can believe in.) Since we're talking about mysteries and crime fiction, the protagonist is generally the sleuth, the person who is going to solve the mystery.

Can you imagine Miss Marple slugging it out with a hopped-up pimp in a shadowy alley that smells of urine and rotting garbage? Can you imagine Mike Hammer sipping tea in a parson's parlor, quietly ruminating about the psychological foibles of a small-town microcosm of society? Well, maybe you can--we're readers and writers after all; we live on imagination--but the image just doesn't hold up over the long haul. Poor Miss Marple would end up with a cut throat or a broken hip, and Mike Hammer would punch out the parson, and the balance of the universe would be restored. The story must be true to the characters.

This is not to say that the characters "take over the story" and begin writing it themselves (even though a lot of writers say they do). We like to believe that our characters, through our very own literary magic, can, like the Velveteen Rabbit, become real if we only want it badly enough. In a sense, they do become real--to us, and we hope to our readers. But what really happens when the characters "take over" is that the writer is in that creative zone, where the creative brain has suddenly realized who the characters are, what they would do, and where the story needs to go. It isn't working at the writing any more. It's playing. Let it play!

If it feels like the characters are taking over, this is the time to let them. Just remember that characters, like flesh-and-blood folks, don’t always make the right decisions. For paper-and-ink folks, the right decision is the authentic one. The wrong decision doesn’t ring true. Characters, like the rest of us, want to take the easy way out. They don’t want all this trouble, but we, as writers, have to give it to them anyway.

Characters also go astray sometimes. The creative brain thinks, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if Miss Marple slugged the parson?!” and Miss Marple thinks, “Hey, that’s way more interesting than nibbling on scones and sipping tepid tea!” and veers off in a direction that isn’t true to character and doesn’t serve the story. The creative brain can lead you to some wonderful places, but it can also lead you far afield. As writers, we get to play with our characters, but sooner or later, if we want to pursue this business called writing, we have to put on our editor hats and make sure they stay true to themselves.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Week That Was

By Pat Browning

This week just about did me in.

The economy went belly up. Paul Newman died. I had to stop in the middle of pressing business to watch a vice-presidential debate. I called an 800 number and got a porn recording ... I dropped things, spilled stuff, tripped over my own feet ...

And all the while I am trying desperately to re-do my book for publication. The first 50 pages were fun, but after that it has settled into plain old grunt work.

Tonight I scrolled through My Documents, looking for a newsletter called Writing for Dollars. Couldn't find it, but I came across something funny a friend sent me several years ago. Periodically I post it to my personal blog, and I'm sharing it here. It's good for a laugh at the tail end of the week that was.

1. At lunch time, sit in your parked car with sunglasses on and point a hair dryer at passing cars. See if they slow down.

2. Page yourself over the intercom. Don't disguise your voice.

3. Every time someone asks you to do something, ask if they want fries with that.

4. Put your garbage can on your desk and label it "IN."

5.Put decaf in the coffee maker for 3 weeks. Once everyone has got over their caffeine addictions, switch to espresso.

6. In the memo field of all your checks, write "for sexual favors."

7. Finish all your sentences with "in accordance with the prophecy."

8. Don't use any punctuation.

9.As often as possible, skip rather than walk.

10. Ask people what sex they are. Laugh hysterically after they answer.

11. Specify that your drive through order is "to go."

12. Sing along at the opera.

13. Go to a poetry recital and ask why the poems don't rhyme.

14. Put mosquito netting around your work area and play tropical sounds all day.

15. Five days in advance, tell your friends you can't attend their party because you're not in the mood.

16. Have your co-workers address you by your wrestling name, "rock hard".

17. When the money comes out of the ATM, scream "I won! I won!"

18. When leaving the zoo, start running towards the parking lot, yelling"run for your lives, they're loose!!"

19. Tell your children over dinner that "due to the economy, we are going to have to let one of you go."

And the final way to keep a healthy level of insanity.......

20. Send this e-mail to someone to make them smile...It 's called therapy