Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bombay Then and Now

A commando drops onto the roof of the Jewish center in Bombay. Photo by Siddhartha Babbaji, AP, in the San Francisco Chronicle and other major newspapers.
A statue in one of 30 Buddhist caves of Ajanta, near Aurangabad on the Deccan plateau.

By Pat Browning

As a lifelong news junkie, I spent my spare time this week roaming the Internet for the latest on the disaster in Bombay. It has been Mumbai only since 1995, which was day before yesterday. It will always be Bombay to me.

Such a kaleidoscope of memories as I followed the news:

The view from my hotel on the back bay overlooking Marine Drive. Running along the shoreline of the Arabian Sea, Marine Drive glittered with streetlights at night, living up to its nickname of the Queen's Necklace. In the stillness of early morning, solitary men fished from small boats on the bay.

The little-known museum in Mahatma Gandhi’s former home. I was fascinated by glass display cases of miniature figurines in tableaux of scenes from Gandhi’s life. From this house, the Mahatma (Great Soul) launched the civil disobedience movement that led to India’s independence from Great Britain.

The Towers of Silence. Closed to outsiders, they sit on a busy street, hidden by trees. The Parsis, or Zoroastrians, of Bombay, bring their dead to the Towers of Silence and leave them on stone slabs for the buzzards to pick clean. Bones are left to calcify in the sun and eventually swept into a deep well.

Parsis worship earth, fire and water. As it was explained to me, the Towers of Silence don’t pollute the earth with burial; don’t pollute the air by cremation; don’t pollute the water with ashes; and they feed the birds.

A name surfaced during reportage that has been dismissed as fictitious, but it got my attention. A group calling itself the Deccan Mujahadeen supposedly claimed responsibility for the terror in Bombay.

Historically, the Deccan plateau has been ruled by Muslims. The city of Aurangabad, about 100 miles east of Bombay, is the jumping-off place for India’s famous cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora. With Buddhist, Hindu and Jain paintings and sculptures dating as far back as 200 B.C., both sites are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In size, scope and beauty, they are overwhelming.

Gandhi’s influence was pervasive. One of his programs for lifting India’s masses out of poverty was “cottage industry.” On the taxi trip between Aurangabad and the caves, I saw a sandalwood soap factory, a silkworm farm, and many items carved from local woods. I bought a small, round, three-legged rosewood table inlaid with ivory for about $26. The legs were removable for packing into a suitcase. I still have it.

After I got home from India, I read Louis Bromfield’s 1940 novel, NIGHT IN BOMBAY, and marveled at how contemporary it seemed. Bombay apparently had not changed much since Bromfield wrote his book. When I was in Bombay, India’s telephone system didn’t work. Messages were delivered by hand. Even in luxury hotels, reservations were written by hand, on little file cards.

What a difference technology has made. During this week’s nightmare, even the terrorists had cell phones.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Worldwide Wind Power

by Jean Henry Mead

Man has harnessed the power of wind for thousands of years to propel sailing ships as well as windmills to pump water and grind grain. Wind power has been rediscovered and giant windmills or turbines are gradually taking the place of more conventional sources of energy.

Wind power converts energy into electricity with the use of turbines, and although windmills only accounted for one percent of our electrical needs at the beginning of the year, worldwide capacity of wind-powered generators was 94.1 gigawatts of power. Wind power generated nearly 20% of electricity production in Denmark, 9% in Spain and Portugal and 6% in Germany and Israel.

Wind farms are spreading rapidly in California, Wyoming, and other states with traditionally windy areas. In the process they’re causing real concerns for environmentalists who are worried about the disruption of wildlife breeding grounds. Most of the commercial grade wind, according to Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist, is in southeast Wyoming. Wyoming residents, however, won’t benefit from the wind turbines because the electricity is being used by out-of-state consumers, although Wyoming electricity rates have jumped 7% to help pay for the turbines.

Another problem is that Wyoming‘s economy is heavily dependent on its coal mines and petroleum. Now that the price of oil has reached record lows for the year, hundreds of drilling rigs have shut down and coal mines have cut back on production, resulting in massive unemployment.

Two huge wind farms are proposed to be built on private land with a total of a thousand turbines south of the 1-80 corridor by the Power Company of Wyoming, LLC, an affiliate of the Denver-based Anschultz Corporation. Built on cattle grazing land, biologists are concerned that the wind farm will further endanger sage grouse breeding grounds. The birds are already on the verge of extinction.

Farmers and ranchers are in favor of the wind farms because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to earn a living solely on agriculture. So wind farms on private land are becoming a reality. “Having wind energy development that is sensitive to the needs of wildlife is in everyone’s best interests,” Molvar said. But wind farms on remote private land are difficult to regulate.

The first crudely-built windmill was erected in the first century AD and used to power an organ. Six centuries later, a commercial windmill was built in Afghanistan. The vertical axel windmills were made of six to twelve sails covered in reed matting or cloth. They were used to draw water and grind corn as well as aid in grist milling and sugarcane production. Horizontal axel windmills were used extensively in northern Europe for the grinding of flour from the year 1180, and some still exist in Holland.

It looks as though windmills are here to stay.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

It's a Good Life, Charlie Brown

By Beth Terrell

It's that time of year. Friends and family gather for good food and good conversation, the Charlie Brown holiday specials begin (my favorites), and we take stock of those things for which we are grateful.

At the top of my list are the usual things: God's love, a practically perfect husband, a loving and supportive mother, a little brother who is extremely cute and usually sweet, good friends, a job and co-workers I like, and the basic necessities of life. I'm also grateful for our African Grey parrots, Corky and Kesha, our cat, Edgar, and our two precious little dogs, Karma (Princess of Everything Sweet) and Luca (His Lordship of Eternal Cuteness). These are the things I'm grateful for as a person.

But I am also grateful for a number of things as a writer. Here are some of them:

1. Office Supplies. Is it just me, or is there something thrilling about wandering among aisles and aisles of ballpoint pens, spiral notebooks, little gold paper clips, and Post-it notes in every color of the spectrum? Prismacolor colored pencils, the big set, 128 colors! So much blank paper, so many possibilities.

2. My computer. When Mike bought me my first laptop, I had serious misgivings. My idea of a first draft was a something written in longhand, in black ink, with single words and whole sections scribbled out and re-written, sometimes multiple times. I never moved on to a new paragraph until the one before it was perfect--or as perfect as I could get it. I also never finished anything. My laptop changed all that. I love the way the words appear on the screen as if by magic, looking professional and polished, even when I know they are in desperate need of editing. Somehow seeing those crisp letters helps me push on through a first draft, knowing how easily I can trim and flesh out and polish once the initial draft is done.

3. NaNoWriMo. It sounds like madness and it is. Write a 50,000-word first draft in one frenzied, frantic month. Pack off your inner editor for a little well-desereved R&R and play with something new, maybe a genre you've never tried before, maybe a work of silliness that will never see the light of day, maybe the first draft of the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The "I Hate NaNoWriMo Because Volumes of Dreck Are Released Into the Unsuspecting Publishing World" faction is missing the point. NaNo is a month-long writing exercise, a month-long, worldwide celebration of the joy of writing. What could be better than that?

4. An excuse to surf the web and to buy and read an embarrassingly indulgent number of books. Books on medieval cooking, books on forensic anthropology, books on Roman mythology and books on herbal medicines. All valuable additions to an author's research library. Even the novels I love to read are research: How does James Lee Burke craft those vivid descriptive passages? How does Terry McGarry breathe life into a world that never existed? How does Robert Crais make me love Joe Pike?

5. Murderous Musings. What an honor it is to be included in this group of talented and generous writers. Each contributor brings something different and wonderful to the mix; I only aspire to be worthy. And to those of you who read our posts )and those who comment on them), thank you.

6. The opportunity to learn from and rub shoulders with other writers. This includes a number of mentors, such as Mary Saums, J.T. Ellison, and our own Chester Campbell. Is there a more generous or gracious group than mystery/thriller writers? Sisters in Crime and SEMWA members have welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like a "real writer."

7. Don Maass's writing workshops. I went to the "Writing the Breakout Novel" workshop" with a manuscript I thought needed a nose-job and found out it needed a heart-lung transplant. Many months and an overhauled manuscript later, I attended the "High Tension Workshop." The heart and lungs were just fine, but extensive plastic surgery, implants, and liposuction were in order. Thanks to Don, I have a much wider collection of tools in my writer's toolbox. Looking to take your writing to a new level? Don will take you there. (I recommend starting with "The Breakout Novel." It lays the foundation for the "High Tension Workshop.")

8. Killer Nashville. I am forever indebted to Killer Nashville producers Clay Stafford and Phillip Lacy for letting me be a part of this incredible little conference. Killer Nashville has given me a chance to meet and/or correspond with hundreds of writers and readers of crime fiction. And no one could be better to work with than Clay and Phillip.

9. The Quill and Dagger Writers' Guild. This is the critique group Chester and I belong to. Each of the members is a wonderful writer and a supportive friend. They have offered me advice, support, reassurance, and encouragement. They tell me what works and offer suggestions for fixing what doesn't. We meet in the cafe of a local Barnes & Noble, and have polished many a page over Chai tea lattes and pumpkin cheesecake. So to Chester Campbell, Nancy Sartor, Richard Emerson, Nikki Nelson-Hicks, Cathy Randall, Nina Fortmeyer, Hardy Saliba, and even those who have wandered far afield from us (Robert, Larry, Jeannie, Jeff), a million thank yous for all you've done for my life and my writing.

10. The movies in my mind. They entertain, enlighten, and inspire me. I would be lost without them.

In these uncertain times, its nice to stop and remember the things that make life good. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Taj Mahal – A Testament to Love

By Mark Danielson

It’s rare when I have a long enough layover to sightsee, but this trip gave me four days in Delhi, India. The cooler temperatures and dry weather made perfect conditions for visiting the Taj Mahal, and I booked a tour through the hotel.

I had been to India many times, but never before experienced it like this. What feels chaotic and mystifying to a Westerner, is harmonious to Indians. If there is one word that best describes this country, it is coexistence, for here, everything seems to blend despite all the complexities. People are free to worship any god, and there is a blending of cultural and religious traditions, that can be seen in all aspects of life. Horses, cattle, water buffalo, peacocks, parrots, dogs, monkeys, donkeys, and camels, all wander freely along the four lane road that’s packed with animal-drawn carts, motorcycles, cars, trucks, busses, motorized rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians. Painted lines mean nothing and accidents are commonplace. We passed two within three minutes of each other.

Our van comfortably held the seven of us – one German, two Czechs, one from France, a Brit, a Columbian, and myself, and all of us spoke English. Stops at Emperor Akbar’s mausoleum and Agra Fort preceded the highlight of our tour, the Taj Mahal. Space considerations force me to omit them from this article, but those stops were well worth it. Traveling with such a wonderful group made this trip memorable.

What is immediately apparent is that the concept of space varies between cultures. Westerners are used to having a huge amount of personal space, but in India, there is nothing like this. Pushing and shoving is the norm, and I literally received a back massage while standing in line at the Taj Mahal’s east entrance. Security is handled by Army personnel, most carrying big sticks as opposed to firearms. Army issue rifles are usually bolt action carbines, although I saw a few ancient semi-automatics, too. Since cattle are free to roam wherever they choose, they don’t require tickets.

Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their thirteenth child. It is thought that completion of the monument took twenty two years, with the main mausoleum completed in 1648. Constructed solely of white marble, it is considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, combining elements of Persian, Turkish, Indian and Islamic architectural elements. Shah Jahan, himself, dictated the use of white marble, with the incredibly delicate inlay of semi-precious stones. Workers used pencil-sized hand tools to etch the inlays, and those traditions and techniques have been passed from father to son for centuries.

With a similar crowd waiting to enter the Taj and a schedule to keep with the tour, I wasn’t able to enter the building, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I moved to inspect the exterior, which is perfect from every angle. The exterior decorations are considered to be among the finest in Mughal architecture. Under certain conditions, the tomb appears to be floating, an intentional illusion created by the monument’s primary architect, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. The four minarets that frame the Taj were designed as working minarets, a traditional element of mosques. More than forty meters tall, the symmetrical minarets carry a two degree outward slope. Should they fall, they will fall away from the main tomb.

People-watching was fascinating. Many women were swirled in beautiful, embellished silks that contrasted brilliantly against the white marble. Here, families gathered to enjoy the day and captured family portraits against one of the world’s greatest monuments. Large school groups were well-mannered and happy. This truly is a place of joy and harmony.

Besides the crowded conditions, the only drawback is the air quality. People burn whatever they can find, so while their vehicles say they run on “clean burning fuel”, it hardly matters. Near Delhi, the smoky air was suffocating, even inside the van. Travelers with asthma should be warned to travel with their inhalers. From my vantage as a pilot, this pollution makes it very difficult to see the runway, especially during daylight. With the population reaching over a billion, and the lax environmental regulations, it is likely their air will get worse.

I was extremely fortunate to have such beautiful conditions for my trip. The Taj Mahal is not only an enduring monument to the beauty and intricacy of Mughal architecture, but it is a testament to love.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Holy Land Revisited

By Chester D. Campbell

Reading Pat’s piece about the finding of King Herod’s burial site brought back memories of my trip to the Holy Land in 1998. We visited the impressive construction projects Herod the Great built in the port city of Caesarea and atop the famous mountain fortress of Masada.

Being a mystery writer, though not published at the time, I viewed most places on the trip with an eye to how they might be used in a novel. I bought a camcorder just before heading to the Middle East and took about three hours of videos during the tour.

Traveling by Royal Jordanian Airlines, we flew into Amman and spent a day cruising by bus through the mostly desolate Jordanian desert to visit two interesting sites. We stood on Mount Nebo where Moses gazed across the Jordan River before his death. Then we toured the ancient city of Petra, made famous by one of its striking building fronts carved out of rose sandstone being used in the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Our first taste of the dichotomy between Israel and its neighbors came as we approached the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River. It’s called the King Hussein bridge on the east side. We had to leave the Jordanian bus and board an Israeli bus for the crossing.

Jericho provided our first taste of the Promised Land, the same as Joshua in the Bible. Billed as the world’s oldest and lowest city (820 feet below sea level), its ancient tel, or archeological site, has been peeled back to reveal 26 layers of civilization dating back to 8000 B.C. Heading on to the Holy City, we checked into our hotel in East Jerusalem, the Arab district.

Our savvy Nashville travel agent, who joined us on the tour, booked us through a tour company run by two Palestinian brothers (who, incidentally, attended the University of Tennessee). He said we wouldn’t have any trouble in the Palestinian territories as they knew the bus was owned by Arabs.

For the next few days, we shuttled around various Jerusalem sites, plus Bethlehem, the Dead Sea Scroll caves at Qumran, the Dead Sea shoreline, and Masada. We were advised to steer clear of the West Bank hotbeds of Hebron and Ramallah. We visited such fascinating spots as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, dug 1,500 feet through the rock from both ends at once in 700 B.C. We also toured the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls; Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum; the Temple Mount with its striking Dome of the Rock; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on several levels and occupied by several different religious groups.

One of the more interesting stops was an Arab market filled with small but colorful shops. We had to stop and try the Israeli’s favorite fast food, a falafel (spiced chickpea fritter) tucked into pita bread.

During the next week, we traveled north through Samaria, with a stop at Jacob’s Well, heading into the fertile Yizreel Valley. We visited Mount Meggido, called Armageddon in Revelations, walking among the ruins, including a trip down 183 steps to see the historic water tunnel. Then it was on to the Sea of Galilee, where we stayed in Nazareth. We sailed on the sea in a fishing boat allegedly like the one Jesus rode in. They dipped in a net, but it came up empty.

We toured biblical sites around the Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret, including the Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum, and churches dedicated to various incidents such as the multiplication of loaves and fishes. We visited the attractive Kibbutz Ein Gev and traveled up the steep slopes of the Golan Heights to an old attillery emplacement looking down over the kibbutz where Syrian gunners fired on the Israeli settlers.

Our tour began to wind down with a visit to Mount Carmel, where Elijah vanquished the priests of Baal. Then we headed for Israel’s third largest metropolitan area, Haifa. The hillside Baha’i Shrine and Gardens provided a striking panorama, as did a view of the Haifa port. Afterward, we headed south along the Mediterranean to the historic city of Caesarea, built by King Herod.

At the outdoor Roman Theater, our guide stood on the stage and showed how a normal voice could be heard all around the seating area. We also checked out the ruins of Herod’s hippodrome, which had seating for 20,000 people. Then we toured the remains of the king’s port, now part of the Crusader city. Just beyond this stood a Roman aqueduct built in the A.D. 100’s. It had steps leading up so we could walk along a section of the monstrous project.

After overnighting in a seaside hotel at Netanya, we headed into Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial center. Our final stop was the old port city of Jaffa on Tel Aviv’s south side. Old Jaffa had a special attraction for me, with its warren of stairstep streets through the reconstructed ruins of Turkish palaces, flanked by pastel colored artist’s studios, galleries, and outdoor cafes.

In fact, the experience led me to open the first chapter in Secret of the Scroll, my initial Greg McKenzie mystery, in Old Jaffa.

On our flight home from Amman, I read in the Royal Jordanian magazine about an archeological dig at Bethany in Jordan, the area where John the Baptist preached. It mentioned finding caves that had been occupied by monks in the early centuries. I thought what if someone found an ancient scroll in one of those caves. After I got home, it quickly developed into a plot. Happily, I had my videos to help out.

I used much of my travel experience to tell the story, sending Greg and Jill McKenzie on an identical trip. Many of the locations appear just as they did to me. You can read the opening chapters at

Monday, November 24, 2008

Aisle Rage

by Ben Small

The wife and I did something today that no one in their right mind should ever do.

We same-day-shopped Wal-Mart and Costco.


It’s a miracle you’re not reading about this experience on Drudge and that we’re not on the news tonight. If I’d been armed… oh my god, if I’d been armed…

What is it about these stores that draws such people? You know who I mean: the fat guys in the torn wife-beater shirts, paisley shorts and worn rubber flipflops, with blackened toes and yellow toenails that can probably cut steel, the men-folk who flash plumber’s crack bending over for another discounted case of Bud Light, and the women-folk who make these men look petite. The women are often wearing Spandex, which I used to think should be a crime. But then I saw female plumber’s crack in a Costco aisle, and I became a fan of Spandex-squeeze-containment.

I’d never before seen bats fly out of a pair of shorts. I hope I never see it again.

But these were the adults. What about the kids? You’ve seen them. Running laps up and down the aisles, tossing toys, playing catch and Keep Away, all while screaming in pitches old man Bose could only dream about.

Wal-Mart and Costco aisles are where I first saw Codger Tipping, a new sport, where unsupervised grade school kids gang tackle old people to see if they roll, bounce or shatter. There are variations to the game, of course. Sometimes, liquid soap is thrown to the floor for glide, a factor in competitions. Or carts are used for the Bump-Em-Car effects. Carts facilitate two person competitions, like Bowling for Baldies. And for even more excitement, try babies in the carts. Air-time seems to count extra.

But these are not the only delights of shopping at Costco or Wal-Mart (inclusive of Sam’s Club). Isn’t it fun when you enter planning on buying some cheap wine for a party, and you exit with three carts full of stuff you don’t need?

“The price was just so low,” you say. “A real bargain.”

And it probably was.

But how often will you use your umbrella table in your studio apartment?

And talk about gridlock. Try getting through these aisles in less time than it takes to drive through Manhattan at rush hour. Is it just me, or does everybody in Wal-Mart and Costco seem to know each other? The aisle junctions are like club rooms. Carts cluster in star patterns, and you stand and wait, nervously eying the gaggle of kids swarming behind you.

Meanwhile, at the junction, four Larry the Cable Guys are comparing beer case stacking skills and the NASCAR car numbers on their hats. A couple of these guys look like the fellows at the gas pump in Deliverance. Probably have five teeth between them.

I hear giggles and squeaky wheels behind us. I turn and instinct takes over as a cart pushed by two eight-year-olds, I’d guess, comes hurtling our way. It’s headed for my wife. I shove her away, and she falls into a stack of apples, which then roll all over the aisle parallel to ours. Screams and thuds abound, as AARPies flounder. The cart whizzes by and pounds into the Cable Guys. As Oldies in the aisle next to ours topple and cry out, one of the Deliverance crew looks up and smiles. “Extra points, Jimmy Joe,” the man says, his chest expanding with pride. A fat tongue presses against the man's lower tooth, cocking his mouth to the right like it's stuffed with a plum. He thumps the chest of the man next to him and points at a kid. "D'ere's my kin. A chip, ain't he?"

We brave all this, and finally make it to the registers, where we wait while a family of twelve with four carts full of Hamburger Helper, potatoes, candy, beer, cookies, frying oil, TV dinners, pretzels, an assortment of chips and dips, slabs of Velveeta, eggs, frozen pizzas, and other preserved or friable delicacies look for a credit card that's not maxxed out.

A toddler, almost buried in one of the carts, bellows, and the sickly-sweet stink of fresh baby-poop hangs in the air. Momma laughs, says, “Just a little longer, darlin’.” The toddler’s not satisfied. He or she ― hard to tell which when the Tater Tot lies buried under mounds of packages ― tosses one of the egg cartons to the floor, where they do what broken eggs do. Another carton follows, and the wife and I are looking for another checkout counter.

They’re all full, and there are carts behind us.

Trapped again. This time at the checkout counter, where the people in front of us are still searching for a credit card, and where an eggy floor awaits us.

But our joy for the day was just beginning. See, we started at Costco, but Costco buys large lots of some things, but not everything. What you saw last week won’t be there this week. This week, Costco did not have the whole grain crackers I crave as a late night snack.

And those crackers were why we came to Costco in the first place. They're stocked at Wal-Mart, too, but not at our local groceries.

I must have those crackers. We had to do both stores.

Costco and Wal-Mart should install metal detectors at their entrances, for I now understand that there’s an anger more ferocious than Road Rage. It’s feral, and you can find it in its most violent form at Wal-Mart and Costco.

Aisle Rage.

Feel it.

Smell it.

Live it.

And stay away from the knife counter.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A King, A Shaman, A Stargazer, A Wooly Mammoth

King Herod’s sarcophagus;
excavation of shaman’s grave
near the Sea of Galilee
By Pat Browning

Just in time for Christmas, King Herod is in the news again. You remember Herod – the king of Christian tradition who got upset with the Three Wise Men who were on their way to Bethlehem with gifts for the baby Jesus.

An AP story from the West Bank reports:

“King Herod may have been buried in a crypt with lavish Roman-style wall paintings of a kind previously unseen in the Middle East, Israeli archaeologists said Wednesday. The scientists found such paintings and signs of a regal two-story mausoleum, bolstering their conviction that the ancient Jewish monarch was buried there.

“Ehud Netzer, head of Jerusalem's Hebrew University excavation team, which uncovered the site of the king's winter palace in the Judean desert in 2007, said the latest finds show work and funding fit for a king.”

In May 2007, an article in National Geographic reported:

“The king's highly ornamented, 8-foot (2.5-meter) sarcophagus, crafted of red-colored limestone with rosettes on its sides, had been shattered. Hundreds of fragments have been found around the site, but no inscriptions have been discovered so far … No human remains have been found in or near the tomb, and the skeleton of Herod himself will probably never be recovered, (Netzer) added.”

Photos from Herod’s burial site are intriguing, but what stopped me in my tracks was a photo in a companion story about the 12,000-year old skeletal remains of a female shaman. The photo was taken from the mouth of a cave, looking down on an archaeological dig.

A story in National Geographic reports:

“Archaeologists in northern
Israel say they have discovered the world's oldest known grave of a shaman. The 12,000-year-old grave holds an elderly female of the mysterious Natufian culture, animal parts, and a human foot …The immediate area contains several burials, but the shaman's grave is unique in its construction, contents, and arrangement.”

What struck me about the photo is that I’ve seen it before, many times, years ago. For 20 years, every time I slowed down long enough to meditate, and often just as I was drifting off to sleep, it was always the same, a swirl of purple color, and then the view from the cave. I decided that it was a memory from a long-past life, where I had been left in a cave to die.

Hmmmm. Do you suppose … I was that shaman? Nah … couldn’t be … could it?

But wait, there’s more. The AP reports that Polish archeologists have found the remains of Copernicus. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Blame it on DNA.

“Researchers said Thursday they have identified the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus by comparing DNA from a skeleton and hair retrieved from one of the 16th century astronomer’s books. The findings could put an end to centuries of speculation about the exact resting spot of Copernicus, a priest and astronomer whose theories identified the Sun, not the Earth, as the center of the universe.”

Meanwhile, at Pennsylvania State University scientists are mulling the regeneration of a living mammoth from clumps of mammoth hair. Estimated cost: $10 million. Quoting The New York Times: “ Dr. Schuster and Dr. Miller said there was no technical obstacle to decoding the full mammoth genome, which they believe could be achieved for a further $2 million.”

The key word is “decoding.” It could keep fiction writers busy for years. The Herod Code. The Shaman Code. The Copernicus Code. The Wooly Mammoth …

Cue Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs …”Uno-Dos-One-Two-Three-Quatro-WOO-LY BUL-LY …”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Midnight Flight to Fairbanks

by Jean Henry Mead

We left Seattle, Washington, one cold early spring night on a midnight flight to Fairbanks. Our daughter Lynda had recently moved there with her husband and invited us for a visit. We were unprepared for the unusual trip, to say the least.

Why the only plane for Fairbanks left at midnight remains a mystery, but it was immedaitely obvious that Alaskans were the only other passengers. Dressed in plaid wool shirts and mucklucks, they immediately reclined, stretching their legs across the aisle into the opposite seats. They soon fell asleep. Ever try accessing the restroom in the rear of the plane under those circumstances?

I had flown many times before but was nervous about this flight, probably because it was Friday the 13th. I couldn’t sleep so I watched the snow covered terrain, forming an escape plan in case we had an emergency landing. My husband slept through the entire flight.

We experienced a bumpy landing and no one was there to greet us at the terminal. A miscommunication had us landing at four that afternoon. So we hung around the airport until after six that morning when we called our daughter, who came to pick us up. While we were there, Lynda's mother-in-law tried to talk us into a partnership in an RV repair shop. The 1,390 mile long ALCAN Highway was still a gravel road and recreational vehicles were usually in bad shape by the time they reached civilization. Fortunately, we declined because it wasn't long before the ALCAN was paved.

We were there during the four-day World Eskimo-Indian Olympics which we thoroughly enjoyed. Then held in March, it has since been moved to mid-July in Fairbanks. Natives from not only Alaska, but the Pacific Northwest and Canada compete in traditional contests which include some unusual events such as knuckle hopping, ear-pulling, Alaskan high kicking, Eskimo stick pulling and nalukatak or blanket toss. It's said that age and wisdom often defeat the young and strong, and we were witness to just that.

The Race of the Torch, a five kilometer road race, is held during the festivities and run by both male and female contestants. The winner earns the honor of lighting the WEIO torch for that year and a pretty Miss WEIO is crowned. All daytime events are free to the public but you'd better have your wallet handy for nighttime activities. Among them were dances, races and games.

Traditional native dancers perform throughout the games as well as every night. A potlatch, or pot luck supper, is served with traditional native foods. And we were glad to be there during early spring before Alaska’s native bird, the mosquito, emerged from hibernation.

Before we left, we saw Santa’s workshop at North Pole, Alaska, a few miles north of Fairbanks, and were disappointed that it wasn’t open that time of year. The old gentleman must have been on an extended vacation. We flew home with a huge, beautiful dark blue Alaskan flag and carved wooden Eskimo figure that is still here on display. We’ll return to Alaska one day, armed with plenty of mosquito repellant and enough film to capture the wonder and beauty of our northernmost state. We may even stop by Wasilla.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


By Mark W. Danielson

Time is finite, and there’s never enough of it. With the exception of flying a two-day trip, I’ve been home for three weeks, and yet during that period, I have failed to accomplish all that I intended. When people ask what I’ll do when I retire from FedEx, I smile and reply that I’ll enjoy spending more time with my wife, writing, painting, playing on the lake, flying for pleasure, building and then rebuilding things, and most of all, engaging life. It’s the only way to live because we never know how much time we have left. I was reminded of that this morning when I learned that a co-worker's son died yesterday from meningitis--after falling ill four days earlier. He was a Naval Academy student, and lived a mere two decades. No doubt we can all attest that life isn’t fair.

During my time off, I completed the first draft of my next manuscript, painted five paintings, and performed countless tasks around the house. During breaks, Lyne and I walked nearly every day, enjoying a beautiful Colorado Indian Summer. I cherish the time Lyne and I have together because in the end, it’s the quality of my time that matters, not how many jobs I complete.

Tonight I start another two-week round-the-world trip; this time flying eastbound via Paris, Delhi, Shanghai, buzz around the Far East for a few days, then back to Anchorage and home. I look forward to getting airborne again, seeing a world without borders. I also look forward to having the time to edit my manuscript. A few long layovers should allow me to get through it before I return. But I’ll also regret missing Thanksgiving. You see, Thanksgiving in Japan isn’t the same as being at home with family, but that’s my life as a gypsy pilot. Then again, such disappointments help inspire believable protagonists. After all, aren’t we all a bit conflicted at times?

I should point out that there is another artist with the same name, but unlike him, I don’t sell my work. Although I’ve been painting my entire life, I’ll wait until I retire before pursuing that career. In the mean time, I’ll enjoy creating memorable works for my family members at Christmas—another holiday that I’m likely to miss. Regardless, so long as I enjoy living each day to its fullest, regardless of where in the world I am, time will always be on my side.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fair Weather

By Chester Campbell

Outside it was cold and rainy, but inside the Frankfort Convention Center warmth and coziness prevailed. Conditions obviously weren’t as favorable as in years past, what with the economy sliding down the tubes.

So the question arises, is it worth an author’s time to weather the storm and trek off to a book fair?

I journeyed to Frankfort the past weekend for the 27th annual running of the Kentucky Book Fair. Despite the weather, a respectable number of buyers showed up for the Saturday event. But as one man told me apologetically, “Last year my wife and I spent $400. With the way the economy is now, we won’t do nearly that much today.”

Everybody came with the idea of buying books, however, and a few toted away bags full of them. Some authors had an inside track by being well known in Kentucky. Others by being well known in their field. A children’s author at the same table with me had a constant stream of kids, parents, and grandparents stopping to get his colorfully illustrated books signed.

Sitting beside me was Judy Moffett, a science fiction writer who lives part-time in Kentucky and the rest in Pennsylvania. Her paperback books sold well, but the hardcovers bombed, which was a sign of the times.

Book fairs like Kentucky’s bring in 200 or more authors, so there’s plenty of competition. You can’t just sit there and smile. Half the people look the other way and many more seem to be hurrying by on their way to catch the next bus.

If you’re not a household name, it can pay off to put in a little extra effort. Following my usual policy of ignoring the chair at a book signing, I stood behind my table from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except for the time it took to eat my sandwich. Anybody who came within range of my voice, which isn’t all that strong, unfortunately, got the smiling query, “Do you read mysteries?”

I talked to enough of them to sell 39 books. Not a bad day, all things considered. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted Barnes & Noble’s chairman as saying he had never “seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are in.” Simon & Schuster reported store traffic was down and fewer customers were buying more than one title.

I had the luxury of four books in my Greg McKenzie Mystery series lined up on my table at Frankfort. A couple of people bought all four.

You never know what will push someone’s hot button. When I told one man that in Deadly Illiusions the Federal Reserve chairman is murdered at the Opryland Hotel, he grinned and said, “I’ve got to have that one.”

It’s always nice when a reader comes by (in this case a member of the DorothyL listserve) and says, “I’ve read all of your books and really love them.”

But the name of the game at a book fair is to sell books. It can be done if you play your cards right.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Addicted To Jim

by Ben Small

Have you ever been addicted to a program you hate? I know, that makes no sense. If one has an injection phobia, does one volunteer to give blood weekly?

I have a hard time explaining to people why I used to be addicted to the PTL Club and why I now record and watch some of the Jim Bakker shows. But the explanation is simple: Bakker is so outrageous, I just cannot turn him off. First with PTL, Jim was selling partnerships in Heritage USA, a huge family oriented ― or so it was claimed ― project, now in ruins. Now it's Morningside, which I predict will be in ruins in a few years.

Heritage was fraudulent, and rubble is often what happens to hopes and dreams that are based upon fraudulent claims.

Morningside? Tune in and you be the judge.

Jim’s good at selling. He lays down a fa├žade of ministry, a cover, when what’s really going on is a sleazy sales pitch. After an eight year stint in federal prison ― it would have been much longer but his appeal resulted in a reduced sentence ― Jim’s back doing what he did before, selling what looks to be cheaply made condos under cover of providing a religious program. It’s called the Jim Bakker Show, and this time, instead of the now deceased Tammy Faye to laugh at, we have Jim’s wife, Lori, a busty blonde with a lurid past, and a brain that might fill a thimble.

This time, Jim’s selling units at Morningside, a five hundred sixty acre development in Branson, MO, owned by his friend Jerry Crawford. Jerry brought Jim and Lori out and put him up and on the air, so Jim could sell his cheap Bibles, tiny swords, Jesus pictures, “partnerships” and CDs at inflated “Love Gift” prices, and so Jim could spend most of his programming hour pushing Morningside units.

My wife and I were in Branson, and we drove by the complex. We laughed out loud. The “village” had a roof, a big one. Long, black I-beams provided a three story structure that stretched for several hundred yards. So what now looks like a strip mall is Jim’s Village of Morningside, which is nothing more than a television set, a few shops selling trinkets and plastic or coated religious stuff at inflated prices, a bakery, a general store, maybe something of a restaurant, and of course condos, apartments, a hotel and building sites. If you want to watch the Jim Bakker Show from the tiny balcony of your postage stamp condo, one or two stories above a fake street, you’d like Morningside.

I’m sorry, but Jim’s show is so outrageous, I just cannot turn it off. So I watch, angry, cussing, seething inside at all the old people ― the group Jim’s always victimized ― who fall for his blather.

And you should see Jim beg. He’s got all the tools. I don’t think a show goes by where Jim doesn’t cry. Or pretend to do so. Jim’s lip will quiver, and he’ll talk about how much money he needs to do one more program, and then he’ll beg. And after the beg, comes the threat, that God won’t like you if you don’t support Jim’s church. And Lori just nods, a hollow look in her eyes, like someone’s just reached in and scooped out her brains.

It’s better to give than receive, you know? So says Jim, as he encourages everyone to feel good about themselves by giving to his ministry.

Oh sure, Jim mentions Jesus once in a while, usually in a loud, practiced stretch-syllable Southern Baptist way, like speaking the name Itself will provide enlightenment and salve all his sins. “Yes,” he’ll say, “Jeeeeeezzz-us loves us,” as if this makes the sales pitch a holy one.

But while the guy can sell, he’s not very smart. Jim’s a preacher, right? I thought it was enlightening, and not particularly bright, when Jim said during one sales pitch that he’d never read the Bible until he was sent to prison.

Huh? Never read the Bible? Then what was PTL all about? You don’t think PTL was just a money grab, do you?

Of course it was. And so is Morningside and the Jim Bakker Show.

Recently, Jim announced that Jerry Crawford, the Morningside developer, had called him in to say development [read sales] was slowing, that Crawford would have to forgo a promised million dollar payment to Bakker. Jim took the high road, at least he appeared to, and instructed folks on the need to be altruistic. Then he asked for special love gifts.

C’mon, you knew that was coming.

And Lori’s a peach, too. Tammy Faye, at least, could sing, and her eye makeup was always entertaining. But Lori just sits there and makes inane comments, comments that are so right field that Jim turns and stares at her, as if he’s a catcher and the pitcher just rolled the ball to home plate.

No, Lori doesn’t have much to say, but that doesn’t stop her from saying it. She’ll say something like, “Oh, Jim, everyone should know that God is always with us.” And Jim will turn, and he’ll stare.

Like me. I’m dumb-struck, too.

But then they’ll talk about Lori. Jim loves bringing up Lori’s sordid past: how she was addicted to any number of drugs; how she slept around, trading sex for drugs; that she had a number of abortions. And Lori will sit and nod and grin.

This is great soap opera.

My wife thinks I’m nuts to watch this stuff, and of course she’s right. But my sister watches Nancy Grace, just because she finds Nancy Grace so irritating. And it’s the same with me. I cannot stand what Jim Bakker does. I think the guy is a crook, and that he’s bilking little old ladies. And he infuriates me so, I have to watch his show a couple time a week. That’s how mad he makes me.

I mean the show is so obvious. How could anybody be fooled? If there’s any mention of the Bible or Jesus at all, it’s usually connected to a pitch for money. The Bible says we must support the church; Jesus wants our support, he needs our support, and Jim needs our money to spread this message.

It should come as no surprise that The Jim Bakker Show has almost no audience. It’s on at various times during the wee morning hours, at about the time teenagers are painting the old water tower. In fact, when I tell people that Jim Bakker is back on the air doing the same old thing, they’re shocked.

But Jim looks good. He’s had so much plastic surgery, he looks about forty-five, although his face has that certain smooth and shiny plastic texture that comes with having skin stretched too tight across facial bones. I can’t tell if Lori’s had plastic surgery. I can’t get past her lipstick. With Tammy Faye, it was the eyes one laughed at. With Lori, it’s the wind blowing through her ears and the spooky high gloss clowny lipstick.

Despite the title of Jim’s book, it’s apparent from comments Jim's made that he doesn’t think he did anything wrong at Heritage USA, and that he was persecuted by those who were jealous of his success. And to prove his point, Jim’s doing many of the same things he did before. Just no Jessica Hahn this time, at least not yet.

I mean, the gall of this guy.

And that, my friends, is why I watch. I just cannot believe the ever-loving gall. The mystery is how Jim Bakker gets away with it, over and over again.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Touching Up

By Pat Browning


My reissued book is ready to launch. An E-mail from the publisher says he got the final proof copy today, and it is “gawjus.” Looks like I’ll have books for a group signing at the local library Dec. 4.

It’s been a hell-bent-for-leather project, but one of the nice things about a small, startup press is that it can turn on a dime, and Krill Press has done that a couple of times. ABSINTHE OF MALICE will be listed in Books in Print next week. It takes a little longer to get it up and running at Amazon and other online bookstores. Soon to come – Kindle.

I read once about an artist who was never entirely satisfied with his paintings. He went around to museums and art galleries, touching up his work when nobody was looking. I can identify.

Re-doing my book was a chore, but I got rid of a lot of ellipses and dialogue tags. I completely rewrote a couple of scenes, at the publisher’s request. It’s the same book, but it’s a better book. Yet even as I signed off on the manuscript I saw a couple of small things that should have been changed. Ah, well. At some point you have to let it go.

The web site for Krill Press is still under construction, but it’s at

Writing and publishing today is a Medusa’s head. A sense of humor is essential, so I’ll sign off with a chuckle for the week. This is an item from Leah Garchik’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle online, Nov. 13:

Mary Patrick Kavanaugh, who says she spent seven years “writing, editing, revising and even refinancing her house twice to underwrite the costs of this dream,” has declared her novel officially dead and is throwing a funeral to mark that reclassification. The service and party will be Dec. 6 at the Chapel of the Chimes, and she says the event will be open coffin so that guests can dispose of “remnants of their own dead dreams to bury with the author's dashed hopes.”

Kavanaugh will sell self-published copies of her novel in the lobby to help pay for the refreshments. “Pity purchases are welcome and encouraged.” She invites guests who can’t show up in person to watch via Webcast at
(End Quote)

What a great marketing line to steal: Pity purchases are welcome and encouraged!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Date In Iraq

By Mark W. Danielson
Monday, I had the pleasure of riding from La Guardia to Newark during rush hour traffic. While that may sound like an oxymoron, it truly was a pleasure, thanks to my Iraqi driver. He has resided in the United States for twenty-three years, and before that, lived in Russia and Sweden. Among the many topics we discussed, the most enlightening concerned dates—as in the fruit.

Not so very long ago, Iraq raised 350 varieties of dates. Compare that to the four or so you find in the United States and it gives you some idea. My driver said they fed their cattle the type of dates they sell here, which is believable, considering our date trees came from Iraq. But while Iraq may have raised the tastiest dates on earth, the dates are only part of the story. You see, the shade from these date trees provided idea conditions for other fruits to grow; fruits found nowhere else on earth, such as a hybrid orange/lemon/lime that was used for juice and seasoning, and ultra-sweet, finger-sized grapes. These revelations didn’t surprise me, though. Contrary to what many may think, Iraq’s land is quite fertile. Combine good soil with plentiful water from the Tigris River and filtered sunlight from the date trees and you have miracles from the earth. Also remember that these modern marvels evolved over thousands of years of cultivating.

Whenever I fly over Iraq, I’m always amazed at how “normal” everything appears. Its lush fields and clear air give no clues to the troubles that lie below. I fly within forty miles of Baghdad on my route from Paris to Dubai and have yet to see more than a few military aircraft and an occasional burning oil field. But my view from thirty-five thousand feet hides one of Iraq’s greatest losses—the destruction of its ancient date trees. When these trees were burned from conflict, so went the other succulent fruits.

I pray that this war will soon end and that one day these wonderful date trees will thrive once more. And when this happens, I hope Iraq will share their luscious bounty with the rest of the world.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

By Chester Campbell

Some of my colleagues here have been expounding on hot topics of the day, like elections and gun control. But nothing is hotter these days than the economy. Unfortunately, the guys in Washington and on Wall Street don’t seem to get it that our problem is we’ve been addicted to debt for far too long. They want to add more. The question for writers is what’s the fallout going to be for us?

I’ve been following a financial advisor who paints a scary picture of what lies ahead. He says American consumers have the right idea about the problem. They want to get rid of debt, curtail spending, and save more. But when they do, our leaders in Washington scream:

“No! Don’t do that! Borrow and spend more so we can keep the economy going.”

He says most investors realize the error in their ways. They got involved in risky stocks and new-fangled securities, and their response is to head for safety. But Wall Street’s reply is:

“No! Don’t do that! Stay invested, support the market, so we can keep the party going.”

He says bankers are getting the same push from government authorities, who say:

“Sure, you want to stop making loans that look risky. That’s being prudent. But now you need to create more cheap mortgages for high-risk homeowners, keep those credit cards rolling out, and make cheap commercial loans to whoever asks.”

So far, the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve have loaned, invested or committed nearly $2.7 trillion to bail out our troubled financial system. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $51 trillion of outstanding interest-bearing debts in the U.S., or the estimated $596 trillion in worldwide derivatives (no one knows how much because there’s no one minding that store).

This financial analyst points out the Treasury has announced plans to borrow a record $550 billion in the fourth quarter, but Goldman Sachs estimates it will soon need to borrow $2 trillion to finance the deficit, fund purchases of bank assets and roll over $561 billion in maturing securities.

The government can’t print money fast enough to get out of this mess. If it tried, investors and lenders, fearing currency debasement, would dump bonds and loans on the market, pushing their value down, making Uncle Sam need to borrow more.

He says the government will ultimately have to wave the white flag and admit it cannot prevent the unpreventable. The scary part is that so far he has been right about what will happen. He called the housing collapse ahead of time and the subprime loan debacle. His position is that we should let unsound businesses fail and provide funds for promising new companies to grow and hire workers and get the economy moving again. In the end, he contends, America should come out better than ever.

So where does that leave the market for mysteries? He makes no predictions on that, but I think the conventional wisdom is that in perilous times, people want to escape reality by reading fiction in which the world is set right in the end. That’s where mystery writers come in.

We have a corner on that market.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Clinging To Our Guns

by Ben Small

In anticipation of an Obama swearing-in ceremony, America has been buying guns in unprecedented numbers. Of course, Obama-phobia isn’t fully the explanation. Americans feel threatened; they’re afraid. Gang and drug warfare are on the rise, as are home invasions, and in some cities, like Chicago, which is setting murder records, only the cops and bad guys have guns. (Ordinary people aren’t supposed to defend themselves in Chicago. Mayor Daley won’t permit it.)

But there’s no denying the Obama effect. Overnight, prices of AK-47s skyrocketed, in some places as high as 200%. Same with AR-15s and other weapons carrying more than ten rounds. You may remember the Clinton Assault Weapons Ban. That didn’t do much to stop the proliferation of serious weaponry. It was a joke. Yes, magazines were limited to ten rounds. But there were no limits on how many magazines one could carry.

Several articles have appeared about surging guns and ammo sales across the nation, and the gun stores I’ve visited have been packed full of purchasers eager to beat expected new anti-gun measures. Barack Obama has said he supports gun control, and his legislative record backs him up. Yes, there was the Supreme Court’s Heller decision, but that victory for Second Amendment gun rights was by a one vote margin. Change a judge, and it’s a new ballgame.

But something else, too is driving the buys. A different fear.

Mexican drug gangs are storming our border, shooting up border towns and killing police officers and border guards from El Paso to Tucson to San Diego, and of course, their Mexican counterpart cities. And the Latino gangs that support these drug lords, like MS-13, are spreading across our lands like an infection. MS-13 is in Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, El Paso, Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and other cities as well.

Just last Halloween in Tucson, my home turf, three teenagers in three wrong places at three wrong times were shot down, two of them killed. All three were students at Sunnyside High School. Three normal kids with bright futures, students of a friend of mine. One of these kids, a young girl, was at a party. Some gang-bangers tried to crash, and an argument ensued. Later the bangers came back. They shot up the house from their car. The girl, inside dancing with friends, died.

My teacher friend says the kids know the ropes. You’re sitting at a stop light and a car pulls up. Someone in the other car flashes a gang sign. You’re not in a gang or you’re in a different gang; you don’t respond or you give the wrong sign.

That's disrespect.

Bang, bang, you’re dead.

Amazing. Imagine being a teenager today...

A few weeks ago, my wife and two of her friends took their Concealed Carry Class and submitted their permit paper-work. The class was jammed. The instructors said classes have been packed for more than a year; they're struggling to keep up with demand.

Now these are ordinary citizens. Not gang-bangers, not criminals. You can’t get a concealed carry permit if you’re a criminal. Nor can a criminal buy a gun – legally. But criminals don’t have any problem getting guns, all kinds of guns, even automatic weapons. They just smuggle them in from Mexico and spread them around the gangs. The guns that are terrorizing Chicago aren’t guns held by law-abiding citizens; they’re gang guns. No gun ban is going to stop that trade. Only law abiding citizens are denied the means to protect themselves in Chicago.

Our growing security anxiety is fueled by several very real concerns: 1) fear that our institutions are breaking down; 2) fear that wealth re-distribution policies will heighten tensions; 3) fear that anti-gun measures will limit purchases by law-abiding citizens of weapons and ammunition; 4) fear that like the L. A. riots after the Rodney King beating and the looters and marauders during and after Katrina, there will be roving gangs of looters and predators following any future catastrophe or breakdown of food delivery, power supply, energy or social order; 5) fear that terrorist or gang or drug lord raids within our borders will increase; 6) fear that our borders are so porous, we have no ability to stop drugs or the growing illegal gun trade, and 6) fear that the police cannot adequately protect us.

A Harvard study a year or so ago examined the effectiveness of strict gun control measures worldwide. The study concluded that those jurisdictions that have the more severe gun limits, have higher crime rates. Look at Chicago or Washington, D.C. Indeed, Britain, which completely banned most guns many years ago, has seen violent crime rise since.

Already, some silly measures have become law, and are being considered elsewhere. Like the California law that requires every handgun sold by 2010 to imprint on its cartridge identifying marks traceable to the gun. This law was passed last year by the California legislature and signed by the Governator despite no proof that such technology exists or would be effective. In fact, a study by the University of California at Davis, showed that such technology does not work. And what about revolvers? Their cartridges are carried away with the gun.

Imagine how easily you could be framed. Go to the gun range, fire your weapon. Someone picks up your brass and leaves it at a crime scene.

Boom. You’re in jail.

The gun industry has reacted slowly to the California measure, although at least one manufacturer has decided not to sell guns to police or anyone else in California if this law remains in effect. A few other manufacturers are considering similar actions.

So called “assault” weapons are defined very loosely. The term is usually described as semi-automatic weapons, those that don’t have a rotating cylinder feeding a bullet to the chamber. Banners claim these weapons aren’t used for hunting; they're only used to kill people.

That's not true. On either front.

Varmint hunting is popular these days. Rats, prairie dogs, coyotes, they're fair game in many areas. And semi-automatic weapons, both pistols and rifles, are popular choices for hunting them.

I've owned semi-automatic weapons for over ten years, and I don't hunt.

I haven’t killed anybody.

I shoot paper, lots of paper. I compete in paper-shooting contests. Fun stuff, shooting in competitions, part of our American heritage. Sergeant York, an American hero, used to compete in turkey shoots. So do I, but my turkeys are paper, and they’re taped over cardboard.

And what’s wrong with that? Good clean sport. Nothing gets killed, and only a few pieces of paper and cardboard are damaged. The paper, bullets and cartridges are all recycled.

Shooting is green.

So who gets hurt by me owning a gun... or several?

Semi-automatic weapons fire one bullet at a time, just like revolvers do. Yes, magazines for these guns may contain more bullets, but some revolvers shoot as many as eight rounds, and there are speed loaders available. Speed loaders facilitate a revolver rate of fire not far slower than a semi-auto's.

Pick up any gun magazine; there are many from which to choose. Check out the ads. Yes, they may scare you. But remember, these are the guns the good guys, law-abiding citizens, are buying. They're used for self defense and for sport. A gun ban won't stop gangs from getting guns. Criminals don't file for concealed carry permits, and they don't buy their guns in U.S. gun stores. You bump into a bad guy at the wrong time and place, and the only thing between you and the coroner may be your ability to defend yourself.

The bad guys may have machine guns. And sometimes, grenades.

Back in Connecticut, a Revolutionary War cemetery adjoined my back yard. Stones dressed with flags mark the war's graves. In those veterans' days, every home contained a gun.

We may return to that notion.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Election Hangover

By Pat Browning

After weeks of constantly scouring the Internet for the latest election news, I’m finding the habit hard to break. It turns out that the post-election news is almost as addictive.

Apart from raging controversies over the dress Mrs. Obama wore for her husband’s victory speech, and the best dog for the Obama girls, writers for major newspapers have posted columns both humorous and poignant.

Here are excerpts from some of my favorites.

OVER the coming days and weeks, there will be many “I never thought I’d see the day” pieces, but none of them will be more overflowing with “I never thought I’d see the day”-ness than this one.

I’m black, you see, and I haven’t gained a pound since college. I skip breakfast most days, have maybe half a sandwich for lunch, and sometimes I forget to eat dinner. Just slips my mind. Yesterday morning, I woke up to a new world. America had elected a Skinny Black Guy president.

An AP story on CNN:
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has dismissed criticism of his description of U.S. president-elect Barack Obama as "tanned" and walked out of a news conference after blasting a journalist who pressed him on the issue.

Berlusconi appeared visibly annoyed after a Friday summit of European Union leaders when reporters questioned him about the possible political fallout of the comments he made Thursday in Russia. The outspoken Italian leader appeared to be joking when he said Obama "has everything needed in order to reach deals with him: he's young, handsome and even tanned."

Berlusconi later said the remark was meant to be "cute" and called those who disagreed "imbeciles, of which there are too many."

Finally, on behalf of the baby-boom generation, I would like to hear a little round of applause before we cede the stage to the people who were too young to go to Woodstock and would appreciate not having to listen to the stories about it anymore.

As we start fresh with a constitutional law professor and senator from the Land of Lincoln, the Lincoln Memorial might be getting its gleam back. I may have to celebrate by going over there and climbing up into Abe's lap. It's a $50 fine. But it'd be worth it.

I saw the president-elect on Thursday -- six different times, for a total of 71 seconds. We didn't speak, but he did grin and wave at me. At least I think it was at me. It could have been the Secret Service agents standing behind me, all toting automatic rifles, who are a constant and imposing presence around Barack Obama.

Some of the Windy City's motorists, it became clear, did not seem to understand that A) the Chicago Police Department car that trails the president-elect's motorcade is serious about having traffic pull over when the officers inside flash the lights and hit the sirens, and B) it's not a great idea to cut in front of a black SUV filled with heavily armed Secret Service agents.

When the motorcade pulled off a highway and onto city streets, a couple in a tan sedan tried to drive around the motorcade.

The Secret Service agents cut the car off immediately and aimed their weapons at its occupants. The driver slammed on the brakes, and he and his stunned passenger threw their hands into the air.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the Hawaii Legislature in 1959, two years before Mr. Obama was born in Honolulu, and declared that the civil rights movement aimed not just to free blacks but “to free the soul of America.”

Mr. King ended his Hawaii speech by quoting a prayer from a preacher who had once been a slave, and it’s an apt description of the idea of America today:

“Lord, we ain’t what we want to be; we ain’t what we ought to be; we ain’t what we gonna be, but, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

The last word belongs to President Bush. He’s not noted for his eloquence, but he “riz above his raisin'" as an old saying goes.


Bush's comments to his staff, under a gray sky on the South Lawn, also had the feel of an early goodbye with 75 days left in office. Bush sounded wistful as he looked out at a lot of familiar faces, including some people he's seen at work each day for nearly eight years. The president recalled that before his 2001 inauguration, he said that he and his wife would never quite settle in Washington.

"While the honor is great," Bush said, "the work is temporary."

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Perfect Place to Write

Because I began my writing career as a news reporter, I could probably write in the middle of a traffic jam, but there are distractions that bring me to an exasperating halt. Phones and door bells ringing, neighbors and friends popping in when you least expect them, salesmen (yes, they still do occasionally appear at your doorstep), missionaries leaving pamphlets, and so on.

According to Carl Honore, who wrote In Praise of Slowness, it takes our brains eight minutes to return to our creativity mode whenever we’re distracted. Telephone interruptions require a fifteen minute recovery time. With email, one message delays your creative train of thought for more than a minute, according to Lois J. Peterson in her article, “May I Put You on Hold?”

Peterson says, “High tech interruptions come with built-in controls, if only we would use them.” We have answering machines, caller I.D. and email programs that alert us to messages, if we leave the programs open. Shutting down the Internet while we write is one solution as well as unplugging the phones, especially if you're fortunate to have broadband service.

What if? was always be on my mind if I shut off all forms of communication. What if there’s an accident at the job site, what if one of our adult children needed our help? What if my husband had an accident or broke down on the way home?

We had a large home office which I shared with my husband and our two business. Although background music helped, I was often interrupted by not only the phones but my husband wanting to share something with me. Many husbands don't understand that writing isn’t just a hobby or an excuse to avoid housework. Bestseller status would undoubtedly cure that problem.

My husband reads more than I do, including my books. I’ve talked to other writers whose spouses don’t read their work, and resent the time they spend writing instead of with the family. Countless women writers have said their husbands’ resent their creativity. Writers, artists and entertainers used to only comprise 5% of the population (before self publishing), so that placed us in a special category, of which I cannot think of anything comparable, with the possible exception of rocket science and brain surgery. I’m not advocating that writers be placed on a pedestal, but regardless of how much money we earn, or how little, our talents should be respected by family members.

Few of us have our own private office or cubby hole where our writing time is sacred. I've gotten out of bed in the middle of the night to write something down that was rattling around in my brain, without phones ringing or people barging in. I was tired next morning and probably more than a little cranky, but as every writer knows, if it's not handwritten or typed into the computer, we're going to lose that "brilliant" passage.

Writing isn’t just an occupation that doesn't pay all that well,  for me it’s a source of joy and feeling of accomplishment, like nothing else. I’d rather write than attend a party, sell books at a signing, or stay in bed all day to read.

Although most women writers have said, “I need a wife to do the chores so I can write,” the obvious solution is to marry another writer who cooks, cleans and edits. And while we’re at it, make sure he looks like George Clooney.)

Most of my writing problems were solved when my husband retired and we moved to a small mountaintop ranch (pictured above) with only cell phone service and few neighbors. The only distractions are cows mooing in the distance and an occasional deer or antelope passing by my window or an eagle soaring past. It doesn't get much better than that.

~Jean Henry Mead

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Joy of Revision

I know writers who hate to edit, but I love it. There is nothing like watching a pile of ordinary words begin to shine. But once you have your masterpiece in your hands, this squalling red-faced newborn with its squinched-up face and its misshapen head, how do you shape it into the beautiful baby you know it can be?

First, put the manuscript away for awhile. A month is good if you can manage it. Then read the manuscript through with your colored pen in hand. Look at the Big Picture. Does everything make sense? Where do you need more development? Where are you spinning your wheels? Do you have too many characters? Not enough? Do you have the right balance of plot and character? Are your characters consistent? Is your pacing right? Does everything move at the same speed? Where do you need more information? Where do you need less? Do not fix the problems; just note them.

Go through the manuscript again, correcting the big problems you noticed above. If there is a pacing problem, decide which scenes need to move faster, which might need a slower, more thoughtful pace. Sentence length and structure can affect the pacing of the story. Are all your sentences the same length? Try varying them. Add necessary scenes. Take out unnecessary scenes, even if you love them. (I keep a folder called “Jared scraps” for things I like but which don’t fit this book. That way, I don't feel so bad about cutting things I like a lot. I may never use them again--but they're there if I want them.)

Use the edit/find function to look for “filler” words: that, just, very, etc. You don’t need, “She was very beautiful” or “The stench was pretty awful.” “Very” and “pretty” dilute “beautiful” and “awful.” Do a global search for these words and eliminate every one that you don’t absolutely need. (I'll bet you can do without "beautiful" and "awful" too. What does beautiful look like? What does awful smell like? Rotten eggs or an overused outhouse?) While you're at it, look for your own pet words and phrases. We all have them. Do another search for those words and see if you can replace some of them with more vivid words, phrases, or images. (In one book a popular author whose work I generally admire used “the tires chirped” or “I pulled away with a chirp of tires” at least half a dozen times. It was an interesting line and sounded original the first time, but after a while it just seemed odd. Do tires chirp all that often, really?

Replace meaningless gestures with meaningful ones. Shrugging, grinning, and smiling are fine for first drafts, but look for the telling gesture or detail. Another good use for the search feature.

Look at the rhythm of your sentences. Try to end your sentences with the word that has the most weight. (Not, “After I talked to Moretti, I picked up a sausage McMuffin and went down to the docks to poke around,” but “After I talked to Moretti, I picked up a sausage McMuffin and went down to poke around at the docks.” Not, “There was a star-shaped hole in his head, and a thin line of blood trickled from it,” but “A thin line of blood trickled from the star-shaped hole in his head.”)

Read your dialogue aloud. Does it sound natural? Does it sound too natural (uh, um…I mean, like, really...)?

Replace generalities with specific details. Not, “She was the nicest woman I’d ever met,” but, “I knew she only had ten dollars to last her until payday, but she pulled a crumpled five from her pocket and stuffed it in the blind man’s cup.” Look for bland nouns and weak verbs. Replace them with strong, vivid ones. Don’t settle for the almost right word. Go for the lightning, not the lightning bug.

Keep your characters’ eyes in their heads. (“His eyes slithered down her body.” Well, that’s just gross.) Personally, I'm not bothered when people's eyes meet; that's such a common phrase it hardly registers any more, but there are many readers who are bothered by it, so why take the chance?

When you say something like, “Running for the bus, he tripped over a crack in the sidewalk,” make sure the two actions you’ve chose really can be (and would be) done simultaneously.” Not, “Falling onto the bed, she dialed the phone.” Fall first, then dial. Or dial first, then fall. It would be very hard to do both at the same time.

In the same vein, watch for misplaced modifiers: Mary moved to a little Irish village with nothing but a suitcase and an extra pair of overshoes. Does the village have only a suitcase and overshoes? No, try this instead: With nothing but a suitcase and an extra pair of overshoes, Mary moved to a little Irish village.

Are you showing when you should show and telling when you should tell? Or vice versa?

Beware the information dump, especially of the “as you know, Bob” kind, in which two characers tell each other things they both already know.

“Hardy Boy Syndrome,” she quipped. Just don’t do it. “Said” is good. Rule of thumb: only use a descriptive speech tag if the way a thing is said belies what is being said (“I hate you,” she said sweetly.), or if it’s necessary for characterization or effect. Note: you can’t hiss anything unless it has a lot of sibilants. It might be important to tell us if someone whispered or murmured something. Sometimes.

You can’t smile a word, grin a word, smirk a word, or frown a word. Not: “They’re beautiful,” Jen smiled. Instead, try: “They’re beautiful.” Jen smiled.

Read each sentence aloud. I usually point as I go, since it’s very easy to miss typos, such as repeated or misspelled words.

Exhausted yet? Put the manuscript away for awhile and then read through it again. Happy? Now find several readers and/or writers whose opinions you trust and ask them to read your manuscript for you. Ask them to make places they didn't understand, or places where their attention wandered. Read the suggestions of your readers with an open mind. You will agree with some of their suggestions. Others, you’ll disagree with. If you hear the same thing from several readers, they probably have a point. There is probably something wrong with that section of the book. The solution may be different from what the reader or readers suggested, but there is something there you should work on.

All right. Your book is perfect now, right? Wrong. Put it away again for a while and work on something else. You know your book so well you can practically recite it. But because you do, you read the sentences as you mean for them to be. You will invariably overlook some typos. Our minds provide meaning and correct errors without our knowledge. So read the manuscript again—backwards. (Thanks to Kathryn Wall for that tidbit!) By reading each sentence in isolation, you have a better chance of catching any errors that may have slipped by.

All done? Congratulations! It’s a book! Your beautiful new literary baby is ready to show the world.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Lucky Break

By Mark W. Danielson

Last weekend, Ben Small and I were privileged to be two of fifty authors who were invited to participate in Irvine, California’s Men of Mystery event. Approximately five hundred people who love mysteries pay good money to have lunch with an author. Over the past six years, I have listened to such impressive key speakers as Dean Koontz, Vince Flynn, James Patterson, and this year, Andrew Gross.

Andrew is best known for co-authoring the first four of James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series. On his first book, Andrew received zero billing. On the next, his name made the cover. The third gave him equal billing and made him a household name. His dubious partnership with James Patterson began with a phone call where James told Andrew he “did women well.” Wearing a smirk, Andrew quickly explained that James was referring to his writing skills before admitting that this phone call was his lucky break. We should all be so lucky, but the fact is, a break of this magnitude is merely a foot in the door, and what kept Andrew employed was his quality writing. Without it, his partnership with James would have ended before it began.

After the event, I spoke with Robert Fate Bealmear. Robert drops his last name, using just his first and middle names, and I must say it suits his outlook on writing. Robert agrees that more often than not, fate determines a writer’s success. Having authored over sixty books, many of which have been made into films and television, Robert is truly an acclaimed author, yet he’s still amazed that at 73 years old, Hollywood is still buying his work. I replied that the great thing about writing is whether you are twenty or ninety, good writing is always greeted with enthusiasm.

That evening at dinner, someone asked whether I could make a living at writing. My answer was yes, but probably not by writing novels. I do quite well at selling freelance magazine articles, and unlike novels that pay royalties based on sales, magazine publishers always pay up front. Given this, one might wonder why I bother writing novels. Simply put, it’s because fiction allows me to express and resolve whatever it is that’s bubbling inside me. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, I will always write, so long as there is a topic worth writing about.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Interview with PI Greg McKenzie

By Chester Campbell

Today we’re interviewing Lt. Col. Gregory McKenzie, USAF, Retired. If you’re unfamiliar with Greg (shame, shame), he’s the narrator and chief protagonist of the Greg McKenzie Mysteries, of which four have been published. I don’t have a photo of him (I think he’s camera shy), but his first description of himself in Secret of the Scroll is: “Gannon stands half a head taller than my five-foot-ten, and he’s depressingly slim while I bulge in all the wrong places.” Let’s get on with the interrogation.

CC: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Greg. Give us a little background about yourself.

Greg: I was born in St. Louis to a red-faced, garrulous Scotsman who was a master brewer for Anheuser-Busch. He came to the U.S. with his parents as a teenager. My mother, a schoolteacher, had some Scottish blood in her, as well. After high school, I majored in political science at the University of Michigan, then worked as a St. Louis County deputy sheriff for about four years. I joined the Air Force and became a special agent with the Office of Special Investigations.

CC: What’s an OSI agent do?

Greg: They’re like police detectives, similar to the Army’s CID and the Navy’s NCIS. We investigated crimes, on and off base—I jokingly say I pursued cases like overpriced wrenches and stolen toilet paper, but it was a lot more serious than that. I was involved in murder investigations, drug cases, espionage, terrorist incidents. Anything that might pose a threat to Air Force personnel and installations.

CC: You stayed in until retirement?

Greg: Yeah, stayed in sounds good. When my time was up, I was sort of invited out. I never minded stepping on toes if it got the job done. But when you step on toes that wind up marching around the Pentagon and oversee the OSI, it gets a little sticky. I found my career maxing out as a lieutenant colonel. Unless you’re promoted to full colonel, they cut you off after so many years.

CC: You really did the retirement thing at first, didn’t you?

Greg: Oh, yeah. I was only sixty, so Jill and I bought an RV and set out to bum our way around the country. We wintered in California, then summered through Idaho and Montana and the Dakotas. We headed for Florida when the weather turned coolish, and made our way up the East Coast as spring pushed its way northward. For two years after that, we enjoyed sniffing the jacaranda around the American retirement community outside Guadalajara, Mexico. But Jill longed to return to her roots in Tennessee. So we bought an immodest log house in the Nashville suburbs, and now it’s very much home.

CC: I believe you worked for the DA in Nashville for a while?

Greg: You had to bring that up. I enjoyed my stay but it didn’t last too long.

CC:P What happened?

Greg: There was this case, made a lot of noise in the papers and on TV. The wife of a young CPA who lived in a fashionable section of town disappeared. She was a successful interior designer and the daughter of the president of a big local bank. The lead investigator for the Metro Police was a detective named Mark Tremaine. He immediately zeroed in on the husband and hounded him to death. Tremaine ignored some other leads and continued to expound his theories on what the young man had done with his wife’s body. When he couldn’t take it any longer, the guy took his son and went back home to Philadephia. I made some pretty strong remarks about what I thought of Tremaine, believing it was off the record. They showed up on the front page on the newspaper. The banker, who didn’t like his son-in-law, was the DA’s chief backer. End of career.

CC: So you’re now a PI. How did that come about?

Greg: That was mostly my wife’s idea, but I bought into it. After that situation down at Perdido Key, Florida, where we looked into the death of our best friends’ son, Jill had the bright idea that we should open a private investigation agency. I had enjoyed getting back into the role of criminal investigator, though strictly on a volunteer basis, so I agreed.

CC: Your wife had no experience, right?

Greg: Right. She’s had lots of experience as a commercial pilot, ran her own charter service while I was in the Air Force. But investigations, no. However, in Florida she showed a real knack for getting information out of women in an informal setting. She still does it, and she’s turned out to be a great assistant in my investigations. Oh, better not let her hear that “assistant” thing. We’re equal partners, of course.

CC: As I recall, your military service was sort of a family tradition. Tell us about that.

Greg: As far as I’ve been able to determine, it started back in 1794 when sixteen McKenzies were mustered into the 98th Argyllshire Highlanders at Stirling Castle, north of Glasgow. After the unit was re-designated the 91st, other McKenzie relatives followed them on down to 1881. That’s when the 91st was merged with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders to form the regiment my grandfather fought with in the Boer War and World War I. My dad, Rob McKenzie, was a little less combative. He was an Army cook in World War II.

CC: You haven’t mentioned your age. You’re still in your late sixties, aren’t you?

Greg: Right. Thanks to you. It’s still 2004 where I live.

CC: Wish I could slow down the calendar like that.

Greg: Hey, you should be a character instead of a writer.

CC: Sorry, I don’t believe anybody would want to write about me. Stories have to be exciting, not boring.

Greg: I’ve been shot, mauled, threatened, insulted, disparaged . . . how about taking it easy with me next time out?

CC: All that action keeps you on your toes, keeps you young at heart. All that and your good-looking wife. Thanks for being with us today, Greg. I look forward to seeing you around again soon.

Greg: How soon? People keep asking when am I getting another case.

CC: Tell them to be patient, it won’t be long.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Naproxen, Please

by Ben Small

Yesterday, on the way home from an especially fun Men of Mystery book convention, my wife and I stopped off at the Imperial Dunes, a sea of massive sand dunes just twenty miles west of the California/Arizona line. We’d scouted the site on the way to the festival. Apologies to Mark Danielson and his lovely wife, Lynn, for cancelling out on the planned group dinner. After an eight hour drive from Tucson and a full day’s session, and knowing what lay ahead of us the next day, the wife and I took the quick-salad-and-hit-the-sack option.

A sign of age.

These dunes stretch for over fifty miles, from Sonora, Mexico well into the California interior just east of the Salton Sea. It’s a spectacular stretch of shifting yellow, reminiscent of some of the harsher areas of the Sahara. Dunes three hundred feet tall are common; they’re formidable, with bladed edges, curving crescents, and plunging cliffs off the leeward side. The sand dune scenes of the original Star Wars trilogy were shot here. One half expects R2D2 or maybe a camel to make an appearance.

There’s no fence across the border here. And until Interstate 8, there were no roads here either, unless one counts the wooden planks dropped down in the early 1900s. You may encounter illegals on ATVs or even Humvees. Maybe that’s why one sees green-striped Border Patrol vehicles everywhere.

Luckily, we didn’t see any news reports about shoot outs with drug runners in the Imperial Dunes Recreational Area until we got home. Seems it’s not an unusual occurrence, although night battles are most common.

We rented ATVs, and for old farts, did a credible job attacking these powdery monsters and laying our tracks. (Relax, tree-huggers, there were no fragile plants to trample or rip, and blowing sand soon covered our passage.) With just a little practice, I was soon ripping across wind-blown speed bumps, using my legs to absorb the pounding as I built up speed to challenge a nearly vertical three hundred foot climb.

Too little speed and one learns the hard way how to turn around a five hundred pound vehicle on a vertical face in knee deep sand. Too much speed, and you fly over the crescent and drop thirty or more feet, screaming because you know this is not good news. Ostriches do face plants; people tend to break their necks. Just a few weeks ago, the Border Patrol had to helicopter out a woman who’d tried to play ostrich.

Needless to say, my wife was a bit more cautious than me, but then, she’s got some common sense. I’m a guy; guys do stupid things, it's in our genetic structure. I thought I'd lost my stupid guy trick-bag sometime during my fifties, when my wife was re-ordering my priorities and forcing me to grow up, but put me on an ATV and Wa-Hoo, testosterone and idiocy blossom once again.

Watch out Poncho. The Cisco Kid is back.

We sandblasted our exposed body parts for an hour-and-a-half. Enough for a first taste. But we’ll be back. Fun like that doesn’t come every day. Next time we’ll plan a weekend, and maybe rent more powerful machines.

In the meantime, we’re struggling to figure out how get the sand out. Two showers later, and we’re still finding sand: in our mouths, our eyelashes, our hair ― even under our nails.

You see some strange things in places like this. Like some guy in a late model SUV, flying an enormous Italian flag, backing up a quarter mile, and then roaring forward, getting a head of steam as he charges up a three hundred foot vertical face. He gets to the top and turns around, charges down the face again. He gets out and waves the flag, then climbs back in and does it all over again.

Don’cha just love Italians?

I’m so sore, I may not move for a week. Pass the Naproxen, please.