Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The Nashville I Write About
By Chester Campbell
I write mysteries set in and around Nashville. But it isn’t the Nashville that most folks are familiar with. You’ve probably heard about it primarily as Music City USA, home of the Grand Ole Opry, the number three recording center in the country. A place where names like Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban are tossed about. And, of course, the home area of Mylie Cyrus (alias Hannah Montana) and her dad, Billy Ray.
If you're a sports fan, maybe it's the place where the Tennessee Titans play, or home of the Nashville Predators NHL team.
The music industry merits an occasional mention in my books, but the locations I use are seldom connected to it. The last Greg McKenzie mystery, The Marathon Murders, deals with a part of town that hasn’t had the best reputation in recent years. The plot is built around the old Marathon Motor Works just beyond downtown, in an area where a low-rent housing project became such an eyesore it was demolished.
When a Type A entrepreneur bought the badly run-down buildings of the auto maker that went out of business in 1914, he had to clean up the debris left by years of homeless squatters. A cop told him he’d better carry a big gun if he wanted to survive around there. After all the restoration work, it’s a neat place, housing studios for artists, photographers, and musicians. The housing project has been rebuilt as modern multi-family houses.
The entrepreneur, who renamed his venture Marathon Village, scoured the country and found a couple of rebuilt 1912 and 1914 Marathon touring cars and put them in the old showroom. That’s where I had my launch party for The Marathon Murders.
I visited the opposite extreme in that book with a couple of characters who live in the city’s most posh suburb, Belle Meade. In that case I alluded to an old sobriquet for Nashville—the Son-in-Law Town. Years ago when I was publishing a local magazine, the popular refrain referred to young out-of-towners who came to Vanderbilt University, stayed on and married girls whose dad’s were captains of industry. When the dads retired, the sons-in-law took over the businesses.
In the new Sid Chance series, the main character comes from my side of town, a traditional middle class area. His sometimes associate lives in a mansion among the upper crust, just across the line from Williamson County, one of the highest income counties in the nation. It provides an opportunity to show some contrasting lifestyles and the possibility for conflict that brings.
My aim is to get beyond the stereotypes and show the city as it really exists where the people live. I’ve only scratched the surface so far, which leaves a lot more to tell.
The Surest Poison will be out in a couple of weeks. Keep an eye on my Mystery Mania blog and my website for news about the book launch.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Talk about timing. News coverage of Colorado’s blizzard works right in with the Colorado blizzard that opens Jean Henry Mead’s DIARY OF MURDER.
And fie on those who say weather makes a poor opener. Weather affects our moods, our health, our actions, our history. If George Washington had tried to cross the Delaware on a warm spring afternoon we might still be part of the British Empire.
Marilyn Meredith's third Tempe Crabtree mystery INTERVENTION takes place during a snowstorm. No snowstorm, no mystery.
In the case of DIARY OF MURDER, driving blind in a Colorado snowstorm could be a metaphor for trying to find the truth about a mysterious death. There’s so much snow in that book I had to turn up the thermostat and fire up the coffee pot when I finished reading it.
In real life, Mother Nature is on a rampage this weekend through the Midwest. Fits right in with Nancy Mehl’s IN THE DEAD OF WINTER, which opens with the protagonist on an icy Kansas road.
I gripped the steering wheel in a desperate attempt to keep my car from sliding on the ice-covered road. My decision to leave the main highway had been a huge mistake. I should have realized that the weather would worsen the closer I got to Winter Break. The fury of the storm outside matched the tempest that raged inside me. I was going back to a place I’d abandoned years ago.
More snow, in this opening from THE PAPER DETECTIVE by E. Joan Sims,settles me right into her story and makes me wish I were there.
I lounged back against the comfortable arm of the red chintz sofa in the library and gazed out the double French doors at the snow. Flakes as big as goose feathers had fallen softly and steadily all night long. Deep pillowy drifts piled up next to the orchard fence and around the base of the fruit trees, and according to the weatherman, more snow was on the way.
Snow is picturesque, but heat and fire are true to settings in Los Angeles. In L.A. REQUIEM, Robert Crais opens Part 1 with the infamous Santa Ana winds, in a description so vivid it makes me itch.
That Sunday, the sun floated bright and hot over the Los Angeles basin, pushing people to the beaches and the parks and into backyard pools to escape the heat. The air buzzed with the nervous palsy it gets when the wind freight-trains in from the deserts, dry as bone, and cooking the hillsides into tar-filled kindling that can snap into flames hot enough to melt an auto body. The Verdago Mountains above Glendale were burning. A column of brown smoke rose off the ridgeline there where it was caught by the Santa Anas and spread south across the city, painting the sky with the color of dried blood.
On a cooler note, there is this lovely opening of OLD BONES by Aaron Elkins.
So still and silent was the fog-wreathed form that it might have been an angular, black boulder. But there are no boulders, angular or otherwise, to mar the immense, flat tidal plain that is Mont St. Michel Bay. When the tide is out there is only sand, more than a hundred square miles of it. And when the tide is in, the plain becomes a vast, rolling ocean from which the great abbey-citadel of Mont St. Michel itself – St. Michael’s Mount -- rears like some stupendous, God-made thing of dark and gloomy granite, all narrow Gothic arches and stark, medieval perpendiculars.
My favorite opener, one that invokes my first trip to Paris, is from KINGDOM OF SHADOWS by Alan Furst.
On the tenth of March 1938, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord a little after four in the morning. There were storms in the Ruhr Valley and down through Picardy and the sides of the wagon-lits glistened with rain. In the station at Vienna, a brick had been thrown at the window of a first-class compartment, leaving a frosted star in the glass. And later that day there'd been difficulties at the frontier for some of the passengers, so the train was late getting into Paris.
That was Paris 1938, as Europe teetered on the edge of World War II. More than 30 years later, Paris 1969 was a peaceful and affordable place for American tourists. It was still raining.
My tour group’s hotel was a budget place on a narrow street across from a grocery store, close by a bakery and a bistro. The rug at the top of the hotel stairs was torn and I almost tripped on it when I looked over the railing into the lobby below. That night I opened the drapes in my room to let in a little air and found myself looking at a man with a pair of binoculars sitting in his window across the way.
We were at the end of a hectic three-week tour of Europe. For reasons long forgotten I was the only one still speaking to our tour guide. He and I spent a couple of rainy evenings strolling along the Champs Elysees, stopping now and then for hot chocolate at a sidewalk café. For years afterward, the sight of trees glistening in the rain transported me right back to Paris.
Thanks, then, from me to writers who will set a scene and tell me if the characters are caught in the rain, the snow, a Santa Ana or a sirocco. Please, if the weather has a bearing or sets a tone, put it in the book.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Survival Skills. Will We Need Them?
I recently read an article titled “Dust off Your Survival Skills” by Marcia Hensley in my statewide newspaper. Hensley quoted Kurt Wilson, who hosts an online site called “Armchair Survivalist.”
Wilson says the nation is falling into such chaos that survival skills will be crucial. Some experts predict that our current “recession” will deepen worse than the depression of the 1930s. Old-timers who survived the Great Depression say they considered themselves fortunate to have a roof over their heads and enough to eat. Is it going to come to that?
Hensley, the author of Staking a Claim:Women Homesteading the West, says those of us living in the Western states have a much better chance of survival than urban dwellers because there is land on which to grow our own food, hunt rabbits and wild game, and raise chickens and turkeys. But alternative press sources say that in at least one state home gardens have been banned because it contributes to greenhouse gases. In Washington state a homeowner was fined because he was catching rainwater in barrels that belongs to the government. And in Texas groundwater has been purchased so that meters can be installed on agricultural wells.
Hensley said: “Since my husband I live on some of the same ground that supported settlers and their descendants—even in the same log house (although since remodeled) that they built—I’ve been wondering if we could survive under the same conditions they endured." She goes on to say that they held a dress rehearsal during last year's severe winter when they were snowed in for several days. They ate can goods and frozen food and were fortunate they didn't lose power.
But what if the power grid were sabotaged? she said. Could they stay warm with only a wood burning stove on Wyoming's high plains? And how long would batteries last for a transistor radio? Forget TV, computers, refrigerators and other household appliances. What if the gasoline supply were cut off and those who lived out of town couldn’t go anywhere. You’d need a horse or dog team to pull a sled or wagon. And what if the shelves were bare at the stores in town? Hensley paints a nightmarish picture of what could happen.
Barton Biggs, a New York based strategist who advised Morgan Stanley investors, says in his recent book, Wealth, War and Wisdom, that the breakdown in civilized society is coming. He advises creating safe havens stocked with necessities such as canned food, liquids, medicine, seeds and fertilizer. In the long run the survival retreats will also need a water supply and a way of growing food.
Armchair survivalist Kurt Wilson says of the nineteen states best suited as retreat areas, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming are preferred. “It puts gardening in a whole new light,” according to Hensley. “Forget the petunias. Save that precious water for potatoes and beans. Hunting wildlife will no longer be recreational. It will be a necessity. Could we raise chickens or barter with friends if we do? We could try to get a calf or pig to fatten, and we’d want to replace our horse with a milk cow. On second thought, we might need that horse to get to the post office, assuming we still have mail delivery.”
What do you think? Before you answer, do some research of your own.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
The Green-Eyed Monster
I've been reading (that is, when I can squeeze a few minutes out of my day) a book called The Forgotten Man by Robert Crais. Before that I read Chasing Darkness and The Watchman, also by Crais, and okay, I admit it, I've been bitten by the green-eyed monster. Bitten badly. It's not that Crais is young, hot, and immensely successful. (I don't begrudge him that, really I don't.) It's that he's so darn good.
In protagonist Elvis Cole (the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Detective), Crais has created a hero with depth and heart. As for sidekick Joe Pike...well, let me just say, "I heart Joe Pike." With Pike, Crais turns the stereotype of the psychotic sidekick on its ear. Yes, Joe is the strong, silent type, and yes, he is capable of becoming a killing machine, but he also has a strong moral code and a rich emotional landscape. Pike is a contradiction--a genuinely good man who can kill without flinching to protect the innocent or right a wrong. Pike is no Dexter. He has a conscience and emotions, and in The Watchman, he steps out of his role as sidekick and into the spotlight. Would the book have worked as well had I not come to care for Pike over the course of the Elvis Cole books? Though the book stands alone, it is enriched by my previous understanding of Pike's character. It was also interesting to see Elvis through Pike's eyes; usually it's the other way around.
In The Forgotten Man, Cole receives a call from a police officer who says a murdered man has just claimed, with his dying breath, that Elvis Cole is his son. Cole, who never knew his father but has never stopped hoping to find him, is drawn into the investigation. We learn a lot about Cole in this book--the boy he once was and the man he has come to be. We see his loneliness and his longing for the woman who left him because she thought his lifestyle put her child in danger, and we ache for the other good woman who loves him but is unable to make him see it. We also feel how much Cole wishes for a family like the one he never had. Meanwhile, as the pages turn, we are introduced to the psychotic young man who is planning Cole's horrific death, and the suspense creeps higher and higher. Did I mention that this guy is good?
So here I am, sucking up everything I can learn about how he does it--pacing, description, character, the whole shebang--and hoping I have what it takes to make it in this field, that people will one day feel about my characters the way they feel about Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.
What's the point of all this? First, if you like suspense novels and you haven't read Crais, run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore and stock up. (The first book in the series is The Monkey's Raincoat. It's a good book, but Crais just gets better with time.)
Second, we can learn a lot from the writers we admire.
Third, when the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head and makes us doubt ourselves and our talent, sometimes the best thing to do is acknowledge it, wish the object of the monster's attention well, and just move on. And then? Well, then, I go to my trusty bookshelf and pull out a special book chosen expressly for this purpose. Not a terrible book by any means, but something just bad enough to make me smile and say, "Hmm. Maybe I can make it at this writing thing after all."
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Who Knew Pandora Owned a Store?
A funny thing happened on the way to the phone store. You see, our upstairs phone had died a slow, agonizing death, so one day we decided to look for a replacement. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the phone market, and much has changed since then. Apparently, so many people have canceled their phone service in lieu of their cell phones that few choices remain for a simple cordless replacement. Even more aggravating is that most of these replacements come with extra phones – as in up to six – which is enough to qualify as a litter. The two Target stores we checked had reasonable displays, but there were few phones in stock. Best Buy had fewer still, and Ultimate Electronics was dismal, so we decided to try Radio Shack. While Radio Shack had a couple of good prospects, we needed more information, but after waiting ten minutes for either sales rep to finish with their customers, or at least acknowledge our presence, we decided to visit nearby Pandora’s Pet Store (not the real name) and then return to Radio Shack for the phone.
Last September, I lost my faithful pooch, Lucy, and I’m still missing her. My companion of fourteen years was eighteen months old when I rescued her from a young couple who couldn’t keep her. When she was spayed, they discovered she had heartworm. Surviving that and several other problems kept her at my side as my muse. I was hesitant to get another dog because we intend to move back to Texas. Granted, I probably used this as an excuse to keep from getting hurt, but since the economy took its spin and will likely delay our move, I had been warming up to the idea of adopting a new pooch.
So there we stood inside Pandora’s Pet Store, watching a confident Siamese roam free while pups played in their pens. We later learned that this cat was never adopted as a kitten, but he had such a great disposition, the store owners kept him there as a mascot. Now, he happily plays with the puppies, keeps the mice away, and never hurts a thing, so keeping him there was a good decision.
Anyway, a few puppies caught our eye, and we even took two sisters, call them Bonkers and Placid, into a playpen to see how they interacted. It soon became clear that while they had a good time playing with each other, they could care less about playing with us. We were about to leave when we spotted a pup who was all by himself. As it turns out, his sister left a couple of days ago, and his brother was adopted that morning. I had never imagined taking a liking to a little puff ball, but something about him caught my eye. In fact, it was his eyes -- his bright little black ones -- that made us take him into the play area. Unlike the nutzo twins of a different breed, he was calm, loved to be held, and yet was confident enough to play by himself with a toy. He was also hypo-allergenic, which was a requirement, and being small is a plus if he’s in any kind of vehicle. Since it was near closing time, we handed him back saying we’d think about it and left By now, the phone store had closed, which meant we would have to keep dragging the downstairs portable upstairs with us. But phone decisions are much easier than puppy ones because puppies can affect your lives in unimaginable ways.
Lyne and I pondered this little pooch all night, each of us wondering if this was really a good time for us to be getting another dog. For that matter, was this little powder puff the right pet for us? In fact, did he even qualify as a dog? Then there was the moral issue over whether it is right for us to buy a dog from a pet store when there are so many dogs in shelters? Indeed, it was a difficult decision, and to make it worse, I had to leave that night for a week long trip out of LA. The next day, Lyne and I spoke on the phone while with him in the playpen. Right then, that crazy Siamese decided it was time to play, dropping in on Lyne and the dog. The cat and dog wrestled each other for ten minutes while we were talking and then the cat left as if nothing ever happened. Seeing this interaction made it clear that the dog had a winning personality and we decided to bring him home. (See photo below.) We named him Maxx for the protagonist in my new Maxx Watts detective series, figuring he would be a good muse. I suspect that will be the case.
Maxx has turned out to be a truly perfect pup. He doesn’t whine, rarely barks, loves people, plays on his own, and is clearly intelligent. We couldn’t be happier. Of course, some will criticize me for not adopting from a shelter. Others will claim I’ve supported a puppy mills, even though Maxx didn’t come from one. But while I adamantly oppose puppy mills and encourage shelter adoptions, Maxx still needed a home. You can’t look at him and not smile, and it’s comforting seeing how much joy he brings. I’m not sure whether it’s a coincidence that he was born on Christmas Day, or whether we were destined to meet, but I am grateful that he is with us. He can never replace Lucy, but I’m sure that she approves. As for the phone? Well, we gave up the stores and found one on line that will work. Of course, it comes with an extra, but as with puppies, sometimes compromises work out for the best.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Gimme a Break
Last week was Spring Break time in the schools around here. Some systems take the week before Easter, but I suppose the Metro Nashville folks were too afraid the ACLU would jump them if they gave a row of holidays just before the Day of the Resurrection. It might look like they were favoring Christianity over Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Muslimism—is that a word? Anyway, you get the idea.
Our live-in grandson attends a Christian private school, so what the ACLU thinks is no concern of ours. But most private schools follow Metro’s calendar to keep things nice and neat. As a result, we had Spring Break last week like everybody else.
The break was that we got to sleep late every morning instead of getting up at the crack of dawn. By the way, you may not realize it, but dawn actually does not crack. I have listened on several occasions just to be sure. It slips in on little cat feet like Sandburg’s fog.
We were quickly spoiled by getting up past 8:00 a.m. I’m usually in bed by eleven at night, or shortly thereafter, so I stored up several extra hours that I’m preparing to give back this week.
When I rolled out of bed this morning—well, scooted would be a bit more accurate—to put on the coffee pot, it was pitch dark outside. Have you ever seen pitch? If you’ve seen tar, you have. And it’s pretty doggone black. It was just getting decently daylight by the time I pulled my chair up to the breakfast table.
I hate getting up early, but I accomplish a lot more in the office when I do. After I complained about too many interruptions, my wife started driving the kid to school. It isn’t that far. And when she gets back, she dutifully makes my morning cup of cappuccino. By then I’ve read emails, put a twit on Twitter and showed my face on Facebook.
But guess when I finally get around to writing my blogs? Shortly before the news at 10:00 p.m. Hint: it is now 9:47.
So this dude is done. I’ll put it up for broadcast at 12:01 a.m. and head for the living room. Spring Break is only a fond memory. But it was great while it lasted.
Monday, March 23, 2009
Once again, here it is the end of the first weekend of March Madness, and I’m out of the money on every single pool.
Bracket bust. I get afflicted every year.
And what’s worst is I’m a Hoosier, born and bred. Like it’s not bad enough that my beloved Hoosiers aren’t even in the tournament this year; now I gotta face all those folks who say, “Hey, I thought basketball was a religion in Indiana. How can your brackets consistently fail to perform?”
Oh the shame…
But that’s just the face of it. Look deeper, and the shame pervades like TCE in groundwater. The Surest Poison. Chester Campbell knows his stuff.
See, my high school coach was Marvin Wood, he who took tiny Milan High School which only had eight boys in the entire school and won the Indiana State Championship, back before they had classes tied to the size of schools. ESPN still shows fuzzy black and white video of that game. The stuff of legends.
Yes, that guy, the one portrayed by Gene Hackman in the sports movie classic Hoosiers. (Note: Wood wasn’t portrayed correctly by Hackman; Wood wasn’t recovering from any scandal.) Marvin Wood was a bit ironic, because Wood left Milan, the smallest school in Indiana, to coach at my high school, the largest school in the state, and my high school was never any good. See, Wood was a nice guy, but a really bad coach. Milan couldn’t afford a real coach, and Marvin Wood was the school’s driver’s ed instructor; he didn’t know squat about basketball. Instead of instructing his players that if there was no blood, there was no foul, Marvin Wood wanted them to be nice, polite and not to touch another player.
You won’t get far in basketball without defense and rebounding, and those two essentials usually result in a touching so hard assault charges can be filed.
Nope. Marvin just got lucky. Once. We all know nice guys usually finish last...
What? You don’t agree? “Tiger Woods,” you say? How do you think Tiger got that name? Tiger would eat his opponent’s young if it meant a win. Sure, Tiger is a nice guy in an elevator, but you don’t want to out putt him or Tiger might hit you with his three wood ... from four hundred yards away.
And if my bracket-bust ain’t enough embarrassment for a Hoosier whose team ain’t in the tournament, how would you like to have people say everywhere you go, “You must have played basketball, huh?”
Yup, I’m large and look like a basketball player. But I ain’t black, and I can’t jump over a beer can. I can’t outrebound my wife.
So not only do I have size sixteen floppy flat feet, look like a basketball player but I’m not, have no alma mater in the tournament, but now I have to endure being a born and bred Hoosier who couldn’t win a basketball pool if it was fixed.
I repeat: Oh the shame.
So maybe I’ll go murder somebody. Get some respect from the guy on the other end of the bullet.
Yeah, that might cover my shame ... until next year’s tournament … when I go bust again.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Words and Music
Once upon another life I lived in a Victory Hall. World War 2 was going full blast. The only men on campus were soldiers, sailors and flyboys. Frat houses had been turned into Victory Halls for female students.
Every evening before dinner, we trooped downstairs and gathered around the piano to hear one of our girls play boogie-woogie. She played by ear and I can see her yet, smiling and tapping one foot while she pounded out Tommy Dorsey’s Boogie Woogie.
Another time, another place. I don’t remember how I surfed into a smokin’ video by the Swiss pianist, Silvan Zingg, but I live on the Internet so whatever I was looking for faded to black when I found Zingg. His video “Dancin’ The Boogie” snapped me right back to college days. Great piano work and two of the best jitterbuggers – William and Maeva – I’ve seen in action since those wartime college dances.
Back then, I had never seen jitterbugs like the sailors from New York and New Jersey. Maybe it was the cute bellbottom trousers, but whatever it was – they had it in spades. My one regret was that I was too bashful to get out on the floor and give it a try.
Silvan Zingg is still working on his web sites. “Dancin’ the Boogie” is on YouTtube, but the video is of poor quality. The best quality video is on his BoogieGroove web site under Gallery. The tiny url is http://tinyurl.com/c7sgl6
One YouTube video not to be missed by boogie lovers is Zingg’s twin grand pianos duet with French pianist Jean-Paul Amouroux. It’s at http://tinyurl.com/c3kt3n
It’s not just free music you’ll find on the Internet. Short stories abound, as authors look for new audiences.
One example: two delightful short stories by Carola Dunn, free for the reading at http://www.belgravehouse.com
Both stories feature Daisy Dalrymple, Dunn’s character from her novels. In “Storm in a Tea Shoppe” there’s foxglove in the soup at Daisy’s favorite tea shoppe. In “Unhappy Medium,” Daisy and a friend go to a séance in a story with a surprise twist at the end.
Earl Staggs is writer with a short story to be read at Mysterical-E, a free mystery ezine. The Staggs story, “The Missing Sniper,” features Adam Kingston, a psychic who’s called in by a sheriff to figure out who tried to assassinate a state senator. You can read the archived story at http://tinyurl.com/apnnzy .
Adam is the kind of character you wish you could know personally. Staggs developed him further in his mystery novel, MEMORY OF A MURDER. The novel was first published by Quiet Storm in 2005, and republished with an intriguing new cover in 2008 by Cornell Maritime Press.
In the current issue of Mysterical-E you’ll find “Becalmed in Hell” by I. Van Laningham, the latest in Van Laningham’s long-running series of Andi Holmes short stories. Opening line: “Viet Nam, like alcohol, gets into your blood; death is the only cure.”
Set in 1971, this story finds Andi at Fort Monmouth, married, and about to end her army career. An old Viet Nam regular named Phil tracks her down and hires her to find his car, which was stolen by a “pretty boy” he picked up in San Francisco. A gritty, well-written story, you can read it at http://www.mystericale.com .
One of my favorite writers is Peter Abresch. We go back to 1998 when he wrote his first James P. Dandy Elderhostel Mystery, BLOODY BONSAI. I reviewed it for The Hanford (California) Sentinel, and have kept an eye on him ever since. He has written five Elderhostel mysteries, going through publishers Quiet Storm, WriteWay and Intrigue Press in the process.
His latest, NAME GAMES, is available through CreateSpace. I read it in a downloaded manuscript and liked it very much. To those who don’t know, Elderhostel is a travel/study program for senior citizens, so the Elderhostel mysteries are set in different locales.
But Abresch doesn’t stop there. Along with free writing tips on his web site, and a newsletter with his poetry (which is quite good and on the spiritual side) he has “founded” Sidewalk Books. You can hear two humorous stand-alone mysteries free on his podcasts – CAPITOL COVEN and IF THEY ASK FOR A HAND, ONLY GIVE THEM A FINGER.
Those two books are also available in print, on CD – oh, heck. Just go to http://sidewalkbooks.com and let the author explain it all to you.
Words and music. They’re part of our makeup – the need to create, to communicate. They started with jungle drums and drawings on cave walls, perhaps even earlier. They’re going strong, out into space and beyond … someone playing boogie woogie, someone writing a few good words
Why I Write
Publishing is a crazy, unstable business and few writers earn enough money to pay their expenses. The last I heard, 95% of us earn less than $12,000 a year and the average book sells 99 copies.
So why would anyone in her “right mind” devote so much time and effort to writing and marketing books? Is it the desire to give birth to something unique? A need for recognition? Or the desire to inform and entertain? I can’t answer that question. I just know that it’s imprinted in my DNA.
I sold my first book in 1981, a collection of interviews with politicians, authors, artists, craftsmen and ordinary people who had accomplished extraordinary things. The book was published by Pruett Publishing in Boulder, Colorado, and sold some 2,000 copies. I traveled around the state to take part in signing parties, and sold 40 books the first time out at a small town in eastern Wyoming. My marketing successes slid downhill from there.
My second book, which I wrote about last week, was a centennial history that required more than three years of research and writing. I shudder to think how little I earned from the book although it has sold steadily over the years from two publishers. My third was a book of interviews with well-known writers of the West, including Louis L’Amour and Hollywood screenwriters. It’s still selling online but I've never received a royalty payment because I was told it didn't earn out its advance.
After checking WorldCat, the library site, I found that there are still copies of Maverick Writers available in 114 libraries, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Baverische Staaftsbibliothek in Munich, Germany. Now, there’s a reason to keep on writing. The advance I received barely covered expenses, so satisfaction and eternal hope are also motivations to continue typing.
I then decided to write my first novel from leftover research. Escape on the Wind took a number of years to write and was helped along by the advice of two award-winning western authors, Richard S. Wheeler and Fred Grove. I recently noticed that a used hardcover copy of the book is being offered online for $152. That’s silly because the book was republished last year as Escape, A Wyoming Historical Novel, and is selling on the same Amazon page for $14.95 in trade paperback. Do readers actually pay those exorbitant prices? Or is it a seller's delusional dream?
I then started working on my first mystery novel, originally titled Shirl Lock & Holmes, a humorous senior sleuth novel, which was originally published in 1999 as an ebook and later in hardcover with another publisher. I changed the characters' names and last December it was republished again as A Village Shattered, available in print, Kindle and multi-format. Sounds as though it should have earned a lot of money but, all told, it wouldn’t pay one dentist bill. And I'm obviously not alone in that respect.
I wrote a number of nonfiction books along the way, none of which sold more than several hundred copies, so I wrote another mystery novel, Diary of Murder, the second in my Logan & Cafferty series, which just appeared at Amazon.com this week in Kindle and print versions. Next week it will also be listed in multi-format at Fictionwise and other online sources. I really enjoyed writing again about my senior sleuths, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty, two 60-year-old, feisty widows who aren’t afraid to push the envelope when it comes to crime detection, or to brave the elements by driving their motorhome through a Rocky Mountain blizzard. I hope my readers enjoy the book as much as I did writing it.
I think I’ve found the answer. I write because it’s fun!
Thursday, March 19, 2009
The Narcissistic Character
The personality disorder called narcissism takes its name from the ancient story of Narcissus, a young man of staggering beauty whose arrogant dismissal of all his suitors resulted in heartache. In the Roman version, by Ovid, the nymph Echo grieves her life away for him, pining away until only her voice remained. One heartbroken maiden prayed that Narcissus should one day learn the pain of unrequited love, and the avenging goddess Nemesis granted the prayer by placing a deep pool in the young man's path. He gazed into it and saw his reflection, with which he immediately fell in love. Narcissus wasted away for love of the beautiful boy in the pool, and eventually died, still pining for his own reflection. It is said that he still stares longingly at his own image in the River Styx.
The narcissistic personality can be an interesting character in fiction. The disorder is related to antisocial, histrionic, and borderline personality disorders and is characterized by dramatic, emotional behavior. Narcissists feel superior to others and, like the psychopath, lack empathy. However, the narcissist's inflated sense of self-importance covers a very fragile sense of self-esteem. The narcissist has a deep need to for the admiration of others and is exceptionally sensitive to even the slightest criticism.
Narcissists expect a constant stream of praise and admiration and, to achieve this, may exaggerate their talents and accomplishments. They're often jealous of others and believe others are jealous of them. They value themselves far more than they value others and often belittle others in an attempt to make themselves seem better or more important. Easily hurt and susceptible to feelings of rejection, they may become enraged if they don't receive the attention and admiration they feel they're due. They have a strong sense of entitlement.
Although the narcissistic ingenue is a literary stereotype, the disorder is actually more common in men than in women. Even so, it's a relatively rare disorder, believed to affect less than one percent of the population of the U.S. (I wasn't able to find statistics on its comparative rarity in other populations). No one knows what causes the disorder, but it is probably, like most personality disorders, the result of a complex interplay between neurological and environmental factors. Some believe there is a correlation between narcissism and a dysfunctional childhood, with extremely high parental expectations, extreme pampering or "spoiling", abuse, or neglect as possible contributors.
The Mayo Clinic lists the following as possible risk factors for narcissism:
1) Overly sensitive as a child
2) Overindulged and overvalued by parents
3) Given excessive admiration without realistic feedback to balance it
4) Given unpredictable or unreliable caregiving by parents
5) Severe emotional abuse in childhood
6)Being praised for exceptional looks or talents by adults
7) Learning manipulative behavior from adults
Narcissism is difficult to treat, in part because narcissists resist the idea that something may be "wrong" with them. However, the disorder has a negative effect on many facets of the narcissist's life. They have trouble establishing and maintaining relationships, and people often don't want to be around them. This makes them unhappy and confused and can lead to complications such as substance abuse, depression, and suicidal behaviors.
It's easy to see how a narcissistic character could make an interesting antagonist. It would be more difficult to incorporate the disorder in a protagonist, though it might be an interesting challenge, at least for the duration of a short story. Agatha Christie may have come close with Hercule Poirot, but while Poirot had the sense of superiority, in my opinion, he lacked many of the less attractive traits of the true narcissist.
How about you? Anyone out there have a good example of a narcissist in literature?
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Patients versus Patience
By Mark W. Danielson
Here’s an oxymoron for you: “Doctor’s appointment”. You see, when used in a normal sentence, these two words would imply that you and the doctor have both agreed to meet at a specific time. It’s such a simple thing, setting appointments, and when the time is set, all is fine. Sadly, this oxymoron doesn’t become apparent until you’re sitting there at your appointed time, waiting to be seen. Mind you, this revelation came to me not suddenly, but over the course of umpteen years of waiting for doctors, and when I think of the amount of time I’ve lost, it’s enough to send me to the emergency room. Hold on—there’s a wait there, too! In fact, even if you’re checked into a hospital, you have to wait—perhaps even longer because they know you can’t walk out on them.
These days, there is a lot of political rhetoric about medical reform, and it will be interesting to see whether things actually improve, or whether you should bring your camping gear along to make your indefinite wait more tolerable. (Ever wonder why they call it a Waiting Room?) Anyway, I’ve been a product of socialized medicine before, and I assure you—government care isn’t the best. But if you think socialized medicine is bad, consider what it’s like to have a socialized dental plan. (If you’re not convinced that free enterprise is better, check out some of the socialized smiles walking around.)
So here’s what I propose to ensure better private practice medical care. (Bear in mind, I’m making the assumption that people can be held accountable for their actions.) First, make sure you check in with the receptionist at the required time, then have he/she initial the time sheet you brought, and politely wait for your appointment. Jot the time down when the doctor actually shows up in your room, and at the end of your visit, politely request the receptionist initial your time sheet, and then present your bill for the time you spent waiting. Pretty simple, isn’t it? Mind you, you cannot charge the doctor for the time he or she spends with you; only the time you spent waiting for the doctor to show. (By the way, your charges must be based upon your current salary. Bringing supporting documentation may prove useful.) Remember, this is a business arrangement between you, the patient, and the doctor.
This business proposal is sure to bring about its doubters. Some will whine that doctors should spend as much time as necessary with their patients, and this is a valid point, but if every doctor were to schedule their appointments based on a reasonable time allotment, no patients would be waiting for more than a couple of minutes. Of course, then the doctor would have to change the office signs from Waiting Room to Reception Area, and that would cost money. Then again, with socialized medicine, they’ll have to change it from Waiting Room to Dormitory, so either way, sign changes will be necessary.
Since it will take a while for my plan to be universally accepted, I suppose the patients will just have to be patient, (hence the name) and find ways to occupy their time. Cell phones are out of the question, so may I suggest bringing your laptop and a snack? That way you can write a book while saving yourself a coronary.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Internet - prime source for research
The Internet is a great source for research on a mystery novel. When I started working on The Surest Poison, my new book due out next month, I had the basic idea for a plot contributed by a friend who’s a PI in Nashville. She’d worked a case a few years back that involved the dumping of a large amount of the toxic chemical trichloroethylene, commonly known as TCE.
My first step was to Google the chemical compound to see what it was like, how it was used, and what effects it would have on public health. I found both government and non-profit organization sites devoted to information on various pollutants, including TCE. I copied pages of details on the chemical and its health effects. I also found it was used as a degreaser in cleaning things like auto parts. All vital information for use in the novel.
I decided to locate my fictional chemical dump behind a small plant in a mostly rural county on the west side of Nashville. The other adjoining counties all had large populations and at least one moderate-sized city.
Back I went to the Internet to gather all the information available on Cheatham County. I found enough to steer me in the right direction when I made my first on-scene visit.
Since I put my protagonist, Sid Chance, in my home area of Madison, a northeastern suburb, I didn’t need the Internet or anything else to handle that area. However, I gave him a female sidekick who had inherited controlling interest in a lucrative chain of truck stops from her father, a French Canadian import.
I wanted Jasmine (Jaz) LeMieux to live in a French Colonial mansion in an affluent section on the other side of Nashville. I did a search on French Colonial houses and came up with one I used as a model. I also did a Mapquest search, both street and aerial views, to check out the Franklin Road area for a likely spot.
I also used Mapquest to look into several other areas, including the small town of Centerville, where I had them make a helicopter landing. It was also useful to figure how long it would take to drive from Jaz’s house to the location of a climactic event. And when I did the helicopter flight, I looked on the Bell Helicopter website to pick out the Jetranger III for the ride.
I set a few scenes in the fictional town of Lewisville, where Sid worked as chief of police until false accusations of bribery ended his career. I named it after explorer Meriwether Lewis, who died on the Natchez Trace near where I placed the town. I checked the Internet to be sure I had my facts correct on the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s chief.
I used the Internet in countless other ways to check out minor points. The common advice is to be careful of the facts you get off the web, as there is plenty of misinformation out there. If it was something I needed to be sure of, I always chose a reliable source, and on occasion checked another to confirm what I found.
Another use I made of the Internet was to ask questions on listserves or through emails to people like Dr. Doug Lyle, the forensic guru, or in one case, ex-policewoman Robin Burcell.
The Internet has made researching for a book as easy as sitting down at your computer. It can save hours of time and miles of travel. I recommend it highly.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Tucson Festvial of Books
Sorry I was late in getting this up, but I'm exhausted from two days at the First Annual Tucson Festival of Books. And what a festival it was. The organizers could not have been more proud. They were hoping to draw 50,000 people over the course of the two day festival on the University of Arizona mall, and I think the actual crowds well exceeded that figure.
There were fans and authors (over 450 of them) from all over the country, and people were buying lots of books. There were well over a hundred exhibitors, everybody from book holding gadget manufacturers, bookstores, graphic artists and web designers, editors and publishing houses.
Numerous stages were set up around the mall for author programs, many seating well over two hundred, and the university used its auditorium and union building convention rooms. Several programs attracted more than a thousand attendees, and programs were stacked on the hour, about fifteen at a time. My program was opposite JA Jance, who drew well over a thousand to talk about her new book Cruel Intent, so I was a little worried nobody would show up to hear me. But my crowd was about a hundred strong. Additionally, Poet Laureate Billy Collins had a crowd of over a thousand for a reading of some of his poems.
The festival had the full support of the city, the university and the newspaper, and it was very well organized and promoted. Each author had a sponsor and a volunteer assigned, who directed the author to scheduled events, and the hospitality room, a large well furnished room for authors only was well stocked with munchies, cookies, pop and water. And there were freebies for authors and spouses: mostly hats and tee shirts.
I spoke to one of the organizers, an employee of the newspaper, who told me it was the desire of the city, the newspaper and the university to make this the best book festival in the United States. Well, they certainly got a good start. Everywhere I went, I met authors who were just stunned at the crowds and how well the festival was organized. Some of the best restaurants in town were set up in the food court, and there were musicians and bands sprinkled throughout, not so loud one couldn't speak or hear, but a nice attraction if one wanted a break from books for a while.
I spent much of my time at an independent book store stand, Mostly Books, a very popular local store, and the staff there was delighted with the crowds. I, too, was delighted at how many books I sold. And another bookstore, Old Pueblo Books, carried my books and did well, too. Barnes & Noble and the University of Arizona Bookstore both had large tents, but I'd avoided both of them, for fear they'd over-order and send back oodles of returns. Instead, I worked consignments with the two bookstores I'd lined up, and I had to restock both of them.
Oh, by the way, I met and got a chance to chat with JA Jance. What a nice woman, funny as hell, and very unself-absorbed. She brought in a baseball bat sized roll of caramel corn to the hospitality room, and then picked up paper plates and went from table to table offering treats. Her line was she promised herself she'd eat what was left of the caramel corn and she needed help or she wouldn't fit through the auditorium doors. She's a very large woman, fully six foot two, and she's got a natural smile and engages easily. No wonder she's such a hit everywhere she goes. She's just a genuinely pleasant personality, and quite striking in her appearance. She spends most of her time at her home in Tucson, but is quite active in promoting her books. I swear, the woman is everywhere in Arizona, seemingly at the same time. But she's so engaging, I don't think there's a single person in Arizona who doesn't like her.
So much for the bad economy. There was joy in Tucson among authors, fans and bookseller this week.
Next year, do yourself a favor and come to the Tucson Festival of Books. But make arrangements early. I understand most of the hotels were jammed, and many authors who, like me, had arranged for book consignments, ran out of books. And by late Sunday afternoon, many of the book stands, even the big ones, had depleted stacks.
This festival was good for the industry and especially good for authors and booksellers.
And I expect the festival will be even larger next year, as word spreads.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
The Two Sides of Psychopathy
A few weeks ago, I went to a lecture on psychopathy. It was delivered by Vanderbilt University psychology professor Dr. Stephen Benning in conjunction with an art exhibit called "Paint Made Flesh." The exhibit was about the human face and figure in art, and the lecture was about how psychopaths respond differently to photos and paintings than non-psychopaths do. I can't remember the lecture word for word, of course, but I thought you might be interested in hearing some of what I learned from it.
Psychopathy, Dr. Benning said, is a blend of two extreme and opposing personality types: the fearless dominant type and the impulsive antisocial type.
The Fearless Dominant type (which I will call the FD type for simplicity's sake) is often a paradoxical mix of charm and nastiness. Cool and calm under pressure, the FD type is not easily rattled. They lack the same kind of anticipatory anxiety that most people have, so instead of thinking, "What? Jump out of a perfectly good airplane?", the FD type just thinks, "Cool!" Fearless Dominance is associated with a number of things our society considers desirable or good: high verbal I.Q., high performance, and economic success. The FD type is often charming and socially influential. He or she relishes directing other people's activities and basking in their admiration. The FD type is sexually adventurous and often takes risks. It's not that they can't feel fear or anxiety; it's just that it takes a much more extreme situation to elicit those emotions. FD types live for the thrill, the excitement, the adrenaline rush. With proper parenting and a nurturing environment, an FD type might become a fireman or policeman. As Dr. Benning said, if you were assembling a Special Forces team, you would want to screen for people high in fearless dominance.
The flip side of psychopathy is impulsive antisociality. The Impulsive Antisocial Type (IA type) is aggressive, unorganized, and suspicious. The world is a hostile place for the IA type. "You hurt me, now I'll hurt you," is the IA type's mantra. IA types don't generally make plans, and they don't think society's rules are worth following. They often abuse drugs, and--like the FD type--are often extremely sexually active. It's not the thrill that motivates the IA type, though. It's the relief of boredom and alienation. IA types are often risk-takers, not because they don't don't feel fear, but just to have something to do. They are extremely reactive and have a lot of raw, aggressive energy. Usually, they have a long history of antisocial behavior, such as brawling and vandalism. Mike Tyson is a good example of an IA type. His boxing training provided him with the tight structure an IA type needs, so when he was heavily in training, he was, as Dr. Benning says, "a fearsome powerhouse." But when he became successful, it went to his head and he broke free of that structure. Without it, he spun into a downward spiral that ruined him.
Remember that hypothetical Special Forces unit? While you would screen for individuals high in fearless dominance, you would want them to be low in impulsive antisociality!
These two personality types are juxtaposed in the psychopath, who, due to the complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors, is high in both fearless dominance and impulsive antisociality. Not all psychopaths are dangerous. Many have some sort of compensating factors that help them find a useful place in society (e.g., good parenting or a very high I.Q. that enables them to see the consequences of their actions). Because the FD and IA types require very different (and often opposing) parenting styles, a young psychopath is hard to raise, but with the right balance of love, freedom, fairness, and structure, the psychopath may become a successful fireman, policeman, soldier, or participant in extreme sports. Some may pursue the creative arts as a focus fir their interests and a socially acceptable means of expressing their frustrations. Others may become successful salespeople or businessmen. Yet others may take a darker path, such as John Gotti, who was both charming (FD) and violent (IA).
Thriller writer David Wiltse (The Edge of Sleep, Close to the Bone) does a good job of pitting his hero (who is a psychopath) against pschopathic or psychotic villains. The contrast between Wiltse's well-socialized psychopath (a psychopath with a sense of justice) and the dangerous psychopath makes for fascinating reading.
And who can resist Jack Bauer (of the hit TV show 24)? He just goes to show that a little psychopathy isn't always a bad thing.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
The Plot's The Thing
Last Wednesday I was guest speaker at a creative writing class sponsored by the city recreation department. We gathered at the senior center to talk about short stories.
Fortunately I had a tape of Marcia Preston's workshop at the 2001Win-Win Conference in Fresno, Calif. Title: "One Way To Plot A Saleable Short Story." Macia is an Oklahoma novelist, and former publisher of ByLine Magazine.
In her tape, Marcia explains commercial fiction and discusses a 5-step structure for a commercial short story. It’s a structure she learned from a book by an OU professor named Foster Harris.
Curiosity being part of a writer's DNA, I looked up Foster Harris on amazon.com. His name was William Foster-Harris, and his book is THE BASIC PATTERNS OF PLOT. It’s out of print, but there's a used paperback available for $181.71 (plus $3.99 S&H) from a bookseller in Baltimore, and 3 used hardcover copies from $32.95 to $89.95.
Further intrigued, I did a quick Internet search for Foster-Harris. I’m amazed at the life he led and the writing he did. At www.philsp.com I found this:
**1903-1978. Educator, author, oilman, editor of an oil-related newspaper. Born in the Chickasaw Nation Indian Territory. Died in Norman, Oklahoma.**
Foster Harris wrote constantly during the 1920, 30s and 40s. His bibliography is longer than my arm and includes several novelettes. Obviously, he knew what he was talking about. He spoke from successful experience.
At Wednesday’s program we discussed the 5 steps:
Quoting Marcia: “These are really 5 steps for pre-writing, building a skeleton that we can hang a story on. These are the bones. How you put the flesh on them is up to you. That’s where the writing comes in.”
The 5 steps and Marcia’s examples.
1. Pick a character – an engaging, sympathetic lead character with whom the reader can identify and from whose point of view the story is told.
Ex: Jason, teenage boy, looking forward to his senior year in high school.
2. Give the character a major goal or big dream.
Ex. Jason wants to start on his basketball team. He knows he’s too short for college or pro basketball, but wants to finish his high school career as a starter.
3.There must be a conflict. Something stands in the character’s way.
Ex. First day of practice, Jason sees a new kid, Brian, who was a starter at another school and has transferred to Jason’s school. He’s taller than Jason, too.
4. “The plot thickens.” Find a way to raise the tension, and force character to take action, that will cause him either to fail or to succeed.
Ex. Jason thinks of a way to show up the new kid. He challenges Brian to a one-on-one after school, knowing the coaches will be hanging around. Brian wins the one-on-one, dunking the ball into the basket right over Jason’s head. The tension is like a roller coaster, climbing up, up, up.
5. Climax. Brian now thinks of Jason as a friend, and confides that if he doesn’t pass his history exam he’ll be ineligible for the team. He asks Jason to help him prep for the exam.
Ex. Jason’s dilemma: If he helps Brian pass the test, Brian will get the starting position. If he doesn’t help Brian, he’ll feel like a jerk. This is not only a plot choice, but a life choice. Jason agrees to help, but sees his goal/his dream going down the drain.
The roller coaster goes all the way down. The release of tension is why we read fiction or ride roller coasters.
Conclusion: Americans like a happy or hopeful ending. Here’s one.
Jason is riding the bench the night of the game, while Brian is the star of the show. Jason’s only consolation is that he did the right thing. But wait --
Maybe an assistant coach, or the history teacher, tells Jason that he heard what Jason did, and when scholarship time comes up again, Jason’s name will be high on the list.
OR a cheerleader comes up to him and says she heard he was a good guy and she’ll meet him later. Both are endings with a note of hope and/or satisfaction.
Then my group brainstormed a short story following the 5 steps and they were very inventive. Someone suggested an English girl who wants to stay in the U.S. She’s on a work visa studying for citizenship. No, she’s an exchange student. No, she’s a diplomat’s daughter. By the time they got into who she was and possible complications blocking her goal, they were tossing out ideas left and right, but our time was up.
Next time, given our economic downturn, I think I'll also use O.Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." It's a literary piece but still follows the commercial plot structure, or variations.
A summary of that story from Wikipedia:
“James Dillingham Young and his wife Della are a young couple who are very much in love with each other, but can barely afford their one-room apartment due to their very bad economic situation. For Christmas, Della decides to buy Jim a chain which costs twenty dollars for his prized pocket watch given to him by his father. To raise the funds, she has her long hair cut off and sold to make a wig. Meanwhile, Jim decides to sell his watch to buy Della a beautiful set of combs made out of tortoise shell for her lovely, knee-length brown hair. Although each is disappointed to find the gift they chose rendered useless, each is pleased with the gift they received, because it represents their love for one another.
"The Gift of the Magi" has stood the test of time. It has been used or adapted for everything from Hallmark Hall of Fame to Saturday Night Live. Quality writing never goes out of style.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The Joys of Research
Research is usually the most enjoyable aspect of writing but, as any historical writer knows, you can get so carried away with reading that you don't get around to writing. Rarely is research an ordeal unless you take on a project that’s beyond what you had envisioned. If you’re young and intrigued with your subject, you might even spend three years at a microfilm machine to research a centennial history, which is what I did during the mid-1980s while researching Casper Country: Wyoming’s Heartland. The first newspaper printed in the newly-established Natrona County was published in 1889, and I read 97 years’ worth of microfilmed newspapers. Needless to say, it caused some vision problems.
But what an experience it was. Because I'm a former news reporter, I found most early news reporting humorous, and the newspaper changed owners nearly as often as it changed its type. The paper's third owner, who was Casper's postmaster, disappeared on a trip to Yellowstone Park, and in 1897, a bona fide newsman, Alfred Mokler, took over and published the newspaper for the next 17 years. Unfortunately, some of his reporting was later found to be more fiction than fact, so my second edition had to be rewritten.
I like to include humor in all my books, especially historical nonfiction, which can be as boring as technical jargon. And Wyoming's history provides plenty of humor. For example, Casper and its neighboring town of Bessemer Bend were once vying for the new county seat. When election returns were tallied in 1890, Bessemer’s votes totaled 677 or nearly six times that of its population. Casper’s votes totaled 304. The voters included women who had been enfranchised in 1869 to ensure enough voters for Wyoming to become a territory. Polling judges were aware that Casper’s votes also out-numbered its residents--although not by Bessemer's wide margin. So they awarded the county seat to Casper. Bessemer then virtually disappeared from the map.
Another humorous, although barbaric, incident happened one Fourth of July when Casper merchants hid behind barriers and shelled each other's stores with rockets from opposite sides the street. When unsuspecting residents happened by, they were chased down alleys and targeted with fireworks. It's all there on microfilm.
When the railroad town was first built, general store employees slept within a feed sack barricade to protect them from stray bullets fired from nearby saloons, so central Wyoming was a wild and dangerous place. Ripe pickings for a latter day journalist.
The area is also rich in emigrant history, Indian wars, the Hole in the Wall outlaw hideout, sheep and cattle wars, gold and oil discoveries, the "Cattle Kate" hanging, Pony Express, first intercontinental telegraph line and railroad, Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, Johnson County War and countless other fascinating events, so containing them all in one book was a monumental task. And rounding up over 200 photographs was even more difficult, especially after my husband was transferred to Washington state before I had completed the project.
Once the book was published by Pruett of Boulder, Colorado, I had a nice coffee table book of which I’ll always be proud, and probably best known for, no matter how many books I write. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime venture that I would never repeat again.
I wrote my first historical novel, Escape, from leftover microfilm research, and will probably unearth my notes again one day to write another historical generously sprinkled with humor.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Peanut Butter Crackers
When it comes to flying for an airline, everything is seniority based. Presumably, every new pilot that's hired is equally qualified and will eventually make captain. In most cases, this system works well because it eliminates age, sex, race, and religion bias. Your date of hire not only determines when you can upgrade seats, meaning higher pay, but it also determines your monthly flight schedule. You see, pilots bid on their flight schedules each month, so while those who are very senior can hand-pick their trips, the bottom-feeders get whatever’s left over. As such, every junior pilot can’t wait for those senior to them to retire or bid onto a different aircraft so they can move up in seniority. Of course, no one likes to hear about their fellow pilots dying, but whenever such news breaks out, pilots can’t help but to check the deceased’s seniority number. Trust me, as morbid as this may sound, it happens all the time.
Of course, seniority knows no borders. On layovers, while crossing busy streets, senior pilots are expected to cross first. That way, if anything happens, the junior pilot will move up a notch. And while a senior pilot may remind a junior pilot to fasten his/her seat belt, you’ll rarely find a junior pilot reciprocating. No sir, no ma’am; this way, if something bad happens, they’ll move up another notch. It’s the cold hard truth.
Now, we all know about the recent peanut butter scare about salmonella that's left yet another industry crippled. Among the reportedly tainted products are peanut butter crackers; the six pack that makes for a great snack. Give me one of those and a Diet Coke and I'm good for at least three hours. That is, unless I get food poisoning--and die. I've had several bouts with food poisoning overseas, and I'm sure it would be a horrific way to go.
So, with seniority in mind, I have to wonder is this why my first officer kept offering me his six pack of peanut butter crackers? Did I mention that he’s a farm boy from South Carolina where they grow lots of peanuts? Now, I’m not accusing him of anything, but I do find it interesting that he always placed them in plain site, but never once touched them on any of our ten flights together. Later, he jokingly said that he offered these crackers to all of his captains. Hmmm. Something ain’t right here. Of course, I can’t be positive that he was trying to poison me until the next scare comes along--say with cheese crackers. Then if he offers me cheese crackers instead of peanut butter, I’ll know for sure. Until then, I’ll willingly chock up his cracker offer as an act of kindness, but I’ll still bring my own snacks and drink water from a sealed bottle.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Is Eyewitness Testimony Reliable?
I’ll soon be heading down to watch the 10 o’clock news for the latest word on murders and mayhem in the community. It’s a wonder that people still enjoy reading about our fictional bad guys with all the real ones staring at us nightly from the TV. I suppose it’s the hope that unlike the cases they see paraded across the screen, our mysteries will end with satisfying conclusions and villains behind bars or beneath gravestones.
One departure from the usual fare was Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” segment about an innocent man who was convicted largely by unreliable eyewitness testimony. I’ve heard and read opinions from investigators about the faulty recollections of witnesses to crimes, but I hadn’t come across professional studies on the subject.
The TV show interviewed psychologists and criminologists who talked about research that shows how people’s memories are affected by the way photographs are displayed and lineups presented.
The story involved a young white woman who was raped at age twenty-two. She had concentrated on the black rapist’s features so she would remember him afterward. She worked with detectives to create his likeness. When they showed her mug shots of six men who’d been arrested, she picked out one as the guilty party. When they brought the same man out in a lineup, she identified him again.
Largely on her testimony, the man was convicted and spent a dozen years in prison before a law professor got his DNA tested against evidence from the case. It showed him innocent. The DNA was matched to another man with similar features who had already been convicted of another rape.
Now the woman and the man she wrongly accused travel around the country speaking to lawyers and law enforcement personnel, asking them to use better techniques in presenting photographs and lineups. The psychologists said the victim’s incorrect memory was reinforced by the way the evidence was presented.
In The Marathon Murders, I had my PI Greg McKenzie caution his wife, “Don’t forget, eyewitness accounts can be notoriously unreliable.”
Have you run across any fictional cases where eyewitness testimony was crucial to solving a murder? Best to use caution in this area.
Read more about The Marathon Murders.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Acquiring a Used Sig...
Your protag or perp may need a gun...fast. Chances are that gun will be used. For those of you who know something about pistols, the name Sig Sauer will hold a special place in your heart and mind. Sig Sauers are legendary: The Sig P210, no longer in production, is widely regarded as the most accurate production pistol ever produced; the Sig P220 is regarded as one of the finest .45 acp pistols all time; same with the P226 in .40 or 9mm, essentially a similar design, and the Sig P228 and P229 are carried by the Secret Service, the FBI and the National Park Service. The Sig X-5 and Sig X-6, match versions of the P226 and the P220 Match series are regarded as the new standards in match pistols, on a par with the legendary P210.
But Sigs aren't cheap. Glock carries a much larger market share because they're cheaper, much cheaper; they're polymer based. But even with plastic pistols, the Sig Pro line and the brand new and revolutionary P250 are not only competitive in price with the Glocks, but also in reliability and in the all important "feel." The P250 is special; one pistol convertible to different calibers, size and grip. Amazing. Nobody else's pistols can brag of that. Sig has opened a new door in pistol design, one to which nobody else is even close.
I've got eight Sigs, and here's why: feel, reliability and accuracy; what shooting is all about.
So your protag or perp needs a pistol, and he needs one quickly. What does he look for? How can he tell if his pistol will fire or if it's only good as a hammer?
Flork (real name Scott Folk), whose article on buying a used pistol I'm quoting below, is a gunsmith with Gray Guns http://www.grayguns.com, perhaps the most respected master Sig gunsmithing operation in the world. Flork is a member of SigForum, as is Bruce Gray, owner of Gray Guns. (You may have seen Bruce on various shooting television programs.) You should check out SigForum; it's perhaps the finest gun forum (not limited to Sigs) on the web. http://Sigforum.com SigForum is ruled by folks who don't tolerate jerks, and many law enforcement, military and gunsmiths are active members. You have a legitimate question? Ask SigForum. There are over forty-five thousand members. You'll get an answer quickly. But don't be snide, and be careful about sarcasm. Sarcasm is tolerated where deserved, but newbies best be careful. I lurked before I posted, and that was wise, lest my involvement and comments be viewed as trolling or unwelcome. Legitimacy is what SigForum is all about, and it's okay to ask stupid questions. Trust me: I do it all the time.
Anyway, I was all set to post about a recent range experience I had and what I learned from it that might be of use to writers, but then tonight I saw Flork's post about what to look for in a used Sig, and I thought Flork's comments the more useful to you.
So with all credit due to Flork and Gray Guns, here is what Flork says you should look for in buying a used Sig. (http://sigforum.com/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/430601935/m/3951014551) I thought Scott Folk's (Flork's) comments were spot on.
The first thing to look at is the Frame rails. These will tell you everything that you need to know about how well the gun has been taken care of. The Following is how the colors of the under side of the frame rails will change as your gun wears.
1) Dull Black - No Wear, perfect finish.
2) Shiny Black - Slight wearing in of the pigment in the Anodizing, this is normal after around 200 rounds.
3) Dark Gold/Orange - The Pigment in the Anodizing is starting to wear, this is perfectly normal and not a problem, the metal is still protected and your frame is still perfectly viable. Most guns reach this phase between 2000 and 4000 rounds.
4) Bright Gold - The pigment in the anodizing is wearing in. Your frame is still protected and your gun is still perfectly viable. Most guns reach this phase and remain static from here on out as long as proper lubrication is used.
5)Light Gold - The pigment in your anodizing is wearing through, your frame is still protected, but you should keep an eye on it.
6) Shiny Silver - This is where you need to start to worry. The pigment in the Anodizing is worn through, your frame is still protected, but you need to monitor your frame rails very closely and make sure they remain greased thoroughly for the rest of your gun's life.
7) Dull Silver - You're screwed. Your Anodizing has worn completely through in the areas you see dull anodizing. From here on your frame is unprotected and it's time to buy a new gun. It may still shoot and function perfectly, but your frame rails will continue to wear at a much accelerated rate.
The next thing to look at is the disconnector tab on your trigger bar. That's the part of the trigger bar that sits up highest in the frame. A factory new trigger bar will have a nice radius across the top, a heavily used one will have a flat worn into it. The best way to check and make sure it's still functioning correctly is to pull the slide back by 1/4 of an inch and pull the trigger, if the hammer doesn't try to fall you're ok.
The Next place to look at is the barrel. You will notice the "smileys" on the barrel on the muzzle end. If you run your finger down the barrel and feel a dip, you may want to have the gun looked at by a professional, the slide should not be abrading the barrel enough to remove any metal at all. The presence of a dip in the metal would indicate that your slide has a burr in it.
If you look at the front of the chamber section at the top of the barrel you will see a ledge that steps down just before the tube part of the barrel starts. The ledge there should be at a clear 90 degree angle, any rolling of that sharp corner would indicate a soft barrel or one which hasn't been lubricated properly.
The slide should also be inspected. The slide lock lever detent on the slide should be looked at for burrs or any rounding on the rear or the notch. A burr sticking out can abrade your thumbs if you shoot a thumbs forward grip. A burr on the slide could indicate a slightly soft slide or that the previous shooter kept their thumb on the slide lock lever. A rounded off notch at the back would indicate an improper heat treat of the slide.
And so says Flork, someone whose opinion I can always count on...
Saturday, March 7, 2009
'... the surest poison"
Chester is a southern gentleman, and not the pushy type, so I'm giving his new book a little push of my own.
I'm reprinting here an excellent review of THE SUREST POISON. The reviewer is Gloria Feit, and I have her permission for this reprint.
Gloria and her husband Ted are active reviewers on the DorothyL mystery listserv, and for author Lorie Ham's online No Name Cafe. The Feits live a few miles outside of New York City. For 26 years, Gloria was the office manager of a medium-size law firm in downtown Manhattan. Ted is an attorney and former stock analyst, publicist and writer/editor for several daily, weekly and monthly publications. Their reviews appear online as well as in three print publications in the U.S. and U.K.
And now, applause, applause ....
Review by Gloria Feit, as published on the DorothyL listserv. Reprinted here with Gloria’s gracious permission.
THE SUREST POISON by Chester Campbell
Night Shadows Press April 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9799167-9-3 Hardcover, 272 pp., $26.95
[Simultaneous release in pb, ISBN 978-0-9799167-8-6, $15.95]
Sid Chance is a former member of the Army Special Forces in Vietnam and a former National Parks ranger for eighteen years, as well as a small town police chief for ten, forced out of office when falsely charged with bribery. Never finding who had set out to destroy him, he has taken refuge for the past three years in a rustic cabin [read “no electricity or running water”] fifty miles east of Nashville.
As the book opens he finds himself wondering “if he'd made the right decision in leaving. Going back to the type of work he had pursued for more than three decades left him exposed to the same flawed humanity that had chased him up here in the first place.” But he is coaxed out of his hermit-like existence by his old friend Jasmine (Jaz) LeMieux, who has recommended him to a corporate attorney and his client who is facing major financial disaster unless he can be cleared in a chemical pollution case. Sid is hired to find the company which had owned the property previously which, they are convinced, is the true culprit.
Jaz is quite a character, literally and figuratively. She “had the looks and the brains to be whatever she wanted, and she had the money and the contacts to pull it off.” Her c.v. includes having been a professional boxer, member of the Security Police with the Air Force, cop, board chairman of a major company, and during the course of the book is applying for a p.i. license, the better to enable her to work with Sid, finding she “couldn't resist the lure of the chase.”
A second story line evolves when Jaz's employees, a couple in their late seventies, plead with Jaz to help when their grandson and his nine-year-old son are threatened. When Sid assists in this effort, it means he must, with misgivings, return for the first time to the small town he had left in disgrace nearly four years earlier.
The author smoothly blends the two investigations being worked on by Sid and Jaz, which is accomplished with a little help from his friends, which include his poker-playing pals, the “Five Felons,” comprised of a Metro police sergeant, a retired newspaper crime writer, a former Criminal Court Judge, and a local homicide detective, charmingly named "Bart Masterson."
The reader is treated to a good old-fashioned detective story -- and that is intended as very high praise -- with swear words at a minimum, any violence not of the graphic variety, instead a more subtle but no less lethal kind, interspersed with ominous threats, some vague and some pointed.
The title comes from a line by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which “named such
things as alcohol and strychnine but concluded …’the surest poison is time.’”
Mr. Campbell has written another terrific novel, one that is recommended.
(Review by Gloria Feit)
Friday, March 6, 2009
The Realm of Mystery
by Jean Henry Mead
A ouija board introduced me to the realm of mystery. As a young teen, my cousins and I also discovered table tapping. Sitting around a small table with our hands lightly resting on its top, we asked the table questions. The room was dark with the exception of a single burning candle.
After the question was asked, the table would lift high enough to tap two legs on the floor, once for yes, twice for no. Each of us swore we weren't causing the table to move, but tap the floor it did, causing some of us to run from the room screaming. But that didn't stop us from repeating our spooky game every chance we could.
The ouija board was supposed to predict the future, although my cousin Mary didn't marry Sam Gufstason, the name spelled out on the board more than once. It was during this period that I discovered my psychic ability. One night before spending the night at Mary's house, I dreamed she would be waiting to scare me in a dark, L-shaped hallway.
The following night, after leaving the bathroom to return to bed, I knew that she was there in the hall, although I couldn't see her. From then on, I had premonitions of things to come. Once, unbeknown to me, my sister-in-law gave birth to a premature baby. When the phone rang, I grasped the receiver, saying, "It's a boy." When I put the phone to my ear, I heard my brother-in-law say exactly the same thing. I always seemed know who was on the phone years before caller I.D. was available. I have to admit it was a bit unnerving.
A news reporter during the Vietnam War, my beat was the nation's largest Naval Air Station in Lemoore, California. I instintively knew which pilots would return home and who wouldn't. I didn't want to know and did my best to block out any psychic revelations that came my way. Eventually, I was successful. Now, I welcome them and the premonitions are beginning to return.
I also found that I could accurately read palms and people appeared at my door asking for readings. I obliged them and probably could have made a career of it, but foretelling unfortunte events really takes its toll.
I haven't read a palm since visiting my brother at his coast guard station years ago. One night at the base in Neah Bay, I did an impromptu reading at the NCO club. A young man asked if I knew when he had been born. When I told him, he backed away, yelling, "You're a witch." Another reason I blocked my psychic power. I don't look good in tall, black, pointed hats.
I now realize that I was probably responsible for the table taping as a teen, and years later I actually met Sam Gufstason, who was married to a woman named Mary.
Too bad I can't predict my own future.
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
The End of the World As We Know It
Last night, our critique group drifted into a discussion of the volcanic disaster that is supposed to end the world in 2012. Imagine my surprise when I logged onto Murderous Musings today and discovered that Mark had blogged about that very thing. We were talking about the big Yellowstone Park eruption, while Mark's is half a world away, but the results are apparently the same. I shudder to think of the consequences should both of these seismological events occur at or near the same time. I'm not a brave person, as we've discussed in past posts, so all this apocalyptic talk has me a little on edge. I've always wanted to go to Yellowstone, but maybe I'll put off my travel plans until 2013!
Of course, people who know about these things assure me that the 2012 date is a misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar. Our own Pat Browning directed me to some Mayan calendar articles by Ivan Van Laningham at http://www.pauahtun.org. They're interesting reading, if you can keep your head from exploding. For those who write fantasy, there's some good fodder here.
I got the sense that Mark's tone was somewhat less than 100% serious, but his article reminded me of Isaac Asimov, who, when asked what he would do if he knew he had only six months to live, said, "Type Faster."
So, how about you? If you knew the world really was about to end, what would you do? Kiss your spouse, cuddle your puppy, call your mother, eat a whole hot fudge cake all by yourself? Type faster? Maybe, for some of us, all of the above. (Well, okay, maybe I'd share the hot fudge cake.)
One member of our critique group suggested that the Mormons might come out of it all right, because they're supposed to keep at least two years worth of canned goods and water on hand at all times, which would give the ash time to blow off (or whatever volcanic ash does) and for things to start growing again. I started to think of all the other things you might need, such as vegetable seeds, potting soil, full-spectrum light bulbs, generators, air purifiers to circulate the air inside whatever bunker or safehouse you might end up in. That reminded me of the Brendan Frazer movie, Blast From the Past, which is about a couple in the 1950's who believe there's been a nuclear attack (because a plane crashes in their yard) and go down into their underground bunker to live for the next 30 years. The woman is pregnant with our hero, who forays out into the real world as an adult to re-stock their supplies and, naturally, runs into a woman with whom he fals in love at first sight. (It's a fun little movie, one of my guilty pleasures.)
Anyway, that made me wonder what would happen if the bunker were buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash. What would happen then? Would they be able to open the hatch when their two years was up? What would they find when they got there? Would it be as bleak as Carmac McCarthy's The Road? And what about life in the bunker itself? What kind of people might end up in the same bunker, and what kinds of social dynamics might develop? What if the group woke up one morning to find that one of their own had been murdered? Why did it happen? Who did it? How would they deal with the discovery that they are trapped underground with a killer?
You see the way my mind works. One minute, I'm worrying about the impending end of the world, and the next, I have a new story idea, which is aheck of a lot more fun. And that, my friends, is why we should all take a tip from the master: just type faster.
Write Like There's No Tomorrow!
Recently, my wife and I watched a disaster show on volcanoes. It seems disaster themes are quite popular these days. Heck, I even wrote a story about a disaster on San Francisco Bay's Hayward Fault, but I’m withholding that one for a future release. Actually, this TV show we saw was interesting because it spoke of an unthinkable volcanic eruption of Indonesia's Anak Krakatau that as a minimum would wipe out most of Indonesia’s population within seconds, followed by the rest of the world over a couple of years. You see, the ash cloud from this eruption will engulf the Earth in darkness for 18 months, during which time, all vegetation will die, famine, war, and cannibalism will break out, and if that doesn’t kill you, the plague will. Cool.
Now, I must admit that this TV prediction has merit. After all, the 1883 Krakatau eruption was so enormous, the sound was heard 3000 miles away and was labeled the loudest noise ever recorded on Earth. But that wasn't the first time Krakatau blew. In fact, they say its first eruption actually split Indonesia in two. With that in mind, I’ll refer to the prophecy behind Anak Krakatau’s impending eruption as the "Big Bang Theory". What? That one’s taken, you say? Well, how about "Armageddon"? No? Okay, forget the labels, but be prepared to repent, for The End is Near! In fact, this TV show we watched even gave us a date. That’s right; 2012 marks the official beginning of the end of the world as we know it. When Krakatau blows again, all that will survive is cockroaches and sharks. (Okay, throw in a few FedEx pilots because we seem to survive every disaster, too.) What I find interesting is this TV program didn’t mention that one of the world’s largest magma deposits resides right in my own back yard—Yellowstone National Park. Then again, there's a separate disaster show that covers that one. (I’ve watched it.)
So, with all of these impending disasters, it’s clear that we authors must write like there’s no tomorrow, for clearly, we only have three years left. (Perhaps less, depending upon when, in 2012, disaster strikes.) The good thing is that we no longer have to worry about getting our books into bookstores or Amazon.com’s ranking. We can also forget about saying the wrong thing on a blog, for it will soon be forgotten—except to those fortunate souls who may be orbiting above the ash cloud. (And I’m not referring to astronauts.) Another bright side is future space explorers will spend years inspecting the infrastructure we left behind, trying to determine what happened to our civilization. (Consider all the years that we’ve spent trying to comprehend the fall of the Roman Empire.) Then again, maybe these explorers will find a transcribed version of what I’m writing now and it will all make sense to them.
With our time so short, I believe every writer has a responsibility to crank out as much writing as possible between now and 2012. If you’re a celebrity, then hire a ghost writer, slap your name on it, and flood the bookstore shelves while you can. For all of you cookbook authors, toss out your recipes for road kill, for we’ll need it in the near future. And for those of you who are concerned about global warming, consider investing in cold weather gear, for the "Big Chill" is yet to come. Yes, prepare yourselves, for it must be true. After all, it’s the Word of the Prophets as well as the National Geographic Channel's. Three years from now, you’ll thank me for having given you this warning.
(Top photo of Chile volcano. Bottom photo is Anak Krakatau's November 2007 eruption)
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
A Look Back at SleuthFest 2009
By Chester Campbell
I attended the SleuthFest mystery conference at Deerfield Beach, FL the past weekend. It was the eighth Sarah and I have enjoyed, skipping only the 2007 event at Miami Beach (which was too costly). Around 250 people were there, mostly published and waiting-to-be-published writers. As usual, it was an excellent conference.
I participated on two panels–“Research” and “Private Eyes”–and sat through several others on various subjects. After you’ve attended twenty or thirty writers’ conferences, you hear a lot of the same stuff over and over. Now and then you get a new slant on a subject, but what I find most valuable is that I’m reminded of things I already know but have neglected to do.
So now I need to sit down and go over the ideas that have been refreshed in my mind and make sure I put them to use.
Guests of Honor are always interesting and inspirational. This year's headliners were Brad Meltzer and John Hart. Both told how they got their start in mystery writing and the paths they followed to the bestseller lists. Meltzer repeated a line I've heard from other bestselling authors: "Write what you're really passionate about. If you don't, it will show in your writing."
The other major thing I get out of conferences is the making of new friends and renewal of old friendships. The young unpublished author who moderated one of my panels bought two of my books and told me I was his new favorite mentor. I was quite flattered and hope I was of some help to him.
I met several other emerging authors at meal functions and answered their questions as best I could. I recall the jumpstart I got from attending my first SleuthFest before Secret of the Scroll came out. We sat next to Patricia Sprinkle at lunch one day, and she gave me several pieces of valuable advice. I also attended a panel where Nancy Cohen distributed a handout that contained an article she had written about things to do before your book is published. I still use those tips.
Among old friends we chatted with was Randy Rawls, this year’s SleuthFest chairman. We became friends at one of my earliest conferences and have served on panels together and attended many of the same events. Randy has experienced some of the same publisher problems I have, so we often commiserate with one another.
I don’t expect to sell many, if any, books at a conference. And with the current state of the economy, with gasoline prices and hotel stays on the increase, I’m cutting back on my travels, attending fewer conferences and more book fairs and similar events where selling books is the whole idea.
This Saturday, a writing colleague and I will have a booth at Goodpasture Christian School’s Marketplace. It is not far from where we live in Madison and where our grandson goes to school. I love to attend conferences, but finding a venue to potentially sell lots of books is a great opportunity not to be missed.
Check out Mystery Mania.