Saturday, May 30, 2009

Publishing Makes A Slow Turn

The instant book is finally here. National Public Radio (NPR) online has an interesting feature about the Blackwell Bookshop at 100 Charing Cross Road in London, which has installed an Espresso book machine.

Floor manager Marcus Gipps says the printer runs at about 100 pages a minute. The machine then sticks and binds the pages together itself, and out comes a book -- a real book, just like all the other books on Blackwell's shelves.

Gipps says the store already has a half-million titles saved digitally on the Espresso, ready to print -- that's five times the number on the shop floor -- and within three months, it should have more than a million available.

You can read the article at

In April, Lightning Source launched an Espresso Book Machine (EBM) pilot program with On Demand Books. An excerpt from their press release:

Participating publishers in the pilot include John Wiley & Sons, Hachette Book Group, McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster, Clements Publishing, Cosimo, E-Reads, Bibliolife, Information Age Publishing, Macmillan, University of California Press and W.W. Norton.

The pilot, being offered initially to a small group of publishers that currently work with Lightning Source, will enable these publishers to enhance the availability of their titles at point-of-sale EBM locations. Approximately 85,000 titles from these publishers will be available for purchase at EBM locations in the USA in May 2009.

Upon the completion of a successful pilot, publishers that print and distribute books with Lightning Source will have the option to participate in the EBM channel. Complete channel automation is expected in the first half of this year, and rollout of the program to publishers globally is expected to follow shortly thereafter.
End Quote

For those not familiar with Lightning Source, here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

Lightning Source is a subsidiary of
Ingram Industries Inc., and a sister company to leading U.S. book wholesaler Ingram Book Group. They are the leading printer and distributor of print on demand books. Lightning Source has printed over 60,000,000 books for over 6,500 publishers around the world. The Lightning Source digital library holds over 600,000 books.

Lightning Source gives the publishing community options to print books in any quantity, 1-10,000, and provides its customers access to the most comprehensive bookselling channel in the industry in both the United States and the United Kingdom
End Quote.

Apparently Lightning Source considers the pilot program to be a success. Small publishers working with them are now signing up for the program. I have a copy of the users manual and here are a couple of interesting facts: Manufacture time for a single book is approximately six (6) minutes … The direct consumables required are toner, ink, paper, cover stock and glue. The cost of consumables is approximately $.01 per page.

That’s a penny a page, folks, and a book by the time you take a couple of sips of coffee. It has been a long time coming.

On Demand Books is the work of Jason Epstein, a visionary who was editorial director of Random House for years. He created Anchor Books, which established the trade paperback format, and was co-founder of The New York Review of Books. Some ten years ago he saw a POD machine being developed by an engineer in St. Louis, and he’s been pushing it ever since.

Epstein recently gave the keynote address at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference. His opening statement:

“I don't have to tell anyone here that we are at the end of the Gutenberg era; at the threshold not only of a new way of publishing books but of a cultural revolution of magnitude greater than Gutenberg's, assuming we survive our financial calamity, our 20,000 nuclear weapons, and our melting ice cap, all of them, by the way, unintended consequences of the western civilization that Gutenberg's technology made possible.”

Truth be told, his speech is almost scary. Judging by the comments, some people take exception to a few of his statements. You can read the full text of the speech at

Meantime, some of the Espresso machines are up and running at these locations:

Internet Archive, The Presidio, San Francisco, California;
New Orleans Public Library, New Orleans, Lousiana;
University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan;
Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont;
Brigham Young University Bookstore (coming spring 2009), Provo, Utah;
The InfoShop, The World Bank (exhibition 2006), Washington, D.C.;
New York Public Library, SIBL (exhibition 2007), New York, New York;
The University of Alberta Bookstore, Edmonton, Alberta;
McMaster Innovation Press / Titles On Demand, McMaster University Bookstore, Hamilton, Ontario;
McGill University Library (coming spring 2009), Montreal, Quebec;
University of Waterloo Bookstore, Waterloo, Ontario;
Angus & Robertson Bookstore, Melbourne, Australia;
NewsStand UK 88 to 84 London Business Park, Roding Road, London;
Blackwell Bookshop, 100 Charing Cross Road, London;
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, El Shatby, Alexandria. Egypt

So … if you’re going to be traveling this fall, find a bookstore and stop in for a latte and a copy of ABSINTHE OF MALICE, okay?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Searching for My Grandparents

by Jean Henry Mead

My grandfather was a man of mystery who died when I was nine months old. He was mysterious because he told few people about his roots. My mother thought he had been born in Macon County, Georgia, but when my husband and I make the cross country trip, we found that the courthouse had succumbed to fire in 1922. So much for birth records. We even searched the cemetery one foggy morning in June, but there wasn't one headstone that contained the name of Henry.

I knew his date of birth, where he was buried, my grandmother’s name and the names of their children, but that’s all I knew when I began a genealogy search. I found a post card among my mother’s possesssions when she died. A friend had written while visiting Virginia, saying how proud my mother must be to have descended from Patrick Henry.

That’s strange, I thought. Why hadn't Mom ever mentioned that Patrick Henry was an ancestor? I paid for membership in and tried reading online copies of old census reports. After scrolling through hundreds of pages of nearly illegal records, I found my grandfather and his young family listed, but in the origin’s box he was a native of the USA. And no state was listed in subsequent census records.

Why would Grandad not list his birth state? My mother said that he was estranged from his family and also wondered why. He refused to talk about it, she said. That spurred me on to learn about his family and the rest of my ancestors. After months of leaving messages on genealogy websites, I was still in the proverbial dark. Then, one day I happened upon a census report with his middle name changed, but my grandmother’s name was correct as well as those of their children. Was he running from the law or just didn’t want to be found?

I must have been searching for five years when I came across a family in Ebert, Georgia, that seemed to solve the mystery. My grandfather was listed as the seventh child of a country doctor with six older sisters. Some of the sister’s names were the same as his own daughters. Because Grandad was the youngest, was he spoiled by all those sisters? And did he have a falling out with his father because he didn’t want to repeat his medical career?

Thanks a lot, Grandad, I thought, as I dug still deeper into additional old records. I was finally able to trace back several generations to the mid-1700s but there was no Patrick Henry listed in our family tree. Born in 1736, Patrick, who had 16 or 17 children, only had grandchildren by six of them, so that narrowed down the search considerably.

Disappointed, I decided to search for my mysterious paternal grandmother, who died at the age of 40 before I was born. A cousin on the East Coast sent me a photograph of my grandmother and I seemed to have been cloned. She had passed on her height to me as well as her appearance, so if you believe in reincarnation, it does make one wonder.

I’m still searching Grandmother Daisy's background, but haven’t yet located my great-grandparents. I'll keep trying so that I can pass the information on to my children and grandchildren along with copies of any old photos I've inherited. I think it's important to look to the future but it's also satisfying to know from where you've come.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Writing for Profit

Mark W. Danielson

There is a huge difference between writing novels and other professional writing. Sadly, the difference is seen in your paycheck. Unless you are fortunate enough to sell thousands—no, make that millions of books—you’re probably better off having a second income.

I’ve mentioned freelance writing for magazines before because it can be done at your leisure, invests a relatively small amount of time (compared to novels), and there is a great return on your investment. Getting an “in” with a magazine takes time, but once you’re there, you can generally continue to get articles published. Of course, each article is weighed for its merit, but continuous submissions will assure you some income.

Not every magazine accepts freelance submissions, so do your homework before ever investing your time. Bear in mind that your articles must be geared to specific magazines and the editor must see your topic as marketable and profitable. While national magazines pay the most, they are also the least likely to accept freelance submissions. The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing can be quite useful in determining good prospects.

If you’re not into writing non-fiction, then you might consider writing short stories. Again, the Writer’s Digest Handbook can provide expert guidance on which magazines accept fiction submissions and what type of stories they are looking for. Like magazine articles, well-written short stories can be quite profitable, and your time investment is far less time than novels.

Laymen assume that writing novels is profitable, yet for most authors, this will never be the case. As such, if you are considering entering the fiction business for profit, perhaps you should re-evaluate your motive, for creative writing must come from the heart.

While it’s true there are a handful of financially successful authors, most tend to write formula books. They do this because formula books sell, and that’s the bottom line. It matters not how often they have re-used their recipes. Sadly, these are also the authors that chain book stores cater to. But don’t fault the book stores, ladies and gentlemen. This is nothing personal. It’s just the nature of the business. So the most important lesson here is to write because you love to write, and let whatever happens happen. If you want to get rich quick, then buy a lotto ticket.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Military Reminiscences

By Chester Campbell

I thought about writing a Memorial Day article, but that was yesterday. Anyway, Ben and Mark have done a more than adequate job of covering the subject. Also, make sure you check out Pat Browning's Memorial Day blog here. If you happened to be around back in the day, as they say, it will evoke lots of memories of times you witnessed. It certainly did for me.

In fact, it got me to thinking about writing a lighthearted memoir about my own military adventures, starting with the events as a kid that led up to my decision to volunteer for pilot training in World War II. War is no joke, but the things our warriors do at times can be pretty hilarious.

While out walking tonight about dark (it's still Memorial Day as I write this), I even came up with a title and an opening paragraph. The title is A Date with Destiny. Now is that dramatic, or what? Here's the first paragraph:

"When I began searching for a title that would capture the essence of my military 'career,' I immediately thought of A Date with Destiny. It seemed to fit. The only trouble is I can't remember her last name. In fact, I'm not even sure her first name was Destiny. But I did date a girl once while I was in the Army Air Forces back in 1945. I don't remember much about the date, except that I was my usual bumbling self. The girl was nice, and I displayed my best behavior. You see, her father was a general at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where I was a lowly Aviation Cadet at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center."

I don't know if I'll keep it, but that's the tone of the project. I wish my memory were a bit less rusty. I can't recall all the circumstances. It was a blind date arranged by another cadet. His girlfriend wouldn't go out without someone to link up with the general's daughter. I think I called her after a day or so, but I never saw her again. I was in love with a girl back home and wasn't interested in any casual relationships.

Come to think of it, that may doom the book from the start. I don't fit the stereotypical picture of the soldier who hops in and out of beds as he travels from place to place. Will a book without sex sell?

What do you think? Should I bare my sole (a soldier travels on his feet) for the world to see? Or should I be a sensible guy and stick to mystery writing?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

by Ben Small

Yes, I know Mark beat me to it, and I tried hard not to fall back on Memorial Day as a topic today, but this is Memorial Day, and that fact has been in my thoughts all day.

I've never been in the service. You might say I flunked out. Oh yes, I was called for duty in Vietnam, but when it came time for fitness for service pronouncements, I was deemed unfit. Believe it or not, my feet were too large and I was too tall. And the allergies. Evidently somebody thought I'd be too good a target even in my bare feet, and that my sneezing would give our location away.

I wasn't unhappy about it, needless to say, because I was one who thought we shouldn't be in Vietnam anyway. And not having to go left me free to attend law school.

So my war record can be described in two letters: 4F.

And believe it or not, I don't know anybody who was killed or badly injured in war. So, after watching the Indy 500 yesterday -- my usual way of celebrating Memorial Day -- I felt a bit guilty. I saw that Washington was celebrating Memorial Day with a concert, so I tuned in.

Wow! What an impact. When Katie Holmes and another actress talked about Jose's ordeal, and I saw him, I cried. And then I thought about my nephew serving in Afghanistan. He volunteered. And he's on his third tour of duty. He doesn't whine, doesn't criticize, he trains and then goes. And he's proud of his service. And I'm proud of him.

I can't imagine the terror that must strike these soldiers the first time they see an insurgent, or the first time they hear an IED going off. And the post traumatic stress so many of them suffer for a long time after their service. The Agent Orange hangover from Vietnam. The poison gas from the first World War, the hordes of Chinese invading Korea, the beachhead at Normandy. So much terror...

But our soldiers were called and they served. And no matter what is said about why or how we got into and are fighting any particular war, we need to remember that this is all rhetoric to those who are actually doing the fighting. For them, it's a matter of life and death.

God bless these brave men and women.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Happy Memorial Day

By Mark W. Danielson

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. For most, this three day weekend is one of family gatherings and a celebration of the Indy 500. For others, it’s a time to reflect on those who have served and died for our country. Chances are, few citizens will give thought to the remaining members of our Greatest Generation or those before them who gave us this freedom. Fewer still will remember that we are still fighting a war on terrorism.

It’s easy to forget about our servicemen and women who are currently deployed overseas for they are out of sight and mind. But day in and day out, these soldiers lay their lives on the line for a pittance of a salary, and they do it willingly.

Memorial Day celebrates family fun, but it is also a day of rememberance respecting those who served, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. If you should see someone wearing an article that identifies them with having served their country, please take a moment to smile and shake their hand. They will truly appreciate it.
I salute all of our veterans past and present, and thank them for their service.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Upload, Download -- The Wild, Wild Internet

By Pat Browning

What got my attention was an online New York Times article with a bold headline: Print Books are Target of Pirates on the Web. The bylined article by Motoko Rich sheds light on the proliferation of copyrighted books showing up for unauthorized downloads. Rich quotes general counsel for John Wiley & Sons, which issues the “Dummies” series, as saying the company employs three full-time staff members “to trawl for unauthorized copies.”

I tried repeatedly to get an URL for that article but it hung up my computer every time. My suggestion is that you go to and in the search box type in “Print Books Target of Pirates.” You may have to register, but registration is free, and the article is worth the trouble.

The article quotes Stephen King as saying that tracking down illegal e-books is not worth the time and energy. On the other hand Rich quotes Harlan Ellison, who pursues the pirates, as saying, “I don’t ask to get rich off this stuff. I just ask to be paid.”

Perhaps the telling comment comes from NYT best-seller Cory Doctorow, who offers free e-versions of his books the same day they are published in hardcover. Quote: “I really feel like my problem isn’t piracy. It’s obscurity.”

The article makes reference to Scribd, a new web site where you can upload/download books, magazine, newspapers, term papers, whatever’s in print. Writers and/or publisher can upload works for free, or charge for them. It’s also a social networking site – a little something for everyone there.

I accessed and registered. Took about 45 seconds. The new site is a mess, actually, like an Old World bazaar, or a New World yard sale. I clicked on Books, then Fiction, and up popped Barry Eisler’s new book, FAULT LINE, published by Ballantine/Random House Publishing Group. I downloaded it free of charge.

It’s an espionage thriller, not exactly my cup of tea, but hey – I got it for nothing. At the very least I’m taking a look at an author I would never have picked up in hardcover.

I looked up Eisler and found myself reading his guest post on M.J. Rose’s blog. His
post, “Dead Trees Is A Dead Model,” is a dandy. Among many other things he says:

The only thing keeping paper books going as a mass market today is inertia. But as older generations die out and younger ones come online, and as generations in the middle try ebooks and realize their advantages, the demise of paper books will continue to accelerate.

That's an important point: the marginalization of paper books won't continue at its current rate. It'll pick up speed until it hits a tipping point, and then -- poof! -- the only paper books published will be coffee table books and other niche forms that serve a unique (and relatively small) market.

How soon? Look at the reviews Amazon's latest Kindle is getting. Listen to people who use one … And look at the way publishers are trying to maintain their traditional market: they're using increasingly cheap paper, essentially trying to compete on price against a medium with zero costs of paper, ink, warehousing, and distribution.

The fact that paper publishers are even trying to wage this battle on the electronic medium's terms is evidence of how soon and how badly they're going to lose it.
End Quote

That's another URL that eluded me but you can reach it through Eisler's web site at Scroll down. On the left there's a link under New Article -Dead Trees Is A Dead Model.

Back at Scribd I found Robert Gregory Browne’s two thrillers, KISS HER GOODBYE and WHISPER IN THE DARK. Browne is published by St. Martin’s but he posted his own work – just an excerpt in each case, 16 and 27 pages respectively. I downloaded both, and wish I had the entire books. I like his writing.

Browne has two excellent web sites: and a writing web site at He offers good advice, plus a couple of free downloads – How To Format Your Screenplay Like A Pro, and, which he uses for word processing.

Back at Scribd again, I found another free book, MURDER IN MARSHALL’S BAYOU by S.H. Baker. This is part romance, part mystery, set in 1924 Louisiana, and it’s a comfort read published by Zumaya Enigma, a small press in Austin, Texas.

It has a literary feel and the kind of languid grace southern novels are noted for. The writing lowers my blood pressure: “The sound of the Gulf, closer than usual, drowned out the songs of all the night creatures except an occasional alligator.”

S.H. Baker is Sarah H. Baker, who also writes as Sarah Storme and has a bio as colorful as her writing. Her web site is at

So, over the course of this week I discovered three new authors and their books without leaving my computer. Downloads at Scribd are suitable for various e-readers, plus the .pdf format. I don't have an e-reader but the .pdf format works beautifully.

I spent a lot of time. Every link led to something else and I’m the world’s most curious person. Browsing through an old-fashioned bricks and mortar bookstore takes a certain amount of patience. Browsing through the online bookstore of the future takes even more patience. There are so many buttons, so many hot links, to lead you into other places.

The rewards are many. The Internet is truly the master library. The Internet opens up the world.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

By Mark W. Danielson

Last Sunday, the earth shook LA with a 4.7 quake. I was lying on my hotel bed near the epicenter when it happened. For about fifteen seconds, the walls and furniture shook. Even the television rocked a little, but no power was ever lost. And then it was over. Well, sort of. You see, the media can't seem to let it go.

I’ve ridden out many earthquakes. The house I grew up in was built directly atop the Hayward Fault near San Francisco Bay. When I lived in San Diego, I frequently awoke to small quakes. Once I was even tossed from bed while sleeping in the Philippines, and although that one got my attention, earthquakes don’t scare me much. Apparently, I’m the exception.

Judging from the news clips, one might think that this quake decimated LA. Images of broken glass and groceries lying on market floors repeat themselves during reporter voice-overs. Within minutes after the 4.7 quake, local news stations began taking calls from Nervous Nellie’s; one of whom said the shaking lasted twenty to thirty minutes. Really! Buildings would have crumbled had the tremor lasted that long. But then, we’ve come to expect this from the media. In fact, we even thrive on it. Why else would we have 24/7 news stations?

News moguls figured out a long time ago that sensationalizing stories is big business. Perhaps this explains the extensive coverage of the swine flu. And while I feel sorry for the families of the six people in the United States who have died from this virus, the flu annually claims thirty six thousand US residents without any mention of a pandemic. By comparison, this latest flu scare seems rather out of proportion. Of course, like this LA quake, the swine flu has our attention, thus we stay glued to the TV for the latest coverage . . .

So what’s really going on here? One word explains it: fear. A few years ago, “Fear This” was the anthem for bad-ass kids because of its endless connotations. Of course, nowadays, kids’ put grenade decals on their cars. Regardless, fear pumps adrenaline for fight or flight, and we love this rush so much that we can't get enough of it. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t see endless news broadcasts about minor earthquakes. We would also be without horror movies, and no one would be writing suspense. So enjoy the fear, for it is an essential emotion. Just balance the media's attention with reality, for not everything you see on TV is real.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

California, Here We Come

By Chester Campbell

Back in September of 2004, my wife, Sarah, and I undertook our most ambitious book signing tour, a five-day gig in Orange County, California. We do all our travels by car, so we made a two-week trip out of this one. Sharing the driving time keeps a fairly fresh pair of hands on the wheel. We switch off at rest stops or lunch breaks.

While cleaning up my desk the other day, I came across a small note pad with a few scrawled pages of cryptic notes jotted down during the trip. It’s interesting to see what random thoughts I chronicled from all we saw in traveling most of I-40 from Nashville, Tennessee to its end at Barstow, California. The pages only covered the trip out. We did our sightseeing on the way back, including a visit to the Grand Canyon.

According to my little book, we departed Nashville at 7:20 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 13. My first entry was “cappuccino in Jackson,” which put us well into West Tennessee. I might add that we became addicted to cappuccino around this time, a habit that has stayed with us to the present. We like the kind you find in truck stops and gas stations along the interstate. At home, we mix ours with powder from Sam’s.

Rain and road work were noted at 11:15 a.m. in Memphis. I remember getting slowed by construction as we neared the I-40 bridge across the Mississippi. And the rain doused us with bucketsful as we trekked across Arkansas. However, I noted the temperature in Little Rock was 94 degrees. We stopped there for lunch at the Cracker Barrel restaurant. We make it a habit of eating at Cracker Barrel. You know what to expect and it’s invariably tasty.

As the weather improved, we zipped across Arkansas and kept pressing on until it got dark on us at Shawnee, Oklahoma. We picked out a likely looking Best Western not far off I-40 and checked in. Bummer. The restaurant was closed and the pool shut down by order of the Health Department. We were too bushed to look for another place so settled into the third room they gave us (the first had no a/c, the second door wouldn’t open).

Tuesday dawned with a welcome red ball in the sky. After we crossed into Texas, my notes mention “buttes, maize, cattle.” I was also impressed by the colorful lights on the Texas troopers’ cars. Happily, they didn’t flash them for us. The New Mexico border brought a mention of the state’s 75 mph speed limit. Another salient (not the word Sarah used) feature was the rustic rest rooms at their rest areas.

The farther west we traveled, the higher the elevation. I noted the landscape consisted of “high plains with zilch,” indicating little of descriptive value as far as I could see. We cruised through Albuquerque, where I was impressed with the colorful Spanish architecture. As the sun dropped lower, we found ourselves nearly blinded by that unyielding glow on the horizon. We stopped for the night at Grants, 6,466 feet up, a little shy of the Continental Divide. My notes say we ate at the 4B’s Restaurant, although it wasn’t memorable enough that I recall anything about it.

Since we had left Tennessee and were heading for California, we came dressed for summer weather. The lofty altitude left us shivering when we stepped out of the room Wednesday morning. We also discovered that the price of gas kept going up as we traveled farther west. My notes show $1.79, which doesn’t sound bad today.

Arizona brought more high plains and lots of rock. Most noticeable were the different colors in the rock formations and the way they were piled about in places. We stopped briefly in Flagstaff to check out the Grand Canyon tours for the following week, then began the downhill trek toward the California border. This was a desolate area, with a 50-mile stretch between Seligman and U.S. 93 that was packed with absolutely nothing.

We crossed the border into the Golden State and stopped at Needles for the night. I had made a reservation at a motel there, but when we arrived they informed us the air conditioning was out. We said no thanks and went across the street to a nice Motel 6, where they had left the light on for us.

My final scribblings on Thursday indicate “Barstow 40 ends, the LA experience begins—more lanes, more traffic.” For some reason I failed to make note of the long stretch through the Mojave Desert before we reached Barstow. It was somewhat reminiscent of the landscape I experienced on a trip to the Holy Land a few years earlier.

My penultimate note indicates the freeways were not as bad as Atlanta, “just more of ‘em.” The final entry says only “Katherine’s tour.” But it was one of the highlights of the trip. Dear author friend Katherine Shephard took us on a tour of Orange County the day after we arrived. Kathy had a personality I can only describe as bubbling with enthusiasm and, as someone else said, a zest for life. She was a most gracious hostess. She had things to do but took time to drop by my signing at Barnes & Noble, where this photo was made.

Kathy was the one who had given me the contact that got the B&N signing. Sadly, about the time we were there, she was diagnosed with the cancer that took her life after a long and valiant struggle. But her hospitality was one of the highlights of our tour, which included an appearance at the annual Men of Mystery event in Irvine and signings at three Borders stores.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hair Trigger

by Ben Small

One of the first things the Tacti-ccol set buys for a pistol is a trigger job, usually defined as a smoothing out of the trigger action, shortening the stroke, taking up creep, and lightening the pull. But if this is for a self-defense gun, the owner's trigger job may result in a shot to the head. legally speaking.

The self defense claim is held to a fairly high standard in most states. To be proven, it must be shown that the force used was reasonable with regard to the threat and not an over-reaction. Whether you or the state has the burden of proof will depend on the state. But the last thing the potential defendant needs, are facts that may tend to show an eagerness to use deadly force.

To a prosecutor, a trigger job becomes a "hair-trigger," one intended to release a deadly missile with the least of a finger tug.

One more arrow in the prosecutor's quiver.

But jail-time or the risk of the death penalty aren't the only risks. Sooner or later, a civil lawsuit, or several of them, will be filed. And civil cases don't require a 'beyond a reasonable doubt" standardl in civil cases, the standard is "more likely than not." You can imagine what fun a plaintiff's attorney will have with the term "hair-trigger." And since the shooting will be deemed an intentional act, more than likely, homeowner's insurance won't cover any liability and may not cover the civil defense.

As O.J. showed, one can be acquitted in criminal court and be convicted in civil court. And punitive damages will be awarded with a verdict.

Defense costs alone, criminal and civil, will cost the defendant a million dollars or more. In the meantime, the defendant will have lost his or her job and will likely have sold most of his or her assets to cover expenses, fines and judgments.

Quite a price to pay for a simple trigger-job. And that's why seasoned veterans of the gun culture caution one to leave one's self-defense pistol alone. Don't use special hand-loads, don't mess with the trigger. The gun manufacturers provide trigger pull standards, and those standards and why they were set, as testified to by expert witnesses, will track the differential between factory triggers and production loads and trigger-jobs and hand-loaded ammo.

That's why cops use double action pistols with high weight trigger pulls. If they shoot, they have to justify the shooting. Special bullets and trigger jobs signal a trigger-happy officer. That's bad news. When a cop shoots, he goes on administrative leave while the shooting review board considers the circumstances. Handloads or trigger jobs will spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e; the cop may be brought up on disciplinary charges, and civil suits are sure to follow.

So if your protag is carrying a gun, make sure there's been no trigger job, and use production hollow-point ammo. Hollow-point bullets are standard police issue these days. What used to be called "dum-dums," a term used during the day when prosecutors and plaintiff's lawyers sought excessive force claims, is now considered the safer bullet. Ballistics tests have proven that hollow-point bullets are less likely than wadcutters or ball ammo to penetrate through a body and strike a bystander.

Funny thing that. Concern for bystanders. For it could also be claimed that a smoother, lighter trigger means a more accurate shot, less finger push or pull. And accuracy means less likelihood that bystanders will be hit.

But lawyers like the way the term "hair trigger" plays to a jury.

And that's what counts.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Talent, guts, luck, and fame

Cole Hauser, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting.” Photo from Yahoo! Movies.

By Pat Browning

TUESDAY: I read that actor Ben Affleck and his actress wife Jennifer Garner just bought the old Gregory Peck estate in Pacific Palisades. They paid $17.55 million for an 8,800 square foot home on a 3-acre cliffside location. According to the news article, the place had been listed at $27.5 million, so the Afflecks got a real bargain when $10 million was lopped off the price.

Affleck is only 36. How does someone make that much money in so short a time? It has been only 11 years since he and his buddy, Matt Damon, burst onto the scene with their movie “Good Will Hunting.” One movie, but it opened the door.

WEDNESDAY: I’ve never seen the movie. I spotted a VHS tape of “Good Will Hunting” in the Goodwill store, and bought it for 99 cents

THURSDAY: I got out my loose leaf notebook with notes and handouts from a workshop, Discovering Story Magic, led by Robin L. Perini and Laura Baker of Writers Online. I enrolled in the class in 2007 and the only requirement was that we prep for it by watching the movie, “Good Will Hunting.”

My local library didn’t have the movie on CD or VHS tape, but it had the screenplay, which was even better for study purposes. The screenplay was a revelation. With only dialogue and a few stage instructions, the structure was laid bare.

An introduction by Gus Van Zant, who directed the movie, included conversations with Affleck and Damon about the writing of the screenplay. It was … so … darn … easy …

Two best friends driving across deserts, faxing each other between remote locations, and hanging out in hotels trying to make each other laugh and cry over a three-year period is how they managed to put this amazing screenplay together ...

“When we say that we drove across the country, we mean that I drive and Matt rides along,” Ben informs me.

“Fifty-five hours is fast, too,” I say.

“Fifty-seven …

“Not a lot of sightseeing,” Matt says.

But Matt still doesn’t take a turn at the wheel; he just makes up stories with Ben to keep him from falling asleep.

“A lot of Good Will was written on such cross-country road trips. We tell each other stories while in a particular character, usually to make each other laugh or to make sure that Ben doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel.”

“The stories have to be good or I start to nod off.”

“So it sort of ups the ante as far as story quality goes. When we get into an improve that we both like, that we both think is going well and dialogue that we are relatively excited by, I will open up the glove compartment where I keep my notebook and write down a few notes that we will use later to recall the entire improvisation,” Matt says.

“When we do finally stop the car I’ll unpack a laptop computer and we’ll write down the new pages by reinventing it,” Ben says. …

“And let it be said,” Ben adds, “that when we are doing this, most of the time we are trying to make ourselves laugh. We are going for a shared reaction. We are going for a good time.”

“Or cry. We might make ourselves cry, too,” Matt says.

“Yes, and also a lot of the time we’ll have a few beers while we are writing. We’re just hanging out with each other trying to entertain ourselves.”
End Quote.
Van Zant says that it took about 10 rewrites to get the screenplay ready for filming. Perhaps the most telling comment of all comes as Van Zant describes news of the original sale:

(Quote) Not only did the press announcement cheerfully praise the prestigious and lucrative sale but also pointed out that it was very clever of Ben and Matt to have cast themselves in the lead parts – this was a secret plan of theirs, to be cast in parts that interested each of them, by writing the parts themselves. (End Quote)

Lessons to be drawn:
1) Write something that keeps the reader awake.
2) Write something that pleases you.
3) Rewrite as often as it takes.
4) Have fun doing it. (Have a few beers. Or chocolate bars.)
And the most thought-provoking idea of all:
5) Put yourself in the book as a character that interests you. It gives you a stake in the book.

A screenplay and a novel are two different things. The screenplay is dialogue and bare bones. The novel brings in scenery, weather, colors, physical attributes of the characters, body language, the senses. It puts flesh on the bones, making it a complete experience.

Two different things, screenplay and novel, but both depend on a solid structure. One other thing they have in common is dialogue to move the story along. When I get bogged down in a scene or chapter, I dash it off in dialogue. Once the characters start talking to each other, the story takes off again.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Yellowstone’s Grizzlies are Disappearing

by Jean Henry Mead

Open season on grizzlies is reducing their numbers at an alarming rate in our nation’s first national park. Fifty-four of them died last year—37 shot by hunters—the highest mortality rate ever recorded.

Compounding the problem is the massive die-off of whitebark pine trees, whose nuts are the bears' principal source of food during autumn before they hibernate. The trees have been killed by invasive pine beetles.

The grizzly was placed on the engendered species list in 1975 after a similar massive die-off occurred following the closing of garbage dumps in the park and bears wandered into campgrounds and towns in search of food. During the fall of 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the grizzly from the engendered list. So the bears have been killed in record numbers because they present a challenge to hunters.

Bear management has been turned over to Fish and Game in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, whose agencies apparently accept any hunter's excuse of self defense in grizzly territory. No hunting restrictions apply.

“Known mortalities," according to naturalist and outdoorsman Doug Peacock, is about half the actual grizzly deaths. “A hundred dead per year, no matter if the total number in the ecosystem is 200 or 600, means the population is crashing downhill. This is especially true for the grizzly, one of the slowest reproducing mammals.“

According to Peacock, no whitebark pine in Yellowstone Park will gain maturity within our lifetime, which will severely stress the bears and soon cause their extinction, helped along by no hunting restrictions. Some 80 percent of the trees have died and those remaining are producing fewer than normal yields.

Fish and Game and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team met on April 15 of this year in Bozeman, Montana, to discuss the bears’ fate. They decided that the alarming number of deaths in Yellowstone was merely a “spike” and that better hunter education and use of bear spray as a deterrent would solve the problem along with a limited grizzly hunt in all three states.

Peacock, who attended the meeting, says, “The agencies believe it is the inalienable right of hunters to kill grizzlies whenever they feel the need or desire. The possibility of returning the Yellowstone grizzly to [endangered species protection] is unthinkable to this group. . . Nobody thought of asking the public, especially elk hunters, to take responsibility for causing these encounters with grizzlies or to give up anything in terms of hunting hours or access to reduce grizzly mortality. In my opinion, getting too close to a grizzly and precipitating a charge is always the fault of the human.”

The Defenders of Wildlife Organization enacted an "Adopt a Bear" program and asks for donations to "educate the public and purchase bear-resistant trash containers to reduce human conflicts with grizzlies." Unfortunately, it's not enough to save the bears. With an estimated 1,000 grizzlies remaining in the lower 48 states--down from 50,000--and dying off rapidly, drastic measures are needed soon to cure the problem, whether it means reenacting the ESA and/or relocating the animals to another area with adequate food, something needs to be done. Without the grizzlies, the elk and deer populations will increase, which eat the bark from trees and eventually destroy forests.

Peacock doubts that the current Interagency Team is up to the task. “They fought for delisting in the face of undeniable threats to the bear’s future as a species. Fresh, outside leadership is urgently needed.”

Photograph by John Eastcoff and Yva Momatiuk

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's Not Easy Being Green

By Mark W. Danielson

I normally don’t climb atop soapboxes, but today I’m making an exception. Living in higher-end hotels five months each year, I am constantly amazed at how well they preach environmental friendliness, and yet fail at being proactive. So this post is dedicated to all the hotel managers who have ignored my pleas for improvement. As a minimum, perhaps I'll gain empathy from those who travel as I do.

I could address numerous areas on this topic, but I’ll limit this discussion to water, for clean water is our most precious resource, and yet we flush it away as if there’s an endless supply. These days, most hotels leave eco-friendly bed-notes reminding their guests to make the choice of using minimal towels and reusing their bedding, or insisting on new laundry every day. While I believe that most guests prefer being earth-friendly, it’s difficult to do when the hotel’s shower heads are so wasteful. The Westin is a fine hotel chain, and yet they chose to install dual shower heads in each guest room. Why they would do this is beyond me, but to their credit, they have a placard near the shower head that empowers me to make the choice of single or dual. Unfortunately, when you select “single”, the shower head pressure doubles, so you still end up wasting water. Even more frustrating is running the water for five minutes or more before it’s warm enough to climb in. Truly, there is no excuse for this.

Now, I’ve always maintained that no one has the right to gripe unless they can offer a solution, so mine is for each Westin hotel to replace all of their dual shower heads with single, high-pressure, low-flow ones that use 1/3 of the water. Eco-friendly shower heads provide plenty of flow to rinse the soap out of your hair and off your skin. In fact, many hotel chains have already done this. As for the hot water delay, hotels should install booster-heaters on each floor so the water is instantly heated as it passes through. Adding solar panels to hotel roofs could not only power these booster heaters, but they would further reduce fossil fuel energy consumption.

Of course, all of these improvements require additional investment, but considering the fuel and water savings, the break even period would be minimal, and the long term savings could add up to millions. Now, I’m no financial genius, but this makes sense to me – especially when so many of these hotels are currently being renovated or upgraded.

Some guests may argue that they specifically book at Westin hotels because they love their dual shower heads, and to them I say, grow up – we’re all in this together. Wasting resources affects everyone, regardless of where you reside, how much money you earn, or what hotels you stay at. These days, people tend to appreciate eco-friendly hotels, so I see few repercussions from my recommended changes. As Kermit says, it’s not easy being green, but it would be easier if everyone did their part to conserve.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Making a Movie Trailer

By Chester Campbell

I’ve just started working on a book trailer for The Surest Poison. I have an idea for what I want to do, but at the moment I’m frustrated by not finding photos I need to put it together. You’d think a CD with 30,000 pictures would have the one I’m looking for. It doesn’t. However, I’ve located a site on the web called that says it has 5,697,796 images. Surely something out of that will work.

I updated my movie program, Pinnacle Studio, to the Ultimate version. I just need to don my director’s cap, grab my megaphone, and shout “quiet on the set.” Hollywood, here I come.

Somehow I don’t think it’s going to be that simple. I’ve done a couple of trailers. This one wasn't bad for a first effort, but I think it's a bit short of Oscar material. I’d like to do voice-over, but I don’t have the voice for it. I have a friend from church who does narration for musicals and such. He has a great voice. I’m not sure if my ancient audio equipment is up for the job, though.

I’ve learned a few things since doing my last video. Things like apply the old KISS principle: “Keep it simple, Stupid.” Don’t mix in too many weird transitions. Stay with a simple one that keeps the flow steady. I want to vary between still photos and movie footage. I may have to get out the old camcorder and do some shooting on my own.

I like scrolling narration. I haven’t checked out the new program yet, but I hope it lets you scroll off into the sunset. I think that’s really cool. I seem to remember it being used quite effectively in “2001: a Space Odyssey.”

I’d like to throw in a few sound effects, too. I discovered lots of links to free sound effects at I couldn’t find the sound of fire, but it turns out that paper crumbling makes the same sound.

I find lots of people who do their own trailers use Kevin McLeod’s royalty free music. He has a long list of songs in various categories. I used his music for both of the trailers I’ve done and will no doubt repeat that with this one. His site is It costs nothing, but he encourages a $5 donation. A small price to pay.

I’ll let you know how this one turns out in a future Murderous Musings blog.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Where do you get your inspiration?

by Ben Small

Not talking about church here. More the opposite. Like the spot where I like to dream of murder.

Hopefully, you the reader, are a writer or a reader, or you're probably dialing 911 about now.

But I'm talking about writing inspiration, where you drum up plot points, where you ask some of the more interesting What if? questions.

I get mine from many directions: watching interaction at the mall or at sporting events, or just sitting at the U of A campus, watching people. I'll jot a few notes about character traits I may want to infuse into someone later. Or I'll drift away sometimes while I'm writing, flowing on a gust of creative wind that may become a storm. Classical music puts me into a contemplative mood, which can often be intense enough I don't even hear my wife come in with amendments to the Honey Do list.

But the places I enjoy most for this are similar. The hammock off a back deck or a lounge chair by the pool, both at night, when the desert comes alive. Birds calling to mates or potential victims are sending messages, and I'm picking up their vibes. I often imagine what they're saying to each other. Or a big iguana may crawl out of a bush, stand a moment stock still, before scurrying away. The Gambel quail stir and squawk warnings. Is a bobcat about to saunter by?

It's amazing how the desert nights drive my creative spirit. I can come in after an hour in the desert night full of new ideas, ready to pound some keys on the keyboard always in my lap.

I come up with trigger words -- no, not something I aim at a troublesome neighbor -- words I can jot down when I come in that will take me back to my musings. Amazing how one little word can signal a major plot change. But it's the way I used to prepare for closing argument in trial, trigger words, shorthand, one note and a torrent is released. It works in writing, too, which is why I always keep a notebook next to my bed and why there's a stack of torn magazine pages next to me wherever I go.

But by far, the desert night, no traffic, just enjoying the peace and tranquility -- unless the coyotes have scored -- provides my best inspiration. Combine the desert night with Rachmaninoff when I return, and I'm off and riding the tide, pounding on the keyboard like an over-caffeinated court reporter.

But no Bach, please. Bach steers me toward murder. Oh wait...that's what I do: write about murder.

More Bach please. And more desert.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Heart of Fiction

Michael Malone; photo from the Web

By Pat Browning

Some of my friends were disappointed when I wrote a mystery. For some reason they expected me to write “literature.” I was apologetic at first but I got over it.

Michael Malone, one of our great Southern writers, raised a few eyebrows when he wrote for the TV soap opera “One Life To Live” but there’s a man who knows what he’s doing. His letter on the mystery is so eloquent that I refer to it when I need a boost.

His short story “Red Clay” won the Edgar in 1997 and appears in Best Mystery Stories of the Century. His three acclaimed crime novels feature North Carolina police detectives Justin Savile and Cuddy Mangum. Uncivil Seasons was published in 1983, Time's Witness in 1989 and First Lady in 2001.

The soap opera experience surfaced in one of his novels. In 2005 he co-wrote a thriller spoof, The Killing Club, with “Marcie Walsh.” It was published by Hyperion, but there is no Marcie Walsh. She’s a fictional character from “One Life to Live.”

There’s a lengthy, wide-ranging and fascinating interview with Malone in January Magazine online. In it he talks about his writing, past, present and future, and writing in general. You can read it at

Michael Malone first came to my attention when I bought an Advanced Reading Copy of First Lady at a library book sale. The ARC included Malone’s Letter on Mysteries. For reasons known only to the publisher, the letter was omitted when Sourcebooks, Inc. published the novel in 2002. Fortunately I had saved the letter in My Documents, and here it is.


A Letter from Michael Malone On Mysteries

We think of a "mystery novel" as a book with a murder in it. But all stories, like all lives, are mysteries. We listen to stories to meet strangers and learn their plots. What happened before, what happens next? We are private eyes searching for clues to our connections. Safe in fiction, we are testing our hearts.

Huckleberry Finn is a murder mystery in which the young hero fakes his own death and learns of his own father's murder. Oedipus Rex is a murder mystery in which the detective discovers that he himself is the killer. Who did it? How was it done? And most of all, why was it done? The heart of fiction is always to get at the secrets.

Because murder is the highest crime against our shared humanness, it is to murder that the community responds most collectively and dramatically. We search, we unleash the law, we expose and expel the violator. What could be better for a storyteller than a world of such secrets, such discoveries, such consequences? (It is no coincidence that there is a murder mystery in almost every one of Dickens's novels.)

American detective fiction was fathered in the South by Poe and Twain, and has carried that strong heritage through Intruder in the Dust and To Kill a Mockingbird to the novels of my contemporaries. To solve murders, detectives must unearth all the buried social and familial entanglements that led to the crimes. Hiding secrets, digging them up -- it's a Southern tradition. The roots of our lives are tangled deep in a shared rich and painful past that is always struggling up out of its grave to haunt us.

I think that readers today turn to the "mystery" because they can find there the kind of storytelling they once found in general fiction. I turn to the mystery for the same reason. When you write a murder mystery, you enlarge your canvas beyond the relational and domestic, beyond the intimate confines of many modern novels. You move your story into a public realm where plots have moral and political and social dimensions, where private acts have consequences beyond the personal. In short, you bring in a world.

End Quote.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Exercises in Creativity

By Jean Henry Mead

While I was growing up during the dark ages, if someone said you were creative, they meant you were strange. Or different from the norm, whatever that is. On the other hand, people admired the creativity of artists and writers who dared to be irreverent. They were what author Nancy Slonim Aronie called “tapped by the goddess of artistic sensibilities.”

I’ve always wondered whether writers were born to be writers and telemarketers were born to perversely make phone calls during dinner. We’re all born with innate talents that are creative in their own way. Florists are creative in their arrangements as are plumbers who create unusual designs that hopefully don’t leak. And I’ve always admired the creative talents of wedding cake designers and chefs who garnish their gourmet dishes with sprigs of parsley and mounds of berries and glorious whipped cream.

Aronie says, “Creativity is your soul expressing itself. Creativity is a continuing process. And process and souls expressing themselves have nothing do with selling or reviews or results or commercial success. They have everything to do with taking chances, being honest, letting us experiment with what feels right, letting ourselves make—as Annie Lamott puts it in Bird by Bird—'[lousy] first drafts.' This brainstorming of the gut will nourish your innards.”

Aronie’s creativity exercise is an interesting one. She basically says to allow yourself 30 minutes to decide which ordinary thing you’ll turn into something extraordinary. Then write about it. “What was the experience like for you? How will you remember it? How will you change the channel from ‘what a drag’ to ‘what a joy?’”

Some of the exercises she suggests are:

~Clean the hydrator in the refrigerator.

~Match all the socks in the sock drawer.

~Throw out all the stretched–out underwear that you never wear.

~Organize your videotapes.

~Rip pages from a magazine and make a collage that says ‘I’m creative’.

~Add a plant to your work area.

~Make an exotic mushroom sandwich on toasted country French bread. Serve it on your nicest plate with yellow and orange nasturtium.

~Put a love note under someone’s pillow.

Most of these things fall under the dreaded category of “Housework,” and I can think of better things to do with the little time I have to be creative, although I have to admit that her suggestions are challenging.

Aronie has taught a workshop, telling students that “creativity is maintaining the balance between the heart and the mind, the dedication to the moment and the ability to stand by and surrender and let the stuff flow through.”

I hope that’s what I’ve been doing . . .

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Location, location, location

By Mark W. Danielson

Rather than selling real estate, I am suggesting using aerial maps to help create realistic scenes. As a reality-based novelist, I have found that visiting my settings is critical to accurately writing about them. In most cases, I’ve been physically able to walk the areas I’ve described, but there are times when I must resort to other means. One of those involves using satellite imagery through the Internet. Here, a variety of mapping web sites allow me to zoom in on specific locations using a full range of magnification. Other than actually visiting the site, there isn’t a better way to create or verify a potential scene.

Using this method is simple. Let’s say I want to find a hotel for a particular crime scene. First, I’ll do an Internet search to locate a hotel that’s closest to my desired location, then I’ll switch to the aerial view that’s normally provided on the hotel’s web site. If an aerial view isn’t available, then I’ll plug the address into a mapping web site. The large scale aerial view gives me a broad understanding on how everything can fit together. Then, if I plan on describing a route to or from this hotel, I’ll pan the map to follow specific roads, picking up details along the way. I always keep my descriptions brief, though. One picture may be worth a thousand words, but there’s no need to use that many.

Scaling a map is equally important, but even this space image of the San Francisco Bay Area shown above provides remarkable detail. If you’re familiar with this location, you can pick out Golden Gate Park even at this range. Once I understand the big picture, I’ll zoom in for clarity, such as in this image of Chicago’s Michigan Boulevard. (See photo below.) Of course, the value of satellite imagery is proportional to one’s familiarity with a location. If you know the area, then satellite images will stir memories that can be woven into your story. If you are unfamiliar and attempt to substitute these images for actually being there, then you are jeopardizing your credibility, for no matter how clear the image, these photos cannot even hint at the smells, sounds, or general condition, nor can they give a sense about the people who walk its streets.

I am a firm believer that reality-based fiction must be accurate in every detail. Since credibility is the essence of any suspense story, why create fictional cities when so much crime happens in existing ones? Remember that even though a small percentage of your readers may discover your error(s), your resulting loss of credibility can seriously damage your writing career. (I still remember some “big name” authors’ inaccuracies from years ago.)

Like everything, satellite imagery is one more gizmo in your tool chest, no different from taking photographs, making video recordings, or talking to street people. The key to being a solid writer is including the details in your scenes. Pay attention to the dust on the light bulbs, the background music, and most of all, have fun with it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Once Upon a Time...

By Chester Campbell

That's the way stories are supposed to begin, isn't it? I think I remember. I used to be a mystery writer once upon a time. I created colorful characters and exciting scenes where breathtaking actions occurred. I dreamed up plots that could get the old ticker pounding away. It was a lot of fun.

With my first published book, I sat down to write after spending two weeks roaming the Holy Land with a group of wide-eyed tourists. At times it was hot and sweaty, but never dull. Gazing out across the Dead Sea from the Herod's mountain fortress at Masada was awesome. Back home I relived those moments through the eyes of my characters as they took the same routes.

The second book involved a balcony collapse at a high-rise condo on the beach at Perdido Key, Florida. I wrote part of it while sitting with my laptop in my brother's condo on the beach at Perdido Key. That's the kind of roughing it a writer should be forced to do. The research also involved a side trip to a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. What I call going all out for your craft.

For the third book, I took on a stay-at-home assignment. The story was set around Nashville, though I did a lot of nosing in areas I hadn't visited in years. I also did a ride-along with a Metro Nashville homicide detective. I learned such interesting things as their fascination with racing through the streets whether in an emergency or not, and doing U-turns just because they could. I delved a bit into Scottish heritage to fill out Greg McKenzie's family background in the military. That was fun.

Book four was particularly fascinating because it involved a restored 1914 auto factory. I nosed around the area where I lived for a year after serving in the Korean War. And for this one I also brought in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. That required a revealing tour of the TBI facility, where I made some good contacts. I also visited a small town not too far away several times, checking locations where I busily committed several murders. A writer's work is never done.

The fifth book brought a new character and new challenges. He's a single guy with an entirely different background. Plus I wanted to switch from first person to third, putting a different perspective on the writing. On this project, I mostly indulged my habit of working on my laptop in the living room instead of on the PC up in the office. It got me away from the distraction of email, though with wireless internet I still had Google at my fingertips.

As I said at the beginning, I used to be a mystery writer. However, lately I have become a blogger and a Twitterer, a newsletter writer and a website designer. My mailbox fills with hundreds of emails daily from 19 different Yahoo groups and countless others from who-knows-where. I Google my name and book titles to see who's writing about them, and I check my Amazon rankings for clues on whether I'm selling.

I guess I've become a promoter and a marketer. I don't expect to get rich. Heck, I'd be happy to break even for a change. But I crave the feeling that people are reading and enjoying what I write. That means I've got to sell. And nobody's going to do it but me.

I've about reached the point, though, where I'm ready to chuck it all, grab my laptop, head back down to the living room, and become a writer again. Wouldn't that be fun! (But first I've got to get this post up on the blogsite.)

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hocus Pocus Blow Some Smokus

by Ben Small

Okay, it rhymes. Dumb, but it rhymes. My day is done.

And that’s a good thing. Because my head is spinning. I’m so confused. If I were a cat, my tail would flip question marks.

See, this flu thing has me flummoxed. We get it from pigs, but we’re not to call it “swine” flu. A pig might be insulted. So we’re to call it “H1N1,” whatever that means, but it’s not really that virus strain either.

We’ve never seen this flu before, and it seems to be mild, but we should all be scared of it because the media is telling the government we should be.

So what do we call it? Or should it be the "You know what?" flu?

I’d suggest “Political Correctness Flu,” but we’ve been suffering that one for years, ever since “plausible deniability” replaced “outright, bald—faced lie.” Ever since “Black” became a slur and was replaced by “African-American.” Ever since we started defining “is.”

About that African-American thing, I’ve always wondered: What about Gary Player? What is Gary, other than a really good golfer? Has poor Gary been disenfranchised? Has Gary lost his identity? Should we apologize?

So now this Irish-English-French-German-American is trying to come to terms with this flu bug. I understand “Mexico Flu” is out; we wouldn’t want our illegals to be offended.

We could call it “Bush Flu,” since it’s fun to blame W for so much, but then some Australians might take offense. And we can’t have that.

I’d consider calling this virus “The Single Parent Flu,” on account of all the single parents suffering because schools are closing, but someone might consider that tag to be anti-abortion and blow up my house.

Or is this flu part of the Economic Stimulus Plan?

Hmm... maybe I’m on to something. Contrary to most “special interest projects” (used to be “earmarks”) passed by Congress and signed into law by the Chosen One (used to be “president”), this flu program may actually stimulate the economy. Those kids tossed out of school aren’t going to sit at home. They’ll be in the mall...

Spending money, money their suddenly out-of-work parents don’t have, thereby increasing the debt broke banks need to attract more TARP (used to be “bailout’) funds, money that’s coming, or will so, from the pockets of the few people still working, breaking them broke, too.


And then, once everybody’s in this condition, we’ll all be healthy again. Nirvana. Cared for. Living on government income. Lean, mean, politically correct machines.

Yeah, that’ll work. Done deal.

The “Economic Stimulus Flu.”

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Writing Advice

There’s a wealth of good advice from successful authors to be found on the Internet. Here are some recent blogs that I’m saving.

Tim Hallinan visited Jean Henry Mead’s Mysterious People blog ( Hallinan writes the Poke Rafferty series and his newest book is BREATHING WATER. You can read more about it at his web site:

Here’s what Tim had to say during his interview with Jean.

(a) Write the book you'd most like to read. Some people waste years trying to create a Great Novel they wouldn't read if it appeared one morning beneath their pillow;
(b) Honor your writing by giving it an immovable place in your daily schedule and sticking to it;
(c) If you can't get it right, go ahead and get it wrong – but don't stop; the enemy, as someone has said, is not the bad page – it's the empty page. You can always go back and make it better;
(d) Give your characters their freedom, and remember that plot is what characters do, not a box to put them in.
(e) Finish your first novel even if it goes completely, spectacularly wrong; you'll learn more from the first one than from the next three combined, and you can't very well start the second until you've finished the first;
(f) when you're not writing, read.
(End Quote)

More good advice, this time from L.J. Sellers. She was a recent guest blogger at Working Stiffs ( on the subject of writing first drafts that don’t suck. Her first book is THE SEX CLUB, and a second book, SECRETS TO DIE FOR, will be out in September. You can find out more about her and her books at

I have L.J.’s permission to use her blog in a workshop proposal for a book fair next year, and I’ll summarize the high points here. She writes:

… here’s how I craft a great first draft without any gaping holes or illogical twists:

1. Create an outline. Once I have a basic story idea (comprised of an exciting incident, major plot developments, and overview ending), I start filling in the details. I structure my outline by days (Tuesday, Wed., etc.), then outline the basic events/scenes that happen on each day, noting which POV the section will be told from.

2. Write out the story logic. In a mystery/suspense novel, much of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the perpetrators that the detective and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I worry that I won’t be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened. So I map it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page.

3. Beef up the outline. As I write the first 50 pages or so, new ideas come to me and I fill in the rest of outline as I go along. I continue adding to the outline, and by about the middle of the story, I have it completed.

4. Create a timeline. A lot happens in my stories, which usually take place in about six to ten days. I keep the timeline filled in as I write the story. This way I can always look at my timeline and know exactly when an important event took place (Monday, 8 a.m.: Jackson interrogates Gorman in the jail). It’s much faster to check the timeline than scroll through a 350-page Word document. The timeline also keeps me from writing an impossible number of events into a 24-hour day.

5. Keep an idea/problem journal. I constantly get ideas for other parts of the story or realize things I need to change, so I enter these notes into a Word file as I think of them. (Ryan needs to see Lexa earlier in the story, where?). I keep this file open as I write. Some ideas never get used, but some prove to be crucial.

6. Keep an evidence file. I make note of every piece of evidence that I introduce and every idea I get for evidence that I want to introduce. I refer to this file regularly as I write, so that I’m sure to process and/or explain all the evidence before the story ends. In my first novel a pair of orange panties didn’t make it into the file or the wrap up, and sure enough, a book club discussion leader asked me who they belonged to.

7. Update my character database. It took me a few stories to finally put all my character information into one database, but it was a worthwhile effort. Now, as I write, I enter each character name (even throwaway people who never come up again) into the database, including their function, any physical description, or any other information such as phone number, address, type of car, or favorite music.

As a general rule, I like to get the whole story down on the page before I do much rewriting, but I’ve learned to stop at 50 pages for two reasons. One, I like to go back and polish the first chunk of the story in case an agent or editor asks to see it. Two, I usually give this first chunk to a few beta readers to see if I’m on the right track.
(End Quote)

Lastly, Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog, The Dark Salon (, subtitled Screenwriting Tips For Authors, is a mini-writing course. Screenwriting is more like novel writing than you may think. Most recently she blogged about act breaks, turning points, act climaxes and plot points, with examples.

She gets right into specifics, as in:
“ACT ONE CLIMAX (30 minutes into a 2 hour movie, 100 pages into a 400 page book. Adjust proportions according to length of book.)”

Sokoloff’s ghost story, THE HARROWING, was published by St. Martin’s in 2006. Her newest supernatural thriller is THE PRICE. She has contracted with St.Martin’s for her next two supernatural thrillers.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Wyoming Legends

By Jean Henry Mead

My freelance writing career began early one fall morning in 1978. I left home at 4:30 a.m. to drive some 80-miles into the Wyoming outback where I was planning to interview two sheepherding sisters: 78-year-old Amy Chubb, and Elsie Lloyd, 81. The women had worked as cowboys from an early age in the Wyoming interior.

They were still active on their 2,400-acre ranch where they raised Colombian sheep. The black-faced sheep had pink wool because red sandstone bluffs surrounded the range, and the ever-present Wyoming wind coated them with dust. The ranch is located in the Barnum-Mayoworth area, not far from Butch Cassidy’s former Hole in the Wall hideout in the beautiful Big Horn Mountain range.

My reason for leaving so early was to arrive at the ranch before the antelope hunt began. The sisters guided Eastern hunters each fall, hoping to avoid getting shot, themselves. One year, an excited hunter shot through the cab of the pickup, narrowly missing Elsie, who was driving. While we sat in the truck watching the "yahoos" try their hunting skills, I interviewed the two women. When I asked why they were still raising sheep, Amy said, "So we don’t have to sit around the house just looking at each other."

They kept their pampered flock to 70, with an average annual lamb crop of 100 because by then it was just a hobby. "We’ve always done the work," Elsie said, "but it’s a little harder now that we’re older.”

Hard work had always been a part of their lives, even as children. Born in England, their father taught them to ride at the age of four. When the family migrated to Pennsylvania in 1906, the Cooksley sisters continued to ride. They also helped their father milk 35 cows for his dairy route. Amy’s job at age six was to strip the cows of their remaining milk.

When they moved to Wyoming in 1914, their parents homesteaded a ranch and acquired some cattle. It wasn’t long before their lively, blond daughters were riding with the roundup wagon for U.S. Senator J. B. Kendrick.

Elsie said that cowboys were scarce during the First World War, “and the roundup bosses were left with a bunch of punk kids from Sheridan (northern Wyoming) who didn’t know the front end of the horse from the back. One day, Tug Wilson—we called him ‘Old Father Tug’—came riding into our place and told Dad, ’I need your girls.’

“Dad said, ‘Fine. So do I.’” Soon a temporary deal was struck to swap Elsie and Amy for some of Wilson’s “green” cowboys. Tug gave the girls their choice of horses, but they had to “nursemaid” the young, inexperienced cowhands. “We had to catch horses for most of those kids,” Elsie said laughing. “Some of the boys got bucked off every morning and soon left because they couldn’t take all those hours in the saddle.”

The inseparable sisters played as hard as they worked. Amy said, “All there was to do in those days was dance, break and race horses.” She recalled a dance they attended at Spotted Horse in the northeastern part of the state. During a lull in a roundup, one of the boys suggested they attend a dance. It was a 12-mile horseback ride in 18 below zero weather. The sisters borrowed dresses from the wagon cook, but there were no shoes to fit Elsie, so she danced in her work boots. They danced all night and worked all the next day. “That’s when we were young and tough.”

The 105-and 109-pound, straight-as-arrow sisters continued to ride their spirited horses, a Tennessee Walker and Fox Trotter, well into their 80s as well as guide a multitude of hunters on their land. They used .250-3000 Savage rifles, a relatively small bore, to knock down anything from a moose to a mule deer. It’s not the size of the gun, they said, but where you place the bullet.

I sold that first freelance article to the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine as well as to Bladenkampt, a Norwegian Western magazine and Thomas Jeier's Western magazine in Germany. A Sydney, Australia newspaper then picked up the story. Some thirty years later, Elsie and Amy served as models for the sheepherding sisters in my novel, Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel.

So they were not only Wyoming legends, they had received fan mail from around the world.