Friday, July 31, 2009

The Mysteries of Exposition

by Jean Henry Mead

When your plot first unfolds, you have to decide how to spoon in backstory or exposition, which involves breaking from the main storyline to give your reader information relative to the plot. It’s the author’s way of telling the reader something rather than showing it.

Well-handled exposition provides perspective, dimension, and needed context that contribute to events in the present. A micro history, if you will. But exposition should be handled carefully. Comic strips and soap operas use the technique frequently, but novel characters should rarely use exposition to reveal past events, especially if they’re not relevant to the plot. Mystery novelists should write in a straight line with the story’s conclusion in mind, as though running a marathon with blinders. Forget those spectators on the sidelines. Always look toward the finish line.

An example of unnecessary exposition:

“Remember the key you found?”
“Which key is that?”
“Tied with a yellow ribbon.”
“Yes, I remember it well.”
“You said it was the key to your heart.”
“I’d been drinking champagne.”
“You dropped the key in my slipper.’
“Come now, Olivia, what’s the point?”
“Nothing, Derrick, nothing at all.”

If the above dialogue is a lead-in to a romantic scene central to the plot it’s fine, or if Olivia is planning to kill her lover, it’s okay to leave it in. Otherwise, delete it.

Dialogue that doesn’t contribute significantly to the plot should be eliminated, no matter how much you like it. When the first draft is finished and polishing begins, get rid of any dialogue that doesn’t characterize, provide limited exposition, or carry the plot forward. Any asides, cute expressions, and nonessential chit-chat need to go, no matter how cleverly written. Save them for the next novel and build a plot around them. Editors consider such nonessential dialogue “padding” and if your work is accepted in spite of padded prose, the copy editor will delete it for you. It’s better to do that yourself.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Don't Mess With Texas

By Mark W. Danielson

I love Texas for its attitude as well as its landscapes. Texas is “The Lone Star State” because it was once the Republic of Texas. Paris, France, still commemorates the Ambassade Du Texas, 1842-1843, as shown in the photo. Interestingly, the Republic of Texas’ relationship with France was strong enough to warrant naming one of its towns after the City of Light. Love it or leave it, Texas is one unique state.

I spent many years living in Texas, and from its panhandle to the Gulf, Texans are full of pride. The “Don’t Mess With Texas” signs that dot its highways warn outsiders of its no-littering policy, but truthfully, this slogan is also an anthem. Where else but Texas would you find a semi-automatic pistol mailbox? ’Nuff said.

Writers love creating Texas characters because of their distinctive qualities. Movies and TV shows love to portray oil barons as rotund, boozing, loud-mouthed middle-aged men who wear cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and drive Caddies with bull horns on their hoods, and while I’ve seen plenty of Texas businessmen in boots and hats with their suits, I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a bull-horned Cadillac on the street. Now gun-toting pickups are a whole different animal, and they’re certainly not on the endangered list.

Because of its stereotypes, people may not realize that Texas has as much geographical variety as California, and along with its topography, its dialects can vary by city. Even towns that are physically close like Fort Worth and Dallas have completely different feels, so if you’re going to write Texas characters into your stories, you had better know what you’re talking about. You’ll find Dallas is as cosmopolitan as Chicago while Fort Worth rivals any cow town. I suspect that Fort Worth’s “Billy Bob’s” is where the country group Alabama realized that “if you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band.” Of course, some might compare Houston to Nashville because it’s turned out so many country musicians.

The point to all of this is that researching characters is as important as researching locations. Sometimes stereotypes are suitable, but most of the time they’re not, and thinking that Hollywood has done its homework is simply naïve. For example, when some Navy friends of mine spoke to the director of the movie Topgun about its inaccuracies, the director replied, “We’re not making a documentary.” While it’s true that fiction writers make up their stories, unless you’re writing fantasy, it’s best to keep your characters and locations believable. Doing so makes it easier for the reader to put themselves in the setting and become emotionally attached to your characters.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Anatomy of a Critique Group

By Chester Campbell

The writers group I belong to started nearly 20 years ago when Books-a-Million in Madison, the Nashville suburb where I live, had a few round tables scattered among the bookshelves. I don’t remember who started it, but I have an old list with 25 names. I don’t recall more than ten or 12 attending at one time.

In the early days, some people read from their work and there was an open discussion. We had a conglomeration of writers at various stages in their careers from beginners to long-timers. I don’t recall if anyone had a published book, but the interests ranged from mystery to romance to fantasy and SF, plus short stories, poetry, non-fiction, essays, you name it.

It was as changeable as the weather in those days. There were a few dedicated writers who attended most of the meetings. Others came and went. After several years of shifting around the store, wherever we could find a spot, our numbers decreased to a manageable level. The store changed its location and did away with the random tables. We shifted to the Joe Muggs (café) area and settled on a two meetings per month schedule.

Five of us from the original group were still on board, and we had added a few others. Attrition weeded out most of those who weren’t serious about their writing. Our sessions became more useful with detailed discussion of chapters being read. We were not without our problems, however.

One member kept changing her story over and over as comments suggested things were not working out. It became apparent this would likely be a never-ending project. After a few years, she seemed only interested in discussing her own book, then would leave. She finally dropped out.

Another writer self-published a book and joked about only selling a few copies. Over the years he showed improvement in his writing but dropped out after a conflict with the meeting night. We lost another member who felt some of the comments from the group were overly critical.

My initial Greg McKenzie mystery, Secret of the Scroll, published by a small press in 2002, became the first from the group to go into bookstores. Beth Terrell, another old-time member and one of my Murderous Musings colleages, got her first book, Too Close to Evil, published in 2004.

We changed our meeting site to Panera Bread, down at the end of the shopping center, after tiring of trying to compete with Joe Muggs’ noisy cappuccino machine. A couple of years ago, we migrated to the Barnes & Noble store at Opry Mills Mall, which is more centrally located for our current membership.

We picked up a few newcomers and now have a compatible group of dedicated writers, including one specializing in non-fiction. The majority work in the mystery field. A couple of our members produce what I would call weirdly interesting stories. It’s an eclectic group.

For years we brought chapters to read, then went around the table with the discussion. After the majority of the group began bringing pages, we found the meetings lasted too long. Now we email our chapters to be read at home prior to the meetings. When we gather at B&N, the discussion can begin promptly. However, if there’s time, we do a lot of discussing books being read and whatever.

For several years we’ve held a Christmas Party in December. On the first meeting date in July this year, we had a Mid-Summer Gathering around a member’s swimming pool. We’ve capped our membership at eight, so any new member must be a replacement.

The three of us who’ve been around forever have learned a lot about critique groups. We’ve honed it down to a fine point now where we feel everyone is getting their money’s worth (it’s free, of course). We not only read chapters. When a member has a completed manuscript they want critiqued, one or more of us will give it a go. Some have attended Donald Maas workshops and other seminars. The current fiction market may be a snake pit, but members of the Quill & Dagger Writers Guild are ready to grab it by the tail.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Prick, You Say?

by Ben Small

Shopping for school supplies in the inner city? Why not give L'il Tommy and Susie something useful for school this year, a new kind of pencil: one without lead.

Huh? How does it write?

It doesn't. This isn't an ordinary pencil; in fact, it's not a pencil at all. It's a new form of death-bringer, an inner city defense pencil.

Ads for this defense weapon have been appearing in gun mags for some months, and until now, these ads have escaped my attention. Guess I'm slipping...

But this thing is deadly. Looks like a pencil, feels like a pencil, albeit a steel one, and operates like a ball point, with push button simplicity. It's a spring activated tempered carbon steel rod ground like a syringe needle, operated with one hand, with moving parts silver soldered, made from a high quality steel drafting tool.

And this pencil's got the cool factor nailed down. It's used by many USA agencies, most likely the ones specializing in the black arts. No doubt Dick Cheney wears one in his shirt pocket. Having problems on the school bus or subway? One quick jab to the back of your bully's neck, and he won't be troubling L'il Tommy any more.

And as we all know, puncture wounds don't bleed much. L'il Tommy won't even soil his shirt.

These babies are affordable. Only $34.95 each, with discounts for volume. Just think: Everybody in your club can have one.

I know, I know, hat pins have been used as murder weapons by little old ladies for years. But when they pull them out to deal death, their hair falls down. That means even more time in the bathroom. Now, the blue hairs have a new choice, one that won't interfere with a husband's reading time. Now L'il Mrs. Blue Hair can say, "Here let me get a pencil and write down my number," rumble around in her purse, and when Bluto bends over to see what she's writing, Whamo!

Bye, bye Bluto...

Plus there are other advantages. Coming home from a long day of dispatching bad guys, needing a Bloody Mary but the ice is clumped, a ready solution is at hand. Is there any better ice pick? You don't even have to wipe off the blood. It blends right in.

And for variety and additional fun, you can dip your pencil in a poison dart frog or curare for some extra added enjoyment. Just give your victim a nick and watch him twitch. Oh what fun!

This could be better than watching True Blood.

Every writer should have one of these. We now have a new form of response when an editor pushes too hard. What's better than a prick to a prick?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Summer Shorts: Wrapping Up The '60s

Photos: Country Joe at Woodstock; Paul McCartney, back in the USA (from ABC web site); Target ad; President John F. Kennedy and Walter Cronkite; Country Joe today.


Come on all you big strong men/
Uncle Sam needs your help again/
Got himself in a terrible jam/
Way down yonder in Viet Nam/
So put down your books and pick up a gun/
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun …

--- “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” by Country Joe and The Fish, Woodstock 1969.

By Pat Browning

Echoes from Woodstock.

Watching theYouTube video I’m struck by how young that crowd of 300,000 was. Young and still half-innocent, gathered up in a protest against a war and the government and all authority. Barry “The Fish” Melton is quoted as saying, “We didn't understand the forces we were setting in motion." At the time it was just sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Melton was co-founder with Country Joe McDonald of the '60s psychedelic activist rock band Country Joe and The Fish, famous for its "Fish Cheer" that preceded the five-piece band's most famous song "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag."

I love the YouTube video. The story is that Country Joe wasn’t supposed to go on just then but somebody found a rope he could tie on his guitar so he could strap it around his shoulder. Off he went, to do what turned out to be the Woodstock anthem. You can see the rope on the video.

It’s at
Advisory: The video starts with the famous Fish Cheer, which uses the infamous F-word.

The ‘60s were a tumult of assassinations, riots, protests and new music. Hitting a few of the highlights and lowlights – the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassinations of President John F.Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert F.Kennedy, civil rights marches and murders, the Beatles, men on the moon, and Woodstock …

While tracking Woodstock I stumbled across a web site with interesting historical notes by year and by era, at
It’s good reading.

These 40 years later, Walter Cronkite died and took a lot of history with him. Paul McCartney is 67 but still “the cute one” and touring the U.S. And Woodstock has not gone away.

Books are being written. A movie is underway. There’s a big 40th celebration “WestFest” planned for Oct. 25 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Target is advertising Woodstock-themed goods aimed at kids who don’t even remember Snoopy and a sassy bird named Woodstock.

“The Fish” just retired as public defender of Yolo County in northern California, but he never gave up the guitar and tours with his own band. Country Joe has been on tour for 40 years and still has a million irons in the fire. He has a great web site at

It’s fitting to bookend the photos with Country Joe in 1969 and Country Joe today, both press photos from his web site.

Makes a nice benediction for the ‘60s – Old activists never die, they just wear looser jeans.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rattlesnake Ridge

By Jean Henry Mead

Several weeks ago I wrote about our mountain mini-ranch and that it's a retirement paradise. But every Garden of Eden is inhibited by a serpent and we've been adopted by a five-foot rattler of our own.

Much of the property is covered in buckbrush, which serves as a hideout for a variety of creatures, including deer, antelope, elk, coyotes, rodents, wild turkeys and sage hens. The brush is also home to large flocks of birds and we gladly welcome their presence.

But rattlesnakes are a different tale. Those of you who regularly read this blog know that I’m a research hound, and I decided to read about our unwelcome guest. Here's what I learned: there are some thirty species of rattlers as well as many subspecies. Their scientific name is Crotalus, which comes from the Greek word kporalov, and means castanet. The snake’s rattle also shares its name with the sistrum, an ancient Egyptian musical instrument.

Rattlesnakes give birth live and have no need to care for their young, which at birth are literally on their own. The infant rattlers are born with fangs capable of injecting venom and are considered more dangerous than the adults because they have less control of the amount of venom they inject.

Some 7,000-8,000 people are bitten each year and five of them don't survive. About 72% of those bitten are males. Antivenom, when applied in time, reduces death to less than 4%. The snakes can strike up to a distance of two-thirds the length of their bodies and their venom can kill rodents, small birds and animals within twenty seconds.

According to the Wikipedia: “Quick medical attention is critical, and treatment typically requires antivenin/antivenom to block the tissue destruction, nerve effects, and blood-clotting disorders common with rattlesnake venom. Most medical experts recommend keeping the area of the bite below the level of the heart. It is important to keep a snake bite victim calm in order to avoid elevating their heart rate and accelerating the circulation of venom within the body.

Untrained individuals should not attempt to make incisions at or around bite sites, or to use tourniquets, as either treatment may be more destructive than the envenomation itself. Any bite from a rattlesnake should be regarded as a life-threatening medical emergency that requires immediate hospital treatment from trained professionals.”

I think we’re going to name our mini-ranch Rattlesnake Ridge and we’ll definitely acquire an antivenom kit. Hopefully, our uninvited guest isn't a female ready to give birth, but just in case, we’ll be prepared because the nearest hospital is 30 miles away by flight-for-life helicopter.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Evolution of a Manuscript

By Beth Terrell

Thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz said the way to learn to write is not to write 50 books, but to write the same book 50 times. I take comfort in that, since that seems to be the way I'm heading with the second book in the Jared McKean series.

The first time I finished the book, I did several intensive edits followed by a final polish, then sent it to six trusted readers for feedback. Their reactions were overall very positive, but they had a number of excellent suggestions. Unfortunately, one small change often leads to another, which leads to another, and so on. What seemed like a series of minor changes turned out to be another extensive edit. Finally, I was done.

My agent submitted it to Warner Books. The editor he submitted it to loved it (hurrah!), but the higher-up editors decided it was too similar to another book they had coming out that summer. Alas, they decided to pass on it. After several more rejections, I suspected there was something missing and took a good look at the manuscript. It was pretty good. Close-but-no-cigar good. I knew it needed something, but I wasn't sure what.

Then I went to Don Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel workshop. I went in thinking my manuscript needed a little cosmetic surgery and left knowing it needed a heart-lung transplant. Fortunately, Don had given me the tools I needed to do that. I did a massive overhaul. The basic story remained intact, but suddenly it went to a deeper, richer place.

I took that "finished" manuscript to Don Maass's High Tension workshop. (Are you sensing a theme here? Seriously, if you get a chance to study with guy, take it. Take the Breakout Novel workshop first; it lays the foundation for the next one.) This time, my manuscript only needed liposuction, a nose job, and a couple of knee-hip replacements.

Another re-write, somewhat less extensive, but still substantial. Done! Right? Well...almost. I entered in a contest, and while I didn't win, I got some valuable feedback from the judge. The flaws she saw in the manuscript seemed like easy fixes, but when I sat down to do them, I realized that a manuscript is like a well-woven sweater. Each thread is entwined with the others. It's hard to tug on one without unraveling the whole thing. Still, I think it's almost there. I feel a sense of satisfaction with the manuscript that I haven't had before. Before, I knew the opening and the last 100 pages were strong, but there was something not working in the middle. I can feel that "something" changing, those flabby chapters taking on the right shape.

Just in the nick of time, too. With the first Jared McKean book about to be re-released in October, it's time to get that second one in the chute. The third one is still a shapeless mess, and the fourth and fifth ones are just loose outlines, but I have faith that they too will come along in time. Maybe it will get easier.

Or maybe it won't. I'm not a natural writer. I read John Hart's Down River and Dennis Lehane's Mystic River and despair of ever achieving that level of artistry. But what I lack in raw talent, I hope I make up for in tenacity.

So why am I telling you all this? If you've been struggling to become a better writer and wonder if you're the only one who has to work this hard, maybe knowing it's all part of the process will help you get over the next hump. Or if you're one of those natural talents for whom golden phrases flow like milk and honey from the promised land, you can go to bed tonight knowing that--even though the rest of us secretly hate you--you've been truly blessed.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


By Mark W. Danielson

My last two years in the Navy were spent serving as the project officer in charge of re-opening Carswell Air Force Base as a Navy-sponsored joint reserve base. Since no one told me how they wanted it done, I “winged it”; displaying museum aircraft from all service branches throughout the base. With NAS Dallas closing, the three airplanes on display there needed to be moved to Fort Worth. Having had some experience in airlifting aircraft before, I asked the Army National Guard in Dallas if their heavy-lift Chinook helicopters could do the job. After resolving some funding issues, the Guard gladly accepted my request.

NAS Dallas only had one Navy aircraft to relocate, so I felt this A-4 should be the first to fly. After all, there were still plenty of A-4s, should anything go wrong, but the Air National Guard’s Korean War vintage F-80 and F-86 were irreplaceable. Once the A-4 was safely delivered, I gave the go-ahead to transport the other aircraft.

One thing about inter-service cooperation is you must trust everyone to do their jobs, so when the Air National Guard said their F-80 was ready to go, no one doubted them. Things began spiraling when the Chinook’s landing gear smashed through the F-80’s canopy while hovering to connect the sling, but then disaster struck when the F-80 jackknifed seconds after lifting off the ground. At this point, the helicopter crew released their line, plopping the jet on the ground. The F-80 successfully landed on its gear, but its tail section was now resting vertically against its fuselage. But wait, there’s more. After all, why leave the jet this way when you can blow its tail section clear across the parking lot while you land to retrieve your sling? You guessed it -- that’s exactly what happened. Ouch!

I missed out on all this because I was standing on the Carswell ramp awaiting the F-80’s arrival. Suddenly, word came that there was a problem, and that the F-80 wouldn’t be coming. My jaw dropped when I later reviewed the video. The problem stemmed from the Air Guard’s not installing the correct bolts in the F-80’s fuselage. Like many fighters, this aircraft was designed so the entire tail section could be removed to perform an engine change, so when the weak bolts sheered, the helicopter’s sling popped the F-80’s tail like a Coke lid. Thankfully this happened close to the ground or we would have completely lost the aircraft.

Later that day, members of the Air National Guard, Navy Reserve, and Air Force Reserve began repairing the F-80. Incredibly, within two weeks, this aircraft was pieced together, airlifted to Carswell, and put on display, and a year or so later, outtakes from this calamity were shown on America’s Funniest Videos. Personally, I had no problem with this. After all, laughing is better than crying, right? But the important thing is this F-80 continues to serve as a testament to the concept of joint operations. As they say, all’s well that ends well.

Our museum had grown to fourteen aircraft by the time NAS Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth was commissioned in October, 1994. Today, this base continues to thrive with active fighter, tanker, and transport aircraft from the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Marine Corps Reserve, and Navy Reserve, and since it was designed to minimize duplication of effort, this base is saving taxpayer dollars. I was proud to have played a small role in establishing it and preserving our aviation history with its museum.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Scene About Nashville, circa 1963

By Chester Campbell

I read an article that said Ernest Hemingway wrote A Moveable Feast after going through notes he had accumulated during his time in Paris 30 years earlier. I wish I had been that meticulous during my early days. Or even later ones. Notes from my newspaper days ended up in the trash bin after I wrote the stories.

I have found one period in which my activities are well chronicled for posterity, if old Pos is ever interested. It’s the years 1963 through 1969, during which I was editor of Nashville Magazine, a slick paper monthly. I wrote many articles for the publication, though quite a few didn’t carry my by-line. But each issue included a feature at the front of the book titled “Scene About Town.” I modeled it after The New Yorker’s “The Talk of the Town,” which back then included mostly short, often humorous or whimsical vignettes about life and events that took place in the city.

My monthly musings about people and places and what went on around town bring back memories of how life was lived in those days. Looking back over a few issues, I’d forgotten how nice the perks were for a magazine editor. I was invited to all manner of dinners and parties and meetings. While attending, I picked up a variety of little tidbits to put in my column.

At a United Givers Fund (now United Way) luncheon, a voluble advertising guy commented:

“Talk about your all-time salesman, I nominate the man who sold restaurants on putting parsley on every plate. Created a whole industry out of nothing. He should be sought out and recognized with a medal.”

I constantly had visits from strange people who would wind up in the magazine’s pages. Like the young lady named Sue Silber, who wrote poetry and observed her fellowman with a humorous perspective. At concerts, she watched as much as she listened.

“Audience-watching,” she said, “is a delightful sport in itself. Most audiences can be classified into various categories. First, there are the tappers. “This classification can be further divided into the foot-tappers, the finger-tappers, and the hand-tappers. And then the last two can be further categorized as to what they tap.

“Some finger-tappers tap their chin–or chins, some their cheek, some their thigh, some tap their knee, some their program, some their cigarette pack, and some women tap their purse. Then there are, as it were, the back-seat conductors. These wave their hands in time to the music, sometimes quite broadly. Occasionally they even go so far as to use a rolled-up program for a baton. The musicians–foolish men–ignore these geniuses in favor of their own conductor.”

The pages revealed other such dramatic events as a cocktail party The Oertel Brewing Company held to announce its new “real draft beer” in cans. My comment: “This was akin to producing the real Jane Mansfield in a trenchcoat.”

I wrote about such things as traveling up the Cumberland River on a barge towboat, sitting in on a recording session at RCA’s now-historic Music Row studio, working backstage at a theatrical production, and watching them make Goo Goos at Standard Candy Company.

It was an interesting time to be a writer.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Who me?

by Ben Small

I'm often asked if my protags are based upon me, i.e. is that really me they're reading about?

Well, duh. Maybe that's why all my protags are tall, good looking, rugged and wise. Or maybe that's why they sometimes do stupid things. I do that all the time.

But the truth is, they are not based upon me, except for minor stuff, maybe. Yes, I did climb Mount Rainier, and yes, I did go to Morocco and Spain, just like in my books. But the protags in these books are very different from me.

Alibi On Ice's John Whitney was a mountain of a man, a guy who'd spent his life climbing. While I've spent time mountain climbing, it's been day-to-day, weekend or in a couple cases, a couple weeks adventure, not a full time thing. And actually, the model for John Whitney was none other than Lou Whittaker, chief guide for Rainier Mountaineering. I know Lou and admire him; I thought he'd make a great protag. So I modified his character and changed his name and made up his actions out of whole cloth. There may have been a little me in John Whitney, but I'm sure he'd never reveal what. And no, I did not have sex on the mountain. I couldn't find any goats.

The Olive Horseshoe's Denton Wright bears little resemblance to me. In fact, Denton's business success was taken directly from Mark Cuban's storied success story. Mark did exactly what Denton did to get his money: set up an internet broadcasting site to pick up Indiana basketball games. The idea spread, as many folks are some distance from the teams they follow, and then Cuban sold the company at the height of the tech surge in the late 90s. I had no part in any of this, except to extract that story for Denton's business background.

But as for the rest of Denton, our only similarity is the love of Indiana basketball. The rest I made up. I know nothing about martial arts, have never worn a pony tail, and I don't have a Mandy.

As you know, Denton's drive comes from a frustrating life with his father. My relationship with my father was dramatically different from Denton's relationship with his. Denton's father was standoffish, my father was very much hands-on. We had a great relationship. I just used Denton's father's stubborness and estrangement to get Denton into the story, to give him some purpose.

So I cheated; I transposed my happy memories of my father onto Denton, and then I ripped the happy memories away, leaving a hole in Denton's heart.

So, yes, I borrowed a bit from myself, but not much, just enough to get the story going. If I wanted anybody to see me with all my faults and passions, I'd have included nude photographs. And trust me, you don't want to see that. Your sex life would dry up faster than if you took a date with Mickey Rourke.


Stephen King says to write what you know. I take that to mean careers, hobbies, interests, and locales, not so much what you know about yourself. Yes, writing from experience can be illuminating, can offer great insights. But I don't really want my readers to think I'm nuts, so I don't share with them my inner insecurities, my hopes, dreams or fears, or that Baron Sacha Cohen modeled Bruno after me.

Just kidding on that one.

So yes, some of my characters may be based in part on people I know or be caricatures of them, with some traits emphasized, others not so. But I don't want them to be recognizable. For instance, Paulie Corsano. I've got a good friend named Paul Corsaro, a former law partner. Paul is an excellent tax lawyer, from a great Sicilian family, one with a long tradition in the fruit markets of Indianapolis. Paul is one of the most honest and genuine people I know. But I liked his name.

So I asked permission to use a close copy of Paul's name. "Corsano" instead of "Corsaro." How was I to know his beautiful wife Fran called him "Paulie?" That was a surprise. But the Corsaro family got a kick out of my using Paul as a model and corrupting him so greatly. They gave him plenty of teasing during last year's Italian Festival in Indy.

And Emery Boyd? I used to know a lawyer by the name of Emerson Boyd. A find upstanding lawyer, so I borrowed part of that name, too. But the rest of Boyd was a total fiction. I don't even know anybody like him.

So, yes, there's some of me in my books, just not the inner depth and insights a person less shy might share. I don't really want to appear nude on my book covers, so I'd rather write about made-up people in made-up situations.

I can have more fun that way.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Summer Shorts: "The bayonet end"

(top) Jim Northrup, Fond du Lac Anishinaabe, author, journalist, poet, Vietnam veteran, I Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, photo from PBS web page “Way of The Warrior”; (center)Ivan Van Laningham, Army Signal Corps:Cu Chi, Class of '70, author of the Andi Holmes stories, photo snapped at Left Coast Crime - Monterey 2004; (bottom)Army nurse Sharon Wildwind at Pleiku, RVN (Republic of VietNam) in the fall of 1970, author of the “Pepper” Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen novels, photo furnished by Sharon for my blog 2005.

"Our feeling was, if it moves shoot it. If it doesn't move, burn it. It is what we did. We're the bayonet end of America's foreign policy and we killed ... and got killed."
Jim Northrup, quoted in PBS documentary "Way of the Warrior."

By Pat Browning

Excerpt from my blog Sunday, Nov. 11, 2007

OETA has been running war movies and documentaries for several weeks. One of the most surprising to me was "Way of the Warrior," a documentary about experiences of American Indians who fought in two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

I knew about Ira Hayes, who helped raise the American flag on Iwo Jima, and I knew about the Navajo Code Talkers. What I didn't know is that American Indians served by the thousands in all of America's 20th century wars.

Some Indians served for the money or the adventure. Some belonged to "warrior" clans. Others saw it as their duty to their own Indian nations and to the United States.

Wisconsin Public Television turned their experiences and personal interviews into a riveting documentary on why and how they served, and how they coped with a return to civilian life.

Returning Vietnam vet Jim Northrup dealt with his post-traumatic stress by writing about his experiences. Here's an excerpt from his poem, "Walking Point."

Movement! Something is moving up there!
Drop to the mud, rifle pointing at the unknown, Looks like two of them, hunting him.
They have rifles but he saw them first.
The Marine Corps takes over,
Breathe, Relax, Aim, Slack, Squeeze.
The shooting is over in five seconds.
The shakes are over in a half hour.
The memories are over ... never.

In "Way of the Warrior," Northrup comments that for a long time "(my wife) had to wake me up with a broomstick because I'd come out of that bed ready to kill."

Another vet, the incomparable Ivan Van Laningham (sometimes known simply as “I”) smiles from my blog today. He and his wife, Audrey, make a formidable power couple. If brain power could be used for rocket fuel, these two could keep NASA’S space program going for years.

Ivan is the only person I know who understands the Mayan calendar. He’s also a straight, married man who writes about an unmarried lesbian who also happens to be in the Army. So how did that happen?

Here’s what Ivan e-mailed in answer to my question:

“What started it? Um, she did. I went to my annual Mayan conference in Austin in, I think, 1998. It's two weeks long (or was then), and I usually read after dinner there, mostly papers and books on hieroglyphics. One night I didn't have anything I wanted to do, so I watched a Xena rerun instead of reading. Halfway through the show, Andi sat down on the other bed and started bossing me around. I didn't know anything about women in Vietnam, hardly anything about the Vietnam war even though I'd been there, I knew nothing about lesbians, despite being a feminist. She just said, ‘Better learn. We have things to say.’”

And so the character who started bossing him around turned out to be Andi Holmes, one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever met. Six of Ivan’s seven stories about her have been published. The latest one, FINDING GINGER, is meant to be the prologue to Ivan’s novel-in-progress.

To introduce Andi, here are snippets from the first story, “The Working Girls Go By.”

Her name was Tuyen, which means angel. She was a working girl at the Sunset Grill, a run-down bar in a run-down country in a run-down war, but it was a bar that gave us the illusion of love and the hope of home. She was breathtakingly lovely, and she lived in a country that smelled like burning shit.

I'm Andi—Andrea—Holmes; in 1970, I was the battalion clerk for the 369th, on top of Big Mountain, and I was a WAC Spec 4. I wasn't interested in the working girls, or so I told myself. I told myself a lot, in those days. I was 23, the daughter of missionaries, patriotic and embarassingly close to being a virgin.

Those days were hard; I worked 0600 to 1800 Monday through Saturday, and I was expected to be Little Miss Perky every minute of those twelve-hour days. Every night, I went down to the Sunset Grill to drink myself stupid, and, when I was being honest with myself, watch the working girls.

When I went through Basic Training, enlisted women got lectures on snakes and what to do about bites; the men got training films about sex. Keep it in your pants was the message. But if you couldn't, go see the medics and get your condom ration. Prevent deadly disease, of which, they were told, there was no shortage.

Some of the guys passed on what they were told to some of us girls. I remembered the disease part. It kept me pure. It was easy for me to not sleep with men. I wasn't interested, for one thing. For another, I'm six-foot-one and carry a switchblade.

I love the way she slips in "six-foot-one and carry a switchblade." You can read all of Andi's stories and more about Ivan and the Mayan calendar at:

Another Viet Nam vet who writes about the war is Sharon Wildwind. Her first novel, SOME WELCOME HOME is excellent. Her fourth one, MISSING, PRESUMED WED will be published in September.

To introduce Sharon and her series, here are excerpts from my review posted on DorothyL in July 2005:

SOME WELCOME HOME puts a face on the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Sharon Wildwind writes from experience as an army nurse in Vietnam in the early 1970s and a year as head nurse on an orthopedic unit at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where this novel is set. Her experiences and insights give the book authenticity. Nothing seems pasted on. It's the real deal.

Opening line: "Through the slit in the closed drapes, a thin bar of afternoon sunlight fell across the soldier's chest, highlighting the dark, small bullet hole."

Such is Captain Elizabeth "Pepper" Pepperhawk's "welcome" to the Transient Officers' Quarters at Fort Bragg. The body is wearing a World War 2 uniform but his hair is long. She thinks: "Maybe he wasn't a soldier; maybe someone dressed him in a uniform. But there was something about him, even in death, that said 'soldier.' He was one of us ..."

I was reminded of Shakespeare's "band of brothers" as I read. This emotional bond, this shared experience, runs through Wildwind's story. It also drives a key character who keeps applying for combat service, convinced that her request is routinely denied because she's a woman.

So who is the dead man on Pepper's bed? We get pieces of the puzzle one at a time. The investigation begins with a World War 2 veteran who reports a stolen uniform, and leads to three lifelong friends who served in Vietnam and swore to look after one another,
no matter what.

How many of those now stationed at Fort Bragg could have been in a certain location in Saigon on January 20, 1969? Quite a few, as it turns out. A crime committed then and there has finally come to light a world away.

The arrest of a high-ranking, well-connected officer takes this complex mystery to a suspenseful ending.

You can keep up with Sharon (just try!) at her web site:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Summer Shorts: 40 Years On

Folk singers Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger at Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration in Madison Square Garden.

“Sarge, I'm only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen/
And I always carry a purse./
I got eyes like a bat, My feet are flat/
My asthma's getting worse …
... I ain't no fool, I'm a-goin' to school/
And I'm a-workin' in a defense plant.”

--- Pete Seeger, “Draft Dodger Rag”
(written by Phil Ochs)

By Pat Browning

Does anyone here remember the Smothers Brothers? I was so clueless I thought they were funny. I didn’t know they were subversives. CBS had conniption fits over their material, and one guest shot they refused to okay was Pete Seeger singing “Draft Dodger Rag.” CBS finally cancelled the show in 1969.

There’s probably nothing wrong with me that a frontal lobotomy wouldn’t cure, but I laugh every time I listen to the YouTube recording of “Draft Dodger Rag.” It’s the song that’s funny, mind you, not the reality behind it. The lyrics remind me of Klinger in the old “M*A*S*H series. Hear it at

Now it’s 40 years later. The Smothers Brothers are still touring, the longest-lived comedy team in history – 50 years and counting. Pete Seeger just celebrated his 90th birthday and has been touted for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Seeger descends from ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. A lifelong resident of Beacon, New York, he’s been a folksinger, a “left wing” activist and a member of the Communist party. He left the party because he “never liked the idea of belonging to a secret organization.” To some, he was a treasonous rabble-rouser. To some he was a voice for the people. History will judge.

A dedicated environmentalist, Seeger takes part in events to benefit Clearwater sloops -- tall ships that sail as classrooms on the Hudson River. He launched the Clearwater foundation in 1969 to help clean up polluted rivers.

A concert celebrating Seeger’s 90th birthday was held in Madison Square Garden and will be telecast July 30 on some PBS stations. Meantime, you can hear the entire group of performers singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Our Land” at:

Tomorrow: The Viet Nam war in crime fiction.

Friday, July 17, 2009

How to Repair a Manuscript

by Jean Henry Mead

Something’s not quite right with your manuscript but how do you solve the problem? There’s so much to consider: characterization, pacing, theme, plot, rhythm, style and more. Early drafts only sketch in the story while final drafts define your characters and fine tune the plot.

First of all, you need to compartmentalize your approach, according to editor Raymond Obstfeld. His plan is to revise one step at a time by ignoring other aspects of the story while focusing on characters or plot. He also advices revising in short contained sections such as scenes or chapters. The sense is that while revising, you’re rethinking what you’ve written and who your characters really are. By beginning the scene anew, you can rethink the process and eliminate any unnecessary asides or uncharacteristic dialogue. Take your time to figure out what in the storyline is bothering you.

Develop a clear and engaging storyline. Then look for passive, talking-head characters. Also look for a lack of plot build-up and anti-climatic action. If your characters are just sitting around talking with a lack of tension or conflict in a scene, stir some up. Place your characters in traffic and have them arguing. Maybe the wife is tired of her husband’s careless driving or she’s dragging him to a dinner with people he doesn’t like.

Each scene should be a mini-story with a beginning, middle and end. A scene should be like a boxing match, with plenty of conflict and a winner or "knockout" at the end of each one. Obstfeld says that every scene should have a “hot spot,” a “point in which the action and/or emotions reach an apex. When revising for structure, make sure you locate the hot spot—and that it generates enough heat to justify the scene.”

Once the entire story is complete, you need to revise the structure of the entire manuscript. Before playing musical chairs with your scenes, make note cards of each one, noting which characters are in the scene or chapter and briefly summarize the action. This can be done on the computer by filing each scene separately. You may find that you've strung too many passive scenes together and need to insert some tension and conflict.

Mystery writer Marlys Millhiser once showed me her charts for each scene. Using colored pencils, she drew a graft of different aspects of the plot in various colors to prevent melodrama as well as passivity. Other writers have different techniques to hold a reader’s interest.

Some novelists use a lot of description, others very little. There’s no rule of thumb unless description gets in the way of action and the plot moving forward. I write little description, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. Of course, too little description can leave the reader feeling left out of the scene entirely. It’s a careful balancing act at best.

Too much technical information can frustrate the reader and information dump can accomplish the same result. Don’t try to use all your research in one manuscript. Save most of it for future projects.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Aging Pilots

By Mark W. Danielson
This formerly classified May 22, 1939 letter from Maj Gen “Hap” Arnold to Brig Gen Krogstad recently surfaced, and I think it’s worth sharing.

“The Chief of the Air Corps is deeply concerned that senior and older pilots take no unnecessary flying risks and thus jeopardize their valuable experience to the Air Corps.

To this and he has directed the classification of all pilots over forty-seven years into a group where they will not be required to pilot at night, to lead or drill with pursuit formations, to fly single seater aircraft, or to do any other type of particularly hazardous piloting where the mutual and understandable depreciations coincident with age may render them less fit than men of younger age. He believes that there should be absolutely no evidence of any competition in piloting among men of higher rank and older age. There is no necessity and no justification for the feeling on the part of a senior officer that he must continue to pile up as much pilot time, or to pilot as skillfully as he did in his earlier years, or as well as younger pilots do.

Your particular attention is directed to the revision of War Department Circular 26 and to the minimum requirements set up in Circular 50-12, O.C.A.C. Every senior Air Corps Officer must use the soundest judgment at all times as to the types of flying performed and as to when, how, and where to fly, after a careful analysis of tactical situations and weather conditions. Officers in the command pilot group may fly as co-pilots or command pilots in meeting their flying requirements.

It is desired that you be accompanied by another pilot on all military flights.”

While I empathize with General Arnold wanting to protect his leaders, I’m not sure I agree with his assessment of aging pilots. After all, I taught air-to-air combat in the A-4 until we retired the aircraft a year before I left the Navy. With age came experience. Why else would have taken me so long to realize that if I just kept my opponent in front of me, I wouldn’t have to contort my body to keep him in sight? And who would you rather have as an airline captain? An “old” experienced pilot, or a “young” inexperienced one?

Recently, the FAA upped the airline pilot retirement age from sixty to sixty-five, provided the pilot can still pass the FAA medical. Today there are plenty of “over-sixty” pilots flying, and they are far from being “over the hill”. Most may wear glasses now and have gained a few extra pounds, but when bad things happen, their experience is invaluable. As much as I’d like to tell my chief pilot, “Sorry, but I can’t fly tonight because it’s dark”, or “Sorry, but there’s a line of nasty clouds out there. No can do,” I don’t think he’d buy that. So in that regard, I have to wonder if General Arnold ever regretted sending his letter to General Krogstad. No doubt it spurred a lot of chuckles among his Air Corps pilots.

Flying is inherently dangerous, and every pilot knows the risks. Clearly, younger pilots take more chances than older ones, hence the saying, “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.” (Actually, there are a few, but you get the point.) Regardless of its risks, no other job provides the elation a pilot gets from being airborne, slipping the surly bonds, and touching the face of God.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blast Away or Write...Edit?

By Chester Campbell

The conventional wisdom, based on how often I run across it, says you should plop down at your computer and dash off your story as fast as possible. Never mind the niceties, like finding the correct word or putting the commas in the right places. Just get the story down in 1s and 0s (that’s binary speak). When you reach the end, you have a first draft. Then you go back and start making a coherent manuscript out of it.

If you’re a detailed plotter or outliner, that would probably do the trick. My mind doesn’t work that way. I write chapters at a time, hopefully more than one. When I return to the computer, I go back over what I wrote last and edit. It has to sound right to me before I can go on.

I guess it’s the way my brain is wired. It doesn’t interrupt the story, since I have no idea where the story is going in the first place. The words stream out as I type, sometimes with a little help from an idea that pops up during my daily walk. Well, almost daily. As daily as circumstances allow.

With the first few chapters, I’ll usually go back to the beginning and start reading. After I get into the book, I’ll start a chapter or two before the point where I stopped writing. Besides eliminating the possibility of writer’s block, this technique engenders a feeling that I’m creating something worthwhile. I may change a word or two, a stronger verb or a more descriptive adjective. Sometimes I’ll delete a sentence or add one that gives a little different slant on things.

Individual chapters get another going-over thanks to my critique group. But we only meet twice a month. I’d better write more than two chapters a month if I’m going to finish this thing. That means only a limited number of chapters will get full scrutiny. I’ll give the completed manuscript to a couple of people who agree to read it.

By the time I get to that point, which most people call a “first draft,” it’s already been edited to a fare-thee-well. I will likely have made a number of significant changes to earlier incidents that need to match what happens later. That makes the final edit important, since I should catch any inconsistencies along the way. The final revision will take into account suggestions made by those who read the full manuscript.

I don’t advocate using this method if you’re comfortable with the way you write. But if you find you’re not happy with how the writing sounds when you take the pause that refreshes (you don’t have to drink a Coke), you might give it a try. It’s guaranteed to prevent writer’s block or your money back. Of course, you’d have to send me some money before I could do that—I take PayPal.

Monday, July 13, 2009

New Carry Pistols

by Ben Small

Ruger seems to be making a market statement: two new small carry pistols just perfect for a woman or for a back up gun. The Ruger LCP .380 has set a new standard, it seems. Just try to find one in a store. They're selling like hotcakes.

This from the Ruger website: "The Ruger LCP is a 6+1 capacity .380 Auto pistol with superior ergonomic design and handsome styling. It incorporates state-of-the-art polymers, aircraft quality aluminum alloys, and high-grade precision steel components engineered for strength and maximum weight savings.

"The 9.4 ounce LCP pistol features a 2.75 inch barrel and an overall length of 5.16 inches. With a height of only 3.6 inches and a width of just .82 inches, the small, lightweight LCP pistol is a dependable back-up or carry pistol. The high-performance, glass-filled nylon frame is topped by a through-hardened steel slide with a blued finish. The Ruger LCP pistol is a natural choice for personal defense carry, in a purse, briefcase, or inside hiking gear."

Several friends have this gun, carry it often in their purses. The only problem is it's a semi--auto, so they have to decide whether to carry "one in the pipe" or risk racking the slide, not always an easy or quick thing if one lacks hand strength or time is short.

Load that baby up with some high power defense ammo, and you can do real damage to your assailants, assuming you can rack the slide.

If you prefer a revolver, well Ruger's got you covered there, too. A new .38 Special +P, the LCR, the first ever polymer revolver in this caliber.

Again from the Ruger site: "The lightweight, chemical-resistant polymer fire control housing contains the entire fire control mechanism, providing a tighter dimensional relationship of the components than if divided between a traditional grip frame and cylinder frame. The end result is that the fire control components are assembled with no hand fitting, resulting in a highly consistent product at an affordable price.

"The LCR's standard Hogue® Tamer™ grip with Sorbothane® insert helps reduce perceived recoil. If another grip is more your style, the convenient grip peg allows for a variety of grips to be installed.

"The LCR's monolithic frame is an aerospace grade, 7000 series aluminum forging treated with a black synergistic hard coat that offers performance considerably greater than hard coat anodizing. This provides a sturdy, rigid support for the stainless steel cylinder and barrel.

"The cylinder is extensively fluted to be lightweight and compact, measuring only 1.283" in diameter in the chamber area. It is treated with an advanced form of Ruger's Target Grey® finish and is durable enough to handle .38 Special +P loads. The cylinder front latching system uses titanium components, optimized spring tension, and enhanced lockup geometry to ensure that the LCR's cylinder stays locked in place during firing.

"The LCR's double-action trigger pull is uniquely engineered to minimize friction between the fire control components, resulting in a non-stacking, smooth trigger pull. The trigger force builds more gradually, and peaks later in the trigger stroke, resulting in a trigger pull that feels much lighter than it actually is. This results in more comfortable shooting, even among those with smaller, weaker hands."

The Luger LCR is no doubt the lightest .38 Special +P on the market, and while it's limited to five shots, let's be real here: These are not twenty-five yard pistols; both the LCR and its brother the LCP are short distance pistols, for close quarter action. They will work with a range of twenty feet or so, but anything further should require a larger pistol or a rifle.

So, they're limited action pistols, but then every pistol is. As many old gunners like to repeat, "Use your pistol to fight your way to your rifle."

Use these two close up. But if you're close to your attacker, you don't have time to rack the LCP's slide. If you don't like to carry with one in the pipe, just carry the revolver. It's double action, with a long, slow and heavy trigger.

Cops like double action for safety reasons.

You should too.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Summer Shorts: Orphans of War

Snapshot: M/Sgt. James "Rudy" McElhannon with Joe and Jock, two war orphans who "adopted" him in Korea, 1950s.

By Pat Browning

Cuzzin Rudy's wife died about the same time as my husband died so we hung out together for months before I moved from California to Oklahoma. Rudy told me some hair-raising tales about his service in the Korean War, and I always meant to get a tape recorder and preserve some of those stories. I never did. I did make notes on a couple, putting my old highschool shorthand to good use, and this is one of them.

From my blog of May 29, 2006:

Picture this: A dark, moonless night in August 1950, with an American patrol at the observation point on a Korean hilltop. M/Sgt. James “Rudy” McElhannon looks down the valley and sees a flicker of light in a clump of bushes.

He keeps watching, keeps seeing that flicker of light. Finally he radios the platoon commander and is ordered to take two men down to check it out. They head down the valley to that clump of bushes.

In Cuzzin Rudy’s words:

"I found an opening in the bushes and jumped through it, had my rifle at the ready, took aim and almost in the blink of an eye I could have shot two little boys. They were sitting there cooking a pan of rice on a little fire. I don’t know what made me hesitate. All of a sudden it came to mind, these aren’t soldiers, these are babies.

"They jumped up scared, acting like they were going to run. I called out to them in some of the few Japanese words I knew. Most Koreans could understand Japanese. I hollered 'chotto matte' which means 'wait a minute.'

"The boys were filthy and dirty and all they had on was something that looked like a diaper. I walked over and kicked over their little can of rice. I wanted them to look to me. I gave them the chocolate bars I had in my pocket."

The patrol took the two boys back to the command post. The lieutenant had no objection to Rudy’s announcement that he wanted to keep them. Joe and Jock, he called them. Picking up the story in his words:

"When we were in a rest area or at the command post we lived in tents. Otherwise we just lived out on the ground. Throw a blanket on the ground, lie down and go to sleep. If it rained we’d put up a pup tent. Either that or sleep in a foxhole.

"We had guys who were pretty good with a needle and thread. Lot of times we’d get Korean laborers to help carry barbed wire, etc., and they usually had women around who could cut down uniforms to fit the boys. The biggest problem was shoes. We drew their feet on a piece of paper, guys sent it back to their wives or mothers, they’d go to town and buy little combat boots. The boys ended up
with 2 or 3 pairs of boots.

"We shared our rations with them. They got fat. Joe had the prettiest set of teeth I ever saw in a kid’s mouth, they were perfect. He had a little old smile that was just as pretty as could

"They didn’t know what had happened to their parents. Running
from the fighting, from villages in South Korea. Refugees would crowd the roads and we couldn’t get through. We had as much trouble with refugees as with the enemy .

"I would go out on patrols, build a bridge, blow up something
or fill up a hole in the road, put in mines, take out mines, fight the enemy just like the infantry does, whatever comes up. I’d leave the boys with the first sergeant at the command post. They’d always be waiting when I came back.

"They washed my clothes. If they knew I was coming back they’d have hot water for me to shave, unfold my cot and have my bed ready.They took better care of me than I did of them. We had four boys at one time. The other companies also had some. The American soldier has a soft spot in his heart for little kids."

Then came new orders. It wouldn’t be possible to take children where the soldiers were going. Cuzzin Rudy was tapped to escort the battalion’s 16 orphans south. He put them in a truck, with two men in back as security and one in front, and delivered them to a Presbyterian minister in Taegu.

Just one of many stories that come out of a war …

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Summer Shorts: Death On A Sandbar

Snapshot of Sgt. James (Rudy) McElhannon, Korea 1950
(with apologies for the quality of the print)

By Pat Browning

My Cuzzin Rudy, the late James (Rudy) McElhannon, didn't say much about World War II but he never stopped talking about Korea. Korea haunted him until the day he died.
The McElhannons descend from Ulster men who came to this country just before the Revolutionary War, and Prussians who left Europe about the time of the Thirty Years War. Something in that DNA, and a whole lot of luck, got Rudy through some perilous times.

By the time he was 17 he was aboard the light cruiser USS Cleveland headed for the invasion of North Africa. World War II was in full roar, and after North Africa the ship went on to the Pacific. Its itinerary was a road map of that theater ... Guadalcanal, New Georgia, Bougainville, Truk, the Solomons, the Marianas, Corregidor, Subic Bay, Manila, Okinawa, Tokyo Bay ...

Rudy was a Chief Petty Officer when he left the Navy in 1946. In 1949 he joined the Army as a Sergeant First Class. He was, he said, "an old man of 25" when he got to Korea. He sometimes quoted Ernie Pyle, the famed World War II correspondent, who said that a combat soldier's view of war is 200 yards wide and 1000 yards long.

Cuzzin Rudy was much on my mind during the July 4th holiday, so I'm sharing a couple of blogs I wrote about him in 2006. Call this one Death On A Sandbar. Tomorrow, Sunday, will be Orphans of War.

From my blog of May 28, 2006 - an excerpt of a story I wrote for The Hanford (California) Sentinel in 2003.
Seared into McElhannon's memory is the view of a sandbar in the Naktong River, white sand glistening in the early morning sunlight. Getting across the river was part of an operation known as the Pusan Perimeter Breakout, timed to coincide with Gen Douglas MacArthur's landing at In'Chon ...
The platoon had been told that the crossing would be a piece of cake.
McElhannon swam out the night before to cut a double-apron barbed wire fence the North Koreans had stretched the length of the sandbar. He marked the best landing spots on the other side with flags. But the crossing, scheduled for 2 a.m., began well after daylight because the boats were late arriving. As McElhannon tells it:
"When we got to the cut I'd made in the barbed wire, all hell broke loose -- artillery, mortars, machine gun fire. Men were falling, yelling, screaming, trying to dig foxholes in the sand."
McElhannon started lining up boats to get the river crossing underway. Then came one of those bizarre incidents that beggar belief.
From the sandbar, McElhannon watched a boat take off, with men on the sides paddling while a man in the back steered, his head bent over, looking out from under the rim of his steel helmet. Suddenly the boat began to wander.
McElhannon swam out and pulled the boat back up on the sandbar, yelling for help. The men with the paddles had taken cover in the bottom of the boat. The man in the back was dead. A bullet had gone through the top of his helmet and down through his head, coming out between his neck and shoulder.
"I covered him with my poncho," McElhannon says, "and then a mortar shell landed and took his right leg off. I said, 'Doesn't look like they're through with you yet, buddy,' and I put his leg under the poncho with him.
Finally two guys in a litter jeep came along and picked him up. As they got up onto the levee, an artillery shell hit the jeep and blew it to pieces. All I could do was just stand there and watch."
That day, 120 men died on a sandbar roughly 100 yards wide and 250 yards long.
Some stats: South Korea is slightly larger than the state of Indiana. North Korea is slightly smaller than the state of Mississippi. That's not a lot of ground, but the casualty figures are staggering.
Americans: 37,000 dead; 103,000 wounded; about 8,100 still missing.
North Korean and Chinese military: 1-1/2 to 2 million dead; possibly 1 million North Korean civilians killed.
United Nations military: almost 500,000 killed, wounded and missing; about 1 million South Koreans killed.
Total human casualties: 4-1/2 million people.
James Brady, who was a Marine in Korea, has written about his experience in a novel, THE MARINES OF AUTUMN, and a memoir, THE COLDEST WAR. Both are good reading.
Tomorrow: Orphans of War

Friday, July 10, 2009

Early Chris LeDoux

by Jean Henry-Mead

Long before a Garth Brook’s song elevated Chris LeDoux to the ranks of country stardom, the young bronc rider was busy raising kids, horses, Columbia sheep and hay on his 500-acre ranch near Kaycee, Wyoming. He was then best known for his 1976 world championship rodeo title and his songs about rodeo life.

The easy-smiling, laid-back cowboy did things his own way because, next to his family, freedom was his most valued asset. It was also the reason he left rodeo in 1980 to concentrate on his own record label, instead of being "owned by a big company."

At the time he said, "I don’t know what makes a guy want to write songs and sing, but if you’ve got a message, you want to get it across. When I come up with an idea about the way I feel, I can really state it strongly in a song."

The shy guitar picker felt strongly about "family freedom and the West" as well as "cowboy ways." He was just as adamant about his dislike of farm machinery and refused to be photographed on his own tractor. By 1981, his feelings had been transformed into more than fifty songs, which he wrote, recorded, and sold — more than 250,000 albums and tapes — from the back of his pickup truck while performing as a bareback rider. LeDoux and his father Al, a retired air force major, had formed their own recording company, American Cowboy Songs, in 1972, and recorded periodically in Nashville on a boot lace budget.

Chris began riding in junior rodeos while thirteen and living in Denison, Texas. The air force brat, eldest of three children, had previously lived in France, Mississippi, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania, before moving to Cheyenne, Wyoming, while a high school sophomore. During the time he lived in the southern states, he acquired an accent and love of rodeo, which led him to quit college to take on the circuit full-time.

Majoring in art, physical education and rodeo at Casper and Sheridan community colleges, he received a scholarship to Eastern New Mexico University at Portales in 1969. After one semester, he performed in a rodeo at the Denver Stock Show. He didn’t win any money, but he went on to Fort Worth where he won $400 as a bareback rider. The win changed the course of his life. He decided to quit college in his third year and ride the circuit full-time.

While performing in high school and college rodeo, he rode bulls and saddle broncs as well as roping calves, but he was best on bareback broncs. "I had to give everything I had to one event if I wanted to excel," he said. And excel he did. He won the world championship bareback title in December 1976 at the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City, the sport’s "super bowl." The win, he said, made up for all the injuries and lean days on the road.

"I can remember sittin’ in a café when I first started in rodeo, and waitin’ until somebody got done so I could finish what they left," he said, laughing. "You get to where you kind of like it, and it’s a habit that’s hard to break. I still find myself sittin’ in a café, like a pizza parlor, and thinkin’ ‘Doggone, they sure left a lot of food.’"

When the prize money ran out, he was forced — like other cowboys on the circuit — to "rough it" between rodeos. "Sleepin’ in the truck wasn’t so bad. Shoot, I kind of liked that, myself. And takin’ a bath in the creek. That’s the stuff that really made it worthwhile. Anybody can stay in a motel."

The expenses were the worst part. "I remember when I first started. I thought, ‘Boy, if I just had enough to pay my entry fees and buy a hamburger once in a while, I don’t care whether I win any money. I just wanted to get on them buckin’ horses and go.’ But when you get a little older, you think, ‘I’d like to make a little money and stick it away or buy a place — or win the world championship.’"

Entry fees were $150-$200 per event in those days and cowboys looked forward to sharing in the prize money, which averaged between $2,500 and $4,000. But the odds of winning are high. "In my event, at a rodeo like Houston, there might be ninety bareback riders that you’re competin’ with. You’ll probably get three horses and you have to draw a good buckin’ horse. That’s mighty tough. The odds of drawing a good one is probably eighty percent against you. If you’re lucky enough to draw a good horse, you still have to ride him, then the next ones. So it’s probably eighty percent luck and twenty percent skill."

The young, six-foot, 170-pound cowboy averaged 80 rodeos a year. "I really didn’t go that hard," he said, "although a couple of years I did. Some guys work 125 to 130 rodeos a year. They’re just goin’ all the time. Rodeo cowboys usually keep goin’ until they’re crippled — injured by animals — run out of money for entry fees and traveling expenses, quit or get killed in the arena. The camaraderie among them is unlike any other sport."

"We loaned each other money to keep goin’ and we yelled for each other in the arena. It’s not like football or basketball where the guys are competin’ against each other. You’re competin’ against the animals and the elements. And you hope your buddies will win so you don’t have to loan them any money."

LeDoux had second thoughts about his rodeo career during his second season. "I thought it was the worst mistake I ever made ‘cause I only won $250 all summer. And then I got crippled. I had a horse step on me while performing and [my foot] was messed up for a while."

The handsome bronc rider was fortunate not to have sustained any broken bones. His injuries were confined to separated joints: knees, collarbone and an elbow. His longest period of recuperation was from February until June of 1975, when he injured his knee. "It was a terrible injury," he said, and years later, it still "wasn’t right." I had to finally figure out a way to tape it so that it held together."

Before his world championship ride, he and his wife rigged a harness to hold his collarbone in place. Shrugging, he said, "Shoot, every time you get on an animal, you take your life in your hands."

Some of LeDoux’s predicaments were far more humorous than life threatening. He recalls a horse that "mashed" his new Western hat in the arena, and the time he performed a race where he sat in a "scoop shovel" pulled by a rope that was dallied to the saddle horn of a horse running a timed race around some barrels. "My partner and I won the race, and I threw my hat into the air and bent to pick it up. Everyone started laughin’ because I had split the back end of my pants out, and I wasn’t wearing shorts."

The cowboy married a girl in 1972 in the minuscule town of Kaycee in east-central Wyoming. Peggy Rhoads had never been out of the state when she became Mrs.Christopher LeDoux, but she found herself on the rodeo circuit, living like a gypsy. Her husband intended to leave her home that winter and return whenever he could, but Peggy attended a Denver rodeo, and left to travel with him. He had $15 in his jeans when they left Denver for Amarillo, where he had won $800, which got them as far as Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. There he won a little more. When his bank roll ran out, he borrowed enough to get them to San Diego.

"Tires were so bald on the truck that the air was showin’ through, and I had to drive fifty miles an hour all the way out there because the vibration was so bad."

Fortunately, he won the bareback competition and they moved on to Phoenix, where they bought new tires, paid his entry fees, and stayed in a motel. Then they were broke.

Peggy left the circuit to give birth separately to a daughter and three sons. Her husband went home during his off-time, whether from injury or fatigue. While he was home, LeDoux built a log house in "downtown" Kaycee, completed in five years. He also considered his chances of becoming a recording artist in his spare time. He had been composing songs with guitar since high school as well as dabbling in art. In 1972, he and two friends recorded some of his songs on a four-track tape recorder in a friend’s basement in Sheridan, Wyoming. LeDoux then sent the reel-to-reel tape to his father Al, who had retired from the military, and was living in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, near Nashville.

"There was a lack of rodeo songs," he said. "There were songs about truck drivers, love, barrooms and every other doggone thing, so I figured that with all the rodeo fans and cowboys out there, I’d give them some rodeo songs. And it worked."

LeDoux’s father at first recorded the tapes, one at a time, on a small device in his home. They were distributed at rodeos by his son from the back of his pickup truck. Later, they rented a recording studio in Nashville and hired musicians to play backup. "They were so good that you just had to sing the song to them once and they got it," he said smiling. "It’s amazing. Sometimes it didn’t come out the way you wanted, but it was good." His albums took three or four sessions of three hours each to record without rehearsal time — to save money.

By 1982, country music fans had purchased over a quarter million copies of his self-published recordings. His renditions of songs such as: "A Cowboy Like Me," "Too Tough to Die," and "What More Could a Cowboy Need" sold surprisingly well in stores and music outlets, and were broadcast on country music stations across the country. Radio station KSOP in Salt Lake City promoted the young "Roy Rogers" since his early recording days, and he staged concerts in the area on a regular basis. He also appeared twice on German TV in Munich, and earned himself a fan club in Iowa.

His father, serving as his business manager, negotiated with several large recording companies and found that his son’s valued freedom would be severely impaired if he signed with any of them. "Shoot," the cowboy said, "they would own me. They’d tell me which songs to sing and where to appear. That would be terrible."

Although he continued to write songs about his rodeo days, LeDoux said during his early thirties, "I hope I’ve got enough sense to never go back to it. I might consider it if rodeoing started paying anywhere near as much as other sports." He decided to give it up in 1980, while he was "down behind the chutes with this big snatchin’ horse — that’s one that really jerks on you like a hobo grabs a freight train as it goes by. I was sittin’ there with both knees taped and my elbow and collarbone. And I thought, ‘Doggone, what am I doin’ here?’ I just wanted to get in the truck and go home . . . When I finally got there, I threw my glove away and tossed my riggin’ bag in the cellar. I haven’t been back since."

Still struggling to make it into the ranks of well-known country music stars, LeDoux went on tour with Garth Brooks, and Brooks wrote, "I’m Too Young to Feel so Damn Old," which mentions, "listenin’ to an old Chris LeDoux tape. . ." The rest, as they say, is country music history.

(Excerpted from my book, Westerners.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Everything I Know About Writing, I Learned From My Dogs

By Beth Terrell

I originally wrote this post as a guest blogger for "Working Stiffs," but I decided to repeat it here because I wanted to share it with you, and I don't think the two groups share many of the same followers. (It's a great blog, though, if you want to check it out.)

There is an old bumper sticker floating around that says, “Dog is my co-pilot.” As a writer, I could say “Dog is my muse,” or “Dog is my inspiration.” My husband and I share our home with two papillons: Luca (a.k.a., His Lordship of Eternal Cuteness, Light of a Thousand Suns) and our new puppy, Willow (a.k.a., She Who Seeks to Topple the Throne). While they never remind me to use the active voice whenever possible or to write 1,000 words a day (4,000, if I want to keep up with the tireless Joe Konrath), I have learned much about writing from them. Here are just a few of the lessons my dogs have taught me.

Love unconditionally. At first glance, this seems like a lesson for living, rather than a lesson for writing, but think about that manuscript you’re working on. Parts of it are polished and elegant, while others are awkward and rough. You give birth to a first draft that seems like the most beautiful baby in the world. Then you realize it’s a red, wrinkled, colicky creature that leaks at both ends and squalls like an air raid siren. You love it anyway. It’s that unconditional love that allows you to shepherd your little darling through the gangly, acne-pocked stage and mold it into the magnum opus you always knew it could be.

Take the time to do things you enjoy. Even a work-driven border collie occasionally takes a few minutes to gnaw on a bone or roll in a rotting squirrel carcass. We writers should do the same. Well, okay, not the rotting squirrel carcass. I lean more toward a Hugh Jackman movie and a box of Godiva chocolates. But you get the point: balancing work and play is important.

Savor every moment. We writers spend a lot of time in our own heads. I sometimes get so caught up in plans for the future (If only I could afford to write full time…Just wait until that hungry young agent comes to his/her senses and decides to offer me representation) that I forget to appreciate the wonder of creating worlds and people on paper. When Luca is sniffing the neighbor’s mailbox, he isn’t thinking about what he’s going to do when he gets home or which halter he’ll wear to his clicker class. He’s completely immersed in the messages left him by that sweet little terrier mix down the street. He’s living in the now. It’s easy to focus so intently on the goal that we forget to enjoy the journey.

Feel everything intensely
. Can any creature express such utter happiness (“ahhhh, belly rub”) or such utter misery (“Crate? What do you mean, crate?”) as a puppy? It’s easy to fall back on facile descriptions of emotion, but a writer who can convey genuine emotion has a rare gift indeed. Watching the sincere emotion of my dogs reminds me to strive to be genuine in my writing.

Be gregarious. Luca loves people. On our walks, when he sees a stranger in the distance, he wags his whole body as if to say, “Look, Ma. Somebody over there wants to meet me!” His joyous greetings elicit smiles and outstretched hands. As a shy writer, I watch him work the crowd and realize that folks really aren’t so scary. All I have to do is show an honest desire to get to know them. (Of course, just to hedge my bets, I wrote Luca into my second book so he could accompany me to signings and attract the crowd.)

Don’t pee on the carpet. Okay. I already knew that one, but let’s think about it for a minute. Couldn’t we metaphorically equate our dogs’ soiling the carpet with the kind of self-sabotaging behavior some authors engage in (procrastination, missing deadlines, badgering his or her agent at all hours, boasting about his or her accomplishments ad nauseum, etc.)? A dog who can’t control his bladder misses out on opportunities to visit public places and other people’s homes, while a well-mannered, housebroken pup may go to the dog park, to a friend’s house, on puppy play dates, and outdoor craft festivals. Likewise, a writer who can’t control his or her behavior may alienate agents, editors, and potential fans. I know of at least one well-known author whose obnoxious behavior at a signing ensured he would never be invited back to the bookstore that held the event. On the other hand, readers will often buy books by authors who have been kind to them, even if those books might not ordinarily be in their sphere of interest.

And finally: Carpe diem, because no one can seize the day quite like a dog, especially one with literary aspirations.