Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thoughts on the New Year

By Beth Terrell

It's New Year's Eve. Mike and I are staying home, watching back episodes of Fringe, toasting each other with ice wine, and snuggling with each other and the cat and puppies. Doesn't sound exciting? I can't think of a better way to spend an evening, except to add in a little writing, which I plan to do. I'll also take about forty minutes to do my Wii workout (we got a Wii Fit program for Christmas), getting a jump start on my perennial "get-in-shape" resolution. I've been doing well with that one; I've done my Wii workout five out of the last six days! See? A perfect evening. Tomorrow morning, we'll continue our New Year's Day tradition of blueberry muffins and the Rose Bowl Parade. I"d like to see blueberry muffins added to the list of New Year's good luck foods. Way better than black-eyed peas and turnip greens.

Chester's post about his goals for the New Year prompted me to think about my own goals for the coming year. I once read an article that suggested seeking balance in life by making resolutions in a variety of areas--health, business, creativity, and so on. They should be specific and measureable, and there shouldn't be too many, to keep you from feeling overwhelmed. I'm giving it a try for 2010, but since this is a blog about writers and writing, I'll share only those that relate to that.

Writing Craft:
1. Finish the third book in the Jared McKean series by writing new content on five out of seven days.
2. Study one book a week with "writer's eyes."
3. Write one short story a month.

Writing Career:
1. Submit the second Jared book to the agent who has asked to see it. If it's rejected, submit to an agent a week until I get an acceptance.
2. Spend an hour a day, five days a week, on internet marketing strategies.
3. Arrange book signings/craft fairs/libray talks/book club presentation, etc. for three weekends a month.
4. Remember my blog post every week!

How about you? Are you making resolutions this year? Do you have a formal list, or just a vague idea of what you want to change?

Whatever your goals for the New Year, may 2010 be the most blessed and successful yet.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

British Humour

Mark W. Danielson

I thought I’d end the year with a chat about British humour. (That’s how they spell it.) I love how they laugh at themselves. Hugh Grant has made a career reflecting bungling, polite characters. Their humour is sophisticated, satirical, raunchy, and silly as they poke fun at their royalty, the absurd, their class system, and the constant battles between parents and their children. Their parodies, skits, stand-up routines, theater productions, television, and big screen movies are full of silliness. TV Shows like Benny Hill, Monty Python, and Mr. Bean, found international audiences because of their universal appeal. There is nothing mean about it.

A recent web video features the Hampshire Fire Department’s “Red Sparrows”, which is a spoof on the British Air Force Red Arrows flight demonstration team. This brilliant production features a squadron of World War I bi-planes piloted by firefighters. Their marvelous aerial stunts precede several “dogfights” against German fighters. Smoke, flames, and gunfire make this compelling piece a must-see. Who else but the British could come up with such cleverly performed antics? Check it out at:

I’m not sure why American comedians must get their laughs at the expense of others. Lyne and I went to a Comedy Club a while ago and people started walking out because of the entertainer’s foul and hurtful language. If the HBO comedians were broadcast on network television, every other word would be bleeped out. If you want an idea about where we’ve gone wrong as a society, check out Mean Girls. Thankfully, we still have witty programs like The Daily Show which find humor in current events.

Perhaps the Brits’ ability to laugh at one’s self is a by-product their politeness. Take, for example, Kelly Osborne’s recent performance in television’s reality show, Dancing with the Stars. One might think that the daughter of a rock star would be totally warped, but instead, she swept the judges and audience off their feet with her ever-present smile, dedication, grace, and politeness. True, she occasionally let her guard down and spouted some four letter words, but they were always self-directed, not at others on the show.

Ride in a British cab and you’ll find a polite driver with a witty sense of humor. Do the same with a New York cabbie and your heart will be racing five minutes into your journey as they cuss and gesture while weaving through traffic. We can probably learn a few things from our friends across the pond.

What’s most interesting about British humour is its level of sophistication. Much of it involves current events so if you’re not tuned in, you won’t “get it”. It is also fast-paced, so pay attention.

Humor is found around the world, though. Japanese television airs hysterical slapstick game shows, Indian Bollywood movies are hilarious, South American game shows are raunchy, but funny, and let’s not forget the Canadian actors who have added so much to Saturday Night Live and other shows. Since most people ring in the New Year laughing, why not do the same for the other 364 days? Happy New Year everyone!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Goodbye Old Year, Hello New

By Chester Campbell

Anno Domini 2009 is just about history. I'm not too sure it will be missed. From last weekend's misfiring bomber to the continuing winterization of half the country, it's been one disaster after another. It started out with the economy in the doldrums, then Congress and the Federal Reserve proceeded to put us in debt up to our hairline (eyeballs won't get it anymore). The president rang in the new year as the great hope of the masses, and now the masses have turned against him for failing to live up to his billing.

In the mystery world, independent bookstores have been closing while the chains have cut back amidst singing the blues. Publishers talk hard times and slow the presses. Only the ebooks seem to be bucking the trend.

So what's a writer to do? It's probably time to take the plunge. But which plunge?

Door Number 1 opens onto a high bluff looking out over a magnificent valley filled with green grass and colorful blooms, a babbling brook winding serenely through the lush landscape. What a way to go!

Door Number 2 opens onto a small room littered with books read and to-be-read, stacks of manuscripts that may or may not see the light of an editor's desk lamp, a raft of notes containing nebulous ideas, and a blank computer screen with a winking cursor. What a challenge!

I chose Door Number 2. But it ain't easy. After piddling around with it the past several months, I found I had written barely over 29,000 words. Since my books average a little more than 70,000 words, that meant I would probably have the book finished sometime next summer. With 2009 winding down, I decided it was time to really take the plunge. I set a goal of 2,000 words a day, five days a week. At that rate, I should be finished by early February.

I strarted today (Monday) and ended up adding 1900 words. Close, but no cigar. I had to stop to write this blog entry. The blog must go on. I'll be at it again in the morning. What made the difference? I checked my email but didn't dawdle online. I replied to one Facebook message and skipped Twitter. I skimmed Murder Must Advertise but skipped DorothyL.

Another thing I did was advise my wife of my new commitment. She was quite judicious in asking my help around the house, and we made only one trip together to go by the bank, the post office, and to walk 30 minutes at the mall.

Now that I know I can do it, I'm off and running. So long 2009...welcome 2010. I see better days ahead. How about you?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Ozona, Texas

by Ben Small

Man, Texas is long, oh so very long. Eight hundred eighty miles via I-10, and it seems as if most of it is West Texas, the largest patch of nothingness my wife and I have ever seen. And we live in the Arizona desert.

But seriously, there’s nothing out in West Texas. Well, okay, let me qualify this statement: There are oil and natural gas wells... and deer. Judging from sights and my conversations with locals, a whole lotta deer.

We made the mistake of stopping for the night in Ozona, a flat, squat postage stamp of a town known mostly for its deer. We didn't have much choice: Deer carcasses littered the interstate through Ozona like bodies laid to waste in a Quentin Tarantino movie. I felt like our car was dodging and weaving through a high speed video game. And what a place to stop: Even the name “Ozona” conjures up images most people want to avoid: bad air, coughing, wheezing, dizziness, a headache.

Hmm… maybe that’s why nobody’s there. Not much chance of a second honeymoon, for sure.

But Ozona does have a Holiday Inn Express. And so we stopped, puzzled perhaps why anybody would put a Holiday Inn Express in Ozona, Texas.

Good luck finding food in Ozona. But if you’re a deer and you somehow avoided being squashed on the interstate, you’re in luck. Across the street from the Holiday Inn Express is a deer food manufacturing operation. A big 'un. Bags of deer corn, blocks of deer food, salt licks, sort of a deer smorgasbord. You can buy deer food everywhere: at Godfather’s Pizza, at the local drugstore – heck, they probably sell the stuff on the street, a sawhorse and a sign. But people-food is a trickier proposition, especially when one arrives at 9:30 P.M.

Starved from six hundred miles of interstate, we watched in horror as Sonic Burger turned off its sign. We asked, and the Holiday Inn Express recommended a café next door to the deer food factory. The café turned off its lights as we entered the parking lot.

My wife hates pizza, only eats my favorite food when nothing else is available. In Ozona, Texas that evening, Godfather’s Pizza was the only option around. But they turned off their stoves just before we arrived. Nothing in the plastic slice stacks, grill doors open. We had a choice: hamburgers cooked on a grease-streaked grill, a burrito that looked like it had been rolled in 1875 when Crockett County -- yes, named after that Crockett -- was founded, or microwave meals for carry-out.

I opted for the burrito and my wife chose the hamburger, sans the moldy cheese. We should have chosen our room’s microwave.

My burrito was cold and stiff. The grease had hardened to sludge. Every bite was a testament to my courage. The hamburger was served on a bun, or what resembled a bun. A bun so hard I could have used it as a paddle-ball racquet. A bun so hard not even the running grease on the green slab of beef softened it.

Needless to say, Rick Steves will not be writing a tour book of Ozona any time soon.

But we did learn something: Ozona, Texas is the deer hunting capital of the world. Landowners here rent their land for that purpose. There’s a deer stand store that covers an entire town block. Cool stuff, hard polyurethane igloos on thirty foot stands and about every kind of camouflaged tent, stand, blind and sleeping bag imaginable. Our troops would be well served with some of this stuff. The drugstore manager was proud: She said blood-thirsty deer hunters come for stuff or to kill from all over the world.

Well, good for them. But I hope they eat what they kill or bring their own food.  There’s not enough Ex-Lax in the drugstore to risk a meal in Ozona.

Well, I guess I won’t be selling many books in Ozona, Texas, huh...?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Whiteout! A Little Dab'll Do Ya

If you've never seen a whiteout -- you have now.

 This photo is from the Edmond (Oklahoma)Sun, and was taken Christmas Eve, the day Mother Nature walloped Oklahoma with a blizzard, her parting gift for the Year 2009. I've never seen blowing snow like we had all day long.

Christmas Day brought dazzling sunlight, but temps are still freezing, and we'll be living through this mess for a couple of weeks. Still, it's an ill wind, as the saying goes. Being snowed in is a good time to clean up and reorganize and maybe do a little writing. In my dreams.

Never mind. Going through My Documents I came across a post I made to Jean Henry Mead's Mysterious People blog on Feb. 21, 2009. With her kind permission I'm reprinting it here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009
A Little Dab’ll Do Ya
by Pat Browning

I’m dating myself with that Brylcreem slogan from the 1950’s and ‘60s, but that’s the trouble with being so ancient. What goes around comes back around. It’s old hat to one generation, red hot news to another.

Spend some time roaming the Internet and you’ll find umpteen ads for helping you write your book. Never mind the companies who want to publish/print it for you. I’m talking about the people who will sell you a piece of software or a book that will turn you into a published writer overnight.

Well, maybe. More likely, you’ll have to slug your book out line by line, page by page, the way writers have been doing since Year One. As far as help, it takes very little, just some basic stuff on structure and style. The rest is up to you.

Yet every writer is different, and you may on occasion need help from a software program. Case in point: I bought a CD program called “NewNovelist” in 2001, the year it was launched by Creativity Software, a British company. At the time, I had finished Book #1 and Book #2 was underway. Book #3 was a setting and an idea, nothing more. But I was busy and put the CD aside.

I opened the package eight years later-–Feb. 13, 2009--and then only out of curiosity. Surprise. The program is just what I need to kickstart Book #3, when I’m ready.

 Apparently NewNovelist is still doing fine. There’s a current web site, and Lucinda Hawksley, the great, great, great-grandaughter of Charles Dickens, is the editor. That’s certainly a better endorsement than any I can come up with. Maybe there are other good programs out there, but one is enough. I don’t want to fall into a paint-by-the-numbers trap.

I have two nitty-gritty writing books that I wouldn’t part with.

One is How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat (Perseverance Press 2003). Among other things, she explains the difference between mystery and suspense, and takes you through the Four-Arc system for organizing your novel.

Wheat is a no-nonsense teacher. In her Preface, she writes: “If anything in this book works for you, I’m glad. If it doesn’t, toss it away and write from your gut, always keeping in mind the one immutable fact about fiction: You’re the one creating the reader’s experience.”

The other is Fiction Writing Demystified by Thomas B. Sawyer (Ashleywilde, Inc. 2003). Sawyer was showrunner and writer for the TV series "Murder She Wrote" so he knows how to move a story along. He writes from a screenwriter's experience, but it easily translates to the novel.

Chapter Six on writing dialogue cured me of using tiresome dialogue tags. Tom wrote his first thriller, The Sixteenth Man, without a single dialogue tag, letting action and internal monologue take the place of “he said” and other tags. An example:

DiMartini disconnected, immediately dialed Harry Feldman in Reno. There was a knock on the door. “Come in.”

It was Alex Moffat. He’d been drinking, looked haggard. DiMartini waved him toward a chair. “Harry, Santo Martini here. Something else I want you to do for me. I need everything you can find on this private investigator… “ It wasn’t necessary, but he referred to the name he’d scrawled on his pad “… Charles Callan. Presto.”
(End Quote)

Sawyer calls it “high-energy writing.” Reading his novel is like being there, watching the whole thing take place. Try it. In fact, my cure for being stuck in a difficult scene apter is to draft the whole thing in dialogue. Works every time.

You can also read Leah Garchik’s gossip columns in the San Francisco Chronicle online. For three days leading up to Valentine’s Day her columns consisted of overheard conversations contributed by readers. The column of Feb. 13 had a section called “They’ve had enough.” Here are excerpts, with names of contributors and identifying locations omitted. (You can read all three columns at

"Jeff, just to confirm, we're going to break up with our girlfriends before the trip, right?" "Definitely. I want to do it by Friday."

"I know I've been too clingy and whiny, but can we still sleep together until I get over you?"

"One of the perks of divorce: I have time to take a nap."

"Yes, we are divorcing. But we're also remodeling."

"It's the 80/20 rule. Ten percent of guys are jerks, and she found one of them."
(End Quote)

It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the speakers as characters, and every conversation as a story nugget. Sometimes a writer doesn’t need a software program or even a good book. A sharp ear for what people say -- on the bus, at the mall, in the aisles at WalMart – and a pack of 3x5 file cards will do just fine.


Good reading and writing to all in 2010!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

'Twas the Night Before . . .

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the barn,
Old Mac was a-jokin' and spinnin' a yarn.
With his feet propped up
and his arms spread wide,
He was tellin' the ranch kids
of old Santa's ride.
But it wasn't Rudolph a-leadin' the pack,
A string of wild horses was bringin' him back.

Over ranches and hay fields
Santa did fly,
Carrying toys and gifts across the night sky.
"On Dobbin, on Stewball, on Seattle Sue,
Go Rampage, go Racer, go Hullabaloo.
The children are a-waitin'," Santa did cry.
"You hay burners are stuck in one gait,
by the by.

Lift up those hooves and shift into high,
Or mornin' will find us a hundred homes shy."
"Grandpa, you're silly," a small voice did say,
"It's the reindeer that pull Santa Claus's sleigh."
"Now youngun' you know your grandpa don't lie."
"But everyone knows that horses can't fly.
Pigs and eagles and reindeer can too,
but horses are muley and made out of glue."

"Don't ever let Santa hear you say that.
He'll be here soon a-wearin' his hat
and swingin' his bag he'll climb on the roof,
But he'll not leave you nuthin' if you don't have proof,
that his reindeer ain't hosses a-wearin' a rack
of antlers he carved from brickity brack.
Off to bed with you now before it's too late,
For Santa loves children who think grandpas are great."

Merry Christmas, everyone!

~Jean Henry Mead

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Isn't a Day

By Mark W. Danielson

One of my favorite Christmas songs is I’ll be Home for Christmas. Perhaps part of the reason for this is I’m usually gone for the holiday, but as in the song, I’m always there in my dreams.

You see, Christmas is a state of mind, not one day out of the year. The Christmas spirit brings good will, just as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa do. During the holiday season, people think about others more than they do at other times of year. It’s also the one time that people stay in touch, and is a huge help for the US Postal Service. Even holiday shopping isn’t a bad thing because it helps our economy. No matter which holiday you celebrate, don’t forget the reason behind the season.

I believe the older you get, the more you “get it” – that the holiday season is more about giving than receiving. Come to think of it, perhaps it’s also a more forgiving time, as well. Even our troops overseas manage to get into the spirit. Watching clips of them in Iraq and Afghanistan makes me appreciate our freedom that much more. Twinkling Christmas lights show us how fortunate we are to have electricity. Watching holiday movies retrieves pleasant memories from days gone by. Seeing the sparkle in children’s eyes gives us hope for the future.

The other day, I was performing my cockpit preflight when a mechanic came in to check the fuel. Neither of us was pressed for time, so we chatted a bit and I wished him a Merry Christmas. He mentioned it was gutsy for me to say that because of our political correctness, to which I said I will always wish people a Merry Christmas because it comes from the spirit it was intended. No one should be offended by a wish of good will. I certainly wouldn’t get upset if someone wished me a Happy Hanukkah or Kwanza. After all, “Tis the season to be jolly, falalalala lalalalah.”

However you chose to celebrate this season, remember that the holiday spirit has no limitations. Make each day a good one, and pray for Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What's Wrong With This Picture...?

by Ben Small

Images, the ones in our eyes, what we see. How much can we rely on them? Sometimes, images are influenced by expectations, maybe by prejudices, habit, cultural traditions, whatever... Compare witness statements about what was seen at a crime or event. They will vary.

Sometimes, these variances may be explained by physics, anatomy, the ravages of disease.

The point is... we can't always believe our eyes. We form judgments based upon conclusions formed from images before our eyes. But sometimes these conclusions are wrong; sometimes because we assumed what was not.

Take these two images. What do you see?

I know, a babe and brutes. Look further. A lot of money spent on these shots.

Do you see the errors? Most people won't.

In both of these pictures, the scopes are on backwards. Some prop guy knew nothing about weaponry, and he installed the scopes backwards.

Go for that zero.

And nobody caught it. Not producer, photographer, production department, editors or any other quality control mechanism. Everything broke down because of an incorrect assumption at the beginning.

You'd be surprised how often this sort of thing happens.

Here's another example, another instance where a mistake at the beginning led to disaster.

I believe this is an advertisement for Heckler & Koch, a renowned manufacturer of handguns and battle rifles.

There's only one problem: There's no H&K product in the picture. What you see is a Sig Sauer P-210, perhaps the most accurate production pistol ever produced.

Somebody got the wrong gun. And nobody at H&K or their advertising firm caught the error.

Even experts make mistakes.

But isn't this dynamic -- the incorrect early assumption -- often at the core of a mystery novel?

Of course it is.

Which is why I mention it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Truce

This World War I cannon, a reminder of the "war to end all wars," sits in front of the Veterans Memorial Building in Hanford, California. Dense fog, Christmas morning. Photo copyright 2004 Pat Browning.

By Pat Browning

Christmases past, small bright lights in the darkest of times. This blog was first posted on December 25, 2004, my last Christmas in California.


That white stuff is ground fog, not snow. But this is Christmas Day, so the town was pretty much closed down anyway.

There are interesting Christmas stories in the papers, both print and online.

From the war in Iraq:
An online Washington Post headline: Fear Dims Christmas Eve in Baghdad. Steel barricades are up at the Virgin Mary Church of Palestine. Iraq's 800,000 Christians have lived peacefully among Muslims for centuries, but now they are afraid to come to church. Ah, Babylon ...

From World War I:
The Post also has an interesting story on the Christmas Truce of 1914, when British, French, Belgian and German soldiers came out of their trenches to sing, exchange food and tobacco, play soccer, bury their dead. Cultural historian Modris Eksteins is quoted as calling it "the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman."

From World War II:
In The Hanford Sentinel, columnist Bob Case tells the special stories of two local people.

One, now a retired teacher, was in the first wave of Marines to hit the beach at Guadalcanal in 1942. He spent Christmas Eve in a jungle hospital, under blackout conditions. But after the patients had sung carols, the C.O. allowed them to light one match for just a moment as they sang "Silent Night."

In the second story, a local woman recalls Christmas Eve 1943, when a local church group went to a nearby POW camp to sing carols to Germans who had been captured in North Africa. After the church group finished singing, there was momentary silence behind the barbed wire fence, and then the sound of 400 German prisoners of war singing "Silent Night" in the original language ... "Stille Nacht!Hiel'ge Nacht! Alles schlaft ... "

Small, bright lights in the darkest of times.


Wishing everyone joy in the holidays and a bright New Year!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Eve, What's My Hurry?

THIS OLD CAMPHOR TREE, planted during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), dominates the yard at the Irwin Street Inn, an historic landmark in downtown Hanford, California. Photo copyright 2004 Pat Browning.

By Pat Browning

Another holiday season is upon us and another year rushes to a close. My personal blog from Dec. 24, 2004, my last Christmas in California, seems as timely as ever. Here it is.
I keep looking at my watch.

I'm sipping Prince of Wales tea from a real china cup, poured scalding hot from a real china teapot. Prince of Wales is my favorite tea, a "full-bodied blend with a hint of black currant," but I keep looking at my watch.

The Sweet Tea at the Irwin Street Inn, a landmark in downtown Hanford, California, comes with little sandwiches, scones, thick cream, lemon curd, strawberry jam. It's cold outside, even with sunshine breaking up the fog. Inside, there's a fire in the fireplace, and through the bayed window I can see the wandering limbs of a century-old camphor tree.

I look at my watch. It's 11:45. I have to mail a letter, pick up a prescription, be at the beauty parlor by 12:30. I ask the old Zen question: Where am I?

Where am I? Sitting on a ladder-back chair, in the quiet elegance of a Victorian parlor, sipping Prince of Wales tea, admiring a camphor tree planted sometime between 1901 and 1909. In summer, shade from the old tree makes the yard a popular place for wedding receptions. On this winter day, leaves on the top branches are still green, and the lower limbs are wrapped with strings of tiny lights. I break open a cranberry scone and spoon cream over it.

It's Christmas Eve. What's my hurry?
Tomorrow: Christmas Truce, more from Christmases past.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Publishing on Demand

By Jean Henry Mead

I’ve waited up to 18 months for a book to be published, but that was before publish on demand technoogy greatly enhanced publication time. POD is considered second class by many in the publishing industry, and I don't understand why. It's much more efficient than traditional publishing and isn’t it great that the wait between submission and publication is only a few months? Your books aren’t languishing in some warehouse, perhaps never to be delivered to the bookstores. That's happened more often than publishers care to admit. It’s also the reason bestselling authors have delivered pizza and donuts to warehouse workers. It insures that their newly published books leave the loading dock.

Young writers have time to wait for a major publisher to produce their books. But as you grow older and wonder if you’re going to live long enough to see them in print, you think POD is the greatest invention since the computer.

I came to that conclusion when the first novel of my Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series was orphaned. Who would want to publish a series that had already been published? I wondered. I received an almost immediate response from Avalon to my query letter, but I waited and waited for a go-ahead to my submission. Seven months later and tired of waiting, I decided to go with a small POD publisher that is very accommodating.

My first two books were published within three months of submission and released not only in print but Kindle and Fictionwise multi-format. Not on the bestseller list, by any means, but they remained #1 in sales for a couple of months at Fictionwise-epress. That made it worthwhile. The ebook edition of my first novel, Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel, is currently number one in sales as well as the most highly rated although it was published in July 2008. I'm simply amazed and wonder if that would have happened with a traditional publisher.

This week I submitted my Mysterious People manuscript, all 145,000 words and 75 mystery writer photos to Poisoned Pen Press for publication. Although they're not considered a POD publisher, they accepted the manuscript via email so I didn't have to search for a box the right size to snail mail the manuscript or wait in line at the post office to send it on it's way.

I agree with Chester. You can teach an old dog new tricks and I'm happy to embrace electronic technology. When are the large publishing houses going to catch up with the innovative smaller ones?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Men of Misery

By Mark W. Danielson

Recently, I attended the Men of Mystery event in Irvine, California. It has been my privilege to attend the last seven, and is my favorite author event. Over fifty authors gather to discuss mysteries and the writing business over lunch with five hundred guests. This year, Michael Connelly and Tim Dorsey were the key speakers. Michael was the Men of Mystery’s very first speaker, and graciously returned for its tenth anniversary. He offered some interesting comments on writing that are worth sharing.

He began with the description that the authors in attendance were actually “Men of Misery”. Not in the sense of Stephen King’s thriller, Misery, but rather in the dedication that it takes to create suspenseful mysteries. He spoke of writing several manuscripts where he was well into them and then shelved them because he “wasn’t feeling it”. He also spoke about his spending hours on a paragraph or two. In this regard, the misery he was referring to isn’t in the writing process, but rather in its re-writes.

Another item Michael stressed was daily writing. One of his mentors said you should write at least fifteen minutes a day to mentally keep you in the loop. Fifteen minutes doesn’t sound like much, but I agree with the principle. When I sit down at the computer, I hope to be there for at least an hour or two.

What I found most interesting about Michael’s presentation is in spite of his success and years of perfecting the craft, he still deals with the same writing issues as the rest of us. Although he writes numerous sequels, he is not a formula writer, so every book requires the same scrutiny as the first in his series. And while his readers may skim through the pages, every word has been carefully chosen, every setting has been visualized, and every breath from his characters has purpose. In writing, it is never acceptable to say, “It’ll do”. There may not be a prescription for successful writing, but Michael’s is as close as it gets.

There are plenty of successful authors among those attending the Men of Mystery or Women of Mystery events. Some are also screen writers and producers. Some names are more familiar than others, but every author there is equally dedicated to writing quality material. If you wish to check out some new material, try browsing the names of these other authors by visiting the Men of Mystery link: Most have their own web sites with chapter previews. Their mysteries are waiting.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New Tricks for an Old Dog

By Chester Campbell

You can teach an old dog new tricks, but he may feel they’re not all worth knowing. Correcting homework for a sixth grader has helped refresh my memory of many things I once knew but had forgotten. It has also taught me a lot of concepts concerning the new math that I’m not sure I needed to know.

Hopefully most sixth graders are not like my grandson. He doesn’t know his multiplication tables worth a flip. Ask him what 8 times 8 is and he’ll narrow his eyes and hum and haw, do a little finger counting, and likely come up with some ridiculous number. When I think of 8 times 8, a big 64 automatically pops up in my mind. Those numbers were drilled into me at an early age. As a result, I can multiply in my head or on paper about as fast as I can use a calculator. I suppose kids in later grades all use calculators, but Justin hasn’t reached that point yet.

They use a lot of terms in math that I don’t recall. Maybe they were around, but we didn’t use them. Things like greatest common factor (GCF), mode, range, and set. But they’re well ahead of where I was at this stage of the game. The lessons include formulas and problems involving algebra and geometry that I didn’t get into until high school. They’re even into statistics, something I studied in college.

One thing I can do without is all the zeros they insist on using, supposedly to make problems easier to understand. To me it’s simpler to line up numbers correctly without all that folderol. But what do I know?

Some subjects haven’t changed except for the addition of facts that have come along over the years. What’s history to a sixth grader, like the Great Depression and World War II and the civil rights movement, were just things I lived through. My perspective on what happened may differ a bit from what’s recorded in the history books.

Of course history, geography, and government (what we called civics) are lumped together under the heading of social studies. It also includes sociology, a term I don’t recall until college.

Another subject that has developed a whole new world is science. I still recall a lot of the old basic science, like Newton's laws of motion, but so much has been learned in the past half a century that it staggers the mind. Justin's homework last night was on the planets, and it pointed out numerouis things learned from various space probes.

Back in the old days, English covered reading and writing. Now they’re separate subjects. But the rules haven’t changed. They don’t diagram sentences any longer, which is fine with me, but subjects and predicates and clauses and phrases are still used the same way I learned them. If Justin is typical of the current crop of kids, they have a long way to go in learning how to use them understandably.

You’d think a boy who lives in a house where his grandparents read constantly—books, newspapers, etc. —would have picked up a love of reading. You’d think wrong. What he has picked up is a love of staring at a computer monitor or a TV screen. He has to read some there, of course, but it does little for expanding his vocabulary.

So what have I learned from this exercise? Sixth grade students are exposed to a world of information that’s far in advance of what I experienced at that age. If they apply themselves conscientiously and absorb all they can, and continue this through high school, they’ll have several legs up on where I was when I accepted that diploma back in June of 1943. But for too many of them, I suspect the impatience and the lure of looking for the easy way will get them sidetracked onto the route to mediocrity.

Those who “get it” will move on to develop their observation and communication skills and become the mystery writers of tomorrow.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lovin' Lance

by Ben Small

Tucson is well known in the bicycle world. Its streets often have bike paths, and Vermont Bicycle Tours, one of the better bicycle touring companies -- personal experience speaking here -- runs tours out of Tucson.

But lately the city has been agog> Lance Armstrong and his Radio Shack team have been practicing in Tucson for a month. The newspapers and local media have been full of pictures and commentary, as the team works out on and around our mountains and parks.

In the media, one usually sees these guys pedaling hard in clumps, sweat running down their faces, their visages set in grimaces. But these are either teamwork shots or in some cases mountain shots. Usually, one sees these guys on the road either alone pumping the pedals or in groups of two or three.

But I've also seen them alone, churning out the miles through our neighborhood, either approaching Mount Lemon, a popular climb for professionals, or back on the downside. And that makes sense. While teamwork is no doubt an important part of the Tour de France and professional touring, it's individual endurance and strength, combined with teamwork that carries them to the finish line.

Sometimes these guys wear Team Radio Shack uniforms, sometimes uniforms they've worn before -- like last year's Tour.

But until today, I hadn't seen Lance, except on TV or in the local newspapers.

Today was different. I spotted Lance as I was leaving the Safeway parking lot. He was turning onto Catalina Highway, heading toward Mount Lemon. He was wearing yellow -- what else? -- and pumping hard.

While I was sitting, my jaw dropping as realization set in, I noticed a group of three teenager bikers pull out from next to me to follow Lance. Evidently, they'd done some scouting and wanted a bird's eye view, or maybe they wanted to see if they could keep up.

I waited until Lance had sped by me and the kids behind him pulled out before I turned right, too, to follow. I drove slow, about fifteen miles per hour.

I noticed Lance turn around, spot the teenagers and then slow up. He waited for them to catch up. Some high fives were slapped, some words exchanged, and then Lance pulled what he did in the Alps the last time he won the Tour de France. He stood on his pedals and left everybody in his dust.

I passed the kids and crept up behind Lance. He was now going twenty-some miles per hour. No traffic was approaching, so I swung wide and passed him. Looked over, caught his eye, flashed him a big thumbs up. Lance smiled.

And that made my day.

What a guy, Lance Armstrong. An American hero.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Sense of Place

By Pat Browning

“A profound sense of place” – that’s what novelist Beth Anderson said about my fictional town of Pearl in ABSINTHE OF MALICE.

Pearl is a combination of several little towns along old Highway 99. The highway runs the length of California’s San Joaquin Valley, with Fresno almost dead center and various towns hidden in the trees on either side of the highway.

I lived in the area for most of my adult life and, frankly, I miss it. I’m glad I set my mystery there. ABSINTHE is first in a proposed limited series. The second book got derailed along the way, but as James Garner always said in his old “Maverick” TV series, “I’m workin’ on it.”

Helping to preserve that sense of place as I slog through Book No. 2, which I’ll call METAPHOR, are some photos I took in Hanford before I moved to Oklahoma five years ago. The photos are of real streets and houses. Their place in my book is purely fictional.

Hanford’s old Irwin Street Inn is the inspiration for property now owned by my character Halcyon. She got the keys when her husband’s mysterious disappearance – oops, that would be a spoiler. In METAPHOR she’s fixing the place up and thinking of opening a tearoom.

Halcyon’s dashing nephew, Watt, lives in one of Halcyon’s suites with an outside entrance. Watt was “born” one night about 10 years ago during an online chat with a writing group. We kicked around the idea of a romantic interest for my protagonist. As long as I was inventing him I invented the perfect man – handsome, sexy, rich and aging gracefully. What’s not to love?

 Hanford’s China Alley is the inspiration for my Shanghai Street. It plays an important part in METAPHOR.

This house inspired my version of a house that once belonged to one of Pearl's long dead residents who left behind a surprise or two.

And what would a setting in Central California be without winter fog? I took this photo of a Hanford street in December 2004.

A sense of place … a place I know well. It’s time I got back to it. See you in the funky little town of Pearl!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Why I Write About Senior Sleuths

by Jean Henry Mead

I write senior sleuth novels because there’s a growing market for retirees who like to read in their own age group. I was intrigued years ago by Miss Marple and Hercule Periot, who were wise and perceptive, but never seemed to have any fun.

That’s not true of today’s seniors who are less inclined to retire to their rocking chairs than previous generations.

Pat Browning, who wrote Absinthe of Malice, said: “A St. Martin's editor gave me a piece of advice I have never forgotten: ‘Be careful not to turn your characters into cartoons.’ I try to picture older characters as they are--the same people they always were, only older. This is especially true when it comes to romance and sex. For all the jokes about senior sex, it is a very real part of senior life, and it's no joke to those lucky enough to have a romantic partner late in life.”

I agree. Not unlike Janet Evanovich’s character, Grandma Mazur, who is eccentric enough for a cartoon character, most seniors have the same interests they’ve always had, with the possible exception of roller blading and downhill skiing. On second thought, I once interviewed Buffalo Bill’s grandson Bill Cody, who learned to donwhill ski at 65 to keep up with his much younger wife.

Mike Befeler writes what he calls “Geezer-lit.” His first novel, Retirement Homes are Murder, features his octogenarian protagonist, “who is short on memory but has a sense of humor and love of life. He accepts his ‘geezerhood,’ solves a mystery and enjoys romance along the way.” He followed it up with Living With Your Kids Can Be Murder and is busy working on another book in the series.

My second senior sleuth mystery, A Village Shattered, takes place in a California retirement village. The plot is generously sprinkled with humor but none of the seniors resemble cartoon characters, although a couple come close, a redneck Casanova and love starved widow. Diary of Murder followed and I portrayed the two 60-year-old protagonist widows as quite capable of traveling the country in their motorhome as well as chasing down killers who happened to be drug dealers.

Another senior writer, Beth Solheim, spent years working in a nursing home and says she loves the elderly and their “humorous, quirky insight to life, love and longevity.” Her protagonists are 64-year-old twins in her humorous, paranormal cozy series, The Fifi Witt Mysteries.

Chester Campbell, an octogenarian, writes the Greg McKenzie Mysteries. He said, “My friends in this [age] bracket are out going places and doing things. Some, like me, continue to work at jobs they enjoy. I chose to use a senior couple in my books who are long married, get along fine, and do a competent job as private investigators. Greg, who narrates the books, is aware of his limitations from age and makes up for physical shortcomings by outsmarting his adversaries. My hope is to dispel some of the absurdity of the stereotypes about seniors that are all too familiar. Like the old song says, "Anything you can do I can do better."

Chester recently started a new series featuring 59-year-old private investigator Sid Chase in The Surest Poison.

Like so many other novelists, I write what I enjoy reading. My readers are mainly retirees and baby boomers who number over 78 million. Some 8,000 boomers are moving into the senior column every day, the fastest growing potential book buying market on record.

We’re experiencing the graying of America. What better subgenre to write for?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In the Beginning, There Was...Confusion

By Beth Terrell

I've met writers who say their first chapters never change. The first words they write are the first words the reader reads. Let me just say, I hate those guys. Okay, hate is a strong word, especially since every single one of them is someone I like. Let's go with, I wish I worked that way.

My beginnings apparently serve one purpose and one purpose only: they help me start the book. They act as a springboard from which I can cobble a story with a middle and an end. Then I go back and realize that nice shiny opening I thought I had just doesn't work. What the...? How did that happen?

The first draft of my first book, Racing the Devil, began with Jared, our hero, musing on the circumstances that led to his being framed for murder. "I think every guy has one woman he wishes he'd said no to. I wish I could say mine was a tall, busty blonde with legs up to there and a smile like a Swedish supermodel, but the truth is, she was just a not-bad-looking woman with dishwater hair and big teeth. All I can say is, if I knew how things would play out, I'd have held out for, say Cindy Crawford."

Bleah. Awful. To begin with, nothing's happening. Just a guy thinking back on a relationship that went badly. How boring can you get? To make matters worse, it's one of those, "little did I know" sections that I absolutely hate. Whenever I see them, I hold up a cross and a string of garlic in hopes that they'll slink back into whatever crypt they crawled out of. Worse still, while it was necessary for Jared to become...uh...intimate with this woman, it was completely out of character for him to pick up a complete stranger in a bar and shag her. No matter how I twisted and turned this scene, I just couldn't make it believable. He wouldn't do it.

I needed a better opening. It had to be evocative, and it had to plop the reader directly into the scene, and something had to be happening. Most of all, it had to make sense in the context of his character. Since the plot depends on her having seduced him (so she could plant his DNA at a murder scene), I needed to figure out what would make him do something so uncharacteristic. Yes, he's grieving over the dissolution of his marriage, but that's just not enough. Fortunately, he has a weakness I could exploit: he's a sucker for a woman in trouble. If I can convince him that this woman is in distress, he'll relax his defenses. Or, for all you Star Trek fans, "His shields are down, Scotty. Phasers set on stun!"

With that insight, I knew I was on the right track. I needed a damsel in distress. I just had to figure out what kind of distress. A flat tire or vehicular breakdown would get his attention, but how would she be sure he would be the one to stop? Then I had it. She is--or seems to be--a battered woman with an abusive boyfriend, and she asks Jared to protect her. His Galahad complex rears its head. Once he's agreed to help her, she pushes for a more intimate encounter and he realizes she wants something more than a protector. He resists at first, not wanting to take advantage, but she insists that she needs the comfort. With the hook set, she reels him in.

The new beginning goes like this: "Even in the dim light of the bar, I could see the bruises. Beginning just below one eye, they spread down the side of her face and neck, tinged the blue rose tatoo above the swell of her breast, and seeped beneath the plunging neckline of her scarlet halter. She paused inside the door, hugging herself. Her gaze swept the room, lit briefly on one face, then another. Looking for somthing, or someone. Or maybe for someone's absence."

It may not be Faulkner, but I think that's a heck of a lot better.

You'd think I'd have the whole beginning thing down now, but no. Book 2 began with what I still think is a terrific first line: Flirt with the devil, and don't be surprised if he asks you to dance. Unfortunately, the scene it preceded was the wrong place to start the book. Not too soon, the way most books on writing warn, but too late. As it turned out, I needed to start the book about three scenes earlier. Of course, I couldn't just figure this out in one blinding flash of insight. I realized I needed to show the scene before "flirt with the devil." Then, when I'd done that, I lollygagged around for awhile, thinking it was the new shiny beginning I needed. After awhile, I realized I needed to go back and do the scene before that. More pemature satisfaction. Finally, I found the right first scene. The ending of the scene is spot on, maybe the best thing I've ever written, but I'm still struggling to find the perfect first pages to lead into it. I've written two very different versions and still can't decide between the two of them. I know I will, but those first fifty pages are crucial, and I want to get it right.

Fortunately, writing is a fairly forgiving pursuit. In writing, unlike professional baseball, there are do-overs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Simpler Life

By Mark W. Danielson

The best thing about my flying job is being able to drop in on distant friends. I was recently able to visit my best buddy during a short LA layover. Dan and I grew up together, have known each other for fifty-four years, and every visit feels like old times. We did everything imaginable growing up, riding our bikes up and down the East SF Bay hills delivering The Richmond Independent, and when we finished, would race through Wildcat Canyon on what we called the “Inter-Canyon 500” to Tilden Park and other regional parks. My paper route had a particularly steep hill near its end that frequently had a radar cop parked near the bottom. My goal was to get stopped for speeding, but in spite of my many efforts at exceeding forty miles per hour in a twenty-five zone, it never happened.

In our early teens, Dan and I were either kayaking, sailing, or piloting sailplanes or airplanes. Steve Canyon was our hero, and Twelve O’Clock High was our favorite TV show. Dan soloed a glider at age 14, and we both soloed airplanes on our sixteenth birthdays. Dan’s dad was my flight instructor, doctor, and mentor. He bought a J-3 Cub so that Dan could build flying time, and I was fortunate to be included in that, too. Being two years older than Dan, I earned my license first, and the two of us flew a plane around Northern California, sleeping under the wing. Neither of us took anything for granted, and we worked hard for what we achieved. Although Dan had hoped to be a test pilot, his vision declined during college. Instead, he has had a remarkable thirty-three year career with Northrop Aviation, has designed nine civilian aerobatic airplanes as a side-line, was an aerobatic champion, and is a third degree black belt. I’ve had an equally successful thirty-nine year piloting career with the Air Force, Navy, and numerous civilian aviation positions. We are who we are because we had supportive parents and a thirst to achieve our dreams.

(Dan and his J-3 Cub. Me and our under-wing tent.)

A lot has changed since we were kids, though. Cell phones and personal computers keep inescapable pressure on kids and under-develop their minds. Instead of jumping off a fence with a pretend parachute, or building models as we did, they play video games, or chat electronically, all the while gaining weight from their lack of exercise. The President’s Physical Fitness program faded along with daily gym class. Kidnappings and random shootings have become far too common. One day, meaningful conversation between two people may even become extinct. But while today’s kids may not have the same opportunities as Dan and I, nothing says they can’t have dreams and work to achieve them.

Our Schwinn bikes riding gave Dan and I our independence. Not only did they get us around, they also taught us coordination, energy management, and geometry. To me, there is nothing better than seeing young kids riding bicycles. Two boys in my neighborhood are just like Dan and me, but they are the exception. It’s easy for me to make a value judgment, but instead, I’ll chock this up as the new reality.

Looking back, life was simpler when Dan and I were growing up. All we had to worry about was the Cold War, and remember to “duck and cover” when out teachers told us to. Perhaps because most moms stayed at home to raise their kids, we respected adults, and identified them as “Mr.” and Mrs.” Another difference is we were happy living with one TV, one phone, one family car, and ate meals at home.

Children today face many more challenges, and the pressure to be perfect is outlandish. The media portrays unrealistic lifestyles, and kids are bombarded with technological interference. While I view these changes wishing their lives could be simpler, I must realize that they aren’t complaining because their perspective is different from mine. In that regard, I suspect they will one day look back, and like me, wouldn’t change a thing about how they grew up.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Writing - a Different Kind of Business

By Chester Campbell

The common wisdom is that we authors should treat writing as a business. I agree, but it requires a little shift from the normal business model. Unless Uncle Sam thinks you're "too big to fail," normal businesses face the prospect of going under if they operate in the red for too long. Most writers operate in the red most of the time.

Good old Wikipedia says of businesses that most are privately-owned and formed to earn a profit that will increase its owners' wealth and grow the business itself. The owners and operators have as one of their main objectives the receipt or generation of a financial return in exchange for work and acceptance of risk.

So where do we fit in this picture? Writers do plenty of work. Writing, researching, promoting, selling, and, of course, business management. That's right, management. Who pays the bills, keeps the books, makes the decisions on what needs to be done, negotiates over book signings, websites, and all that good stuff? And we accept the risk of the time and resources we put into the job.

We love to write, but we go into it with the objective of generating a financial return and making a profit. The fact that few of us do but still remain in business is what separates us from the "normal" company ranks.

I'd always heard that you should break even with your fourth book. Didn't happen for me. Or the fifth, shown here. Actually, I'd show a profit this year if I hadn't spent money on two conferences where I only sold enough books to pay for a couple of meals. So, like a good business owner, I'm reconsidering the best expenditure of my book income next year.

Up to this point, I've been spending not only my book income but bunches of money from other sources, like investments and retirement benefits. I don't plan to go down like Lehman Brothers, and I don't expect to get  bailed out like AIG. But it would sure be nice to see a little green at the end of he rainbow.

Maybe next year.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Writing Software

by Ben Small

Most writers I know have found little tricks they use to simplify their production of quality work. Of course, there are dictionaries, thesauri, and books delineating traits of various personalities. Those go without saying.

But software plays a role, too.

While I use several different software programs to help me, the one I've found most beneficial is PowerWriter by Write-Brothers.

PowerWriter is a word processor, but it's oh so much more. First, it's convertible into text, so I can write my novel, save it as text and then pull it up into Word, perhaps with some additional formatting required. But the formatting has not been a problem.

The real reason I use PowerWriter is that it's such a powerful organizational tool. There are three screens, a center composition screen, with many of the same tools and methodologies as Word. That's where your novel goes. To the left is the outline screen. Type in a plot point there, and it automatically shows up as a grayed-out plot point in your composition screen. Type in the plot point in the composition screen, and it shows up in your outline. A simple way for someone like me, who sometimes outlines, sometimes follows the muse, to keep up to date on both outline and composition.

But it's the third screen that's most helpful, a database for characters and settings. Not only does PowerWriter offer a database of character names, it permits you to store character characteristics, so you can refer to them later.

Let me give you an example. In The Olive Horseshoe, I gave Mandy Shattuck a thin scar through one of her eyebrows. By recording (cut and paste) this information into the database, when I get to page something-or-other and need to refer to the scar and can't remember which eyebrow was involved, there's an easy way to search: Just go back to the character database. I've found using these character databases much more useful than the much more detailed process of creating a biography, like Elizabeth George does for instance, for each character. And it's easier and more useful than the Search function in either PowerWriter or Word. Sometimes Search doesn't give you what you need, and sometimes staring at the character database refreshes you the writer about some other aspect of the character that it would be good to mention in conjunction with the characteristic you were looking for.

Write-Brothers, the producer of PowerWriter, also produces PowerStructure, a software program that interfaces with PowerWriter and provides structural organization of your plot and suggests ideas for improvement. While I own PowerStructure, too, I don't use it. PowerWriter offers so many of the same tools and organizes one's work so well, I just haven't needed PowerStructure. From time to time, however, I've called Write-Brothers, usually over a software validation issue, and they now tell me they may soon introduce a software program that combines PowerWriter and PowerStructure. If so, I don't plan to buy it, unless there's some new significant feature that PowerWriter doesn't currently have, because I've found PowerWriter to be so perfect for my needs without the added PowerStructure platform. If, on the other hand, the new software offers a transition to Word that doesn't require re-formatting, I might well dive in and buy it. But they've been telling me the new software will be out soon for over two years now, so I have no idea when the launch date, if it occurs will be.

As an aside, Write-Brothers also produces PowerTracker, a database and submission and expense management program, which I also own and use, primarily to track expenses. While I use this software, I expect to switch over to QuickBooks because my accountant hates the PowerTracker printouts. It's not a spreadsheet, and he prefers spreadsheets or QuickBooks.

So, if you're looking for tools to make your job as professional writer easier, I'd recommend trying PowerWriter.

As an aside, I should mention that I used Word for Alibi On Ice and PowerWriter for The Olive Horseshoe. I found PowerWriter cut my production time down by about half. Needless to say, I'm currently using PowerWriter to produce Vendetta, a sequel to The Olive Horseshoe.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Bakersfield Sound

By Pat Browning

“THEY SAY YOU CAN'T RUN FROM YOUR TROUBLES. But the "they" who say it--they ain't American. The whole history of the country is about packing up the buckboards and getting out of Dodge before the gunfights start up again. Indians, yellow fever, gangsters, sheepherders, locusts, Baptist crusaders, the buffalo herds ... there's always some kind of spur to light out and see the new territory.

“All music is a mnemonic device. All I have to hear is the dull thunk of Cash's guitar, and the bass quaver of his voice, to remember the sharp smell of crude oil from the rig in the front pasture, the bottomlessly mellow taste of my grandfather's Falstaff when I'd sneak a sip of it or the jungly, humid smell of Oklahoma in July.”
--- From California Country by Richard Von Busack,, a Silicon Valley newspaper

Ben Small’s post about empty stores and streets in Palm Springs and Bakersfield was a jolt. I suppose Palm Springs’ celebrities and high rollers have died. Today’s movie stars are more likely to be found in the Hamptons or Europe. As for Bakersfield, apparently it went that-a-way with The Bakersfield Sound.

Bakersfield was honky-tonk heaven in the 1950s and ‘60s. Times have changed, but even then not everyone liked what a friend of mine (native Californian) called “cry baby Okie music.” Never mind. The migrants who crowded in during the Depression and World War II and stayed, loved it.

It was Nashville country music with a rougher edge and a midwestern twang. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were the twin pillars of the Crystal Palace, home of The Bakersfield Sound.

At Owens’ side was Don Rich, an equally talented performer who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1974. By all accounts it took the wind out of Owens’ sails but he kept on performing almost until his death in 2006. Owens and Rich were a good team. One of their best live performances is on You Tube.

"Foolin’ Around," Buck Owens and Don Rich with The Buckaroos at the Crystal Palace, Bakersfield, 1961. It’s at

Merle Haggard is still singing, but time and hard living have taken a dreadful toll on his body. His voice is still the best. Diehard fans (like me) can listen to old records or go to You Tube.

Haggard’s life would make a good book. A born musician and a true living legend, he came from a dirt poor family, was a wild kid and even wilder as he grew up, doing time, escaping from various jails, finally ending up in San Quentin. Apparently Johnny Cash’s famous prison concert turned Haggard around and gave him the music bug. Paroled, he married and settled down with his bride in an old railroad boxcar. President Ronald Reagan later granted him a full pardon.

One of my favorite You Tube videos is a live performance of “Workin’ Man Blues” in the early ‘70s when Haggard was still young and drop-dead gorgeous. A band that really kicks it on down the road backs him. The piano player is smokin’ hot.

One note: I always read the Comments on You Tube. Haggard’s lyrics about working really touched a nerve. Comments on this video are about unemployment and politics. They’re so ugly I don’t know why You Tube doesn’t take them down. Ignore them. I know – that’s like telling a jury to ignore testimony they just heard – but I thought a warning might be in order.

Two of my favorite crime fiction novels are set in Bakersfield and incorporate country music.

In BLACKHEART HIGHWAY by Richard Barre, country musician Doc Whitney is paroled after a 20-year prison stretch for the brutal murders of his wife and children. Private investigator Wil Hardesty learns that Whitney may have been framed for the murders, and the local cops may have been part of the conspiracy. When Whitney is reported killed, Hardesty sets out to clear Whitney's name.

At the time Barre wrote this novel I pronounced it the best San Joaquin Valley novel since Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH. That may have been a bit of gush, but BLACKHEART HIGHWAY is one of my all-time favorite books. I guard my inscribed copy with my life, more or less.

I love the Doc Whitney character and always hoped Barre would feature him in a sequel. In the real world, a famous Bakersfield musician named Spade Cooley went to prison for murdering his wife. I wonder now if that’s where Barre got the inspiration for Doc Whitney. Back in the day, when I met Barre at a conference in Fresno, it never occurred to me to ask.

My other favorite is THE TUMBLEWEED MURDERS, begun by the late Rebecca Rothenberg and finished to perfection by Taffy Cannon. Here’s an excerpt from my review way back in 2002:


“THE TUMBLEWEED MURDERS is set in the ugliest part of the San Joaquin Valley, and one of the best characters talks like Granny in "The Beverly Hillbillies," but I kept going back to it anyway. Something about it just wouldn't let go. Maybe it's the music. … Rothenberg's protagonist, Claire Sharples, is a transplanted Easterner who feels the pull of that music.

“Claire is a plant pathologist working in the field for the University of California. On her way to a peach orchard where the fruit is afflicted with brown rot, she meets Jewell, a reclusive, long-retired country singer once known as The Cherokee Rose. The chance meeting with Jewell is followed by discovery of a skull near the peach orchard. …

“Curiosity leads Claire into a labyrinth of lies and corruption, as an old murder brought to light leads to new murders. She narrowly escapes drowning, and almost meets her Waterloo at the hands of a runty tycoon named Tidwell, who disposes of enemies by tossing them into a hay baler. ...

“I hate to see Claire Sharples go. She was good company. Still, as one of Rothenberg's own songs says: "Now my life has led me on/ And left so many roads behind/ But I can still recall them all/ So clearly in my mind."

Good listening. Good reading.