Sunday, February 28, 2010


by Ben Small

A good friend called me last weekend, fresh from the range. He'd been shooting skeet with a twelve gauge, and said he'd never seen a more frightening experience. Seems one of the gunners, an old-timer, retired air force officer who loads his own ammo, fired his shotgun and nothing happened. Instead of opening the breech or attempting to extract the dud, which might be what someone with no firearms background might do, he kept the shotgun pointed down-range and he waited.

Some twenty seconds later, the shotgun went boom.

This is a hangfire, the delayed ignition of a round.  Its causes can be a defective primer, bad ammo, or failure to store ammo in keeping with manufacturer's specifications. Regardless of cause, the effect can be deadly, either to the shooter or another. Because hangfires can occur with any ammo, not just shotgun ammo.

Imagine opening the breech to fetch a dud round only to have it go off with the breech open. Most likely the gun will explode, and it will kill or injure you or someone standing near you. And if it's a rimfire or centerfire round, like those in handguns or rifles, it might injure or kill someone hundreds of yards or even a mile or more away. Depends on where you were pointing the gun when the delayed ignition occurred.

In this case, the cause was a defective primer, or perhaps a perfectly good primer inserted incorrectly inside the shotgun cartridge, a mistake that sometimes happens when one is careless for a moment in his reloading procedures. But it could just as well happen with old surplus ammo bought in bulk. Who knows where and how that ammo was stored? It may have been kept in a leaky duffel or left outside in a high humidity environment -- for a long time. Regardless, there's a delayed or incomplete ignition.

Some long-time gunners tell me it's just a matter of time before one experiences a hangfire, especially if one is reloading his or her own cartridges. Primers and ammo do go bad, however, even in production ammo.

So the point is, if your gun doesn't fire and you think it's a dud, keep it pointed down-range and wait... for at least thirty seconds. Some advise even that is too short a time -- better off at a minute. As kids, we learned not to approach fireworks that don't go bang right away, but to be sure there won't be a delayed ignition.
That's a hangfire, too. And we've all heard of someone who blew off some fingers on the fourth of July or New Year's Eve..

Funny thing, though, is while every knowledgeable shooter knows about hangfire, I don't recall ever seeing one in a novel. And that's too bad, because a hangfire adds a certain unexpectedness that can be woven nicely into a well-plotted book.

Well, maybe I'll have to fix that...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Full Of Rape And Adverbs"

By Pat Browning

Elmore Leonard says that using adverbs is a mortal sin. Whether or not you’re an Elmore Leonard fan you can’t argue with his success. I’m especially interested in Leonard’s exceptions to his rules.

The Guardian, a British newspaper, recently ran a lengthy article on Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing, followed by rules offered by British authors. You can read the entire article at:

10 Rules For Writing Fiction from The Guardian, Feb. 20, 2010, beginning first with Elmore Leonard’s rules:
1) Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2) Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the
way he talks."

3) Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4) Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5) Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6) Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7) Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "American and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9) Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10) Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
Inspired by Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian surveyed some established British authors for their tips on successful writing. Here are brief comments from some of them.
Margaret Atwood
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but -essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.

Geoff Dyer
Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

Anne Enright
Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

Esther Freud
A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn't spin a bit of magic, it's missing something.

Neil Gaiman
Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

David Hare
Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.

The two most depressing words in the English language are "literary fiction".

PD James
Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

Al Kennedy
Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

Hilary Mantel
First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

Michael Moorcock
Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.

If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.

For a good melodrama study the famous "Lester Dent master plot formula" which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).

Michael Morpurgo
It is the gestation time which counts.

By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I'm talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.

Joyce Carol Oates
Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

Ian Rankin
Get lucky.
Stay lucky.

Will Self
Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.

Live life and write about life. Of the making of many books there is indeed no end, but there are more than enough books about books.

By the same token remember how much time people spend watching TV. If you're writing a novel with a contemporary setting there need to be long passages where nothing happens save for TV watching: "Later, George watched Grand Designs while eating HobNobs. Later still he watched the shopping channel for a while . . ."

Helen Simpson
The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire et se taire" (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as "Shut up and get on with it."

Zadie Smith
Don't romanticise your "vocation". You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page.

Don't confuse honours with achievement.

Colm Tóibín
Finish everything you start.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.

Rose Tremain
In the planning stage of a book, don't plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.

Respect the way characters may change once they've got 50 pages of life in them. Revisit your plan at this stage and see whether certain things have to be altered to take account of these changes.

Sarah Waters
Writing fiction is not "self-expression" or "therapy". Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.

Don't panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end.

Jeanette Winterson
Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.

Enjoy this work!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bill to Ban Over the Counter Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Sales

by Jean Henry Mead

A senate bill has been proposed to permanently take away our rights to buy vitamin and natural supplements without a prescription.

If Bill s3002 passes, the FDA will have the right to prevent consumers from purchasing anything from One-a-Day vitamins to enzymes over the counter. And with Big Pharma producing the products, the costs will rise astronomically.

We have the right to choose what we take into our bodies and that includes natural and nutritional supplements. Or as the philosopher John Stuart Mill once said, “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

Imagine vitamin A becoming illegal? Or if you could only take CoQ10 with a doctor’s prescription at ten times the price you're now paying. The bill intends to take away our rights to have control over our own bodies.

The Dietary Supplement Safety Act of 2010 would empower the FDA to permanently ban any nutritional supplement it considers “adulterated” or “misbranded.” That may sound reasonable, but in practice, it means the FDA can make a list of accepted vitamins and ban all the rest, according to Dr. AL Sears, a well known alternative medicine practitioner. "[Some] Europeans already live under a similar law. It’s so restrictive that they buy their vitamins in the U.S."

If the bill passes, traffic to Canada and Mexico will undoubtedly increase and the border patrol will be looking for contraband herbal remedies as well as drugs. And what will happen to health food stores?

Sears says, “Part of the problem is the way the bill is written. The language is open-ended and subject to broad interpretation. Even if a vitamin company makes a mistake with their paperwork, or the FDA claims they made a mistake, they can take that product off the market forever. Even if that product has a clean track record.”

Also at risk is the dosage of a vitamin or nutrient. That means the FDA can determine that “Vitamin C is only safe at a dose of 10mg. . .If your vitamin C only has 10mg per tablet, you’d have to take an entire bottle to get a one-day supply. That’s another strategy the FDA could use to kill off a vitamin or nutrient."

The bill is dangerous both to your health and to your rights as a citizen. Please contact your senators and tell them to vote NO on the McCain bill. It's another right we can't afford to lose.

There are a number of independent health organizations online warning about the McCain bill as well as the FDA. Among them the Alliance for Natural Health and American Association of Health Freedom.

If you're unable to access the sites, please try again later. Every time I list the sites online, within minutes the sites go down. You can also try: and (My apologies to the sites mentioned because I know they will be blasted offline before many of you read this.)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

You Gotta Have Heart

By Beth Terrell

The topic du jour at work of late has been the Olympics. We’ve seen story after story about these athletes—the greatest in the world—and the sacrifices they’ve made to get to the winter games in Vancouver. We saw a pairs skater go onto the ice with torn tendons in one ankle; she skated beautifully, and no one watching could have guessed she was in terrible pain. We saw a speed skater with metal pins holding the bones of his forearm together. We saw a downhill skier who, after a debilitating accident, competed in her sport of choice three weeks after doctors told her it would be months before she could even begin to walk. We saw a skater perform on the day of her mother’s death, and we saw the team from Georgia carry on after the tragic loss of one of their teammates on the first day of the games. No doubt about it, these young men and women have a special kind of courage—the kind we often call Heart.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have what it takes to hobble out into the snow with a sprained ankle, put on a pair of skis, and pitch myself down the side of a mountain. Thankfully, as a writer, I don’t have to. But I think writing requires its own brand of Heart.

Like Olympic athletes, writers spend thousands of hours honing our craft. I’ve read that you have to write a million words before you become a master of your art. That means showing up at the computer (or paper, or typewriter), whether we feel like it or not, whether inspiration strikes or not. Day after day, word after word, one sentence after another.

Like Olympic athletes, writers “put themselves out there.” There’s no place to hide when you’re the only one on the ice, or the only one on the ski slope, and there’s no place to hide when your name is on a book that can be picked up and read by potentially thousands of readers. Olympic athletes have to deal with judges and timers. Writers have to deal with critics and reviewers. Olympic athletes give a hundred percent to every competition. Writers give a hundred percent to every book. We put our hearts on the page for the world to see.

Olympic athletes never give up. In the face of injuries, poor performances, broken equipment, and discouraging words from others, they persevere. Writers persevere as well. Today, I read an article about a writer with an impressive number of published short stories—and 11,000 rejections. Can you imagine how hard it must be to keep writing and submitting after 11,000 rejections? Now, that takes Heart.

No, I don’t have what it takes to be an Olympic athlete, but I hope I have—or at least can cultivate—that special kind of courage it takes to be a writer. I hope I have a writer’s Heart.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Life After Death

By Mark W. Danielson

Michael Crichton was one of my favorite authors, and his premature death came as a shock. I feared that his passing would also mean the end of his writing, but then his assistant discovered a completed manuscript and delivered it to a publisher. Released last year, Pirate Latitudes is a swashbuckling tale of old Jamaica where justice was doled out with enough latitude to allow privateer raids on treasure-filled galleons. Like so many of Crichton’s novels, Steven Spielberg is turning this one into a screenplay. So, while Michael passed away in November, 2008, he gave life to a host of new characters in what may be considered his parting gift. But is this novel what he really intended?

I say this because a couple of scenes raise eyebrows. Of course I cannot discuss them without ruining the story, but similar scenes have appeared in two other tales not written by this author. These scenes are so obvious that anyone would question why they were there. Worst of all, neither of them added anything to the story. In fact, they are so uncharacteristic of Crichton that I question whether a ghost writer added them to complete the manuscript. But if this truly is Crichton’s work, then did he intend to have Latitudes published, or was it a work in progress? Unfortunately, we will never know.

This posthumously published novel makes me wonder what to do about the novels I tucked away with no intention of publishing. They are stored on floppy discs and in dusty boxes awaiting a re-look, but since I prefer looking forward rather than back, chances are that will never happen. Considering this, should I even keep them when they are in such disarray? I certainly wouldn’t want them to be a reflection on my writing, or have someone else complete them after my death.

At the November 2009 Men of Mystery, Michael Connelly touched on this subject saying he has stopped writing or editing several novels because he “wasn’t feeling it”. Perhaps after reading Pirate Latitudes, Connelly might delete his unfinished files so they won’t be discovered and published like Crichton’s book was.

Although this topic raises questions about disposition, I enjoyed Pirate Latitudes, and am glad I was able to read Michael Crichton’s final chapter. At least in this instance, there is no doubt that life exists after death

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Digital Discourse

By Chester Campbell

The mind has a way of wandering down weird paths. At least a writer's mind does. We're curious. When something catches our attention, we start looking into it. One thing leads to another and soon we find our thoughts zig-zagging all over the map.

This all came to mind as a result of making the discovery a couple of mornings ago that I had somehow managed to inflict three little cuts on my right thumb, up near the nail. I first thought maybe they would act nice and just go away. Not so. I finally gave up and used a Band-Aid. I had to wrap it over the top of my thumb, sticking to the nail.

I quickly discovered why God made thumbs. It is practically impossible to push a button through a tight buttonhole without a thumb. Try picking up a glass. Or write with a pen or pencil. Okay, some people, including our sixth-grade grandson, use a wild gripping method that doesn't make good use of the thumb for writing. But you get the idea.

So I got on Google to check out this marvelous digit. We humans share opposable thumbs with most other primates, like apes and gibbons which have them on both hands and feet. Opposable means we can touch each of our fingers with our thumbs. It's what gives us the dexterity to manipulate tools or do our knitting. We don't need them on our feet since we walk standing up.

The thumb is what gives us the ability to grip objects. People who classify things (why they do this is another subject) use "power" and "precision" to separate the way we grip. Power is the way we grip a hammer, while precision is what we do when writing with a pencil or picking up a jar using fingertips alone.

We use the thumb metaphorically to express our opinions for goor or ill. We give thumbs up when we approve of something. A thumbs down means no go. Interestingly, the popular belief is that these hand signals derived from the days of Roman gladiators. When a gladiator was defeated, the crowds in the Coliseum gave a thumbs up to spare his life, or a thumbs down to have him run through by the sword of the victor.

A scholarly article on Wikipedia debunks this idea. After much research into writings from the era and various translations, he concludes that a thumbs up really meant kill the dude, while waving the hand with the thumb in a fist covered by the fingers signified a desire to spare his life.

A once popular use of the thumb was to signal drivers that you wanted a ride. This led to the term "hitchhiker's thumb," which is defined as a "distal hyperextensibility of the thumb" when it leans back nearly 90 degrees while doing the hitchhiker sign. According to a 1953 study, the incidence of the trait in the US was 24.7% in whites and 35.6% in blacks. This was probably one of those federal projects that some congressman "earmarked" to bring a bunch of bucks into his district. In the interest of full disclosure, I happen to be in that 24.7%.

A reference to a Human Accelerated Region "that may have contributed to the evolution of the uniquely opposable human thumb" led me to an article discussing the human genome, then to another on mitochondrial DNA. I soon found myself wandering far afield from my bandaged digit. Incidentally, the thumb is used in Medical gibberish with the adjective form "pollical."

And with that bit of esoteric trivia, I'll get my thumb off the space bar before somebody gives me the thumbs down for good. By the way, next time you're in Iran, Iraq or Sardinia, it would not be a good idea to use the hitchhiking gesture. Over there it means "up yours!"

Monday, February 22, 2010

Loophole Nonsense

by Ben Small

I am often entertained by the arguments of the gun-banners like the Brady Campaign who are arguing for closure of the so-called "Gun Show Loophole," primarily because there is no such thing. One is legally entitled to sell or give or trade any gun legally owned to another person not known to be a criminal (defined by law as one not entitled to own a firearm, someone who is insane, a drug addict, a convicted felon or someone convicted of a domestic abuse crime -- even a misdemeanor domestic abuse crime.) who is a resident of the same state.

There it is. If you meet that criteria, you can sell, give or trade your gun to your son or daughter, your next door neighbor, a friend, or someone at a gun show. Closing the so-called "loophole" would prohibit these transfers.

Under the law, any dealer in guns, meaning one who holds an FFL (Federal Firearms License) must do the required NICS background check before he sells a gun, whether at a gun show or otherwise. People who are not regular dealers, like you and me, can transfer a gun to anybody who meets the criteria mentioned above, whether it's at a gun show or not.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms  and Explosives (BATFE) is the federal agency charged with enforcing these laws, and you better believe these guys are out in force in plain clothes at every gun show. Ask someone how to refit an AK-47 to fire fully automatic, and you're likely to be prosecuted by the Feds. Walk out with an armful of rifles, and you're likely to be questioned by unfriendly Feds for quite some time.

That's what the BATFE does: Ensure the wrong people aren't selling and buying weapons.

I recently got into an argument with a college friend who happens to run the Brady Campaign. He was our student body president and I was a class officer. He argued how could I justify someone buying eight-five guns of the same model at a gun show, the person had to be supplying these weapons to criminals. Okay, I responded, we have laws to prosecute these people, confiscate their weapons and send them away for a long stretch. Where is the BATFE?

He also railed against a proposed Virginia law which would allow guns in bars. Arizona just passed similar legislation which went into effect this year. My friend asked how could I support drunks with guns. Well, the answer is simple: I don't. But here again, there are laws, felony laws, about drinking while carrying a gun. The law is if you're carrying in a bar, you cannot drink. It's that simple.

Just enforce the laws. I'm not in favor of drunks driving cars either, and we have laws against that, too. What's more dangerous? A drunk behind the wheel of a car, or a drunk carrying a pistol? I'll bet more people are killed each year by drunk drivers than by drunk shooters. But you can argue either way. The point is: We have laws against both. Enforce them.

As you know, guns sales have been going through the roof, primarily for two reasons: 1) fear guns will be banned, and 2) awareness that in most cases the police cannot protect you.. Meanwhile, the murder rate nationally is down ten percent. Coincidence? I doubt it. If someone thinks you may be armed, they are less likely to attack you. Criminals tend to attack those they think cannot protect themselves, which means they often attack women or the elderly or disabled. And guess what? These are the same people buying guns. Go into a gun store; you'll see a lot of blue hairs and women. When I took my Concealed Carry Class two years ago, most of our class were women and blue hairs. And I was one of them -- a blue hair for those of you wondering...

In short, there is no gun show loophole, just a lot of loopies who claim there's one. But then, a lot of people think the U.S. government staged 9/11 and that the Holocaust never happened,

Saying something, posting placards and having press conferences and media shows doesn't make something true or accurate. And the so-called Gun Show Loophole is just another example of a politically fed myth.

The Gun Show Loophole doesn't exist.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Catching Up With David Corbett

Reading the newsletter from Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA, I was surprised by how many of my favorite authors have new books this year. One who caught my eye was David Corbett, who will be at MLB’s Spring Coffee & Crime breakfast April 10. His new book, due March 2, is DO THEY KNOW I’M RUNNING? (Ballantine paperback original)

MLB’S review calls it “a powerful crime novel that will take you into the heart of the Salvadoran immigrant community in California.” I read an excerpt from the first chapter at Corbett’s web site and it’s a grabber. I spent a couple of hours at the web site, bringing myself up to date on one of the busiest authors in the field, wondering how I’d lost track of him in the first place.

A few years ago, when I was writing my first mystery, a stellar parade of writers came through Fresno, California, either for a meeting of the San Joaquin Sisters in Crime or for the annual William Saroyan Writers Conference. David Corbett was one of them.

Joyce Spitzer had just written her first novel. Authors, some with established careers, included Penny Warner, Richard Barre, Loren Estleman and his wife Deborah Morgan, Harlan Ellison, John Dunning, Marcia Preston, David Brin, Leonard Bishop, James Frey – no, not THAT James Frey, the James Frey who wrote HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL -- and David Corbett, who had just written his first novel, THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD (Ballantine Books 2002).

I learned from all of them, but the writer who gave me a whole different outlook on mystery novels was David Corbett. Corbett had spent 15 years with a San Francisco private investigation firm. He’d worked on high-profile criminal and civil litigations such as the Lincoln Savings & Loan Case, The DeLorean Trial, The People's Temple Trial, the first Michael Jackson child molestation case, and a RICO civil litigation brought by the Teamsters against former union leaders associated with organized crime—as well as numerous other drug, murder, and fraud cases.”

In 1995 he left the firm to work as "Man Friday" for his wife, Terri, who was beginning a law practice. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in September 2000, and died at age 46 in January 2001. Ballantine had just bought THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD.

I was collecting cozies and soft-boiled mysteries. After I found out Corbett was coming to Fresno I bought a copy of THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD and settled down to read it. The opening sentence almost knocked me off my chair:

"He blew into Las Vegas the first week of spring, primed to hit the tables, sniff the wildlife and, basically, cat around."

I didn’t stop reading until the very last page. REDHEAD was not only a good crime story; it was an emotional roller coaster.

Since then Corbett has written novels and short stories. He teaches writing at seminars and hosts a monthly High Crimes Mystery Book Group in Benicia, California. He’ll be on the road in March and April, traveling coast to coast. This is no blog tour from the comfort of an easy chair. He’s doing signings, readings, Q&A, and classes on “Arcs & Acts in Fiction & Film.”

His complete schedule, along with a lot of other interesting reading, can be found on his web site at

Believe it or not, my review for THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD, posted to Oct. 12, 2003, is still there. Here it is.

A violent tale, beautifully told
By Pat Browning

THE DEVIL'S REDHEAD is a violent tale, beautifully told. The writing flows. The pace never falters. At its tender heart, this is a story of love, loss and reconciliation.

Opening line: "He blew into Las Vegas the first week of spring, primed to hit the tables, sniff the wildlife and, basically, cat around."

That's Danny Abatangelo, freelance photographer and wildcat smuggler of Thai marijuana since college days. His motto: "No guns, no gangsters, it's only money." Then he meets Shel, a knockout redhead, and they slam together like a couple of magnets.

Danny wants out of the drug trade. Everybody's moving in -- Cubans, Marielitos, Vietnamese, Colombians, Mexicans, the Mob. No more room for someone like Danny, who's in it for kicks. End of an era.

He sets up one last job as a nest egg for retirement. What follows is a harrowing sequence of events, resulting in near-total destruction of everything Danny and Shel hoped for.

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Until Corbett came along, the only crime writer who could guide me through such violent material without setting me up for nightmares was James Lee Burke. Good company, those two!

The photo by Pat Mazzera is from Corbett’s web site.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Secrets oF Death on Demand: 20 Titles, 20 Revelations

by Carolyn Hart

I was writing a mystery set in a general bookstore when I visited Murder by the Book in Houston, TX, in April 1985. Enchanted by the idea of a mystery bookstore, I created Death on Demand, the finest mystery bookstore south of Atlanta, and the first book in the series is entitled Death on Demand. I placed the store on a fictional sea island reminiscent of Hilton Head, South Carolina, in the nineteen seventies when our family started vacationing there.

Design for Murder was inspired by the annual house and garden tour in Charleston, South Carolina. The fictional town of Chastain is patterned after lovely Beaufort. I specially love the old cemetery in Beaufort.

When talking to my editor, I proposed setting a mystery against the backdrop of a little theater group presenting Arsenic and Old Lace. When I started to write, I decided it was too cumbersome because the play has so many characters. When the manuscript was turned in, the editor objected saying, “You promised me Arsenic and Old Lace.” Faced with rejection of the manuscript, I rewrote the entire book, substituting Arsenic and Old Lace for the fictional play I had created. Something Wicked was accepted and went on to be the recipient of the very first Agatha Award for Best Novel.

Annie Laurance is getting married in Honeymoon with Murder. The editor asked for more emphasis on the wedding. In doing the revisions, Laurel Darling Roethke appeared on the computer screen, brimming with wedding ideas, including a red wedding dress. I laughed as I wrote, remembering a wonderful character actress Billie Burke.

When A Little Class on Murder was published, I created a Blue Book with a 20-question mystery quiz. The first question: Who is the founding genius of the mystery? The last question: Who has Nancy Pickard described as the most endearing pair of new sleuths since Tommy and Tuppence? All 20 questions and their answers may be found at my website:

Deadly Valentine has a true cat subplot. Agatha, the bookstore cat, is furious about the arrival of all-white Dorothy L. On a January day, I sat in an easy chair in the living room. I’d written the first few pages of a story about what happens when love is desperately sought and jealousy ruins lives. I heard the cry of a kitten and hurried outside to find a tiny, terrified black-and-white kitten in the middle of the street. A boy on his bicycle said, “I saw the lady throw her out of the car.” Inside was a large gray, white, and orange cat named Patch. When I told Patch that Sophie would die if she wasn’t kept, Patch said, “Good.” In the book, Agatha’s jealousy and hunger for love underscore that everyone, everywhere, cats included, must have love or perish.

The Christie Caper is a tribute to the writer I most admire and respect. When the manuscript was turned in, the editor suggested making the ending a reprise of the solution to The Orient Express. I responded that I’d rather die. Happily, the editor laughed and said that wasn’t required. The ending of the book in fact is rather odd because I was determined that it should differ from any Christie title and that was a challenge.

Southern Ghost celebrates famous ghosts of South Carolina. I confess to a continuing delight in ghost stories. My fondness for ghosts, especially good-humored ghosts such as George and Marian Kirby in Topper, resulted in the creation of the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an impetuous, redheaded ghost who returns to earth to help those in trouble in Ghost at Work and Merry, Merry Ghost.

Mint Julep Murder is a behind the scenes look at the insecurities and vulnerabilities of writers. I especially enjoy writing about Emma Clyde, the self-centered, the-book-comes-first mystery author. Is Emma self-revelatory? Possibly she might be the unvarnished author, but I do try to be a bit kinder and gentler.

Henny Brawley, a recurring character in the series, has a large role in Yankee Doodle Dead. Henny is Carolyn’s tribute to women who were young and brave during World War II, especially the glorious and adventurous WASPs. Henny was one of the 1,800 Women’s Air Force Service Pilots who trained at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Tx, and whose gallant stories can be admired in Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines, the Unknown Heroines of World War II.

I have a wonderful friend who for many years has donated her time to hospice. I think of her with awe and admiration. But, as mystery authors will, one day it occurred to me what might happen if a not-so-nice person volunteered and listened to dying words. The result was White Elephant Dead.

Whenever I picture the aging actress in Sugarplum Dead, I see Agnes Moorehead. Writing the book, I felt it was touch-and-go whether readers would immediately see what I was doing with illusion.

April Fool Dead explores the readiness of ordinary people to take events at face value. Henny Brawley knew her friend could never have planned blackmail. That faith propels Annie to seek the truth behind a clever and heartless murder.

In Engaged to Die, I decided it was time for Annie and Max Darling to disagree, but even though they choose opposite sides, they always believe in each other. Annie and Max are my celebration of the fact that good marriages exist. I have a skeptic’s view of romance, but I believe in love.

Murder Walks the Plank is the only Death on Demand book with a title I dislike. I think the title is flippant and suggests a light story. Instead, this particular book has a plot which is particularly complex and I felt it worked really well. It is one of my favorites.

When plotting Death of the Party, I set the action on a remote sea island for the express purpose of getting to write a book in which I did not have to deal with cell phones. Cell phones are the bane of mystery authors. Long ago a heroine could find a note on her pillow: Meet me in the cemetery by the old willow at half past midnight. The reader would be urging, “Don’t go. Don’t go.” The heroine, of course, hurried to the rendezvous but instead of meeting her lover, there was the dastardly villain. In today’s books, she whips out her cell and punches nine-one-one. In the old days, she had to escape with many a thrilling moment. But in Death of the Party, I created harrowing moments and never had to worry about a cell phone.

In Dead Days of Summer, a young woman is found dead and the bloody murder weapon is in the trunk of Max Darling’s car. When he is arrested, the media descend in force. I wrote this book in part to protest the unfeeling and cruel 24/7 coverage of sensational crimes and the callous disregard of the human beings caught up in a crime.

Double Eagle by Alison Frankel is a charming book about the history of America’s most fabulous gold coin. I heard her interviewed on NPR interview. I read her book and used those gorgeous gold coins in Death Walked In.

In Dare to Die, Buck remembers Iris in first grade and how he and Iris were Yellow Birds. The best readers were Blue Birds. The competent readers were Red Birds. Everyone knew who the Yellow Birds were. That passage is based upon my husband’s memory of his second grade class. He was a Blue Bird, but he never forgot the hapless Yellow Birds. More than a half century later, Buck and Iris were Yellow Birds.

The Death on Demand series has always celebrated wonderful mysteries of the past and present. I especially love mysteries written in the ‘30s and ‘40s where sleuths deal with apparently unrelated events and characters. That was my inspiration for Laughed ‘Til He Died. In a race against time to save an innocent woman, Annie and Max must solve three interlocking puzzles, the pulled-out pant pockets of a murder victim, three guns that appear and disappear, and the disappearance of a teenager who knows too much.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Most Important Story

By Mark W. Danielson

Lately I’ve been writing a story whose characters and events stir my brain. I started it long ago and lost it somewhere along the way. The story I’m referring to is my own, and I am writing it because somewhere in the distant future, my family might want to know more about me. and a new television show of the same nature are proof that at some point most people want to know their roots. Consider how little you know about your parents and you will understand the importance of documenting your own history. To help get you started, think of something that inspired you. Mine begins this way:

You can because you think you can. These powerful words were written on a Hawk Flight ready room wall at Reese Air Force Base, and seeing them made me realize that had always been my philosophy. Be it confidence or arrogance, I have always believed I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to. Whatever success I have achieved has been a direct result of this mindset . . .”

As I started writing, I began to remember details such as this incident that occurred to me in seventh grade:

. . . Admittedly, I was no angel growing up, but I generally avoided fights. But one time a fellow classmate kept hassling me in the school cafeteria. I warned him that if he didn’t shut up, I’d jam my cornbread down his throat. He said, “I dare you,” and so I did, grinding it in with the palm of my hand. He was so astonished, it ended right there . . .”

If you’re still hesitating, then consider this recent news story:

“It’s been decades since the baby of her family became a grandmother. But as Drina Welch Abel spoke of four grandsons now flying planes for a living, the 83-year-old former wing walker’s memories drifted back to times only gray photos can reach.”

Imagine the rich history that would have been lost had Drina’s story not been published.

Recently, a friend asked if I would look over his memoirs. I agreed and starting reviewing it as if it was a manuscript. I soon determined that his book was perfect as it was because it is exactly what I am suggesting. Granted, it won’t win any awards, but that doesn’t matter. His family will benefit from it regardless.

It normally takes years to develop writing skills, so don’t get discouraged if things seem awkward at first. Force your way through this assignment as if you were writing for publication, but tell it as though you were speaking to a grandchild. When you think you’re done, then read every word out loud. In the end, writing this story may be your most satisfying one ever.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Wanna be a Tubby?

by Ben Small

Range days are always fun, the weapons and weapon-accessories you see, the characters you meet and, yes, the thrill of making consistently good shots -- when or if that ever happens. Yesterday's session was no exception, courtesy of the guy at the stand next to me.

Michael is an armorer for Fort Huachuca, home of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and the U.S. Army Network Enterprise Technology Command. Hard to miss in a bright red cap reading "COMBAT," but miss him I did as I was assembling my shooting station, until, that is, I sat down and readied my SKS to fire. I looked left and saw this: 

Okay, I lie: The front and rear sighting system shown here was missing, replaced with a monster scope.

And just as I looked, the guy behind the rifle fired.WOOOM! The concussion alone would have turned my head.

"What are you shooting?" I asked. "I've never seen anything like it." He had my full attention. Hey, when's the last time you saw anything that looked like this?

The guy looked over and smiled. "It's a Tubb 2000K," he said. He pushed back from his rifle and stood, then walked over to my table. "Have you heard of David Tubb?"

The name swirled the clouds in my brain but I couldn't stir them into any semblance of solid memory. David Tubb? Where had I heard that name? "I'm not sure," I said. "Refresh me."

"David Tubb is the most accurate shooter in the world," he said, " a shooting legend." He's also a top gun designer. This is the revolutionary rifle he designed and shoots."

Still stunned stupid, I said, "That is David Tubb's rifle? You bought it from him?"

"Well, I bought it from his company," he said. "But I bought it new. He makes these rifles and sells them."

I'd never heard of a Tubb 2000K.

A long discussion about the rifle and its capabilities ensued. I had lots of questions, and he had answers. I was blown away by what he told me. And more impressed when he showed me his target. He'd fired five shots through the same hole at two hundred yards. But that's nothing for this rifle: It can do the same thing at a thousand yards.

I probably spent more time talking with my new friend than I did shooting yesterday. And when I got home, I Googled David Tubb and his rifle.

Wow! David Tubb has won (to date) a record eleven NRA National High Power Rifle Championship titles at Camp Perry, Ohio. That's four more than next best. In addition, David is an NRA Silhouette Rifle legend, having won nearly 30 open, individual national championship titles in all four rifle categories. He's also won seven Sportsmen's Team Challenge championships along with six NRA Long Range Rifle (600-1000 yd.) national championships.
Trophies aside, though, David's biggest contribution to shooting is his innovative mind. David has always been a trend setter and model of potentials. Over many seasons, David wins this year with what the rest of us will be using the next year. It's this leading edge type of advancement that led to the products you'll find listed on his web site.

What's so special, other than the weird looks and green paint job? Here's how Tubb describes the Tubb 2000 action.
"The action is machined from 17-4 stainless steel to true benchrest quality standards. The design features a solid top with a loading port. This increases action stability, stiffness, and strength. The loading port is easily accessible and is angled to aid the shooter in single loading rounds. The TUBB 2000 is fed via 10- or 20-round box magazines.

"Low effort bolt operation was a key goal in the design of the TUBB 2000 action. The exclusive bi-camming design employs two cams that engage during bolt lift to radically reduce bolt lift effort. Bolt lift is 75 degrees. The cone-faced bolt has two locking lugs which are narrower and taller than on conventional actions. This design allows the magazine to be mounted higher in the action for smoother, more positive feeding.
The bolt handle is designed for superior performance in sustained fire operation. Its ergonomic shape allows operation with a single finger, if desired.

"The bolt is machined from 8620 carbon steel and rides back into the butt extension, under the shooter's face so the bolt can be operated without the shooter having to change his head position. This low center of gravity also improves the rifle's feel and performance under recoil. TUBB 2000 is also equipped with a patented adjustable elastomer recoil reducer.

"The action features a full-length picatinny rail that will accept Weaver®-style mounts. The action's adjustable sight mounting system allows the rail to be mounted at one of three pre-set mounting angles -- 0, 5, and 10 degrees -- to allow the shooter to level the sights to fit his shooting style. A custom base is available to mount match iron sights. All barrels have a small section at the muzzle turned down to accept a clamping-style front sight mount or cant indicator.

"Lock time in the TUBB 2000 is one millisecond -- more than three times faster than a Model 70 Winchester."

And did I mention that the gun comes with interchangeable barrels? Yup, you can switch calibers and be back on the shooting line in minutes.

Rifle accuracy is determined by the caliber, the action, the barrel, the trigger, the optics and the shooter. The Tubb 2000 has specially-contoured, hand-lapped stainless steel barrels, an adjustable two-stage trigger and a fully modular setup.

If your perp or protag is a top-notch shooter, this is the rifle he wants. 

Impressive? Yes. But you won't get a rifle like this on the cheap. The basic rifle and a barrel or two will set you back over four thousand dollars. My new friend put me onto one for sale. A friend of his lost his job. He'd bought a black Tubb 2000 and twelve thousand dollars of add-ons, extra barrels, special ammo, barrel weights, a bi-pod, all the sweet stuff. I could get it for substantially less.

Yeah, right. When I win the lottery...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Nathan Bransford and the Frabjous Forums

By Beth Terrell

I debated with myself before posting this tonight.

"Self," I said, "I think I will write a blog post about Nathan Bransford's nifty new website, which is virtually brimming with information and advice for aspiring writers."

"Are you crazy?" myself replied. "Everyone already knows about Nathan Bransford's informative and exceedingly popular website. Heck, half the aspiring writers in the world have queried him, half are planning to query him someday, and half (I'm a writer, Jim, not a mathematician!) are trying to figure out how to write a query composed entirely of rhetorical questions."

Nathan is not a fan of queries that open with rhetorical questions, so naturally, there is at least a small contingent of writers who think they will be able to write their rhetorical question queries with such sparkling wit and brilliance that Nathan will immediately forget his aversion, commend them on having the initiative to do something so daring, and sign them up on the spot. Do not, I repeat, do not do this.

But I said this was a debate, didn't I? So, back to it.

"Self," I retorted, "It may be true that everyone knows Nathan has a wonderful and informative site, but do they also know that he has a nifty new web design, complete with interactive forums? Do they know they can find information about writing, queries, approaching agents, and a host of other topics related to getting (and staying) published? Do they know he has links to other agent sites, that he occasionally has contests, and that sometimes the prize is a query critique or an offer to read a few of the winner's pages? Do they know that they can ask a question on the Ask Nathan forum thread and the great man himself will answer it? The answer is no, I don't think they do."

I stymied myself with that very reasonable argument, so I went to his site and jotted down this (very incomplete) list of topics I found there. (Some are from the forums, and others are blog posts.):

New Blog Series: Interview with an Agent
The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent
Help with Query Letter Submission Guidelines
Genre Writing
Literary YA
Switching POVs
Can Authors Balance Publicity and Privacy in the Internet Era?
The Batch Querying Theory
It's a Great Time to Be a Writer

He also does a weekly "This Week in Publishing" post, in which he discusses the week's developments in the publishing industry, complete with links.

If you're a writer, or if you have any interest in the business side of publishing, this is a site you should bookmark and come back to again and again. It's:

Happy writing!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Best Buy -- Really?

By Mark W. Danielson

This week I’ll defer my murderous plots to make a public service announcement. Recently, my daughter has suffered a series of unfortunate events. Replacing her car’s catalytic converter was followed by a hit and run and a flash flood that ruined her engine. Then her computer broke, and since the Bank of Dad can’t cover everything, she agreed to buy a replacement while earning personal credit. If only it was that easy. Best Buy may have competitive prices, but obtaining credit is so astounding, it’s worth sharing the story.

My daughter lives in Florida and I’m in Colorado. Normally, it’s not a problem, but for obtaining Best Buy credit, it’s huge. They denied her personal application because she has never had a credit card, so I volunteered to co-sign. The Florida store rep told me to go to Best and fill out the joint application on line. The problem is, there is no on-line joint form; only one for individual applicants. Clicking on the help box linked me to a person who couldn’t help, but passed me on. Fifteen minutes later, I was speaking with a seemingly knowledgeable person who said I needed to go to a Best Buy while my daughter was at her Best Buy, she would fill out her portion of the joint form, they would fax it to my store, I would fill out my portion, and after a Best Buy rep verified my information, they would fax it back to the Florida store who would then fax it to the bank. We expected to be approved in five to fifteen minutes, but that was hardly the case.

It seems unlikely that a store that sells electronics would not have compatible fax machines, but that’s what happened. Following numerous failed attempts, we gave up, my daughter going to work; I home. Upon arrival, I immediately called the Florida store, the computer answered, but no one ever came on the line. A second try was the same, but the third time a live person came on. After they confirmed receipt of my practice fax, I sent my joint application. My daughter later returned to the store, filled out her portion, and we were once again denied because we were not in the store together, insisting their policy is we must be in the same store to verify the information. Never mind that our information had been verified by Best Buy reps in our respective stores. Talking to a supervisor didn’t change much, even though her caller ID matched everything on the application. Since I wasn’t calling from a Best Buy store, she couldn’t approve it. She finally told me that “as a courtesy” she would approve my application if I was to go back to the store and call her from there. I was too burned out at that point. She said she would make notations to keep the application open and I ended the call, then I called my daughter telling her to go home. So far, she had been in and out her store four times, and I have wasted a day and a half.

The next morning I returned to Best Buy, confident that this could be resolved. After spending 45 minutes on the phone with three different people, our application was again denied, reciting the policy that both people must be in the same store, so in spite of what the rep told me the night before, I wasted another morning, and over six hours on the phone. Ultimately, the Bank of Dad fronted another loan and she got her computer, but that one proved defective. They gave her another one, but she returned it after finding a more reliable store on campus. After all of our troubles, Best Buy had the nerve to charge her a $70.00 “restocking fee” on a computer that cost $579.00 I should add that my other daughter underwent similar problems with her new Best Buy computer.

So, will I be returning to Best Buy anytime soon? I think not. In fact, I doubt I’ll ever go back. Is the credit issue related to the economy? Perhaps, but my co-signing would certainly cover that. Are these computers breaking because they are made in China now instead of Malaysia? Perhaps. Is Best Buy really your best buy? You be the judge. The bottom line is all stores and computers are not created equal. Explore your options before making any major purchase, and if your kids live in a different state, good luck dealing with issues over the phone.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Time Factor

By Chester Campbell

Time is money, time is ripe, time flies, time hangs heavy—our lexicon is filled with references to time. How does time figure in the writing of a mystery novel, other than the obvious fact that it takes a long time to write one?

Some family sagas cover several generations over many years. A tightly-plotted thriller make take place in one day, or a matter of hours. The important thing about time is to use it wisely. Let the story take place over whatever period of time is necessary, but don’t stretch it out just to fill pages.

It is also important to use time realistically. I just finished reading The Da Vinci Code. I had seen comments over the years about how the time frame didn’t add up. I didn’t go back and try to tally how many hours the story covered, but the characters did a lot of moving all around Paris and environs in a matter of hours, then flew to England, toured various parts of London, then drove to Scotland. I don’t recall them doing any sleeping and little if any eating during all that time.

The nonstop action is what made the book such a hit (plus all the religious controversy), but the use of time was a bit bewildering. I usually jot down a chronological list of what happens from day to day so I can keep the time line in order. Dan Brown must have worked with a spring-wound clock that was winding down.

The calendar is essentially a timing device, filled with 24-hour blocks. Another time factor that can have an important effect on your book is the season. My Greg McKenzie mysteries take place roughly four months apart, so each occurs in a different season. Number 5 is back to winter. This changing of the seasons provides an opportunity to picture the scene differently in each story.

My new book, as yet unfinished, takes place around Christmas with nippy winds and freezing temperatures. The previous story was set during the steamy days of August. Quite a contrast in describing the scene.

Whether you’re dealing with the clock or the calendar, time can have a major impact on your story. As with all the other elements of writing a mystery, the major caution is to keep it realistic. Don’t try to cram too much into one day or stretch it out like a long siesta on the beach beneath a broiling sun. You’ll get burned with either choice.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Apple Pies Are A Nice Touch

By Pat Browning

Distributing the New Testament in more than 400 languages is a Texas project of the Baptist General Convention. Some church members are going door to door, delivering the Scriptures along with freshly baked apple pies.

That’s according to an AP story by Linda Stewart Ball. Read all about it at:

As the world huffs and puffs over the Amazon/Macmillan/Apple iPad kerfluffle, Amazon calmly goes about its business of being The Big Cheese. Nick Bilton of the New York Times reports that Amazon has acquired Touchco, a start-up specializing in touch-screen technology. It’s said that Touchco screens can tell the difference between the touch of a finger and the pressure of a pen.

Watch for a super Kindle down the road apiece. Read the story at:

Already beating iPad to the draw is Joojoo, ready to launch late this month. Quoting from The Tech Chronicles at

“CEO… (Chandrasekar) Rathakrishnan said JooJoo will carve out its own audience with its bigger 12-inch screen, Flash support and full web experience. … ‘There's no question, Apple will take a good chunk of market share but the market is big enough for a number of players.’”

Read about Joojoo at:

Last, but far from least, the much maligned print-on-demand technology has finally come into its own, in books and now in magazines. Print your own magazine – niche publishing for specific groups. According to the PBS web site, “Media Shift tracks how new media – from weblogs to podcasts to citizen journalism – are changing society and culture.”

Read the details of publishing your POD magazine at:

In the world of technology, every day is Christmas. Who knows what the next goody will be?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Jean Henry Mead

To those who follow and love Jean Henry Mead, she is currently ill and unable to make posts. She has been a tremendous contributor to Murderous Musings, and we hope to see her back when she is well. Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers, and visit her web sites. Thank you for your understanding and consideration. Sincerely, Mark, Ben, Beth, Pat, and Chester.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Damaged Goods

By Mark W. Danielson

Clearly, the dog in the above photo has issues. If this vet was to shine his light through the dog’s ear, the beam would probably hit the wall, too. Unfortunately, “damaged” animals like this one are often tossed aside, and even though they are otherwise healthy, their impaired condition makes adoptions difficult. Only the lucky few will find homes.

Recently, a “special needs” woman received an award for adopting “special needs” cats. Bear in mind that this woman has severe cerebral palsy, and though her body will no longer cooperate, her mind still functions well. Recognizing that she and these cats share a physical connection, she has chosen to take the cats that no one else wants As a result, five of these special cats will get to live out their lives in the secure environment with the assistance of caretakers.
My daughter also took in a “damaged goods” animal. (photo above) It seemed no one wanted the cross-eyed lab mix, but she has been a superb companion. She was named Minnie after the mouse, not her size. Minnie’s imperfection has never bothered her or my daughter, though. She can pin my little pooch whenever they play out back, and has no problem with depth perception. There is no question that my daughter and Minnie have both benefited from their partnership.

My neighbor’s yellow lab puppy was “perfect” when they got her, but then she was bit in the eye while exploring grandma’s barn where her large black lab was eating. When the puppy came too close, the lab snapped at her. It was a hard lesson because the puppy lost vision in that eye, but she is fine and still has a good home. It is remarkable how she thinks nothing of this disability. Her brain compensates and she has no problems jumping in and out of a Suburban.

Another neighbor adopted a young cattle dog that no one wanted, even though she has no physical flaws. Gracie spent many months in a couple of shelters until she was picked up by an adoption agency who ultimately found her a home. This beautiful dog has made a perfect companion for my neighbor. I have no idea why she was so hard to adopt, but at only two years old, she has a full life ahead of her.

There are countless stories about animals that have recovered from accidents or were born with birth defects. Three-legged or one-eyed animals are not uncommon. These creatures are inspiring because they adapt so well. They don’t stress over the bad things that happened. Instead, they look forward to each day with bounding enthusiasm and unconditional love. Since these animals can’t speak for themselves, I figured I’d put in a plug for them. They make great additions to your house while inspiring characters for your stories.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Return of a Childhood Dream

What we did as kids no doubt set the stage for what we’d do as adults. In my case it was to dream adventures that would lead me to write equally hair-raising stories many years down the line. And some of the dreams actually took place.

I was fascinated by airplanes at an early age. I glued many a strip of balsa pinned onto the plans for a World War I Fokker or SPAD or Sopwith Camel. Johnny Green, the boy next door who was a year older, lived in a bulky three-story frame owned by his grandparents. It had a small one-room house in back that must have been for servants originally. We played there flying our imaginary aircraft. Once we scrounged up a world map and plotted a global flight.

Johnny and I were thrilled no end at the news of Wrong Way Corrigan’s small plane flight from New York to Ireland in the summer of 1938. My interest was piqued further by my father's habit of driving out to Berry Field, the Nashville airport, on Sunday afternoons to watch the airplanes take off and land. When I was 12, he bought tickets and took my brother and me up for a ride in an Ogden Tri-Motor.

Johnny's uncle further whetted our appetite for flying. A member of the National Guard’s 105th Observation Squadron, he took us to the airport and let us climb in one of their O-47s. It was a squat, single-engine airplane that sat low on the ramp. It had a long greenhouse type canopy. I used one of them in the plot of The Marathon Murders.

The memory is a little hazy after 70 years, but it was probably the following summer when I was 14 that Johnny Green and I began saving our pennies and nickels and dimes with a plan in mind. On trips to the airport with our parents, we had seen a sleek WACO biplane with a snazzy radial engine and streamlined fenders over the wheels, piloted by a smiling young man with a windblown look. He sold 30-minute joy rides for something like five dollars.

We lived in East Nashville, a genteel middle class area a few miles from the Cumberland River and downtown. We had pedaled our bikes all over the area and knew our way around. Sneaking a map from one of the cars, we plotted our route to the airport, which was about 10 miles away. Using our normal excuse, he told his mother he was going somewhere with me, and I told my grandmother, who kept us while my mother worked, that I was going somewhere with Johnny.

With our $2.50 each in our pockets and small brown bags of peanut butter and crackers, plus a couple of candy bars, we embarked on our journey. Rather than head south toward town, we rode north to the Inglewood suburb where a ferry took us across the river. From there, all we had to do was follow McGavock Pike to the airport.

We had picked a bright, sunny day and encountered no problems along the way. The trip took a couple of hours. After resting up a bit while we ate our goodies, we headed over to the fence area where the pilot hung out. We showed him our cash and said we were ready to ride. I think he would have preferred $5 each, but the plane was a two-seater, and we would only occupy one seat together, so he led us out to the plane.

We hadn’t left the ground, but we were flying high. He boosted us into the open cockpit and strapped us down. A little prop cranking to start the engine, and we were off into the wild blue yonder. It was the most exhilarating feeling you can imagine. He did some steep turns so we could see the landscape below. I think he looped it, but I wouldn’t swear to that. This was around 1939 and there was no FAA to bother with.

The 30 minutes was over all too soon. With that thrilling experience to chatter about, we didn’t start worrying until we got close to home. “Where have you been?” was the first thing we heard. We admitted to crossing the river and peddling around McGavock Pike, but nothing about the airport. Things were pretty tense for awhile.

Johnny moved away by the time I got to high school, but we kept in touch. Both of us went into the Army Air Forces after graduation. Not long before World War II ended, I wound up at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, now known as Lackland Air Force Base. It was split off from Kelly Field, one of the oldest U.S. air bases. One of my mother’s sisters lived in San Antonio, and her husband was a mechanic at Kelly Field. In a visit there as a boy, I toured the shops at Kelly and saw where they repaired the aircraft. I’ll never forget going into the paint shop, where they applied dope to the fabric covering of the planes. The smell penetrated everything. It was like sitting in a pool of mashed bananas.

Though long retired from the Air Force Reserve, I still love airplanes. My Greg McKenzie character is retired Air Force and his wife, Jill, flies her own Cessna. For me, the whole flying business got a hefty boost that summer day at Berry Field back in 1939.

Monday, February 1, 2010


by Ben Small

So many mystery/thriller writers turn to high powered rifles to wreak their havoc, but there's a downside to such power. Noise, for one thing. Fire a high powered rifle without ear protection, and you won't be hearing much of anything for a while. Meanwhile, everyone within a mile will hear the shot. Not only that, but the bullet will likely pass through the victim and make forensic identification a bit more easy. Just follow the track, find the spent round, and depending on where it landed, the bullet may be in good enough shape for the lab to identify. Then just find the gun, and most times you've found your shooter.

Isn't there a better alternative?

Yes, there is. The Ruger 10/22, a .22 lr rifle available in about any sort of configuration one can imagine. This is the most popular rifle in America, folks; many of you learned to shoot with one. You probably have one in your house or past somewhere.

Ruger 10/22s are about as diverse as the people who sell them. You can buy a starter version, with a shortened stock, for your young'ins, and you can adapt this rifle as your child grows, changing stocks, rebedding the stock, accurizing, adding scopes, lasers, handgrips, whatever suits his or her fancy.

Let me show you some more pictures of Ruger 10/22s. While they definitely look different one from another, they're essentially the same gun, just personalized or adapted to one's desires or needs.



None of the rifles pictured belong to me, but I have friends who have one of each. My Ruger 10/22 has a stainless bull barrel, perfect for target shooting, and it wears a Nikon 3X9 scope. It was already shooting one-half inch groups of five shots at fifty yards, and on a non-windy day, inch-wide groups at a hundred yards. Accurate, yes. And a good friend took my gun, replaced the trigger and changed some springs, and made it even more accurate. I can now shoot one ragged hole at fifty yards.

Surely, that's good enough to bump somebody off.
And there are other benefits to using the 10/22. It's quiet. The noise level is just above that of a pellet gun. Add a compensator or shoot sub-sonic rounds, and it's quieter still. You could shoot someone in your front yard while a pool party was going on in back, and no one -- except the victim and the shooter -- would be the wiser. Use soft lead bullets or hollow point rounds, and the forensics team won't have much to work with, assuming they cannot find the shell. Because a .22lr shot into a victim's head will rattle around inside the brain pan, destroying tissue, and not exit, resulting in bullet pieces or chunks which will be unidentifiable. 

Win/win. No noise, no forensics, assuming you picked up your spent shell.

.22lr ammo is cheap and common. That's why the round is the most bought and why the Ruger 10/22 is the most popular rifle in America. You can find the ammo and the gun anywhere: at Wal-Mart, any gun store, even online, although you'll need an FFL to transfer the rifle. No big deal.

These rifles are easy to use and easy to maintain. And as I indicated, they're among the most accurate around. Sure, you can buy rifles just as accurate which shoot more powerful rounds, but those rounds will be more traceable from the sales point and in the ballistics lab, plus the equipment to accurize these more powerful rifles will mean expensive add-ons which themselves may be traced. 

Just how many people regularly shoot a .338 Lapua? Heck, the ammo alone costs about three bucks a round. You can buy a brick of .22lr ammo (500 shots) for about twenty bucks. And the accurizing add-ons are cheap and readily available just about anywhere.

It's no secret that the mob prefers the .22lr for its assassinations. Quiet, effective and no (or little) forensics lab exposure.

So why don't more mystery writers use the Ruger 10/22 for a murder gun?

My guess -- they're going for the bang factor, the thrill of using a high power weapon to bump off their victims. The Wow! aspect.


Remember the oft-repeated rule of life: Keep it simple. 

The Ruger 10/22 proves the rule.