Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Bullet and the Shell

By Mark W. Danielson

I recently read a mass-market paperback by a name-brand author who has eight other books out. It was an easy read until a glaring error shot out my eye. Though blinded, I couldn’t block this slip from my mind. I was tortured, like fingernails dragging across a blackboard. This blunder was so large that a baseball field tarp couldn’t cover it; so blatant, it sidetracked me from the story. A bungle important enough, I had to post a blog on it.

So, what is it that has my feathers ruffled? It’s a scene where the protagonist is staring down a shotgun barrel, the cold steel aimed at his head with no chance of escape. The author has made several references to this shotgun; then someone moves, the gun fires, and the bullet hits. Yes, I said bullet! How can a publisher allow such a mistake? If you’re going to write about guns, then know the difference between a shotgun and a rifle; a bullet and a shell.

Tactical shotguns are used for close-in combat because you don’t have to be terribly accurate to hit your target. Sport shotguns are ideal for bird hunting because they send up a swath of BBs called “shot” that increases the odds of hitting something. Shotgun barrels are smooth on the inside, and have large diameters to feed shells full of round shot. A wad keeps the shot in place until it exits the barrel where the barrel’s “choke” or shape, spreads the shot at a predetermined rate. The farther from the barrel, the more dispersed the shot. For deer hunting, a “slug” replaces the bird shot. Deer slugs and bird shot both have limited range.

Rifles are normally used for long distance; pistols for close-in shots. Both weapons use bullets and have barrel “rifling” on the inside, which makes a bullet spin. The moment a rifle or pistol is fired, its bullet bursts from its casing and starts spinning. This spinning maintains the bullet’s trajectory until it either hits its mark, or gravity and the atmosphere end its flight. Whether it’s a sixteen inch battleship gun or a .22 pistol, the principle is the same.

Ben Small has provided excellent information on guns in his blog posts, and I’ve previously written about the importance of getting the details right. Whenever glaring errors like this occur, the author loses instant credibility. To avoid situations like this, take the time to research areas you are not completely familiar with. Even if only one percent of the readers catch an error, that’s one percent too many.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Writing: Fun, but Frustrating

By Chester Campbell

I've always contended that I don't consider writing books difficult since I enjoy doing it so much. I still go along with that premise, but I'll have to admit that the fifth Greg McKenzie mystery, which I just finished, turned out out to be, well, frustrating.

Being a seat-of-the-pants plotter, I write in a linear fashion. I start with the opening scene and move forward. I tell the story as it unfolds in the characters actions and in my own mind. Writing in this fashion results sometimes in the story getting finished before I'm ready for it to end. I discovered I was woefully short of enough words when it happened this time.

Over the years I have developed a rather terse style, partly as a result of reading Robert B. Parker. It helps speed up the pace. However, it sometimes leads to short conversations. Of course, that's also a reflection of my own conversational style. On the phone, I tend to give the facts as simply as possible and hang up. I'm not good at social chatting. I went back over my PI's interviews and worked to make them a bit more voluble, while sticking to the point of the dialogue.

Then I started looking for places to beef up the plot with new characters and new threads. I found a place for some good misdirection and another for planting a clue. I worked over descriptive passages in an attempt to make them more colorful and polished the red herrings until they sparkled like the pearls in an oyster.

I thought about just asking the publisher to do like some people claimed Parker's publisher did with some of his shorter mysteries. They said the books used larger type and wider margins to make a novelette look like a novel. But, with the revision finished, I had enough words and turned in the manuscript.

I suppose the smart thing to do if I run into such a situation again would be to step back and rethink the plot. Add a new subplot that would give an opportunity to further develop the characters and add new intrigue to the crime under investigation.

I'll keep that in mind as I start work on my second Sid Chance mystery. That one's still in the gestation stage. But it'll be fun to write, I'm sure.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hoosier Memories

by Ben Small

This is Indiana's Southport High School gym a week ago, during the Semistate Class 4A Boys Basketball Championship, one week ahead of the State Finals in Canseco Fieldhouse.

Yes, a high school basketball gymnasium.Indiana has many like this one.

Basketball is king in Indiana, nothing else compares to it. Kids go through basketball shoes as if they were made of cotton, and nothing, not even a fuel shortage during a blizzard, like occurred in 1977 and 1978 -- scientists were warning of long-term global freezing and the possibility of new glaciers -- sufficient to close the schools, blocked the playing of the game. Games were played throughout the state, despite lack of heat and with most roads closed. Those who couldn't make the games, passed their tickets to those who could, and instead listened to the games on radio or watched them on television. Yes, television, for high school basketball games.

I grew up in Indianapolis to a rich basketball heritage. As a kid, every waking moment out of school, I spent on a basketball playground, or on weekends in the Indianapolis Athletic Club, a downtown club my father belonged to. He'd drop me off on the way to work and pick me up late in the afternoon.

On the playground, we would play pretend scenarios, adopt fake personas, our favorite high school or college player, of course. "Okay, I'm Oscar," I'd say, as I signaled I was gonna drive to the bucket or take a jump shot. "Ten, nine, eight, seven," and I'd start to make my move. "I'm Bailey," a teammate would yell, informing everybody else he was going for the rebound. "Yeah, but I'm Tech," a defender would yell, referring to the largest high school in the state, the hated Tech, which was short for Arsenal Technical High School, an inner-city, blue-collar high school which focused more on manual skills rather than college-prep.

Tech was always a tough out in the state high school basketball championships, the dream game of every Indiana boy.

So we'd play, and as kids were unaware of the irony of our roles. See, Oscar Robertson and his brother Bailey played for Crispus Attucks, the only designated "Colored School" in the state during the '50s. Attucks played those games it could schedule on somebody else's floor. Whites wouldn't attend games at Attucks, so one only scheduled Attucks, if at all, on one's own court. And that was rare: Attucks had the Robertson brothers, the best basketball players nobody'd ever seen, and Ray Crowe, a brilliant tactician, who was believed to be a black fire-breathing dragon. One didn't schedule Crispus Attucks unless one wanted to lose.

As kids, we didn't care about all that racial stuff. We wanted to be Oscar and Bailey because they were the best. Color of skin never entered into the equation.

And then Oscar broke our heart, went to Cincinnati instead of Indiana, and he won the national collegiate championship. Then to the NBA, where he won a championship, too. And in playing pro ball, Oscar did something nobody else had ever done, hasn't done since either: He averaged a triple double for an entire professional season. That's double figures in points, rebounds and assists in one game.

Oscar became The Big O, until Michael Jordan, the unquestionable best ever. His brother Bailey? Some argued Bailey was the better basketball player, but that argument can never win. Bailey injured himself before college and never played again. Ah, the quirks of fate... 

I play basketball to this day, albeit in the pool. And often, as I get ready for a jump shot against my wife, I yell, "I'm Oscar. Three, two, one...."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Week That Was

By Pat Browning

The last time I saw Buzz Aldrin he was walking on the moon. No kidding. And there he was again Monday night, stiff-arming his way through the cha-cha on “Dancing With The Stars.” Walked on the moon, danced through the stars. What will he think of next?

Before he took to the dance floor, Aldrin was cheered on by a videotape from fellow astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Expedition 23 flight engineer T.J. Creamer did a weightless back flip and said, "Buzz, we know you're an original moonwalker but can you still do this move?"

I watched Aldrin’s moonwalk on TV in that long ago summer of 1969. On July 20 I was in Copenhagen with a tour group. The hotel management put a TV screen up on a wall for our group and we watched the telecast in French, from Belgium. Our Belgian bus driver translated, but there was no need. That was truly a time when a picture was worth a thousand words. An estimated 600 million people watched Aldrin do a kind of “kangaroo hop” on the moon.

On the moon. Imagine that! Youth, vigor, the right stuff. Suddenly Americans were the world’s darlings. When we went on to Oslo, little tow-headed, blue-eyed boys on bicycles followed our bus into town, holding out pen and paper for our autographs as we climbed down the bus steps.

Back in the U.S. another big news story was unfolding. When our tour group reached Paris, the astronauts were buried in newspaper back pages and front pages blared a Kennedy headline. On July 18, Ted Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island and a young woman was dead.

She was Mary Jo Kopechne, and Ted was driving her home after a reunion of the “boilerplate girls” who had worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign the year before. The full story may never be known. Ted apparently panicked and swam away, leaving Mary Jo either to suffocate or drown.

It seemed that tragedy would dog the four handsome Kennedy brothers forever.

Missing from the Life photo is the eldest brother, Joe Jr., a Navy bomber pilot who was killed during World War II. After flying 25 missions he signed up for an experimental program and died when his plane, loaded with explosives for an attack on a German V-2 rocket site, exploded shortly after takeoff.
John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Two days later, with TV cameras rolling, his accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 in Los Angeles after winning California’s Democratic presidential primary. His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, is doing life in a Central California prison.

This appalling history may have weighed on the Court when Ted Kennedy entered a plea of guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident after causing injury. With the prosecution’s agreement, the judge sentenced Kennedy to two months' incarceration, the statutory minimum for the offense, which he suspended. He spoke of Kennedy's "unblemished record" and said that he "has already been, and will continue to be punished far beyond anything this court can impose.”

Ted Kennedy acknowledged that shortly before his death. "That night on Chappaquiddick Island ended in a horrible tragedy that haunts me every day of my life," Kennedy wrote in "True Compass," his much anticipated memoir, published by Twelve." (quote from NYDaily News)

Haunted by scandal and an unraveled marriage, he settled down to work as a U.S. Senator and became known as “the lion of the Senate.” His great cause was health care reform but he didn’t live to see it.

Forty-one years after his moonwalk, Buzz Aldrin is on TV again, and 28 million people watch him do the cha-cha. Tuesday’s online Washington Post runs a photo of Ted Kennedy’s grave at Arlington, with a handwritten note from his son Patrick about passage of the health care bill.

It is the stuff of novels. It is a great What-If for a mystery writer. But not now. Too soon. Memory is too fresh. Give it another 40 years. By then it really will be ancient history.
1)Buzz Aldrin and Ashly Costa, Dancing With The Stars, from
2)Aldrin salutes the flag on the moon, Apollo 11 Image Gallery at
All photographs on this website are courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, specifically the NASA History Office and the NASA JSC Media Services Center.
3)The Dike Bridge, Chappaquiddick Island; 2008 photo with added guardrails, from Wikipedia.
4)Ted Kennedy’s 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 being pulled from the tidal channel on Chappaquiddick Island, July 19, 1969; photo from New York Daily News, September 3, 2009.
5)Cover photo from The Kennedys: End of a Dynasty, Life Books, by the editors of Life magazine, October 2009.

Friday, March 26, 2010

J. A. Jance

by Jean Henry Mead

Bestselling novelist J.A. Jance has two recently released novels, Fire and Ice from HarperCollins and Trial by Fire by Simon and Schuster. She's pictured with her dogs, Aggie and Daph, named for Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier.

Judy, when did you first know you wanted to become a mystery writer?

I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was in second grade. I didn't specifically want to be a "mystery writer" but because I always read mysteries it was a natural fit.

Tell us about Fire and Ice and Trial by Fire.

Fire and Ice is the second pairing of my two detectives, Joanna Brady in Arizona and J. P. Beaumont in Seattle. They are working seemingly separate cases but, by the end of the book, they find the two are definitely connected. Beau's parts of the story are told in his first person voice. Joanna's parts are told in the third person.

Trial by Fire, Ali number 5, has her working as a newly appointed Media Relations Officer for the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department. When eco-terrorists burn down a supposedly unoccupied house, Ali is part of the investigation that first must identify the victim before locating the killer.

How did your J.P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady and Ali Reynolds series come into being?

Until Proven Guilty, the first Beaumont book was published in 1985. When I wrote it, I thought I was writing a one-time book. I was new to Seattle, but the character was a Seattle native. I had to do a lot of research to make that work, and writing in from a male first person point of view was challenging. After writing nine Beaumonts in a row, I was growing tired of the character.

My editor suggested I come up with some other character so I could alternate. When I wrote the first Joanna Brady, Desert Heat, I knew I was writing a series but I used my experiences of being a single parent, of living in the Arizona desert, and of working in a non-traditional job to create her character. Ali Reynolds grew out of seeing a longtime Tucson female newscaster pushed out of her job due to age factors.

What in your background prepared you to write grisly crime and horror novels?

I have the dubious honor of having spent sixty days of my life in the early seventies being stalked by a serial killer, someone who is still in prison as I write this. During that time I wore a loaded weapon, and I was fully prepared to use it. I used some of what I learned from that investigation to create the background for Hour of the Hunter, Kiss of the Bees, and Day of the Dead.

Where do you do your best writing, in Seattle or Tucson, and why?

I write in both places. It remains to be seen which writing is best. And I don't have to BE in Arizona to WRITE about Arizona. It was in trying to turn the landscape around Bisbee into words when I finally realized why with the red shale hills and the limestone cliffs that Bisbee High School's color are red and gray.

Who are your favorite authors and which one most influenced your own writing?

I started out reading Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene. But I read John D. McDonald and Mickey Spillane. Those were the people who showed me it was possible to write a series of books for adults.

What’s your writing schedule like and do you aim for a certain amount of words each day?

Since I'm on a two book a year schedule, I write every day. I don't have a set number of words. I'm also a wife, mother and grandmother. I like having a life.

What are the basic ingredients for a bestselling novel? How long did it take you to reach the list?

I don't know the basic ingredients. I guess I'd say characters and plots. As for when did I make the list? Fifteen or twenty books ago probably, but making the lists is entirely arbitrary and based on decisions that are made far away from the author's effort. I don't think the books I wrote before making "the list" were of any lesser quality than the ones that have.

When did you begin donating a percentage of your bookstore earnings to charities, and which ones?

Very early on. I don't remember exactly. I've been involved with the YWCA, the Humane Society, the Relay for Life, ALS research.

Advice to fledgling writers.

When I bought my first computer--1983--the guy who installed my word processing program fixed it so every time I booted up the computer, these were the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written TODAY! Those were words I clung to when I was a "pre-published" writer and that still resonate with me today. Today I AM a writer. I'm working on Chapter 5 of the next Ali book.

J. A.'s website is She also has a blog there as well as at in the City Brights section.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Sweet Taste of Wine

By Mark W. Danielson

It was the kind of day dreams are made of; sapphire sky, snow-capped mountains, spring flowers, perfect temperature. I don’t visit Ontario, California, often, and when I do, I normally find myself taking walks along its busy avenues. But on this trip, I discovered Guasti Road, which parallels Interstate 10, dividing fields of lifeless vineyards whose vines rival modern art sculptures. Some of these vines defy nature, sprouting new growth from whatever water the sky delivers, despite decades of neglect. Snowy Egrets stroll these mustard-covered fields doing whatever Egrets do. Smaller birds chirp in the distance. Surrounding the area are shark-tooth mountains snapping at the sky. With few cars traveling this route, my walk was tremendously peaceful.

My vantage from the pedestrian bridge crossing Ontario International Airport’s main entry showed several enormous stone warehouses a short distance east. Inside this vast cordoned area of decaying buildings, natural grass, and wildflowers, workers inspected some boarded homes. Around the corner, a rendering of the Historic Guasti District showed how these stone warehouses will be converted into shops and restaurants. Presumably, the boarded wooden homes will also be included in this restoration. With the Ontario Convention Center, two interstate freeways, and the international airport nearby, this redevelopment plan seems ideal, but what’s the history behind this historic area? Further down, an old warehouse sign confirmed this was once the winery, and gave purpose to these lifeless vineyards.

Just east of these giant warehouses lies a mission-style mansion hiding under a small forest’s canopy. I still knew little about this location, but deductive reasoning was pulling this together. Fifty steps further, a sign over the double-wide trailer posing as a US Post Office stated this enclosed area was once the Guasti Vineyard.

Italian immigrant Secundo Guasti originally came to LA as a cook, but after marrying his proprietor’s daughter, purchased 5,000 desert acres 45 miles east of LA for $3,750.00, certain that there was underground water, and that the soil would produce good wine grapes. His hunch paid off, and this vineyard later became California’s largest winery.

Guasti imported entire families from Italy and formed a company town bearing his name. He provided single-family housing for married couples, and boarding rooms for single men. He built a general store where his workers could purchase wares with their chits. A firehouse, school house, post office, and church were also constructed. With his town now a bustling community, he built his mansion in its center to impress visiting dignitaries and board members. But in 1903, the railroad tracks he laid to bring in the crop led to a tragic locomotive derailment, killing thirty two of his laborers. Afterwards, his workers declared the vineyards haunted, and eventually Guasti believed it himself. Many years later, the Haunted Vineyard became a favorite Halloween haunt until 2006 when zoning changes forced its closure.

Following Secundo’s death in 1927, his mansion was sold to Hollywood film director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, but the vineyard continued operations as the Italian Vineyard Company until 1945 when it was acquired by Garrett & Company. In 1956 the Brookside Vineyard Company moved to the Guasti location. Later, the original cooperage building was used by the Joseph Filippi Winery as a tasting room. The Gausti mansion was also a favorite wedding location until it was sold to the development firm of Oliver McMillan in 2006. Unfortunately, McMillan’s ambitious redevelopment plan has yet to break ground.

Admittedly, I didn’t know any of this when I began my walk. On my way back to the hotel, several historical markers piqued my curiosity. The first pointed me toward the Guasti church located a block south, which still holds Mass today. Another stated that in World War II, Italian Prisoners of War were brought to the winery and worked for a weekly jug of wine and some chits to the company store. The next one said the warehouse’s walls were three feet thick and twenty-five feet tall, made from granite hauled from quarries fourteen miles away. As for the haunted vineyards? Well, they weren’t mentioned, and I never saw any ghosts. Then again, the sun was out. When I got back to my room, I spent hours researching Guasti the man, the town, and the vineyards. My walk’s biggest lesson? Had I not been observant, I would have missed out on this important slice of history.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sarin Gas Attack Stirs Memories

By Chester Campbell

In Dr. Doug Lyle's The Writers Forensics Blog last Saturday, he wrote about the terrorist attack in a Tokyo subway on that date (March 20) in 1995 using sarin gas. It was headline news fifteen years ago as the first case of a CBW (chemical and biological warfare) agent being used in a major city.

The blog brought back memories for me of what might have been. I started writing end-of-Cold-War spy thrillers when I retired. I finished the first one in 1990, the second in 1991, and the third in 1992. Book three brought me a contract with a well-known New York agency. It was the last of a trilogy featuring Burke Hill, a former FBI agent who runs an international PR agency that's a CIA front.

In this book, which has the working title Overture to Disaster, Burke doesn't appear until midway through the plot. It starts out in the Ukraine just before the demise of the Soviet Union. A group of KGB officers steal several mortar shells filled with nerve gas from an army unit, killing a young army captain from Minsk.

At about the same time, a USAF special operations mission to extract a defector from Iran goes bad and the helicopter pilot is falsely accused of responsibility. He is court-martialed and discharged.

The story picks up a couple of years later with the murdered captain's brother, a chief investigator with the police in Minsk, the Belarus capital. He uncovers a plot by the ousted KGB officers to organize dissidents in the new Commonwealth of Independent States, a move designed to usher in a new Soviet-type state. Knowing the U.S. is committed to supporting the independence of the former Soviet republics, the plotters plan a diversion to keep the Americans occupied at home.

A team of Shining Path guerillas is trained in Mexico, where the former Air Force helicopter pilot now lives. This is where Burke Hill joins the story. It all winds up on the Fourth of July in Washington, D.C., where the nerve-gas shells make their appearance.

The agency let the manuscript gather dust on the shelf for a couple of years. When it finally went out, a Tor-Forge editor liked the story but said it was dated. What makes it so sad is that if they had found a publisher early on, the book would have come out about the time of the Tokyo subway incident Dr. Lyle wrote about. With that hook, the book could have really taken off.

Maybe (probably) I'm dreaming, but it just goes to show how the luck of timing enters into this peculiar business. I pulled up the the manuscript today (I still have all my old unpublished stories in the computer) and I still think it's a great story. I think I'll do a little revising and try it again.

Maybe my luck will change this time around. And the title? It refers to the 1812 Overture played by the National Symphony on The Mall behind the Capitol at the climax of the Fourth of July celebration. Makes for a rousing finish.

Chester Campbell's Website

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Conversation With Gerrie Ferris Finger, Part 2

By Pat Browning

Yesterday Gerrie Ferris Finger talked about the Malice Domestic Contest and her 2009 winning entry, THE END GAME, to be published April 27. Today, the subject is her romantic suspense series with Desert Breeze Publishing.

Pat: Tell us about your Laura Kate Plantation Series. WHEN SERPENTS DIE is an interesting title. What is its significance?

This book, the series actually, was written before The End Game. I call the series southern gothic romances. There's always death in southern gothics.

When Serpents Die is a novel of passion and greed that leads to the death of Royce Lee. The serpents in the tale are four people that form a romantic quadrangle. Two couples – long time friends – begin to hate each other when Royce steals his best friend's wife, then discards her for his own wife, then goes back to his best friend's wife. Think snakes in a barrel.

Pat: Desert Breeze Publishing ( is a new and interesting publisher currently publishing only e-books, but with an eye on future print editions. Why did you decide to put your Laura Kate books with them?

I had an agent who couldn't sell the Laura Kate series. There was interest, but no buyers. I put the manuscripts in a computer file and went to work on the Moriah Dru series. My agent and I parted company and I immersed myself in writing. I didn't submit any of the manuscripts to agents or publishers.

Then, I read Desert Breeze's call for manuscripts, I believe on DorothyL, the reader/writer/librarian forum that's a must-belong-to if you love books. I submitted to this new romance (no erotica) company and Serpents was accepted. The second in the series, Honored Daughters, came out in October 2009. According to my contract, I owe DB two more Laura Kates. The Desert Breeze people are a dream to work with, and I hope our ebooks will see print one day.

Pat: is promoting its Kindle version of the first two books? Have you downloaded the e-versions and if so, what do think of them?

I have to confess I don't owe a Kindle or any other device onto which my books can be downloaded. In PDF form, they read like a book on a computer screen. (I prefer paper and ink). Desert Breeze does an excellent job with the conversions.

Pat: I read that you were born in St. Louis, Mo., now live in Georgia, and are married to Col Alan Jay Finger, USMC (Ret.) I’ve also read “once a Marine always a Marine.” Are you and your husband involved in any military organizations?

Oh yes. My husband is a Charter Member of the Kings Bay Chapter of MOAA – which is the Military Officers Association of America. We support the commissaries, PXes and golf courses of every military base we live near and visit.

Pat: What brought you from St. Louis to Atlanta?

To work in advertising. After The Atlanta Constitution lifted its hiring freeze I joined the staff. The newspapers weren't combined at that time.

Pat: One last question: Tell us three things about yourself that would surprise your readers.

I don't like heights, but when I first started at the Constitution, I was persuaded to go up in a hot air balloon for a story. We were to land at the Chastain Golf Course, but we got blown off course and barely missed utility wires, landing in the yard of an editorial writer I barely knew, smashing his azaleas and impatiens. That writer and I got to be good friends. Remember that, Dick Williams?

I don't run 10Ks like my heroine, Dru, in The End Game.

I'm not a martial arts expert like my heroine, Laura Kate, in When Serpents Die and Honored Daughters.

Pat: Thank you so much for sharing your life and work with us. Best of luck with THE END GAME, and your LAURA KATE series.

Note: Gerrie Ferris Finger’s Laura Kate series:
WHEN SERPENTS DIE  - Book One in the Laura Kate Plantation Series - April 2009
HONORED DAUGHTERS - Book Two in the Laura KatePlantation Series - October 2009
WAGON DOGS  - Book Three in the Laura Kate Plantation Series - September 2010
Gerrie on the Web:
ABOUT Gerrie Ferris Finger’s colleague Lewis Grizzard. He wrote a syndicated column that appeared in some 450 newspapers and wrote 20 books. He had open-heart surgery in 1993, never quite recovered and died in 1994. The title THE LAST BUS TO ALBUQUERQUE is from Grizzard's reply to his doctor before his heart surgery. The doctor asked if he had any questions, and Grizzard answered: "Just one: When's the next bus to Albuquerque?"

Grizzard’s books are mostly out of print but still available through’s used book service. This title caught my eye: DON’T BEND OVER IN THE GARDEN, GRANNY, YOU KNOW THEM TATERS GOT EYES.

The editorial blurb says: “This time Lewis Grizzard has gone and done it--written a book about sex, as seen through his bespectacled, ironic squint. He tells us why Junior Leaguers don't do it in groups, why Baptists won't do it standing up, and why Richard Nixon never did it, among other things.”

I laugh just reading about it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Conversation With Gerrie Ferris Finger, Part 1

By Pat Browning

Gerrie Ferris Finger is a writer who writes, pointing her pen at anything and everything that interests her and everything required for a job, and she has more than one publisher. That may be unique! Let’s do a quick rundown.

She spent 20 years reporting on everything from soup to nuts at a major newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After the death of colleague and mentor Lewis Grizzard she compiled his newspaper columns into two books, THE LAST BUS TO ALBUQUERQUE and SOUTHERN BY THE GRACE OF GOD. She compiled her own best columns into Q&A ON THE NEWS. In 2000, she wrote a novel, LOOK AWAY FROM EVIL.

Fast forward now. Desert Breeze is publishing four romantic suspense novels in Finger’s Laura Kate Plantation series. The first, WHEN SERPENTS DIE came out in 2009. Finger signed a contract for two romance e-books with Desert Breeze Publishing AND – she won the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Minotaur Best First Traditional Novel Competition. Her entry, THE END GAME, will be out April 27.

Pat: First things first, Gerrie. The editorial review at says: “…The End Game features a strong new heroine in a vivid Southern setting. Gerrie Ferris Finger puts a new spin on the classic mystery novel.” Sounds great! Tell us what the book is about, and where the idea came from.

Before I began The End Game, a sensational case in Atlanta ordained the plot. A preschool child went missing. He'd been in foster care since infancy, passing from foster family to foster family. How could the system lose a child? As far as I know, he was never found. About that same time, Atlanta police began busting massage parlors, finding ten-to-twelve-year-old foreign girls working in the back rooms, giving more than a traditional massage. The two sad cases combined to inspire The End Game.

Pat: I looked up the guidelines for the Malice Domestic Competition. Among other things, they say:
*Murder or another serious crime is at the heart of the story, and emphasis is on the solution rather than the details of the crime.
*Whatever violence is necessarily involved should be neither excessive nor gratuitously detailed, nor is there to be explicit sex.
*The "detective" is an amateur, or, if a professional (private investigator, police officer) is not hardboiled and is as fully developed as the other characters.
*The detective may find him or herself in serious peril, but he or she does not get beaten up to any serious extent.
(end quote)

So squeamish readers won’t have to skip the scary parts?


I'm laughing because skipping the scary parts would be skipping the murder of a human being, a must in most "murder" mysteries. Therefore, I shouldn't be laughing, should I?

My interpretation of the Malice/St. Martin's rules is that violence and sex should not be lurid. The murder should be off book, or if depicted in the pages, no gory details shown. Stab or shoot the guy and move on to solving the crime. If characters in the novel are lovers, the bedroom door should be firmly shut.

The Malice Domestic organization and St. Martin's Minotaur imprint sponsor the Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. Malice Domestic is a mystery writers and readers convention that celebrates the traditional "cozy" genre. Among the venerated writers are Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Malice contest winners receive tea pot trophies, the tea pot being a trademark of the cozy mystery.

Cozy is a misunderstood genre. It's more than quirky old ladies and gentlemen – maybe throw in a precocious child as Christie liked to do – sitting around drinking tea and discussing the bizarre neighbors. It's more than talking cats and recipe mysteries. It can cross over and become part of another genre, say the thriller.

The End Game is not cozy. Let me quote Robin Agnew, of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association, from her recent review: "… it’s (The End Game) hardly a cozy, though it gives a nod to the traditional mystery through the use of an actual locked room murder and some tricky stuff involving train whistles. Dorothy L. Sayers would be proud. But then she wasn’t really a cozy writer, either."

Robin goes on: "Ferris’ ethos …(is) fairly hard boiled, and so is the topic she’s chosen to write about: missing children. Her spare prose and unsentimental writing style get you through some of the hard stuff in the story. Her main character, Moriah Dru, runs an agency called Child Trace, Inc. She’s retired from the police force and often works with her ex-partner, Rick Lake , as she does in this book. Lake is also Dru’s lover, but none of that complicates the story too much. Like a runaway freight train, this novel is all about narrative drive."

The "hard stuff" Robin refers to is the research I did on pedophilia and the callous attitudes in some countries. I don't belabor what I discovered, but some perspective was necessary to the story. I'll say here, there is no overt depiction of child abuse. The girls are gone when the story opens. The point of view is first person so readers know (or should know) there won't be a point of view from the bad guy. It's a chase mystery. Dru and Lake must find the girls before the unknown abductors take them out of the country. There's a murder -- off book, of course -- in the aforementioned locked room.

Pat: I went to your web site and read the excerpt. Loved the voice and conversational style. How much of your book and your style come from your life at the Journal-Constitution? How long did you work on the book before entering it in that famous contest? And why did you decide to enter?


Although I've always been a cut-to-the-chase writer -- wasn't it Elmore Leonard who said to leave out all the parts nobody reads anyway -- my style was honed on news stories. I wrote a lot of travel stories and other features, which allows a little more elaboration, but newspapers give you a "hole" for your story. If your editor says you have twenty inches, you must boil your story down to twenty inches -- and hope editors don't start cutting your story from the bottom.

I worked on The End Game for, gosh, hard to say with all the revisions, maybe four months on the first draft. It's not a long book. It takes place in a twenty-four hour span. The way I work is, after the first draft, I'd get an idea for another book. I'd put the draft aside and draft another story. During this drafting, I'd review older manuscripts, polishing and tinkering. I've never been finished with a manuscript. If I had my published works before me now, I'd fiddle with them.

Pat:  After you won and the contract was signed, how much to-ing and fro-ing took place? Were there lots of editing changes or is the book we’ll be reading basically the same book you submitted? How about the cover? It’s a great cover. Did you have any input or approval? Does it reflect the story’s theme or thrust?


I'm delighted to say you'll be reading the book I wrote. There were no plot or theme changes.

Ruth Cavin is my editor. Last fall, her assistant e-mailed to say my book was queued next for Ruth to edit. I braced myself. Even though Ruth read it for the contest, now she was reading it to take it apart. Editors, in my experience, like to put their imprints on a work, but, to my surprise, Ruth's hand-written changes in the margins were few -- a word changed, a better phrase inserted, a typo corrected.

The copy editor made minor changes, too. I'm easy to get along with when it comes to editors. At the AJC, I got used to major changes in my copy. Pat, have you ever walked into your newsroom and saw the lede to your story completely rewritten? You get used to it, or you head out the door.

About the cover. I was asked what my ideas were. I said I loved trains, which I do. Trains have a prominent role in The End Game, but I pictured a different cover than they presented. The graphic designer saw something in the copy that I didn't and conveyed it on the cover. It's wonderful. I can say that with pride, because I didn't design it.

Pat: One more question before we leave the contest. Do you have any advice, warnings or tips for an author planning to enter the 2011 Malice Domestic contest?


Advice: write from your heart and soul; buff the manuscript to perfection and send it off. You enter the contest in October, and, if you haven't heard by March 31, you haven't won. So, while it goes through the process of elimination, don't sit and wait, work on a sequel or another book.

The process starts with readers who receive manuscripts from all over the country. They choose the best in their estimation and send them to St. Martin's. I don't know how many manuscripts Ruth received, but she told me that she'd winnowed it down to four or five to choose from -- all very good -- but mine was the best. Thank you, Ruth.

Tomorrow: We’ll talk about Gerrie’s series with Desert Breeze Publishing, the Laura Kate Plantation Series.

(Photos from Gerrie’s blog and website)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Casual Sex

By Mark W. Danielson

Sex is a necessity. Without it, mankind wouldn’t exist. Sex also sells, which is why so many novelists include it, but their take on sex may also reflect the social morals of the time. This is equally true for television and screen writers. For example, Dick Van Dyke and his TV wife Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show had single beds and yet they had a child, so either they occasionally shared a bed or their son was the result of an immaculate conception. Regardless, their twin beds worked for this show. Try doing that nowadays and the show’s producer would be laughed off the premises. (Or as Donald Trump would say, “You’re fired.)

Clearly, audiences crave sex. Why else would Sex and the City leap from books onto the small screen and then onto the big screen? But some consequences of our acceptance of casual sex are an increase in teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Another result is an increase in big and small screen shows that feature pregnant teens. Of course, teen pregnancy has always occurred, but movies like Juno seem to have popularized it, or at least made it more acceptable. Currently, many high schools provide child day care, but budget cuts may change that. Then again, most teen parents aren’t raising their kids. Instead, the grandparents end up sharing the burden. Just ask Sarah Palin.

With this in mind, every writer must question their motives for including sexual references in their stories or screen plays. Is it necessary for the plot? If so, how much is too much? Should it be graphic, or is implied sex enough? How much will the scene affect a younger audience? Ultimately, only the authors and/or producers can answer that.

Sex is a multi billion dollar industry and there is no escaping it, but for me, small references are more powerful than graphic description. Writers should tease their audience the same way a bikini clad model teases voyeurs. Allow your readers to fill in the blanks. Give them a fantasy, not a sex manual – unless, of course, you are writing a sex manual.

The best way to evaluate whether something is appropriate is to read it out loud. If it’s not something you’re comfortable reading to an audience or putting on audiotape, then you might want to re-think it.

Sex falls into the same category as humor; not everyone can write it. Editors and reviewers know this and will reject your work if it’s not well done. If this isn’t reason enough for concern, then remember your mom and kids may read it one day. Like casual sex, words linger and can stir regret. Then again, there are certainly times when it's best to sleep on it . . .

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Chase Your Scotch with Cyanide?

By Chester Campbell

In the book I'm currently laboring over, I have an attempted poisoning. I consulted two of Dr. Doug Lyle's books, Murder and Mayhem and Forensics for Dummies, which I keep on the shelf for just such occasions. I needed a quick-acting poison that would mix well with Scotch. I read the possibilities and concluded that cyanide, more specifically potassium cyanide, would provide just the tool I needed.

My next problem was I wanted the toxic ingredient to be discovered quickly. I knew enough about forensics to be aware that toxicological testing takes a good while. You frequently hear the police or the medical examiner saying the toxicology results will be available in a few weeks. Mystery plots don't have that long to wait.

So I queried the good doctor. If you haven't visited his website, The Writer's Medical and Forensics Lab, you've missed a great resource. It used to be you could email him a question and get a detailed answer shortly. Times have changed.

"Unfortunately, since we have far too many lawyers in this country and a legal system that is most often devoid of common sense," Doug says, he now requires your complete identification in a specific format before he can give you an answer. It's all to make sure you're a legitimate mystery writer and not interested in nefarious activities.

I pointed out that my plot makes the bottle highly suspect for being polluted with cyanide and asked if my homicide detective could get it checked by a simple test that wouldn't take too long. His reply:

"How long this would take depends upon the sophistication of his lab. If you are in a major city such as New York or Los Angeles where there are active and well-equipped crime labs this could take a day, particularly if this were a high profile case. On the other hand if you run a smaller jurisdiction he might have to send this to a reference lab, a state lab, or the FBI lab and this can take many weeks to get done. And anywhere in between. What this means is that you can set your story up to get the results in almost any time frame you want."

In my case, the Metro Nashville Police Department doesn't have a toxicology lab, so they would send the bottle to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Forensics Division in a Nashville suburb. My detective has a good friend in the TBI toxicology lab who gets the job done expeditiously.

Dr. Lyle also has a daily blog, The Writer's Forensics Blog, that's full of interesting stuff. A couple of days ago he had an interview with a retired bioethics professor who has written a book titled The Arsenic Century with some intriguing info on the subject. I highly recommend both the blog and his website.

By the way, next time you take a nip of Scotch, you might want to sniff it for a bitter almond smell.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Limp Wristing

by Ben Small

No, this note is not about a casual evening stroll along the walk on Venice Beach, nor is it about San Francisco culture. And it’s not about a punk rock band either, although I understand there’s one with the name “Limp Wrist.”

No, I’m talking about a shooting phenomenon which affects every shooter, which I’ve yet to see affect any protagonist or antagonist using a gun. The term “Limp Wrist,” in its various versions may even be a verb: "I limp wristed my pistol, the best grip I could manage the circumstances."

Limp wristing is the failure to grip your automatic handgun tightly enough, causing the pistol to fail to extract a spent casing from the chamber.

A semi-automatic pistol fired limp wristing will either not fire at all, or if it does fire, it will not cycle for a second shot. In other words, you either have a weapon that will not fire, or you’ve got a jammed gun.

Oops. That can get your character killed.

In order to fire, semi-autos need a stable base. Wasn’t it Sir Issac Newton who decreed, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction?”

Well, Newton was right. If you were to suspend a pistol in the air and pull the trigger by string, the bullet would fly, but so would the gun… in the opposite direction. And the semi-auto would fail to cycle because the resistance it needs to move the slide back and eject and feed has been removed. That means a jam that can only be cleared by removing the magazine and racking the slide.

Limp wristing happens to the strongest people; indeed, it happens to everybody. Often when a character is moving or distracted or panicked, he’s more focused on his target and what he’s doing than on how he’s holding his gun. Maybe the protag or perp is leading a victim, or ducking and dodging. A momentary lapse, and the grip on the pistol loosens.

Many modern semi-auto pistols, such as high end 1911s or the new Springfield XD series, have wrist safeties, which will not permit the pistol to fire if it is being held with less than a firm grip. See the picture on the right. The short but distinct separation at the upper end of the grip under the beaver tail, is the grip safety. This safety arm must be depressed before the gun will fire. Look at the structure. The grip safety is at the top of the grip, meaning the upper part of the shooting hand is what depresses the safety. So a firm grip with the bottom part of the hand is irrelevant, at least relating to operation of the grip safety. With pistols containing this safety, limp wristing will mean a failure to fire.

On semi-autos without a grip safety, as for instance with Glock, HK or Sig Sauer Classic or Sig Pro pistols, a soft grip will fire the pistol but cause it to fail to eject, thereby jamming the gun and preventing a second or follow-on shot until the pistol is cleared.

In many of our books, we see characters shooting under stress. And stress is one of the causes of limp wristing, because stress causes the shooter to focus on something other than a firm pistol grip. It’s not about strength, not a gender factor at all; it’s about distraction. If the character has been wrestling with someone for the gun and the gun goes off, odds are the shot was limp wristed, so the gun will be jammed. And of course, if it was one of those guns with a grip safety, the first shot wouldn’t have fired at all.

In most of these situations, the author will have someone (the perp, the protag, or a third character) grab the pistol and struggle to fire, in a hurry, probably with a bad grip.

When, if ever, are we shown the gun jamming in this scenario? Yet, that’s what would likely happen. And the jam is the more critical of these issues because the pistol must be cleared before it will shoot again. With a wrist safety, the gun didn’t fire, so there’s no jam. A firm grip = Bang.

So, beware the dangers of the limp wrist. Or use a limp wristed shot (or non-shot as the case may be) for a little more drama and realism in your story.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hillerman Country

By Pat Browning

Contest deadlines have come and gone – except for one of the best. The Tony Hillerman contest for best unpublished novel set in the Southwest is open until June 1. No entry fee, and a great prize – publication by St.Martin’s Press and a $10,000 advance. What’s not to like?

Thanks to Tony’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference has been reformatted to a writers weekend and will go on in November. Conference details are at Anne Hillerman’s Word Harvest web site:

Here’s a quick look at rules for the novel contest.

Sponsored by the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference (THWC) and St. Martin's Press, LLC
1. The Competition is open to any professional or non-professional writer, regardless of nationality, who has never been the author of a published mystery (as defined in subparagraph 2(a) below) and is not under contract with a publisher for publication of a mystery. Only one manuscript entry is permitted per writer.
2. All manuscripts submitted: a) must be original, previously unpublished works of book length (no less than 220 typewritten pages or approximately 60,000 words) written in the English language by the entrant; b) must not violate any right of any third party or be libelous; and c) must generally follow the guidelines below.
1. Murder or another serious crime or crimes is at the heart of the story and emphasis is on the solution rather than the details of the crime.
2. The story's primary setting is the Southwestern United States, including at least one of the following states: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Southern California and/or Utah.
3. Nominees will be selected by judges chosen by the editorial staff of St. Martin's Press, with the assistance of organizers of the THWC, and the winner will be chosen by St. Martin's editors. The decision of the editors as to the winner of the Competition will be final. St. Martin's reserves the right not to select any winner if, in the sole opinion of the editors, none of the manuscripts submitted are of publishable quality.
4. An attempt will be made to notify the Competition winner, if any, no later than October 31, 2010.
5. If a winner is selected, St. Martin's Press will offer to enter into its standard form author's agreement with the entrant for publication of the winning manuscript. After execution of the standard form authors' agreement by both parties, the winner will receive an advance against future royalties of $10,000.
6. All entries must be received or postmarked no later than June 1, 2010 …

Detailed rules and an entry blank can be found at:

No winner was chosen in 2009, but Roy Chaney won in 2008 for THE RAGGED END OF NOWHERE, set in Las Vegas, and now available.

Here’s part of Chaney’s acceptance speech. (The full speech is at the Word Harvest web site)

The Ragged End of Nowhere is set in Las Vegas, and the great beauty of Las Vegas lies in its inherent absurdity. The most obvious example of this is the simple fact that this glittering city that never sleeps has been plunked down in the middle of one of the most inhospitable desert landscapes in the United States.

The idea of building a couple of dozen casino hotels with a hundred thousand or so guest rooms in the middle of a barren desert where the average rain fall is negligible and the only major source of water is a river that has to be shared with six other states is not a shining example of good reasoning. And the notion that an entire city with a metropolitan population of nearly two million people might take root in such a place is nothing short of preposterous or it would be, if it hadn't already happened.

… Not only are Las Vegans aware of the absurdity that surrounds them, they actually seem to embrace it. As just one example, the mayor of Las Vegas is a former mob lawyer who has the habit of showing up at official functions surrounded by sequined showgirls in feathered tiaras. He considers himself a doctor of mixology and when the mood strikes him he teaches classes to all and sundry on the proper construction of a martini. If any other mayor in the country displayed this kind of joie de vivre he would be rousted out of city hall so fast it would make his head spin, but in Las Vegas it's just another day at the office.
***End Quote***

And speaking of contests:
Next week I’ll have
A Conversation with
Gerrie Ferris Finger,
a prolific writer whose mystery novel,
THE END GAME, will be released on April 27.
The novel won the Malice Domestic/St. Martin's Minotaur competition for
Best First Traditional Mystery Novel in 2009.
..........................................Stay tuned!

Photo of Window Rock from web site of OETA, Oklahoma’s PBS station.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A History of Cruising

By Jean Henry Mead

Cruising has become a $27 billion industry, with more than 18 million passengers embarking worldwide annually. At least nine new ships have been built since 2001, which cater to the North American trade.

The first primitive oceanic passenger service was offered by the Black Ball Line in 1818. Although a few ships with steam engines were in operation during the early 1800s, they were considered inefficient and sailing ships were favored. It wasn’t until 1837 that British railway engineer Isambard Brunel designed a steam engine that could reduce trans-Atlantic travel from two months to 15 days. However, early steamships had auxiliary sails so that they could take advantage of favorable weather conditions as well as conserve on fuel.

In 1840, travelers booked passage on mail ships. The Cunard line was under contract to deliver mail across the Atlantic on four paddle steamers for its Liverpool-Halifax-Boston route, and for the next thirty years held the record for the fastest Atlantic voyages. When passengers demanded better accommodations, Cunard upgraded its cabins and installed a cow on board to provide fresh milk.

In 1847, the Great Britain, the first iron-hulled, screw-driven ship to cross the Atlantic had more efficient propellers which replaced the paddle wheels. And in 1870, White Star’s ship Oceanic set the standard for first-class travel with large portholes, electricity and running water. The size of ocean liners increased in size to handle the multitude of immigrants to the U.S., Canada and Australia. And immigration was the reason for the period known as the golden age of ocean liners, between the end of the 19th century and World War II.

It wasn’t until 1900 that the first dedicated passenger cruise ship was placed in service. The Prinzessin Victoria Luise, named for Kaiser Wilhelm II’s daughter, set sail from Germany for the Mediterranean and West Indies. The 407 foot ship ran aground six years later, ending its service.

The largest and most lavish ships were the Oceanic and its sister ship, the Titanic, which sank after hitting an iceberg in 1912, killing 1,500 passengers. Also in 1912, the first luxury ocean liner set sail on its maiden voyage with its own onboard swimming pool, Turkish bath and Parisian café. By then, fierce competition existed, and the fastest ships of record were the Mauritania and the Lusitania. The latter was torpedoed by the Germans in 1915 as it approached Britain because it was loaded with munitions as well as passengers. The Lusitania's demise helped to catapult the United States into World War I.

The First and Second World Wars seriously damaged the industry, but in 1958, Caribbean cruises gave ocean travel new life. By then passenger jets from London to New York had caused a sharp decline in trans-Atlantic ship travel. But by the 1960s, more affordable trips were made available through renewed competition between the various cruise lines. The Princess Line, for example, was founded in 1965, and offered short, affordable trips from southern California along the Mexican coast.

The Norwegian Cruise Line was established in 1966 and offered reasonably priced cruises, which included airfare to the ports. Ships were again getting larger. In 1970 The Royal Caribbean Line launched the Song of Norway with a 724 passenger capacity. Two years later, the Carnival line was started and soon absorbed nearly a dozen other cruise lines, including Holland America, Cunard and Seabourn.

Cruising became more popular in 1977 after the hit TV show, “The Love Boat” appeared on the small screen. Ocean travel, previously thought to be a pastime of the rich, was shown to be available to nearly everyone. Shipboard vacations became even more popular when Carnaval’s ads featured singer Kathy Lee Gifford having fun aboard one of its cruise ships.

The first super ship was launched by Norwegian Cruise Lines in 1980 and NCL bought and refurbished the former S.S. France. The $80 million renovation dramatically increased the ship’s size. Capable of carrying 2,181 passengers, it’s entertainment was comparable to that of Las Vegas. By 1988 Royal Caribbean’s Sovereign of the Seas set a new record with 2,350 passengers and a multi-storied atrium with glass elevators. Since that time, competition has produced even larger ships with more luxurious amenities.

The Disney Cruise Line bought a small island in the Bahamian Gorda Cay, where the company continues to update its land resort. The ship from “Pirates of the Caribbean” is moored nearby. Royal Caribbean also owns a resort island off the coast of Hispaniola.

The amenities war has continued since 1999 when Royal Caribbean installed its first onboard ice skating rink on the Voyage of the Seas. Bowling alleys, water slides, surf stimulators and rock climbing walls were eventually overshadowed by last year’s launch of the largest ship ever built with a 5,400 passenger capacity. Royal Caribbean’s The Oasis of the Seas offers a zip line, park with outdoor cafes, Coney Island style carousel and productions of the Broadway show, “Hair Spray.”

As if the amenities war hasn’t gone far enough, plans for the future include more new cruise ships with singles-matchmaking accommodations, a bar made of ice, four-hour bon voyage parties before the ship leaves the dock, and Cunard’s plans to bring back art deco décor from the luxury ships of the past, among others.

What should be on the amenities horizon? A health food store on every ship to combat onboard epidemics.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shoot, Don't Shoot

By Beth Terrell

Last week, our FBI/TBI Citizen Academy met at the TBI headquarters in Madison. We got to tour the mobile command center, the mobile forensics unit, and the anti-drug display vehicle. Then we toured the fusion center and the crime lab and listened to a talk on crime scene investigation by Special Agent Dan Royse. It was full of good information for a writer, and even though my pen was racing on the page, I still didn't manage to get it all down. The talk ended too soon, but there was no time to be disappointed, because next we went to the mock crime scene he and Special Agent Mike Breedlove had staged in the mail room. I didn't participate in solving the crime, because it was almost the same scene they set up for us at Killer Nashville last August , so I got to help pass out record sheets and talk to Mike about some of his most memorable cases.

Next up, we chatted with the agents specializing in drug enforcement and cybercrimes, and finally we got to try our hands at the Shoot/Don't Shoot simulator. (Well, I wasn't brave enough to try it, but several of my classmates did.) Here's how it works. There's a big screen, about the size of my living room wall. About fifteen feet away is a square drawn on the floor. You stand in the square holding a laser gun; when you point the laser at the screen and pull the trigger, the program registers when and where your virtual bullet would have hit, and the person on the screen responds by either falling down dead or killing you. The object is to decide whether or not to fire your weapon and, if you do have to fire, to act quickly enough to save your own life and the lives of potential victims. (It's also probably not a good idea to shoot the victims by accident, but that didn't happen to anybody in our class.)

You also talk to the person being shown on the screen. The first scenario showed a traffic stop. The camera was set up to show the perspective of the officer approaching the car, a blue sedan with a middle-aged man behind the wheel. "Sir," the agent demonstrating the procedure said to the screen, "I need to see your license and registration." The man in the car attempts to engage the agent in conversation. Then we see a gun in his lap. His hand is touching the grip. The agent says, "Sir, move your hand away from the gun. Do not touch the gun in your lap." The driver continues to try to distract the agent, who continues to warn him not to touch the gun. Suddenly, the driver jerks the gun up and fires at the agent. The agent shoots his laser gun, and a message comes up saying that he has used lethal force; please secure his firearm and report to his superior for debriefing. Then the picture comes back up, but time, it shows little red Xs where the agent's bullets hit.

It was interesting to see the different scenarios and how the agent's decision to shoot or not shoot just a moment too late could have disastrous results (as when the perpetrator bludgeoned a woman to death before one of my fellow students could bring herself to pull the trigger). The need for constant vigilance was reinforced when a supposed victim grabbed the "dead" perpetrator's gun and turned it on the agent.

It was a fascinating experience and gave me a new appreciation for how quick-thinking our agents have to be. If they hesitate for even a moment, a life could be lost. If they overreact for even a moment, a life could be lost.

Many thanks to the agents and officers who risk their lives every day to keep the rest of us safe.

Catch a Wave

By Mark W. Danielson

The Beach Boys sang, “Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world”, but unlike the sea waves they were referring to, air waves can literally take you there. Since air and water are both fluid, similar waves are created by disturbances at the surface. Wind currents flowing over mountains create rising air, as seen in this diagram. Mountain waves attract sailpane pilots like carcasses do buzzards.

Dan Rihn and I started flying gliders as kids. Dan soloed one on his 14th birthday. (see photo) I had my power plane license when I started flying them. In the SF Bay Area, lift was as easy to find as free gas, so we fought to stay in whatever we had. But in mountainous areas like the Sierra Nevada or Rocky Mountains, mountain waves can lift a glider in excess of 40,000 feet. (You need oxygen above 10,000 feet, and you should have a pressure suit above 25,000.)

After many years of flying aerobatic airplanes, Dan rediscovered sailplanes, and quickly learned that flying a high performance sailplane is nothing like what we flew as kids. Nowadays, he routinely flies his ASW-20 (photo below) up and down the lower Sierra Nevada, and last year climbed to 25,000 feet in a mountain wave, earning him a “Lennie” altitude award. (flight path shown on diagram)

While wind currents generally flow from the west, under the right circumstances, a strong easterly wind will flow, forming mountain waves over the ocean. I once experienced this climbing a heavy MD-11 over the ocean from Oakland to Anchorage. At 28,000 feet, my aircraft suddenly accelerated to its maximum speed of .87 mach while climbing at 7,800 feet per minute. At 33,000 feet, the wave topped out and the lift disappeared. Since the autopilot cannot handle such extremes, I manually lowered the nose twenty degrees and leveled at my cruise altitude of 35000 feet. Everything was normal after that.

Dan’s friend, Thorsten Streppel, was flying his sailplane in an easterly wave off the Santa Barbara coast where he took photos of the coastline and the Dr. Seuss-like clouds shown above. Since this wave extended along the Coastal Range, he was able to fly hundreds of miles while still gaining altitude. Everything in Dan’s and Thorsten’s flights are recorded on GPS for record and review purposes. Prior to GPS, you had to take photos and use a barograph to document such things.

The atmosphere provides us with as many challenges as it does opportunities, but with the right equipment and knowledge, sailplane pilots can get birds-eye views of the world with only the wind under their wings.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Mystery Writer's Challenge

By Chester Campbell

Writing mysteries is a bag full of challenges. First, you need a situation that can lead to dire consequences. Or, to put it simply, somebody's gonna get murdered. When I start writing a story, I usually have a simple idea of who's going to wind up in the morgue and basically why. Then I get into the details and it isn't so simple any longer. I have to know exactly why this person got himself done in. At that point, I often find the original idea doesn't quite get it. Time for more thought about both characters and their motivations.

If you're writing a series, as I do, you have one or two characters you and your readers are well acquainted with. So you have to find a realistic way to get them tangled in the plot. That brings on more challenges. I write PI mysteries, and everybody knows private investigators (except in rare cases like The Marathon Murders) don't get hired to solve murders. So their involvement with the homicide must be a natural outgrowth of some other plot point.

The next big challenge lies in the area of creating characters who might have done it (or whodunit). You need multiple suspects to keep things interesting. And all of them must be capable of committing the crime. If there's a little old lady involved, she'd better be a pistol packin' mama. It takes a bunch of red herrings to make the plot really fishy.

If you're using subplots, and most of us do, the challenge is to invent a scenario that fits into the main story without hijacking it. Sometimes a bit player in a subplot will try to take the spotlight away from the protagonist. When that happens, you have to put him or her back in their proper place as supporting actors. If they're really Oscar material and won't behave properly, pull them out and give them a book of their own.

Now comes the really big challenge, filling up that vast wasteland known as the middle of the book. Unfortunately, we can't accomplish it by throwing in lots of ands and buts and the's and thou's. It must be interesting stuff that moves the plot and draws out the characters, tantalizing details that will keep the reader reading the book rather than  doing the old fast pitch against the wall.

Finally, the last, and probably most important, challenge is to pin everything on the bad guy and bring down the curtain with a finale that is both surprising and satisfying, one that grows naturally out of the action and makes the reader think I should have known that all along, how else could it have ended?

That's why I enjoy writing mysteries. Nothing like a bundle of challenges to get your juices flowing. How about you?