Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An Interview with Jill McKenzie

Jill McKenzie, the distaff side of McKenzie Investigations, has never granted an interview. She isn't the outspoken type like her husband, Greg. However, with the fifth book featuring the sleuthing pair, A Sporting Murder, popping up all over the place (I hope), she agreed to sit down and share a bit about herself. Here's the interview:

MM: Why is it your best friend, Wilma Gannon, says she was born with chopsticks while you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth?

JMcK: She breaks me up sometimes. We both grew up in Nashville, but she was born in China while her parents were missionaries. I was born out Hillsboro Road, which she calls the ritzy part of town.

MM: Actually, your parents were pretty well off, weren't they?

JMcK: I don't want to sound like a braggart, but my father, Daniel Parsons, was a quite successful life insurance salesman. His clients were mostly businessmen. He handled buy-sell agreements and that sort of thing.

MM: What about your mother?

JMcK: She studied at Juilliard and played violin with the Nashville Symphony.

MM: You didn't follow in her footsteps.

JMcK: Nor my dad's. He wanted me to go to Vanderbilt, where he graduated, but I had idolized Amelia Earhart and Nashville's own Cornelia Fort. Did you know she was in the air over Honolulu flying with a student pilot when the Pearl Harbor attack took place?

MM: I wasn't aware of that. I knew the Cornelia Fort Airpark along the river was named for her.

JMcK: When I found that Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro had an aviation program, I knew I had to go there. I could be as stubborn as my dad, so that's where I went. I've been flying ever since.

MM: Wasn't Middle Tennessee State where you met Greg?

JMcK: It sure was. He was in his first OSI assignment at Sewart Air Force Base located in Smyrna, not far from Murfreesboro. He came over to talk to my Civil Air Patrol unit about security. I gave him a hard time, asking all kinds of questions. I think he made up some of his answers. When he'd finished, I asked if he could get me a tour of the air base. He did, and served as my escort. We were soon dating.

MM: You ran your own air charter service for awhile, didn't you?

JMcK: You've heard of Hemingway's moveable feast. That was my moveable firm. I had to relocate several times to stay near bases where Greg was stationed. I enjoyed it, though. I still have a Cessna at the Nashville airport. We've used it a few times during our investigations.

MM: How did McKenzie Investigations come about? You'd never been involved in Greg's Air Force job, had you?

JMcK: Half the time I didn't know what he was doing. When we went down to Perdido Key to find out how Wilma and Sam Gannon's son died, I helped out with questioning some people who might have been involved. I knew Greg wanted to get back into investigative work, so I suggested we go into business together. It's been a riot.

MM:Didn't you have to do some adjusting in your views on some things?

JMcK: Boy, did I. Firearms was one subject. I never liked the fact that Greg had to carry a weapon all the time during his Air Force career. I knew that's what law enforcement agents did, but I had this naive view about the propriety of such things. It just didn't seem socially acceptable. But I quickly learned in some cases you have only one chance to save your life, or someone else's. Greg taught me how to shoot, and it's proved invaluable. I've learned to be a pretty good shot.

MM: You've been in some hairy situations. Has it changed you in any way?

JMcK: It's made me stay a lot more aware of what's going on around me. I'm not as trusting of people I don't know. My experience as a pilot taught me to keep one jump ahead of what's going on. I've learned to apply that to my job as an investigator.

MM: I'm sure you'll have many more successful ventures ahead. It's been a pleasure talking with you, Jill. Good luck!

JMcK: (Wink) Good luck to you. Thank goodness I don't have to sell books.

Okay, she's right. I have a book to sell, and you can read all about it at this page on my website.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Finding Right Web Fonts For Web Design

Jim Mowery, a self-described computer geek contacted me recently and expressed interest in submitting an article for our blog. I looked over his material and thought you might find it useful. Ben

Finding Right Web Fonts for Web Design

by James Mowery

Choosing good fonts seem to be one of the hardest parts of a web design. How can you choose a good looking font without using the same 
2 or 3 websafe fonts over and over? You can probably work a traditional font into your design, but even the standard Times New Roman or Helvetica isn't present on 100% of computers. Here are some ways to use the latest technology to make sure that you get the font you want on your site.

HTML 5 / CSS 3 Embeded Fonts

Let's get this out of the way first. It is possible to embed a font in your webpage and send it to users. This would be great, except for the fact that it has all sorts of issues. For one thing, it has major compatibility problems. You have to do quite a bit of CSS and HTML magic to get it to work exactly the same on all browsers. Even if you get it to work, then there's still the issue of getting a font. Technically, this counts as redistributing a font, so you can't do it unless you are licensed to use the font (which is expensive), or use a public domain font (which can work, but there are many bad free fonts out there and only a few good ones).

The Free Way: http://code.google.com/apis/webfonts/"
target="_blank">Google Fonts API

The Google Fonts API is a great free service which lets you use any of the fonts in their (somewhat limited) directory for free. All you have to do is add a header link to your HTML to import a stylesheet, and then you can use the font.

The Paid Way: http://typekit.com/" target="_blank">TypeKit

Same thing as Google Fonts API, only it costs - but they have a way bigger and better selection of fonts. You can sign up and use their service to legally and easily embed fonts on your site.

About the author: James Mowery is a computer geek that writes about technology and related topics. To read more blog posts by him, go to http://www.ledtv.org">led tv.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Border Report, August, 2010

by Ben Small

The death and destruction -- and yes, drug flow -- continue along our Southwest border because the Obama Administration refuses to secure our border, focusing its intentions instead on blocking enforcement of our immigration laws and finding ways to implement policies of back-door amnesty, ignoring the cost in terms of lives and dollars.

While this report suggests I'm commenting on activities during the month of August, the truth is many of the events described below occurred just in the last week.

You probably read in the papers about the mass grave site discovered just outside Ciudad Juarez. Seventy-two bodies, men women and children, slaughtered by Mexican drug lords engaged in human and drug smuggling. Weapons from the ranch where the bodies were found are shown above. No one knows how many women and children escaped the machine guns only to be sold into sexual slavery, torture and snuff films for deviant pleasures. It's believed most of these poor people couldn't come up with the added cash demands their coyote transporters extorted from them. Or maybe they failed to pass whatever acceptability standards their smugglers required.  Border Massacre    Dead Folks Pile

How many other mass grave sites are there? Nobody knows. Car bombs and Dead Cop

But you can bet more mass grave sites will be found. And the cop who was investigating the murders was himself murdered, along with several investigative journalists who nosed into the matter. But the gangs weren't done yet: The mayor of a nearby city was also murdered. And Sunday...another one. 2nd Mexican Mayor Slain

And now car bombs. Two this week alone.

Yup, the drug lords have been busy. 28,000 total known dead so far.

I won't recount the tons of drugs seized this week. I can't keep up with the daily total in Arizona alone. But Border Patrol Agents suggest it's less than ten percent of what's getting through. Nor can I advise the number of those who died from the elements in our southwestern deserts. Temperatures have been in the hundreds all month, and heavy rains south of Tucson this week have caused flash flooding on a wide scale. Walls of water rushing down narrow washes -- the path of choice for illegals -- at speeds approaching thirty miles per hour. We may never have accurate statistics on these dead. Those who aren't eaten by animals or buried may lie underneath the hard-pack clay, a component of concrete.

So, it's fair to ask yet again what our federal government is doing to secure our still porous border. Yes, they've sent a few hundred National Guard troops as sentries, about one per mile, but those troops have been instructed not to enforce our federal immigration laws but to just tell somebody if they see something.

Whom do they tell? ICE, the agency charged with border law enforcement? The Feds instructed ICE not to take illegal border crossers captured by Arizona state authorities, and Janet Napolitano announced a new policy this week: They're dropping deportation measures against those who haven't been convicted of a crime. Back-door amnesty so to speak. So ICE has a morale problem. Their agents this week gave the elected officials -- Janet Napolitano -- governing them a vote of No Confidence. Which raises an interesting question: Why did Napolitano, who was so ardent in demanding the Feds secure our border when she was Arizona's governor, back off from that position after she joined the Obama Administration?

Do you think someone whispered in her ear?

Obama has yet to travel to the border region. Seems he has more pressing matters. Tee times, you know. Doesn't he know Arizona has golf courses?

And what about Eric Holder, our esteemed attorney general? Sorry. He's too busy figuring out what to do with Gitmo detainees and where to try or jail 9/11 planners, not to mention filing lawsuits to block Arizona from enforcing federal immigration laws and filing civil rights lawsuits against Sheriff Joe. Indeed, Holder's Justice Department just filed a massive document demand against Sheriff Joe's office, asking for everything but Joe's secret barbeque recipe. Okay, the recipe may have been requested, too. Hard to tell: small print, many sub-parts,.too many pages to digest.  It might take most state agencies years to satisfy such a demand. Holder wants everything yesterday.

Yes, the federal government has more money than Arizona. An unlimited budget. And Holder is using that bottomless pit to his purposes. Most folks would call such tactics "harassment." Holder calls it "policy." Holder Harassment

Don't Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano have the same boss?

If you can believe it, there are unguarded pedestrian bridges across the Mexican/American border. Don't the Feds know these bridges exist?  Unguarded Pedestrian Bridges.
Here's one of them.

Border agents requested Department of Interior permission to cross onto federal border lands in Arizona to look for illegals and illegal smuggling activities. These federal lands lie in the area that's known as Smuggler's Alley, south and west of Tucson.

Permission denied.

To whom does the Department of Interior report...?

Do you see a pattern here? Doesn't all this anti-enforcement seem a bit...well... orchestrated? Go ahead: Connect the dots.

Politics. Getting elected or re-elected. That's what counts.

What about the bucks, assuming one doesn't care about the human toll? The cost of crime, free health care, Holder's lawsuits and tax revenues lost. Smuggling and the fruits of it are a cash-only trade. No witholding tax, no income tax. And illegal immigrants often operate on a cash basis, too. So not only do we lose tax revenues from many of them; we add to our tax burdens by providing illegals free health care. Have you been to an Arizona Emergency Room lately? Good luck getting in. Doctors in Tucson advise citizens not to even think about doing so.

Considering all this prompts one to ask: Have we lost our understanding of what citizenship means?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Story Behind The Story

By Pat Browning

Ask a simple question and get a surprising answer. I asked Thomas B. Sawyer why he wrote THE SIXTEENTH MAN, his novel about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and he sent me an excerpt from his unpublished memoir.

That stunning day in Dallas is the defining story of the raucous 1960s. The Vietnam War was an ongoing horror but JFK’s murder overshadowed everything else. THE SIXTEENTH MAN is the best piece of writing to come out of it, fiction or otherwise.

The following excerpt from Tom Sawyer’s unpublished memoir is a fascinating look at how a creative mind works out an idea originally pitched for a Gideon Oliver TV show. Instead, it went into an episode of "Murder She Wrote" and finally became a full-fledged novel, with a nod to novelist Susan Isaacs for its structure.

(Quote) The idea for what would eventually become my first novel came just about as spontaneously as the MOON project, JACK, and others – a facility which by that time I was beginning to appreciate as one more fortunate life-pattern. Asked to pitch episode ideas for a new, not yet on-air series, I found myself once again at Universal Studios, where the show’s co-executive producer, respected veteran Bill Sackheim, welcomed me warmly and quickly explained that Gideon Oliver was to be part of an ABC "Mystery Wheel," rotating with two other whodunit series, each airing a ninety-minute movie every third week (the others were the already long-running "Columbo," and the more recent "B. L. Stryker").

Based on a character created by novelist Aaron Elkins, and portrayed by the imposing Louis Gossett, Jr., Gideon Oliver was a Columbia University Professor of Anthropology who solved murders. Sackheim offered that he hoped to put me into work on a script ASAP.

“…And, since we have a script in its final editorial stages just now, that we plan to shoot in the southern Utah mountains, around Moab, it’d be great for us, budgetwise, if you can come up with one we could do there simultaneously. Matter of fact, my co-exec, Dick Wolf, is on location just now in Mexico where we’re shooting show number three, and we need a script from you so badly that – well, I’m not gonna let you out of here until we’ve got a story.”

So, pacing around Bill’s office, I asked questions about various series-and-character nuances – did Gideon drive, did he have an assistant, any tics or phobias? And when he started pacing, too, tossing out answers, I stretched out on his sofa, hands behind my head – and began articulating a what-if – without much editing – almost as it was forming:

“Okay, there’s this dig taking place in those mountains, some sort of ancient burial chamber. And Gideon Oliver’s called in because there are a bunch of really old skeletons in there – maybe something he’s an expert about – except one of ‘em isn’t old. It’s got a bullet in its wingbone, say – and – and these bozos start coming out of the woodwork – and killing people – and going after Gideon. Because that skeleton – it’s connected to the JFK Assassination – to some hidden truth about it? And Gideon’s about to solve what really happened that day in Dallas---”

Which was as far as I got. “Great. I love it. Let’s go with that.”

Heading home a few minutes later, I began thinking about what I’d just sold. And while I had thus far not a single thought, beyond my pitch, about how to tell the story, it excited me, the best part being a chance to deal with Jack Kennedy’s murder in a fiction piece – a crime that I had never for a minute believed was the work of a single gunman. It became more intriguing when I began playing with the notion of just who the modern-day skeleton had been, and what he might have had on whoever was behind the JFK Plot that was serious enough to get this fellow killed back in 1963.

I suppose my short-lived PI, Charlie Moon was still near my thought-surface, because by the time I got home my dead-guy had taken the form of a similarly seedy investigator. This one was on a domestic surveillance job that had taken him to Texas in November 1963, where he’d shot clandestine evidence photos of his client’s adulterous wife and her cowboy lover. And several of those snapshots inadvertently contained some sort of proof that Lee Harvey Oswald had not acted alone. I was stoked by the possibilities, and eagerly began outlining the teleplay.

Then, a few days later, I received an odd phone call from Sackheim. He seemed tentative, ill-at-ease: “So – how’re you coming with the story…?”

I told him I was just getting into it, laying out the overall shape. “It feels good...” It also felt like one of those next-shoe-about-to-drop conversations. “Is there a problem?”

Bill’s response came after a brief, awkward silence: “Tom, the thing is, we might have to shitcan it.” Then, he quickly added: “But if that happens we’ll work out a different premise for you to--- Listen, before you do any more work on it, why don’t you come in tomorrow first-thing, and talk me through your story – you know, in detail? And then we’ll see.”

Weird. I had never before encountered such a request, not one put in that way, or even close. The following morning at the studio, Bill greeted me with the news that we weren’t going to do the notion I’d sold him. “But don’t worry, you’ll get your story money. So – let’s get going on another one. How about…?” And an hour later, with a lot of plot-suggestions from Sackheim, we’d hammered out a story which was okay, though not as interesting as the first one.

I was never told the reason for the cancellation, nor did I press the obviously embarrassed Sackheim for it. Maybe it’s the conspiracy-nut in me, but I’ve always suspected that the topic had frightened someone at ABC, so they told Bill to kill it, and that his first brief phone call was an attempt by him to buy time in hope that he might appeal the decision to a higher-up at the network, and/or maybe between us find a twist that would cause them to change their minds.

I had come away from the experience a bit wiser – and, far better, I had the intriguing notion that what I’d sold to Bill Sackheim that day several months earlier was – maybe – the germ of a pretty good idea for a novel.

A form I’d yet to try, though it was getting to be that time. And tantalizingly, even at that early thinking-about-it stage, it presented a nagging, major challenge that, with my customary optimism I figured would quickly sort itself out. It did not. Until one day several years hence when, quite by accident, I saw how another writer had solved a similar problem.

I continued to write TV episodes on a freelance basis, mostly for "Murder, She Wrote," but with an occasional script for such shows as "Scarecrow & Mrs. King,"  "Zorro," and others. But again, on the seems-like-a-good-idea-front, my attempt at a first novel was stalled at the outline-stage, presenting a barrier I was finding insurmountable and maddening: how to tell the story without killing off my favorite character within the first few chapters.

In laying out THE SIXTEENTH MAN, based on the Gideon Oliver premise that had been axed by ABC, my present-day protagonist would be a young archaeologist, Matt Packard. He discovers the burial chamber full of ancient skeletons, plus the more recent one which turns out to be that of a Reno PI who in late 1963 had the key to who really killed JFK, and had vanished along with his secret. As mentioned, with my original pitch to Bill Sackheim, the ‘what-if’ was – what kind of people would suddenly emerge, willing to kill in order to conceal the truth about that long-ago conspiracy?

Obviously, Packard would carry the bulk of the story. But if, as logic dictated, I wrote the piece in linear sequence starting in 1963 and then taking it to present-day I’d have no choice but to quickly lose the player who, not surprisingly given my soft spot for rascals, had quickly emerged as the most fun: PI Charlie Callan. It just didn’t seem right to dump him so soon.

So, stymied – maybe permanently – and simultaneously beyond my eyeballs juggling other projects, including JACK and of course MSW, after struggling for several weeks, with regret but still fascinated by the problem, I temporarily laid the project aside.

Early in that first season as Showrunner, Angela, Bruce and I agreed that too many recent episodes had involved extensive, rather tedious backstories. So I came up with several premises that would take place mostly-to-entirely in the present and, with Bruce at my side in his sister’s dressing-room/trailer outside the Cabot Cove soundstage, I ran them past Angie and her husband, Peter. She didn’t much care for any of them, and asked if I had any others.

I did not. But the next thing that popped into my head was a sudden vision -- a way to write a very abbreviated version of my Gideon Oliver/JFK stalled novel as a "Murder She Wrote" episode. And impulsively, I offered that yes, I did have one. “But you probably won’t like it…” I quickly, waggishly added: “because it’s got the mother of all backstories.”

Which of course hooked her, as well as Bruce and Peter. Angela grinned: “Let’s hear it.”

Continuing on my mini-roll, and giggling inwardly, I delivered part two of my tease. “Okay, let me give you the TV Guide logline: "Jessica Fletcher solves The Murder of the Century – almost…" After a suitably dramatic pause, I admitted that the murder case was the JFK assassination. All of them loved it, and that was that – they needed no further details.

As I began outlining my story, I figured it would be cool to bring in Jerry Orbach to once again portray Harry McGraw. So I phoned him at his apartment in Manhattan to check on his availability and learned to my disappointment, but delight for Jerry, that he couldn’t do it: “I just signed on to co-star on 'Law & Order'.”

So, in writing the episode, titled Dead Eye, I created a new PI character not unlike the seedy, retro McGraw: Charlie Garrett. We cast the witty M.A.S.H. veteran Wayne Rogers in the role, and had great fun over the next five years employing him as Jessica’s recurring, exasperating bullshitter pal.

A joy to work with, Wayne, like Angie, always knew exactly where the jokes were. He also shared my affection for con artists, admitting that like me he felt more than a little of it in himself. I was proud of Dead Eye, pleased with the way it turned out to be an atypical but satisfying MSW episode.

The challenge of how to approach my mystery-thriller novel about the JFK assassination, telling two stories separated by decades without killing off my most entertaining character near the top, was solved for me unexpectedly – and with forehead-slap immediacy – early in 1996, by Susan Isaacs.

One of my favorite authors since her delightfully funny novel (and screenplay), COMPROMISING POSITIONS, Ms. Isaacs had just published a novel titled LILY WHITE. Another first-rate read, in this one Ms. Isaacs told parallel stories taking place thirty years apart.

She accomplished this by employing a simple, hardly original but totally effective device. Ms. Isaacs had laid out her two yarns in alternating chapters, employing a different, distinctive typeface for each thread. Bingo! I saw within a few pages that she’d given me the key to keeping my 1963 Reno PI alive until the end, while still telling my archaeologist’s tale in present-time. Thus, I eagerly began outlining THE SIXTEENTH MAN. (End Quote)
© 2010 Tom Sawyer Productions, Inc.
My notes:
Tom is co-librettist/lyricist of JACK, an opera about John F. Kennedy that has been performed to acclaim in the US and Europe. It’s described on his web site as a personal drama, an “almost Shakespearean story of a complex, deeply conflicted yet loving relationship – between an obsessed, profoundly driven father, and his near-textbook second son – and how that young man, in overcoming those and other challenges, would ultimately provoke his own assassination.”

When I asked about its current status, Tom e-mailed: “And about JACK, the latest from Michael Butler (producer of HAIR) is that he intends to mount an equity-waiver production in LA late this year or early next. I'll believe it when it happens.”

The episode of “Murder She Wrote” referring to JFK’s assassination is titled “Dead Eye” and features guest star Wayne Rogers as PI Charlie Garrett, a recurring character. “Dead Eye” is Episode 13 of Season Nine (1992-93) and a CD of the complete season is listed at Amazon.com for $30.99. A detailed summary of the episode can be found at www.imdb.com/
Tom’s web site is http://www.thomasbsawyer.com/

Tom’s mug shot and book cover from his web site.
Cast picture and original title picture from Wikipedia; cast pictured: William Windom as Dr. Seth Hazlitt, Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, Ron Mazek as Sheriff Metzger.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

On Ice

By Beth Terrell

Some things are easy to take for granted. Until recently, the disks in my lower back were among those things I took for granted, but for the last few weeks, I've spent a hefty percentage of my days lying on an ice pack, gently walking, and trying not to lift anything. Also, "Stay off the computer," my chiropractor said. For someone who's on the computer approximately twelve hours a day, that seemed impossible--especially with Killer Nashville (the conference I help organize) imminent. After I'd argued, wheedled, and whined for awhile, he agreed that I could type in brief spurts, which is what I'm doing now.

I guess it's a hazard of the trade, but my habit of writing while sitting on the couch with my laptop on my lap so the dogs can sit beside me probably doesn't help. It looks like I'll have to find another way to get my day job, conference tasks, book promotion, and writing done without crippling myself or losing "puppy time." Anybody else struggling with bad backs and rationed computer time? Any advice you'd care to share?

I hope to share some new-found advice next week, but in the meantime, I've used up my allotted typing time. Time to go back on ice.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Close Your Eyes

By Mark W. Danielson

Have you ever been told not to go into something blindly? While it’s good advice for some things, it doesn’t apply to writing. In fact, if it were possible, I’d suggest you close your eyes and visualize what I’m saying.

While our eyes reveal many beautiful things, they can also keep us from seeing. If you don’t believe me, ask a blind person what he is seeing right now. He may describe a city bus, propane powered, doors beeping as they open, off-loading people a block away. One person stops to light a cigarette. Others text as they walk away. An approaching light airplane is pulling a banner. An SUV pulls up to a stop light, stereo blasting, being driven by a young male, probably tattooed. Those of us with sight tend to take these things for granted, yet each of them has their own stories. If we truly want to see, then we must learn to see with closed eyes and open minds.

Music videos destroy a song’s soul because they rob us of our own interpretations. Once viewed, the video image becomes etched in our brains, barring us from seeing anything different. Add to that, appearance bias. America may idolize a pretty face with a shrill voice, but to a blind man, it’s just shrill. Instead of being enchanted by a contestant’s face, try closing your eyes, listen to their voice, and then cast your vote.

Have you ever been disappointed by the movie version of a book? Most people have. In fact, it happens so often that movies are now prefaced with the words, “based on” whatever the story is titled. Your images of what the characters should have looked like are so vivid that you may actually walk out without giving the movie a chance. James Patterson once remarked to a group of authors, “If you ever have the chance to visit a movie set that’s based on one of your books, DON’T.” That says a lot.

So, what does this mean for you as an author? It means you should write for a blind man. In other words, you need to create images that are so powerful that they come alive in your mind. To test your success, have someone read your manuscript out loud while you listen with eyes closed. By doing this, you not only hear whether your dialogue works, but you can also visualize the scenes. If this image isn’t what you had intended, then you have more work ahead of you.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

5 Biggest U.S. Drug Busts

By Chester Campbell

Colleague Ben Small has been posting here about the drug problems along the Arizona border with Mexico. Jay Smith, with the Criminal Justice University website, has contributed the following article from their blog about recent drug busts that have netted millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs.

The war on drugs has become bigger, costlier, and more dangerous with every passing day. Drug smugglers have created well thought plans of smuggling drugs across the US, but with the increased presence of agents, sting operations, and help between local, state, and federal officers- big drug busts with millions of dollars of seized drugs are becoming more common. Here are a few of the biggest drug busts in recent years:

Gatun ship bust- The cocaine bust on the Panamanian ship, Gatun, is considered the largest maritime cocaine bust in US history. The US Coast Guard made contact with the ship after being spotted by a patrol ship in March of 2007. In plain sight, on the top main deck of the freighter, the Coast Guard uncovered more than 42,000 pounds of cocaine with an estimated worth of 600 million dollars. 14 crew members, all from Mexico and Panama were arrested.

Project Deliverance bust- A two year nationwide drug bust with roots in Nevada, ended with the arrests of 429 people in 27 different cities across the US. The sting operation named “Project Deliverance” was composed of DEA, FBI, ICE, several local agencies and Mexican officials, and led to the confiscation of more than 1200 pounds of methamphetamine, more than 2 tons of cocaine, 1400 pounds of heroin, more than 69 tons of marijuana. The bust also led to the seizure of more than 154 million dollars.

Gilroy, California bust- In August of 2010, several local and federal agencies raided a home in Gilroy and confiscated crystal methamphetamines and cocaine that had a street value of up to 100 million dollars. The home appeared to have ties to Mexican drug cartels and the three men taken into custody were Mexican nationals. The men are facing multiple felony charges including possession for sale of methamphetamine and the manufacture of methamphetamine.

Southern California bust- After authorities pulled over a tractor trailer in June of 2010 in Southern California for a traffic violation, a strong smell overwhelmed them and after finding inconsistencies within the paperwork for the load, a search of the trailer was prompted. Inside the trailer authorities discovered about 20 tons of drugs including an estimated 38,000 pounds of marijuana, 67 pounds of methamphetamines and 2,700 pounds of cocaine, totaling an estimated 45 million dollars. The truck’s driver was arrested and charged with possession, transportation, and sale of narcotics.

Pesotum, Illinois- The February 2010 drug bust, in which police seized more than 2 tons of marijuana is among one of the biggest drug busts in Illinois history. State police pulled over a tractor-trailer during a routine traffic stop and after becoming suspicious and granted consent to search the vehicle, found 270 shrink-wrapped bales of marijuana, an estimated total of between 14 and 19 million dollars. The driver and two passengers, who were headed to Chicago, were arrested and charged with possession, manufacture and delivery of cannabis, cannabis trafficking and cannabis conspiracy. If convicted, the men face between 12 and 60 years in prison.

For more interesting crime info visit their blog at Criminal Justice University.

Visit me at Mystery Mania.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hot for Chile

by Ben Small

Ever been to Hatch, New Mexico?

I suspect you'll answer no. After all, how many people enjoy roaming around the New Mexico desert just a bit northwest of Las Cruces?

I'll respond, "Follow the fine chefs of the world September 4-5, for the annual Hatch Valley Chile Festival." They or their reps will all be there, scoping out the year's chile harvest. For Hatch, New Mexico is the chile capital of the world, has been for a very long time. Indeed, chiles have been a staple of the Americas' diet for over six thousand years.

Most folks associate chile peppers with heat, the kind that burns twice if you get my drift. But chiles don't have to burn their way through your digestive system. Remove the seeds and you'll find you're left with a glorious spice that's both healthy and tasty.

As many people know, legendary radio talk-show host Don Imus has prostrate cancer and has refused chemo or surgery. He's being treated holistically by his wife -- Deidre Imus founded a pediatric cancer institute -- and specialists from around the globe, and habanero peppers -- the hottest pepper by far -- are part of his daily regimen. Imus takes them in pill form, lest the steam pulsing into his microphone on a daily basis be blamed on organic heat.

There are 26 known species of chile pepper, five of which are domesticated.

Some facts you probably did not know about chiles:

  • One fresh medium-sized green chile pod has as much Vitamin C as six oranges.
  • One teaspoon of dried red chile powder has the daily requirements of Vitamin A.
  • Hot chile peppers burn calories by triggering a thermodynamic burn in the body, which speeds up the metabolism.
  • Teas & lozenges are made with chile peppers for the treatment of a sore throat.
  • Capsaicinoids, the chemical that make chile peppers hot, are used in muscle patches for sore and aching muscles.
  • Chile peppers are relatives of tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants, all belonging to the nightshade family.
  • The color extracted from very red chile pepper pods, oleoresin, is used in everything from lipstick to processed meats.

Famed Southwest chef Janos Wilder specializes in chile dishes. In addition to chiles stuffed with everything imaginable, Janos' chocolate jalapeño ice cream is to die for. The pleasant after-taste lingers for hours, and no cold wash cloths need be applied to the forehead. I've been to Janos' restaurants with friends who don't like spicy food, and none of them have rejected this desert after they've tasted it. Usually, they argue about who gets the last spoonful.

Most of us have had nachos somewhere. Just about every Mexican restaurant offers them as an appetizer or entrée selection. And usually, they're a bit boring. Not at one of Janos' restaurants. My wife won't eat nachos anywhere else. She orders Janos' version for her entrée, as do some of my friends. Me? While I love Janos' nachos and eat some of hers, I have yet to get past Janos' jerked pork entrée. Here's his menu description of it. Note the chile used.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Flying Low And Slow

By Pat Browning

Sometimes the only way in and out of a place is by plane. The Alaskan wilderness is a place like that, and recent horrific plane crashes there brought back memories of my own small plane ride through a South American wilderness.

I was with a handful of tourists in an Avensa DC-9. On a shore excursion from the Greek cruise ship Stella Oceanis, we flew in and out of a box canyon just for a look through plane windows at the highest waterfall on earth.

The Stella Oceanis – Star of the Ocean -- was berthed at Puerto Ordaz on Venezuela’s Orinoco River. Angel Falls was a fly-by on our way to Camp Canaima in the Guiana Highlands, a vast granite block lying south of the river and bordering Brazil and Colombia.

It’s only on looking back, and scrolling through off-color YouTube videos, that I realize what a treacherous adventure that was. The Stella Oceanis ran the excursion like a walk in the park. The flight to Angel Falls took 25 minutes. The pilot allowed us into the cockpit three at a time to take photos of the Falls as we flew in and out of Devil’s Canyon, a natural fortress with cliffs on three sides. We were barely back in our seats before the plane touched down in a jungle clearing that served as Canaima Airport. Smooth. Nary a wobble or bobble the entire time.

Canaima was another world. I was on assignment for TravelAge West, and wrote in my report: “On a good day, Camp Canaima is like the Garden of Eden with indoor plumbing. It’s on a magnificent lagoon, with Las Hachas Falls and the tepuis (table-top mountains) for a backdrop. There’s music with a latin beat in the bar, but on the beach the only sounds are the wind in the trees and the roar of the falls.”

Close by was a small Indian village and a jungle supermarket. I bought a blowgun in the supermarket, and some bead necklaces from women sitting along the beach path.

A little history: The famous waterfall was the jungle’s secret until Jimmie Angel stumbled across it while looking for something else. According to Wikipedia:

“They (the falls) were not known to the outside world until American aviator Jimmie Angel flew over them on 16 November 1933 on a flight while he was searching for a valuable ore bed.

“Returning on October 9, 1937, Angel tried to land his Metal Aircraft Corporation Flamingo monoplane El Río Caroní; atop Auyan-tepui, but the plane was damaged when the wheels sank into the marshy ground, and he and his three companions, including his wife Marie, were forced to descend the tepui on foot. It took them 11 days to make their way back to civilization, but news of their adventure spread, and the waterfall was named Angel Falls in his honor.

“Angel's plane remained on top of the tepui for 33 years before being lifted out by helicopter. It was restored at the Aviation Museum in Maracay and now sits outdoors on the front of the airport at Ciudad Bolívar.”

My cruise through the West Indies aboard the Stella Oceanis was the trip of a lifetime, but I hadn’t thought of it in years. This week I spent hours with Google trying to track down the ship. Seems it ended up with Royal Olympic Cruises, an amalgamation of Epirotiki and Sun Line Cruises and sailed European waters until its demise in 2002.

Where do old cruise ships go to die? To Kumar Steel in Alang, India, where they are broken down for scrap metal. Such was the fate in 2002 of Stella Oceanis – Star of the Ocean – a honey of a small ship that braved the waters of the world with style and grace.
Canaima Lagoon photo from wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons; Photos of Angel Falls and Jimmie Angel’s plane from Wikipedia.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Three Rules of Dialogue

by Jean Henry Mead

I’m one of those writers who fills the page with dialogue as opposed to narrative because dialogue is my forte. Those of us with an ear for accents and speech patterns are fortunate to be able to transcribe them onto the page. But dialogue that doesn’t further the story or define characters will cause a manuscript to be rejected, no matter how well it’s written.

I remember reading Robyn Carr’s article years ago about the three rules of dialogue, which I copied onto 3 x 5 cards for future reference.

Rule #1: Dialogue should tell the reader something about the character’s personality or emotions, or at least reinforce something already established, like anger, timidity, cruelty, impatience or perfectionism. Instead of having a character greet someone by saying “hello,” have him say, “Where the hell have you been?” or “Do you know what time it is?” and tap his foot impatiently.

Rule #2: Dialogue needs to propel the plot so that the reader can get to know the characters through the way they react to stimuli that directly affects their lives. Their conversations need to establish or reinforce their emotions, their relationships, and the roles they play in the plot to enhance conflict and tension. Even when writing comedy, the character’s reactions to one another are actually conflict in its truest sense.

Rule #3: Dialogue must individualize each character. No two characters should sound alike just as no two people use the same words or phrases. Each character needs to have his or her own expressions, dialects, euphemisms, speech styles and inflections. But that’s not all. Each one also must have his own value system, motivations, personal habits and other traits that are expressed in dialogue.

For example, if you listed each character with a number instead of a name and gender, would they be distinguishable from one another?

Every line of dialogue has a job to do. When you’re editing and polishing a second draft, eliminate every word that doesn’t need to be there. People rarely speak in complete sentences so make sure your characters don’t sound as though they’re reciting an English lesson.

Creating a character sheet is a good way to establish who your characters really are. Describe each one physically and include his or her basic background information. Then consider pertinent information that will determine her dialogue. How well educated is she? Is her voice husky, squeaky, soft or loud? Does she have verbal ticks? Is she shy and stutters when she speaks? Does she use slang? Does she speak haltingly? Or is she articulate and chooses her words well?

How motivated is your protagonist? Is he aggressive, single-minded, abrasive, generous or power hungry? Any or all those traits should show up in his dialogue. Geographical differences also affect a character’s dialogue as does his education, or lack of schooling. If a character dropped out of school in the 7th grade, he won’t have an impressive vocabulary, unless he’s very motivated and schools himself on his own. If that’s the case, make sure your reader knows it. One way is to have other characters talk about it when he’s not around or praise him for it when he is.

According to Robin Carr, "Characters come alive when every piece of dialogue uttered develops their personalities; when the action, tension and drama are heightened because of what they said, how they said it and when they chose to speak  and when the characters’ complex individualism sets them apart from each other."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reflecting the Times

By Mark W. Danielson

It’s interesting how a novel’s characters set the period. Although humans look like they did centuries ago, they don’t dress, act, or talk the same because their surroundings have changed with time. Writing about previous periods is difficult, and few authors will be as successful as Michael Crichton or James Michener. Rather than confront this problem, most authors write in the present. Comparing Shakespeare’s characters to Charles Dickens’, or James Michener’s to Michael Connelly’s demonstrates how characters have evolved. But even writing in the present includes generational experience issues. Think back on how much has changed over the past sixty years.

There was a time when people formally dressed for dinner, didn’t wear hats in restaurants, cussing was a sin, parents held their children accountable, and adults acted responsibly. But those Lake Wobegone Days Garrison Keillor wrote about are gone. By 1950s standards, today’s world has gone mad, so novels written in the present should reflect that. Unfortunately, generational bias may hinder us in getting it right. How so, you ask. Simply put, generational bias is a function of experience, age, and upbringing. I couldn’t possibly write about growing up in the ghetto any better than I could comprehend a teenager’s mindset. Fortunately, research, interviews, and observation can assist with this.

In the 1950s, the first televisions began replacing radios. At best, they had three or four channels on a rotating circular dial. Families gathered around their tiny sets, sometimes while eating TV dinners. Record players folded up like lunch boxes, and there was one family phone and car. Color TV followed, but it was years before we had one in our house. Compare this to my children’s generation where they grew up with their own cars at age sixteen, personal computers, unlimited television channels, pagers, cell phones, the Internet, and now Internet camera phones. You can get instantaneous news wherever you are, and texting has evolved into sexting. I saw a two year old in a restaurant watching TV on a four inch screen while his parents dined, and a four year old with his own cell phone. Many new family cars come equipped with GPS and DVD players. Yes, times have changed, and we’ve changed with them, but that doesn’t mean we understand the generational differences.

If you were born fifty plus years ago, you would never dream of a flight attendant grabbing a beer and bailing on the tarmac. Nor could you foresee a crazy woman getting out of her car and beating a McDonald’s employee because she couldn’t satisfy her breakfast craving for Chicken McNuggets, and yet these things happened. You may be disturbed by MTV or so-called reality shows like The Colony, which features a doomsday scenario, and yet young people may crave it. Generational differences have never been more divided than they are today.

Consider this when developing your characters, and use your parenting or grand parenting experience to see the world through younger eyes. Understanding that your reality is different from theirs can create characters and generational conflict as powerful as those in Clint Eastwood’s Grand Torino.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My Experience with a Strange Missile

By Chester Campbell

Ghost stories, lethal varmints in the desert...how's a guy gonna top that? I seemed to have missed all the scary stuff. Real scary stuff, that is. Tim Hallinan's ghost story under the coconut palms in Bali reminded me of an experience during my early days in the Army Air Corps during World War II. I had to rough it at the basic training site at Miami Beach. Yep, that Miami Beach. The Army had taken over several hotels to house the troops. We did much of our training on a golf course. Not playing golf but listening to noncoms giving instruction on how to march, give first aid, and other things like the eleven general orders of a sentry.

I was assigned to sentry duty as part of the training and knew I'd be challenged on the general orders. One I remember was "To walk my post in a military manner, keeping always on the alert, and observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing." Sometime after dark, I was issued an unloaded M1 rifle and hauled out to a small commercial building on a street with little traffic. During my tour of duty, I was to march around the building, which could have been vacant for all I knew, and challenge anyone who came near it.

A street light not too far away provided the only illumination, which was partially blocked by palm trees. The Sergeant of the Guard came around once, and I had to challenge him and recite some general orders. Other than that it was a lonely vigil with no one around, which was okay, since I wasn't supposed to talk to anyone "except in line of duty." But as I was walking (I wouldn't call it marching) around after a couple of hours, a loud thud sounded just behind me.

I spun around with my useless rifle at the ready. There had been rumors of German subs in the area, possibly infiltrating spies. But the only thing I saw was a big fat coconut that had fallen from a tree. I was lucky it hadn't conked me in the head. When I was relieved by the next guard on the post, I warned him to look out for flying missiles.

I received no Purple Heart in the war, since I wasn't wounded in action. Heck, the only action I saw was in Miami, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas. I should have gotten the Purple Shaft, however. I was supposed to be in Aviation Cadet training, though most of the time I was shifted about various bases doing odd jobs. Part of the program involved assignment to a College Training Detachment. I spent my time at Winthrop College (a girls school back then) at Rock Hill, SC. One of our assignments was to take ten hours of flight instruction in a Piper Cub. However, I only managed seven hours.

What happened was we young kids just out of high school did the usual silly things while waiting our turn in the Piper Cub. I was showing my agility at turning cartwheels when my toe slammed into a rock. It hurt like hell and my foot began to swell. They took me to a nearby air base where it was wrapped and I picked up a crutch. I hobbled around for a couple of weeks and missed the rest of the flying hours. That was as close to being a pilot as I ever got.

It wasn't all for naught, though. While on my last assignment at Randolph Field in San Antonio, I roomed with a fellow cadet who had spent a year at Yale before entering the service. He told me if he had it to do over, he would've studied journalism. Somehow that resonated with me. When I was discharged, I enrolled at the University of Tennessee with the idea of studying journalism. It wasn't offered at the time, but they started a reporting class in my sophomore year and expanded it into a full curriculum the following year. That led to a writing career that hasn't stopped yet.

Things always seem to work out for the better in the end. But it could have been a bit more exciting.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Lay of the Land

by Ben Small

Summer in the desert. You know it's hot; even somebody in Mongolia knows the Arizona summer is hot.


And the creatures. Everybody knows about the snakes and the gila monsters, the killer bees, the centipedes, and the scorpions.

But did you know about the frogs? When it rains, Spadefoot frogs appear, along with their big brothers, the bullfrog. The Spadefoots are small, about bite size. Which is why they're so dangerous. If your dog eats one, he'll die. If you eat one or touch one, and then you touch your eyes or mouth or nose, you might have some problems. These frogs are poisonous.

And the crickets. Everybody's used to crickets; they provide the summer songs of the Midwest. Well, they're in the desert, too. And they have special meaning: Scorpions. Crickets are chocolate soufflé to scorpions. If you hear crickets, the scorpions will not be inside your home; they'll be out in cricket-land. Of course, this whole equation shifts if you have crickets in your house.

As Fall sets in, it's time to cover your drains with a hard piece of plastic. Fully fed scorpions will attempt to avoid winter by traipsing through your drains, most often in the shower or tub. The hard plastic mat will form a barrier they can't move. It's the little ones that are most dangerous; the ones that look translucent. They can kill a small child or the elderly. But be careful looking for them; they can look like a tossed rubber band. I have a friend who picked one up twice. Thought it was a rubber band; picked it up, got stung, than picked it up again. I'd laugh except I've done the same thing.

Hurts like hell.

The best way to find scorpions is to buy a black light at the hardware store. The translucent, dangerous scorpions glow green in black light.

One rule for living in the desert: Always look where you're going and never reach under a rock or bush without looking carefully first. While gila monsters are bright and colorful, a rattler is hard to find even if you're looking right at it. Stomping around, making ground noise is your best protection. While the snake may not see you, he'll hear you and run away or at least make his presence known. In four years, I've yet to encounter a rattler, except for one that fell out of a mesquite tree and was lying dazed on the ground.

If you're camping in the desert, you'll want to stretch some hemp around your campsite. Rattlers don't like slithering over a rough texture like hemp. Snake-Away doesn't work. The best way to keep rattlers out of your yard is to rid yourself of gophers and pack rats, not an easy task in the desert.

Bees. Be very careful about bees. The Africanized version are aggressive, but they'll give you a warning. Heeding it is the issue. They'll gather in groups, buzz at you, then watch what you do. If you step back, they'll move away; if you step forward, they'll attack. I've had this experience twice. Both times I stepped back.

Just three days ago, four hikers on Tucson's Mount Lemon ran into a swarm of African-American bees. One of the men got tangled in his equipment and couldn't escape. He was stung over a thousand times, his buddies stung hundreds of times, and it took a helicopter's whirling blades to fend the bees off. Believe it or not, everybody -- except maybe a few bees -- survived.

African-American bees. Is distinguishing between them and honey bees racial profiling? I'm a bit behind in my political correctness training.

And then the washes. And the rains. You don't wanna be anywhere near anything that looks like a wash during a rainstorm, or if's been raining up-ground from your position. Last week, a wall of water thirteen feet high rolled down Tanque Verde Wash at tremendous speeds. Wiped out part of a golf course, several homes and a few cars... with people inside. Folks from the Midwest -- just about everybody in Arizona is from somewhere else -- aren't used to crossing roads covered by running water. Six inches of moving water will wash your auto -- and you -- away. And rescues are iffy. The sediment in the water is like cement. It can bury your car with you inside. Many wash-aways are never found.

Lastly, termites. Before I moved to the desert, I didn't realize there are two types: dry and wet. The wet ones are the ones you see. They leave mud trails and are easily treated. The dry ones are much more destructive, and more resistant to treatment. Even finding them before you house falls down is difficult. Instead of mud trails, one must look for dust specs. That's termite-poop. Our pest guy tells us every house in Tucson has termites, usually the dry ones, as Tucson seems to be Termite-Central.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ghost Story Two

By Pat Browning

Back in June author Tim Hallinan told us a real life ghost story that happened in Thailand. It’s a doozy. If you missed it the first time you can still read it at:

Now Tim is back with another true ghost story to share, this one from Bali.
This ghostly encounter happened when he was staying on Kuta Beach in Bali, and after I read his story I looked it up at

Here’s what I found out:
With a long broad Indian Ocean beach-front, Kuta was originally discovered by tourists as a surfing mecca. It has long been a popular stop on the classic backpacking route in South East Asia. Back in the 1980s they used to talk about the three Ks: Katmandu in Nepal, Khao San road in Bangkok and Kuta. Today Kuta still attracts some hardcore backpackers as well as families and tourists from all over the world, and is most notably a playground for young visitors from Australia.

The five km long sandy stretch of Kuta is arguably the best beach front in Bali. The beach is safe, partially clean, well-maintained, although the beach vendors remain annoying pushing massages, hair braiding, cigarettes and surf boards. The long wide stretch of sand is often full of sunbathers and although most of the serious surfers have moved on to newer pastures, there are still plenty of surf dudes around at most times of the year, and especially so during peak season.

Once the sun goes down, Kuta is the rough and ready party zone of Bali, even after the tragic events of 2002. Even the most hardened of party animals will find something to please them on Jalan Legian at night.... Kuta is the low end party centre of Bali. It has recovered well from the bomb blasts in 2002 & 2005 and tourists still flock to the bars where alcohol is served freely and excessively. Many of the bars here have a house cocktail with a local Arak (rice spirit) base. These go by charming names like Jam Jar and Fish Bowl, pack a huge punch and make customers very ill!
(End Quote)

I emailed the the last paragraph to Tim with the question: Is this an accurate description of the bar scene?

He replied:
“I haven't been in Bali in about 12 years, but Kuta was definitely the most Western and the most vulgar of the resort towns. There were restaurants that sold omelets with magic mushrooms, there were a couple of incipient discos, which apparently turned into real discos, one of which was bombed, Bali is absolutely loaded with Aussies, and Aussies drink hard, Arak is probably right up their alley. I usually stayed in Legian, which was walking distance from Kuta, although I understand that now it's one party strip, full of neon and Javanese prostitutes.”

Tim has written ten mysteries and thrillers under his own name and several others in disguise. His current series, set in Bangkok, features American "rough travel" writer Philip "Poke" Rafferty, who lives in Bangkok with his hand-assembled family: his Thai wife, Rose, a former Patpong bar dancer, and their adopted daughter, Miaow, who was eight years old and living on the sidewalk when she met Poke.

The first three Rafferty books, which have made Ten Best lists everywhere, are A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, THE FOURTH WATCHER, and BREATHING WATER. The fourth, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, has just been published by William Morrow and is racking up rave reviews.

By Tim Hallinan

A while back, I sent Pat the true story of my encounter with a ghost in Pattaya, Thailand -- without any doubt, the most terrifying experience of my life.
If you haven't read it, you might want to do so now and then come back to this one. Or you could ignore the paragraph above completely and just read on.

This happened to me in the middle 1980s, in Bali. Bali was then, as it is now, one of the world's spiritual vortexes: one of the places where the force of the spirit pushes its way through everyday life like bones emerging beneath the skin of a face or a plant pushing its way up through the earth. The island is teeming with spirits.

Every village has its temples, its spirit gates. Offering to the spirits, in the form of elaborately carved leaves, fruits, and flowers, are created by the thousands daily and scattered over streets and sidewalks.

In the walled, red stone temples, ancient stories are still danced almost daily -- the tourist audiences are almost incidental -- and in one of the most stunning stage effects I've ever seen, the sudden entry of a god was heralded by a bucket of flower-petals thrown over the wall in front of which the dancer playing the god was standing. My eyes had been drawn elsewhere and then there was a shower of pure color with a god standing beneath it. I've seen it a dozen times, and it never fails to take my breath away.

And then there are the not-so-benign spirits, in which the Balinese believe profoundly. I haven't ever actually seen any, but this happened to me, and I swear -- as I did in the previous story -- that every word of it is true.

I was staying on Kuta Beach, not quite then the frantic tourist town it is now. I had hiked half a mile or so along a red-dirt road to eat dinner in town, and about nine o'clock I decided to go back to the room, but instead of taking the road, I improvised and created a short-cut by walking through the coconut plantation the road wound between.

The moon was full. Coconut trees are planted pretty far apart, so there was lots of light: silvery ground, the shadows of trees like cardboard cut-outs, more silvery ground. The lights of the town had faded behind me and those of the hotel area where I was staying had not come into sight, and I was thinking this was an unforgettable experience: the silver moon, the coconut palms, the shadowed trees.

And then, in front of me, I saw a darker shadow, not shaped like a tree. It was, instead, vaguely circular, maybe 12-15 feet across, like something dark and irregular thrown over the ground. I thought I'd check it out, and I approached to about ten feet from it.

And then I didn't want to check it out any more. I saw that the dark area was a hole, and as I looked into it, something brushed the back of my neck and then absolute terror, all the way to the cellular level, wrapped arms around my chest and began to squeeze. I knew I could feel something breathing on my back.

It took all the strength I had to free my arms. The moment I could move them, I started running, to the right, as far away from the hole as possible. Behind me, I could hear something like a whisk broom: tsshhhhh-tsshhhhhhh-tshhhhhhhh. I ran faster, hearing that dry scrape of a sound until the lights of my hotel came into sight.

My hotel was surrounded by a stone wall about four feet high, which I cleared without a moment's hesitation, running across the lawn and not stopping until I was in the bar, all full of nice sane drunk Aussies. I got as drunk as they were and then flopped onto the bed with the lights burning and went to sleep.

The next day, at high noon, I forced myself back into the coconut grove, but nowhere could I find any sign of the hole.
Thanks to Tim for another spine-tingling true ghost story, and for the priceless image of Himself leaping that four-foot stone wall.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Woman of Mystery

by Jean Henry Mead

Nancy Pickard, one of my favorite novelists, has won the Agatha, Anthony, Barry, Shamus, and Macavity awards. She's also a four-time Edgar finalist. A bestselling mystery novelist, she's written in a number of subgenres as well as a how-to book for fledgling writers.

When asked what happened to her first novel, she said, "It was, thank the publishing gods, rejected by nine wise publishers. It got me an agent, though, so I love it anyway. It was my apprentice novel and no longer exists in any form."

The turning point in her career was when she moved from original paperback at Avon to hardcover at Scribner, "with the wonderful Susanne Kirk as my editor." Another was "when Linda Marrow became my editor, first at Pocket and now at Ballantine. We're writing/editing soul mates. I'm very lucky. And for short stories, when I heard a writer say that every short story needs an epiphany. Having not been classically trained as a fiction writer, I'd never heard that before. After that, my stories sold."

Sue Grafton said that her nonfiction book, Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, written with psychologist Lynn Lott, is “fresh, insightful, candid, funny, supportive, encouraging and wise." Asked how the book had come about, she said, "I had met many writers--especially new ones--who seemed lost and alone, sad and confused, bewildered and overwhelmed by the highs and lows of the writer's life. I felt for them, and I wanted to talk to them and let them know we all feel crazy sometimes, and then give them some ideas about how to cope with the emotional roller-coaster."

I wondered how she had been able to write such a  variety of mystery subgenres, from cozies to private eye stories, humorous mysteries to psychological suspense. Her response was that she gets bored writing the same things over and over again, and that for her entire life she's loved all kinds of books in the  mystery genre, so she's influenced by all of those kinds of novels and likes to "lay around with their tropes and charms and quirks."

Her multi-award wining novel The Virgin of Small Plains, is set in her home state because "one day I was hit with the need to write about Kansas forever and always. It's as simple and was as career-altering, as that. I was born on the Missouri side of Kansas City, and moved to this side when I married a Kansas cattle rancher. Hence, my two books set in the Flint Hills cattle country, Bum Steer and Virgin. I'm still here and completely Kansan now. I love this state, political warts, and all."

Her work has won or been nominated for nearly every existing mystery award, and I asked which meant the most to her and which  translated into higher book sales. She said, "The awards have helped a lot, I think. As for which awards mean the most, they're the ones that reinforce me after I've tried something new, as for The Whole Truth and for The Virgin of Small Plains. When you disappear for a while to take some chances with your writing, it's reassuring to come back and find that readers appreciate it. The same is true for awards for short stories. For instance, when the first and only fable I've ever written was picked for A Year's Best Anthology of Fantasy and Horror Stories, I was thrilled by the confirmation--from people who really know the genres--that I'd done an okay job of it."

Her Jenny Cain series came about one day when she was in the Asian section of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art "and I saw an antique Chinese bed with gauzy curtains and a little alcove with seats in it. I thought, 'What a great place to find a dead body.' Seriously. That's how it started. Not exactly profound."

Her latest release, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, is a departure from her other novels. "A different kind of landscape called to me. Instead of the rolling ranch land of the Flint Hills of east and central Kansas, where Virgin is set, now we have a flat land with astonishing stone monuments rising out of it like a natural Stonehenge, only much taller and bigger even than those formations.

"On a violently stormy night, in this land of dramatic contrasts, the favorite son of the county’s wealthiest landowners is shot and killed and his young wife disappears. They leave behind a 3-year-old daughter to be raised by her grandparents and uncles. The obvious suspect is quickly caught, convicted, and sent to prison, leaving behind a wife and 7-year-old son. Twenty-three years later, he is released pending a new trial, and returns to the scene of the crimes he may not have committed. The secrets about that night of dramatic change for a family, a town, and a county, are revealed both to his son and to the daughter of the victims, as these two children of tragedy struggle to uncover dangerous truths about their families."

Her writing schedule is nearly nonexistent. She calls herself a binge writer. "When I'm really going at it, it's all I do. I ignore everything else. At other times, I may do nothing writerly at all. Or I may catch up with all of the things I've neglected. Like interviews. 

Her advice to aspiring writers is: One, be patient with yourself and your writing. Doctors aren't built in a day, neither are lawyers, neither are plumbers, neither are teachers or truck drivers, and neither are writers. It takes a long time to get good enough to be published. Give yourself that time and try to enjoy it! Two, please please please give yourself time before you start worrying about getting an agent, etc. Write first. Write second. Write third. Finish the manuscript. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Maybe send it out, or maybe start the next one. Time. It takes time Give yourself that time and please don't be so hard on yourself if things don't happen fast for you. Third, care first and always about the writing. The writing. The writing. Oh, and read Annie Lamott's fabulous book about writing, Bird By Bird. 

(Nancy Pickard's entire interview is included in the Kindle edition of Mysterious Writers)