Sunday, September 27, 2015

Justice Isn't Always a Straight Path

Ned Gebhardt, a murder suspect in my latest novel, Something So Divine, is considered feeble-minded by his family and neighbors.

Though common in the 19th century, the definition is frowned upon today, as are other more derogatory terms applied to illnesses or deficiencies of the mind.

Look at censuses from the period and you'll find people labeled as idiots, imbeciles, morons and the like who may have suffered from some degree of mental incapacity or even a physical limitation which hampered normal function.

Ned is not insane, though in 1897, the time of the story, there wasn't even agreement on what constituted sanity, let alone assurance mental capacity could even be considered as a legal defense.
If Ned were arrested and charged with murder today his lawyer would immediately set about arranging a series of psychological tests to determine his competence and probable defense.

Though there are others, Ned is the prime suspect due to his obsession with the victim and a local reputation founded on rumor and gossip. Because the evidence against him is mainly circumstantial, Simon Roth, the investigator, is inclined to give Ned the benefit of the doubt--until he finds damaging evidence.

It is only then Billy McKinney, the lawyer Roth has found for him, decides an insanity plea is the only hope for Ned.

Based on an 1843 British case, the M'Naghten rule had become the standard in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom by which a jury was to decide after hearing testimony by prosecution and defense experts.

In 1972, the American Law Institute developed a new rule for insanity under the Model Penal Code, though some argue that even this is too vague and leaves too much up to the discretion of a jury. About half the states continue to rely on the M'Naghten rule.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Who Says 'Was' is a Bad Word?

Some writers are like religious fundamentalists.

They read, or hear someone discuss a rule they’ve heard about, and it becomes gospel. It doesn’t have to come from Strunk and White to start them red penciling whole paragraphs of a novel. Just mention “rule” and it immediately becomes scripture, part of a revised Talmud, and you couldn’t pay them to violate it.

They forget rules are intended to be guides and not a new version of the Quran. Rules are not absolute law. Generally there’s good reasoning behind them and it pays to abide by them. There are also times when they can and should be violated. And, if you should break one of these rules, you won’t have the Taliban pursuing you (though some critic may lambast you).

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing are observed with ritual devotion by some of these scriveners. I love Leonard’s work. I think he’s a great stylist and the rules are a sound selection. But, with little effort, I’m sure you can find many admirable writers who’ve broken some of these rules at one time or another. In fact, if you read a lot of Elmore’s stories (as I have) you’ll see even he occasionally drifts from the canon. This isn’t blasphemy. Leonard sometimes spoke with tongue in cheek and was aware of Somerset Maugham’s dictum: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

The Elements of Style, among other scriptures, urges us to use the active voice. It does not say “always.” A passive sentence isn’t always bad. Knowing how and when to use them makes the difference.

We are given lists of words to avoid in our writing and some believe it means they should never be used. Wrong. There is no such thing as a bad word. It all depends on how and when you use them.

One of those words you’ll find on many lists is “was,” a perfectly good Old English verb. It’s on the list because it’s been deemed passive. As mentioned above, that isn’t always a bad thing. Opening a novel by Elmore Leonard to a random page I found he used the word “was” 10 times. Sometimes there just isn’t another word to substitute.

Where words like “was” become bad is when we allow them to become habits weakening our writing. When we get lazy and fail to revise without using all our senses that’s the real deal-breaker. Don’t just blindly follow rules because they exist. Use common sense and experimentation to see why they’ve become standard. Your writing will improve and your readers will thank you. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Faithful Depiction

You can tell a lot about people by how they live. Not the structures they inhabit, but how they relate to the place they live and to  their neighbors.

Cedar Flats, the Mormon village depicted in The Tithing Herd is typical of those created by the pioneer Saints across the West. Its orderly design reflects tenets of this truly American religion.

Unlike the ramshackle structures and haphazard layout of Gentile settlements, the towns of the Mormons adhered to a plan passed down from the Prophet Joseph Smith and which reflected his vision of sanctuary and a final holy dwelling place based on scripture.

They came in sight of the village then and Tom gave a little gasp of surprise.

“Right nice, haint it, boy?” Donnelly said. “Not like those Gentile towns you’re used to.”

Donnelly was right. The little Mormon village was a paragon of order, cleanliness and serenity. Tom was unaware of how all towns of the Saints—big or small—were modeled on their idea of the City of Zion. The little houses sat back in their yards along a wide street, all four-square and neat, the yards planted with hedges and flowers, cottonwoods and poplars. At the end of the street sat the Ward House and it was from there the singing emanated.  Fields and pastures stretched out beyond the village as far as a distant range of foothills. Beyond that timbered steppes rose up to bald-faced mountains, hazy in the distance.

You’ll find a similarity in these villages in the writings of Zane Grey, Wallace Stegner, Vardis Fisher and others and I could not portray mine otherwise. It’s one of those historical facts a writer can’t ignore. In this case it reveals the community-minded, family-oriented tenets of the faith.

And it is her faith in her religion, her family, her community and—especially—in Lute Donnelly that helps Serene McCullough cope with her ordeal and believe she will be rescued from the bandit known as Spanish.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Read An Excerpt

My latest novel, The Tithing Herd, is a Western set in Mormon country in New Mexico in the 1890s. Luther Donnelly, a guilt-ridden former lawman is on a quest for revenge when love gives his path another motivation.

Here's a short excerpt I hope will entice potential readers to want more:

Donnelly was saddling a big buckskin when Tom awoke. His other horse was the prettiest the boy had ever seen, a trim mare with a glossy black coat and a white blaze on her muzzle.
“Will you take me to Foulds?” he asked.
Donnelly glanced at him, shook his head. “Not going in that direction.”
“Loan me a horse then and point me the way.”
“You go up there, Foulds is likely to hang you again.”
“Not if you give me your pistol.”
Wagging his head, Donnelly smiled broadly. “You sure do have sand, boy.”
“Then you won’t help me?”
“Got other business.”
“You’re just going to leave me here?” The boy hung his head.
“I didn’t bring you here, son. Just because I pulled you down out of that tree don’t mean I intend to be responsible for the rest of your life.” The boy’s pained expression primed that troublesome streak of compassion again. “What are you gonna do if you get up there?”
The boy looked up, beaming. “You’ll help me?”
“Didn’t say that. Answer the question.”
“Find out why they strung me up; get my outfit back.”
“You’re going to take on Clem Foulds and all his boys single-handed?”
“If I have to. Will you loan me a pistol?”
“Never carried one.”
“Your shotgun?”
Donnelly laughed, shaking his head. “Hell, but you got gumption, kid. Do you think even if I gave you my gun—which I’m not—Clem is just going to apologize and hand over your gear?”
“He owes me,” the boy said, firmly.
Donnelly shook his head. “He don’t owe you nothing, Tom.”
“How do you figure that?”
“How long were you with Hanks and Witherspoon?” He regarded the boy closely, sun glinting on the frames of his spectacles.
“Couple weeks. Why?”
“Who did the shooting?”
“They did. I done the skinning out and drying of the meat.”
Donnelly was nodding. “Sounds right. Foulds must have been keeping an eye on you fellows. The other two got off before he made his move. Probably thought they was off shooting more cows. Strung you up as a warning for when they got back.”
The boy squinted at him, curious. “I don’t understand. What business was it of his?”

“It was the company you were keeping got you in trouble, Tom. Did you notice brands on any of those cows you were skinning?”
“Some. Moon said it didn’t matter, they was all wild cattle now. He said it didn’t matter.”
Donnelly had finished saddling. He climbed up on his buckskin, the mare’s lead rein in his hand. “It mattered. Moon and Dent haint the kind to go chasin’ slow elk through the brambles when range cows are easier pickin’.”
“You do know them, then?”
There was a hard edge to Donnelly’s voice as he replied, “I know them.” He kicked the buckskin and the big horse moved. Tom rushed forward and grabbed at Donnelly’s sleeve. Donnelly pulled back on the reins, pushed up his hat and peered down at the boy. “Take me to Foulds,” Tom pleaded.
Donnelly plucked the boy’s hand from his sleeve. “Leave it, son. You gained a few inches dancin’ on that rope. Let it at that and choose your companions better in the future.”
“I won’t leave it,” he said, sternly.
Donnelly stared down at him. He’d steered clear of human connections for a long time and didn’t want any entanglements now. But he couldn’t help liking the boy. The kid had stones, there was no denying that. “What’re you going to do if you get to Foulds?”
“Explain to him I didn’t know they was shooting his cows, get my gear back and go after them.”
“You sure are something, boy,” Donnelly said, his mustache raising with a wide grin. “Look, Moon is about as mean as they come and Dent is just plain stupid. Alone or together, they’re trouble. Forget them.”
“I earned that money.”
Donnelly pulled his hat lower by the brim. “Go get your boots on,” he said.
Tom beamed. “You’ll take me to Foulds?”
“Guess you’re determined to pursue trouble whether I lend a hand or not.” He still wasn’t certain it was the right thing to do, but maybe the boy knew more that would be of value to him.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Tithing Herd

The Western genre has a long and honorable history and may be the ultimate American contribution to the world of fiction.

Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, the Western had a steady presence in books, magazines, comics, films and in our childhood games. In the 1960s it developed a new popularity on television.

My mother said when she was carrying me her reading consisted almost entirely of Western pulp magazines. All of this, in addition to growing up in a house legend says was built by a man who rode with Buffalo Bill, may have influenced my future opinion of the genre.

Though my reading was wide and varied in my youth, a large part of it did consist of Westerns and I continue to enjoy them.

Interest in the genre suffered a decline in the 1970s, but many believe (or hope) we may be in a period of renewed appreciation. The early Westerns were morality plays and had their share of unfortunate stereotypes. In the 1980s writers like Elmer Kelton, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and others began giving them a more realistic spin which appeals to modern readers.

Though much of my output has been in the mystery genre, I’ve written my share of Western short stories and have long wanted to do a Western novel.

That dream is achieved today with the publication of The Tithing Herd by The Western Online Press.

My protagonist is Luther ‘Lute’ Donnelly, a guilt-ridden former lawman, who has been on a revenge-inspired search for the bandit known as Spanish who killed his brother. When Lute rescues Tom Baskin, a boy falsely accused of rustling, it brings him back to Serene McCullough, a Mormon widow he’d intended to marry before the tragedy that haunts him.

Cash-strapped Mormons have assembled a herd of cattle to pay their tithe to the church. Serene prevails upon Lute to help her son take the tithing herd to market. Reluctantly, he agrees.

When Spanish kidnaps Serene and holds her as ransom for the herd Lute’s goal changes from desire for revenge to a desperate quest to save the woman he loves.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Not to Worry. The Bells Did Not Ring

(My guest today is James R. Callan, who has an interesting tourist tale as well as news about his latest Father Frank mystery. Take it away, Jim:)

The recent eruptions of Mount Calbuco in Chile had a greater impact on me than on many of my friends.  They were all appalled at the massive plumes of ash and smoke reaching miles up into the sky.  They had sympathy for the thousands of people who were forced to move from their homes as it became unhealthy or impossible to breathe.

But for me, it was almost personal.

 My wife and I had visited that region a few years ago.  We flew into Puerto Montt,  only 19 miles from the active volcano.  Probably planes could not land there for the weeks following the eruptions due to the amount of ash in the air.  We visited Puerto Varas, slightly closer to Calbuco, and watched a chess match where people served as the various pieces on a gigantic chess board.  Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas are the two largest towns sitting in the shadow of the 6,572 foot volcano.
What impressed us at the time was the beautiful and unspoiled landscape. And the cleanliness.  We never saw so much as a gum wrapper on the streets.  The lakes were crystal clear. It was pristine.

Now, according to the news, ash covers everything, reaching two to three feet deep some places.  This extends across parts of the previously unpolluted twenty-five mile long lake on whose shores Puerto Varas sits. It is painful for us to think of such beautiful land buried under a dull, toxic, unforgiving ash.
While we were visiting farther north in Santiago, I played tennis at the Prince of Wales Country Club.  It sports bronze plaques commemorating the visits of various members of the Royal family of Great Britain. 
During the match, we experienced a small earth quake.  The tall light stanchions began to swing back and forth and it seemed to me they were swaying so far they might break. Another of our foursome suggested we seek shelter.
“Heavens, no,” said one of the Santiago residents and his ample belly began to shake with laughter.  “It’s only a trembler.  If it doesn’t shake enough to ring the bells in the cathedral, it’s not an earthquake.  Just a trembler.” He laughed again, then asked, “Did anybody hear the church bells?” 
No one spoke up.
“See. Just a trembler.”  He turned to his partner. “You’re serving at fifteen all.”
We resumed play. Several games later, again the ground began to shake. But I wasn’t worried.  The Cathedral bells did not ring. It wasn’t an earthquake, only a trembler.”
Brief Bio of James R. Callan

After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing.  He wrote a monthly column for a national magazine for two years. He has had four non-fiction books published.  He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mystery/suspense, with his sixth book releasing in 2014.

Author’s website:   
Amazon Author Page:

My new release, Over My Dead Body, is available at:

Sunday, April 5, 2015

What's Up Next?

Prolific mystery author F. M. Meredith (aka Marilyn Meredith) is my guest today, and she's answering the title question. The floor is yours, my friend:

There are several answers to that question.

What’s up next as far as today—it’s promoting this blog everywhere I can.

What’s up next tomorrow is promoting tomorrow’s blog and so on.

I’ve also got two in-person promotions coming up this month, and in both cases, I need to  prepare what I’m going to say. One is going to be my official book launch for Violent Departures, so a bit of extra preparation will be going into that.

While I’m promoting one series, I’m always writing one in my other series—so next is getting a chapter done each week in time to read to my critique group.

And if the question is really what’s up next for the Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery series? The answer is at this point I have no idea. I’ll probably continue with the personal life threads from Violent Departures. I’ve also been considering high-lighting the new Chief—Chandra Taylor in some way.  The time of year should be late fall, often the warmest weather on the coast.

I’ll be on the lookout for new and/or different crimes for the Rocky Bluff PD officers to contend with. And of course, there should be a murder of some sort.

Any of you out there have anything to suggest? Tell me in the comment section.
F. M. aka Marilyn Meredith

Blurb for Violent Departures:
College student, Veronica Randall, disappears from her car in her own driveway, everyone in the Rocky Bluff P.D. is looking for her. Detective Milligan and family move into a house that may be haunted. Officer Butler is assigned to train a new hire and faces several major challenges.
F.M. Meredith, also known as Marilyn Meredith, is the author of over thirty published novels. Marilyn is a member of three chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and on the board of the Public Safety Writers of America. Besides having family members in law enforcement, she lived in a town much like Rocky Bluff with many police families as neighbors.


Because it has been popular on my other blog tours, once again I’m offering the chance for the person who comments on the most blog posts during this tour to have a character named for him or her in the next Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery.

Or if that doesn’t appeal, the person may choose one of the earlier books in the series—either a print book or Kindle copy.

Tomorrow I’ll be discussing The Importance of Place with