Monday, October 20, 2014

Children Who Murder

Pennsylvanians were shocked recently when a 10-year-old boy was charged in the murder of an elderly woman. Many viewed it as a disturbing sign of the times.

Shocking? Yes. Unique to our times? Unfortunately, no.

Murders by children are not limited to our historic period. In fact, there’s the notorious case of William Newton Allnut which occurred on this date, Oct. 20, in 1847. William, a lad of 12, was charged in the arsenic poisoning of his grandfather, Samuel Nelme, in London.

Young William confessed he had sprinkled arsenic on his grandfather’s food in retaliation for the old man having struck him and threatened him with death. At his trial in the Old Bailey, London’s criminal court, it was discovered others in the household, including the boy’s grandmother, had also become ill, apparently due to arsenic poisoning.

Doctors who examined him declared the boy to be of unsound mind, testifying he spoke of voices in his head and other symptoms attributed to mental disease. The surgeon at Newgate Prison disagreed and, subsequently, William was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to transportation and he was sent to Australia where he later died of tuberculosis.

William’s case is not a solitary example. Nor are such crimes restricted to one sex or a single country.

Mary Flora Bell of Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, strangled a child to death in 1968, the day before her 11th birthday. Two months later she and a 13-year-old friend, Norma Joyce Bell (no relation), strangled to death another little boy.

Anne Perry, known for her Thomas Pitt and William Monk novels, then 15, was convicted of participation in the murder of a friend’s mother in 1954 in New Zealand. She changed her name and began writing after serving her sentence.

Willie Bosket of New York was accused of “several thousand” crimes before he reached the age of 15 when he murdered another boy and two men to “see what it was like.” His crime spree led to the “Willie Bosket Law” which allowed juveniles as young as 13 to be charged as adults.

Jesse Pomeroy was 14 when he was charged with the murder of a four-year-old boy in Boston. Authorities learned later he had also killed a 10-year-old girl and buried her body in his mother’s cellar.

Horrifying? Yes. Unique? No.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ban My Book--Please

We writers are always seeking ways to get noticed and have our books read.

It’s been estimated a million or more books will be published in 2014. With that kind of competition the task gets more difficult.

The advice we hear most often is write the best book you can. Right. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent nine years writing “Tender Is The Night” and expected it might be the best American novel of his time. Yet when it was published in 1934 sales were dismal and most critics dismissed it as a flop. I read somewhere his royalties for the year amounted to something like $80. Sure eighty bucks went further in those days. But considering the man made nearly $30,000 in 1937, mostly in short story sales, it was hardly a good return on his work.

Edgar Allan Poe, a classic writer if ever there was one, is known to everyone today but lived most of  his life in obscurity and poverty. For an analogy of another kind, Vincent Van Gogh, considered a genius today, sold just two paintings in his lifetime and one of those was to his brother.

So what is a writer to do to spark a little recognition?

Then it dawned on me: this is Banned Books Week, Sept. 21-27.  What could catapult a book into the limelight quicker than having it banned?

It worked for Fitzgerald (“The Great Gatsby”), along with Joyce (“Ulysses”), Jack London (“Call of the Wild”), Steinbeck (“Grapes of Wrath”), Mark Twain (“Huckleberry Finn”) and even Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”). Why not for me?

All I need is for some irate group to call out my novels as obscene, violent or politically insensitive. You don’t even need a good reason. Shel Silverstein’s “Light in the Attic” was once banned by a school because it “encouraged children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.” “Moby Dick” was banned by a Texas school district in 1996 on the claim it conflicted with community values.

Come on, gang. Get on the phone. Starting calling your library or speaking up at a governmental meeting. Condemn me. I don’t especially want to be rich. Being a little famous wouldn’t be bad, though.

Or, if you don’t want to support my cause, just read one of the many banned books. That’ll help all writers.

Monday, August 25, 2014

About The Dancing Boy

(I’m hosting Michael Matson, who is here to tell us about his new novel, “The Dancing Boy.” The floor is yours, Michael:)

“The Dancing Boy” is a mystery set in the Pacific Northwest. Treat Mikkelson lives on Drake Island in a small cabin by the water with his cat, Ackerman. He’s retired from a lifetime of studying and writing about crime and keeps himself busy crabbing, fishing and harvesting enough clams for dinner.

This all changes when an elderly woman in a small, nearby tourist town is found at the foot of her stairs with a broken neck. Although authorities are inclined to consider it an accident, a friend suspects foul play and asks Treat to investigate the matter.

Treat is an iconic, self-contained ex-Ranger with a penchant for garish Hawaiian shirts and a love for the Blues and Hawaiian music. He’s a great study for a classic hard-boiled mystery, and the Pacific Northwest setting tweaks the traditional crime noir marvelously. Matson makes western Washington come alive for the reader as Treat and local law enforcement learn the reason why Margaret Neilssen died and act to foil a Canadian drug-smuggling and child pornography ring.

“The Dancing Boy” is fast-paced and absorbing, and you may find yourself considering a cabin on the water in the Pacific Northwest after reading it.


Michael Matson was born in Helena, Montana, and was immediately issued a 10-gallon Stetson and a pair of snakeskin boots. After formative years spent in New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, California, Hawaii and Japan, Michael earned a journalism degree from the University of Washington in Seattle. Following a brief military stint in Oklahoma, where he first encountered red, sticky mud, heavy rain and tarantulas, he returned to Seattle and worked as an advertising agency copywriter, creative director and video producer.

In 2007 he (regretfully) left Seattle for Mexico, seeking time to write. He has since published “The Diamond Tree,” a fairytale for all ages; “Bareback Rider,” an inspirational adventure for children, and “Takeshi’s Choice,” a mystery novel. His short story, “Gato,” was selected for inclusion in Short Story America’s 2014 anthology. “The Dancing Boy,” his second mystery novel, was released by Dark Oak, a division of Oak Tree Press in April 2014 and is available on Amazon.

Matson lives with his wife, Maria Guadalupe (Tai), in Morelia, the colonial capital city of Michoacan, where, despite all the bad publicity given the area by U.S. news media, he has never seen a narcotraficante. His website is

Monday, August 18, 2014

Using Historical Crimes in Fiction

(My guest today is Carolyn Niethammer, a multi-published author of non-fiction books who has just published her first novel. Welcome, Carolyn. The floor is yours.)

In my new novel, The Piano Player, the title character, Frisco Rosie, gets involved with one of the customers at the Bird Cage Saloon where she plays the piano in Tombstone. He’s somewhat mysterious and eventually it turns out that he was involved in a crime called the Bisbee Massacre. In 1883, five men were tried for the murder of several innocent people in a robbery gone bad in the mining town of Bisbee. It became a major plot point in my book, and to write it, I borrowed liberally from the newspaper’s report of the trial and eventual hanging of what became known as The Bisbee Five.

That got me to thinking of other novels based on real crimes. Sharon Ervin thinly disguised the unsolved 1970 murder of millionaire Oklahoma rancher E.C. Mullandore in her novel Murder Aboard the Choctaw Gambler (5 Star). Sharon said she added some romance to lighten the story.

Rabbi Ilene Schneider recalled reading about some artifacts that were stolen from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The incident appeared in Chanukah Guilt (Oak Tree Press) setting off a series of unintended consequences.

My host today, J. R. Lindermuth, has also used real crimes as inspiration. His latest  novel, Something So Divine (under contract with Sunbury Press) was initially inspired by an actual murder, though he say he's strayed far from the facts of that case. His first published novel, Schlussel’s Woman, also resulted from musing on “what if’’ in regard to a similar crime. Corruption’s Child, third in the Sticks Hetrick series, came about after reading reports of thefts from the Amish.

J.A. Jance, who writes three popular mystery series, says she tries to stay away from using real crime in her books “because real crimes, especially homicides, affect real people. The families and friends of homicide victims mark their lives by how they were before that horrific loss and how their lives are after it.”

That doesn't mean, however, that real life doesn't leak into her books. She explains that in her Seattle mystery series featuring J.P. Beaumont, one of his partners ends up a paraplegic who later, comes back to work as Media Relations Officer. Several years after that,  she heard from people who thought she had copied what happened to an injured officer in Everett, Wash., who also ended up being placed in Media Relations. “The problem was,” she says, “I wrote that part (of my novel) before the officer in Everett was shot.

Other famous novels based on crimes include The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, Psycho by Robert Bloch, and The Godfather by Mario Puzo. You can read more about those and others here:

There is also the matter of fictional books and movies about crime that inspired real crimes. But that is fodder for another post altogether.

The Piano Player is Carolyn Niethammer’s tenth book but first novel.  She has brought the same level of exacting research to this novel as she has to her earlier nonfiction works. One early review says, “The main character in The Piano Player is the Wild West itself; especially the Gold Rush Wild West, stretching from scorching Tombstone to the frigid Klondike.” See Carolyn’s other books at www.cniethammer .com Find  The Piano Player at

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award

I’m honored to have been nominated by James R. Callan for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

The purpose of the award is both simple and important. It’s designed to introduce authors to readers and to other writers who are producing some of the most interesting blogs on the Web today. I invite you to check out Jim’s books and read his always interesting blog:

Part of my requirement as a nominee for this blogger award is to give you seven facts about me that many people do not know. So, here goes:

  • Living in a house believed to have been built by a man who rode with Buffalo Bill inspires my interest in writing Western stories.
  • I like to be surprised by my characters, which is why I seldom outline at length when writing my stories.
  • At heart I’m an Indiana Jones who would rather be digging artifacts of lost civilizations, dinosaur bones or other fossils than be wealthy. Of course, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at money if it were offered.
  • Once in Seoul, South Korea, I lived in an apartment building between a parochial school and a brothel.
  • I’m a definite fan of casual attire. Save for a few rare occasions, I haven’t worn a tie (the most useless piece of apparel ever forced on man) since retiring. I prefer jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers.
  • I started out wanting to be an artist. I discovered a talent for drawing early on and it’s still something I enjoy.
  • You wouldn’t guess it to look at me. I’m skinny as the proverbial rake. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to eat. I’ll sample virtually anything offered, though my favorites incline toward Italian and Asian (particularly those with a bit of spice to them).

Of course, blogging is not my real vocation. I write books, short stories and articles. The majority of my books fall into the category of crime fiction—mysteries, suspense and thrillers. I also write historical fiction, occasionally dabble in other genres and non-fiction. 

You’ll find more about my books on my website:

Monday, June 23, 2014

It's the Anniversary of the Typewriter

Today, June 23, is the anniversary of the patenting of the typewriter in 1868.

The patent was granted to Christopher Sholes, a Pennsylvania native, printer and newspaper editor; Samuel Soule, another printer, and Carlos Glidden, a lawyer and amateur inventor, all of whom were living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at the time.

Sholes, born in Mooresburg in 1819, completed an apprenticeship to a printer in nearby Danville, Montour County, before moving to Wisconsin. He’d been working on several inventions before he and Soule perfected his prototype. Glidden joined the partnership and put up the development funds.

Though he’s sometimes credited as the inventor of the typewriter, what Sholes actually did was perfect a practical device. Henry Mill, an English inventor, patented the first typewriter in 1714. Down through the years until 1868, other inventors tinkered with the machine and sought patents. None were commercially successful.

Sholes did develop the QWERTY keyboard, which is still in use today on both typewriters and English language computers.

The inventors wrote hundreds of letters on the machine to potential investors. James Densmore, another Pennsylvanian, responded with interest, though he contended the machine still needed improvement. Discouraged, Soule and Glidden dropped out of the partnership and were replaced by Densmore.

After subjecting the machine to rigorous testing by a team of stenographers, the partners offered some 50 typewriters for sale at a price of $250 each.

In 1873. the partners approached the Remington Arms Company, which offered to buy the patent. Sholes sold his share for a mere $12,000. Densmore, more prudently, requested a royalty. He would profit to the tune of $1.5 million.

Mark Twain, an early believer in the value of the machine, claimed to be the “first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature.” He erroneously believed he had written part of “Tom Sawyer” on the typewriter. Ron Powers, author of “Mark Twain, A Life,” said one of Twain’s assistants did type out his handwritten manuscript of “Life on the Mississippi,” and it was probably the first book ever typed before going to a printer.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Invitation to Another World

A couple neophyte writers told me recently they weren’t going to make the “mistake” of including description in their books.

I asked were they intent on writing novels or telegrams. They gazed at me, puzzled.

Saying description isn’t needed in a novel is as ridiculous as claiming trees are unnecessary for a forest. One of the pair immediately quoted Elmore Leonard’s dictum about leaving out the parts readers tend to skip.

He could have quoted Leonard’s Rule No. 8: Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Or No. 9: Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Note that in both cases he didn’t say avoid description.

Elmore Leonard is known for a spare style of writing that is immediate, graphic and heavy on dialogue, well suited to the tastes of those who grew up with the cinema and television. Indeed, many of his stories have been made into films. But, if you want the best of Leonard, you must read the books.

Leonard often cited Hemingway as a major influence on his style. Both cut to the chase and give us a sense of person or place in eloquent yet spare prose. Kurt Vonnegut once said every sentence should either reveal character or advance the action. This can be achieved by dialogue, showing (action) or through proper use of description.

A reader with imagination doesn’t need much to bring him or her into this other world the writer has created. Not all readers are blessed with enough imagination to gain entry to this world. That’s why we have description.

A reader once told me she didn’t need me to describe a character since her imagination allowed her to see him. What she didn’t get was that while she might imagine Johnny Depp I could have been thinking Gary Busey. The writer wants readers to see his characters, not just any character.

The important thing is to be certain you’re describing and not simply providing a laundry list of articles. Description is necessary to bring us into the story. It should be a bridge (not a barrier) between dialogue and action. Done right, it provides the poetry needed to carry us into a different world.