Thursday, December 31, 2009

Snobbery With Violence

I’ve just read Colin Watson’s “Snobbery With Violence,” a classic study of crime fiction and its sociological relationship. Though originally published in 1971 and focusing primarily on British writers it remains an entertaining and interesting examination of the genre and how it reflects taste and attitudes of society.

Watson, of course, was himself a purveyor of the craft and noted for a series laced with satire. His primary purpose in “Snobbery” was to illustrate how popular crime fiction echoed the temper of the times in which it was written and he does an admiral job with examples from the beginning of the 20th century down to novels of Leslie Charteris and Ian Fleming.

This is not meant to be a review of his book. I simply intend to point out some factors which still hold true and may be of interest to my fellow writers.

For instance, Watson points out crime fiction is divided into two main categories—the mystery (detective story) and the thriller.

“The detective story stimulates, or is supposed to stimulate, the intellect because it contains a puzzle. People who cannot be bothered with puzzles do not read it. It diverts because it presents a situation outside the normal experience of the reader.” He adds, most importantly to its success, is the solution of the puzzle by the end of the book. But: “We do not like the outcome of a detective novel to be easily predictable.”

The thriller, on the other hand, need not include a puzzle. But it must have action, the more the better. Confusion and suspense add to the mix. “Just as there is no reason to doubt the assertion by some women that they like to go to the cinema to have ‘a good cry,’ one recognizes the fact that very many people feel better for a good chase or a few good murders.”

Another point which may be of interest to modern writers, who even more than those of the past find themselves in the position of having to promote themselves rather than having it done for them by their publishers, is found in the example of Edgar Wallace.

In the 1920s Wallace was the acknowledged king of thrillers. He churned out 173 books between 1906 and his death in 1932 and was responsible for 25 percent of British book sales at the height of his career. He was not a great writer, but he was a master of self-promotion.

As noted by Watson, “He took care always to be accessible, easy to interview, and unfailingly opinionated. He readily contributed articles on whatever matters happened at the moment to be uppermost in the bird-brains of Fleet Street.”

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is It Just About Money?

Recently on a writers’ site people were discussing what might happen if the electronic novel supplanted the printed version. I was surprised when several suggested writing would become merely a hobby because it would virtually eliminate the incentive of making money.

Really? I won’t go into my reasons now for believing e-novels have potential for enhancing opportunities for both readers and writers. But money? Is that the only reason people write? Don’t get me wrong, I like money as much as the next guy. But if you want to make money writing fiction isn’t the best way to do it.

Like other creative people, it’s in the nature of writers to crave recognition. And money certainly compliments other forms of recognition. A few people in our own generation have become very wealthy as a result of their fiction. But many more supplement meager earnings from fiction with a day job.

And that’s been the case historically. Recognition for many, many more didn’t come until long after their deaths. Now surely all of us would prefer to have some of that acclaim and gelt while we’re around to enjoy it. But, realistically, we have to abide with the facts.

Even Poe had little recognition and lived in poverty most of his life. Joyce? He died in financial straits. F. Scott Fitzgerald, now considered one of America’s leading writers, didn’t make much money from The Great Gatsby or Tender is the Night, which are now considered his best novels. In fact, it wasn’t until after his death his books won him wide recognition.

The same is true of many others. Katherine Anne Porter, a major voice in 20th century American literature, supported herself with journalism and hack writing. Her first book, Flowering Judas, met with only modest sales and it was nearly 10 years later that she published a second book. Isaac Barshevis Singer, born in 1904, dropped out of rabbinical school after only two years and supported himself for most of his life as a journalist, translator and proof reader. Championed by Saul Bellow and other writers, he published his first novel in English in 1950, won fame and, eventually, a Nobel Prize.

I could go on and on with this analogy. But you see my point.

Few of us write fiction because we expect to get rich. We don’t write because of lack of ability to do something else. We write it because we want to—and that doesn’t demean it to the limit of a hobby. Not that there’s anything wrong with hobbies. But a hobby is something we do primarily for entertainment; a diversion from the trials and cares of every day life. Anyone who tries it will soon learn writing fiction is not always entertaining. It’s hard work and anything but a diversion.

If your goal is to make money from writing, then you’d best consider options other than fiction.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

New Release Coming

I just signed with my publisher, Whiskey Creek Press, for the fourth novel in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series. I don't have a publication date yet, so I can't say more about that at this point.

There are few things a writer likes more than a new contract. Need I say I'm thrilled to have a new book in the offing.

BEING SOMEONE ELSE begins with the discovery of an out-of-state reporter found murdered in the restroom of a sleazy bar. Most of the patrons scatter before police arrive on scene. Of the few who remain, none is willing to admit having seen or talked to the victim. When contacted, even the man's wife can't answer why he was in Swatara Creek.

Later the team learns of the murder of another out-of-stater in an adjoining county and the disappearance of a popular Catholic priest. Is there--as Stick's friend State Police investigator Reuben Riehm suspects--a connection between the cases?

More later.

For those who haven't read the series, now would be a good time to read SOMETHING IN COMMON, CRUEL CUTS and CORRUPTION'S CHILD.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Anybody Want to Buy an Old Typewriter?

I have a cherished Remington Quiet-writer my parents bought for me way back in the 1950s. They probably intended it strictly for schoolwork. It got much more use over the years as I pounded out several novels, countless articles and short stories, a play, letters and tons of other documents.

None of those novels ever sold and the play was such a terrible mess I wouldn’t even discuss it today. Many of those articles and short stories did sell and helped me learn a bit about the writing process. Though it had its faults, I loved that quirky old machine and kept it even after replacing it in the 1970s with an electric model which cost much more and wasn’t half as good. Like most everyone else I’ve turned to a computer now (I think I’m on the fourth one as a matter of fact) and it has its virtues. But I’ll never be as fond of any computer as I am of that old Remington.

I don’t really want to sell my typewriter. I mention it only as the result of reading in the New York Times yesterday morning how Cormac McCarthy plans to sell the Olivetti he’s used since 1963. McCarthy has been much more successful at the writing trade than I ever expect to be and he’s won a slew of awards attesting to his skill. He’s replaced his typewriter with another just like the old one (no computers for him) and he’s selling the Olivetti for a good purpose.

In case you want to place a bid, McCarthy’s typewriter is being auctioned off at Christie’s on Friday and it’s estimated it may fetch as much as $20,000. Proceeds will benefit the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit interdisciplinary scientific research institute with which he’s affiliated.

Don’t bother making any offers for my typewriter. It doesn’t work very good anymore and its hard to find ribbons. But I still have a lot of fond memories of the service it did provide for many, many years. Come to think of it, I may still have that electric in the attic if you want to make a bid on that. Anything up to and including $20,000 will be considered.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Meet Flora Vastine

Flora Vastine warranted no more than a few paragraphs in Something in Common, the first of the Sticks Hetrick mysteries.

Of course she wasn’t a police officer then and was only filling a minority role in that novel. In fact, I didn’t even see her as a recurring character at the time. In Cruel Cuts I had need of both another protégé for Hetrick and a love interest for Corporal Harry Minnich. Flora, who had expressed interest in a police career in the first novel, fit the requirements for both needs.

Hetrick was still mourning the loss of his wife Sarah and I didn’t anticipate his falling in love with some one else at that point (though he almost did succumb to the charms of old friend Melissa Kline). But I did believe a little romance was necessary to broaden interest in what I now envisioned as an ongoing series. Even in the darkest of crime novels characters need to have interest in a little more than just catching the villain in order to be fully developed. Flora and Harry were the obvious choices for my purpose.

Since then Flora has become a major player. In fact, she warrants nearly as much space in Corruption’s Child as does Hetrick. And she’s equally important in Being Someone Else (awaiting publication).

Flora is young and energetic. She has enthusiasm and genuinely cares about other people. Occasionally she makes mistakes and gets in trouble. All of which make her very human.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Generative Factor

What do Michael Connelly and I have in common?

Now I see some head-scratching as some of my friends try making the comparison. I’ll make it easy for you. We share a number of things in common.

We’re both natives of Pennsylvania. We’re both male. We both write mysteries (okay, his are better known and sell far in excess of mine). We’re both former reporters and worked the crime beat. We both knew early on we wanted to be writers. Our interest in the subject was sparked by our youthful reading.

Enough with the comparisons. I could have as easily chosen a number of other writers born in Pennsylvania—John Dickson Carr (master of the locked room mystery and a favorite in my early introduction to the genre), John D. MacDonald or the noir master David Goodis. For my purpose, I could as well have chosen a number of admirable women writers born in the Keystone State: Jane Haddam, Lisa Scottoline, Martha Grimes or even Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Place of birth is of no consequence in making a writer. Nor is gender. Those are matters over which none of us has control. What does actually contribute to our becoming writers, though, is our early reading, our life experience, our association with other people. This mix, which may or may not be augmented by educational experience, is the generative factor.

Whether we succeed depends as much on persistence as on background. There are many others with similar circumstances who set out to become writers and gave up because they weren’t willing to persevere.

That, my friends, is the telling ingredient.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Meet Aaron Brubaker

Aaron Brubaker is the police chief of Swatara Creek in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series.

Though they’ve become closer in later books, Brubaker is both a little jealous and suspicious of Hetrick. Though he has more than 20 years in law enforcement, he readily acknowledges the former chief has something he lacks.

“Most of the time, Brubaker liked his job as police chief of the town of Swatara Creek. It entailed a certain amount of power and gave him respect he’d never expected to have. Normally he faced nothing more taxing than handing out parking tickets and dealing with occasional Saturday night drunks and mischievous kids.” (from Something In Common, Whiskey Creek Press, 2006)

But when it came to murder, he felt out of his depth. It was for that reason he called Hetrick in as a special consultant on their first joint case in Something In Common. Hetrick had dealt with murder, both as a police chief and earlier in his career as a state trooper. Still, Brubaker wanted the arrangement kept between them. His was a political appointment. He didn’t want those supervisors thinking he wasn’t up to the job.

Brubaker is a good, honest man; a good family man, and a good cop. He has grown in the subsequent novels, Cruel Cuts and Corruption’s Child. But even in the fourth novel in the series (awaiting publication) he still harbors a suspicion Hetrick wants his old job back.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

It's All in the Imagination

“And as the imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

That stanza from Shakespeare defines for me the act of literary creation. I would carry it another step forward to define a particular literary form—that of the horror tale. A story in the Oct. 28 edition of the Washington Post had a round up of favorite horror stories of some well known authors.

What constitutes a horror story is a subjective matter. What chills me might leave you cold and vice versa. I contend a central factor must be an element that is fear-inspiring. To quote Shakespeare again from that same noble work:

“Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!”

It’s all to do with the imagination, baby. Webster defines fear as apprehension of evil or danger; dread; anxiety. All conditions deriving from our imagination.

As I said, what gives me goose-bumps may bother you not a whit. I’m not afraid of snakes, but spiders give me the willies. I know others who are psyched out by clowns, monkeys and other critters most find innocuous.

It’s all in the imagination.

Frankly, I’ve had enough with the vampires. They’re too familiar to be scary anymore and few have come up to Stoker’s Dracula. And the slash and gore stuff so popular in film is (sorry fans) not horror.

Some tales that have frightened (and delighted me) would include Poe’s The Premature Burial, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and his Thrawn Janet (despite the dialect), and W. W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw.

I’m sure you have your own list.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Welcome to Swatara Creek

There is a Swatara Creek, but no town of that name in Pennsylvania. The Swatara Creek of which I write is solely the invention of this author, though it is representative of many of the older Susquehanna River towns that have become bedroom communities for the more metropolitan areas of the Commonwealth.

The Swatara Creek of which I write is the fictional home of Daniel ‘Sticks’ Hetrick, retired police chief of the community and now unofficial consultant to his less experienced successor, Aaron Brubaker.

The town sits on a promontory in a bend of the stream for which it is named. What follows is from Something In Common, first in the Hetrick mystery series:

“The town owes it existence to the descendants of one Jacob Koontz who acquired the land circa 1754 after immigrating from Germany. Tradition said the rise had been the site of an Indian village at some time before the coming of Koontz and there’s evidence to support the legend since it’s still possible to find an occasional flint arrowhead if one looks hard enough down on the flats along the creek after a hard spring rain. It was said Koontz went through two wives and produced a dozen children before he decided the land was not suited to farming; the soil being too shallow and brittle with shale to produce much more than the broom grass that already covered the land when he arrived.

“So old Koontz turned his attention to providing his neighbors in that misbegotten wilderness with what was missing, and what he felt was most needed in their empty lives. He opened the first tavern in the county in a large limestone building which stands yet today on the square, though it now serves as the village municipal building, police station and library. Koontz’s enterprise flourished and led, naturally, to the distilling of whiskey.

“Thus from a simple pot still behind the tavern came the industry that gave birth to the village, which was known for generations afterward as Koontztown. His descendants grew rich and fat and complacent and Koontz Rye Whiskey became a favored brand in that area of the state and was even shipped as far away as Connecticut. By the 1800s, the distillery now located down on the flat provided employment for some two hundred men who resided with their families in the town, and the railroad even built a spur line up along the creek to service the plant. If things had continued as they were, the place might still be Koontztown. But after Prohibition closed down the distillery, the town was in danger of dying and would have had it not been for the arrival of LeRoy Finkbine who purchased the empty distillery and established his shoe factory, which provided employment for those who remained in the moribund community.”

(Next time, Aaron Brubaker)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Meet Sticks Hetrick

Daniel “Sticks” Hetrick is the lead character in a mystery series named for him. Though he’s the primary, there’s a cast of continuing characters and I’ll be introducing others in coming weeks.

In the first novel in the series, Something In Common, Hetrick was introduced as the retired police chief of the rural community of Swatara Creek, Pennsylvania. His successor in the job, acknowledging his more limited experience, reluctantly opened the door for Hetrick to act as an unofficial consultant to the department. There is a continuing element of rivalry in their relationship, though they’ve become closer friends in the later novels.

In addition to his years with the local police department, Hetrick previously served with the state police. His retirement was precipitated by the illness and subsequent death of his wife, Sarah, as well as a feud between him and his political overseer. Both issues continue to haunt him and frequently result in personal conflicts.

Hetrick had been bored in retirement. The challenges of his new responsibilities and comradeship with Brubaker and, particularly, his protégés, Harry Minnich and Flora Vastine have given him a new lease on life.

In the second novel, Cruel Cuts, he renewed acquaintance with an old friend and nearly became romantically involved. Though it didn’t occur then, a new romantic possibility cropped up in the third novel, Corruption’s Child, in the person of Anita Baker. Will love change Hetrick? That remains to be seen.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Woody Allen. You either love or hate his work. There is no in-between.

Like most of his admirers I have my likes and dislikes in his oeuvre. I was thinking of this the other night as I watched a showing of Manhattan. The film is one of my favorites—right up there with the marvelous Hannah and Her Sisters and topping (in my prejudiced opinion) Annie Hall.

All three films have elements of the standard Allen themes and show a strong European rather than Hollywood influence. My ranking of favorites is more subjective than objective and the films, of themselves, are not the subject of this essay.

Rather I’m considering what a writer may learn from Allen. He is more than a screenwriter and director (possibly one of the best the country has produced). He has been a stand up comedian an actor and even a musician. But primarily he is a writer.

And because of that, we can learn from him. His films and other work have much to say about the importance of character development, about scenes and pacing, experimentation and the ultimate value of plot. Allen says he never titles a film until it’s finished because it may not end as he originally envisioned it.

With a repertoire of more than 50 films, two Oscars and 14 other nominations you would think the man would be confident in his expectation of success. You’d be wrong. And that’s not a reflection of his famous neurotic tendencies. As he said in a recent interview, each film is independent of the others and a new trial-by-experience adventure.

And that’s one of the most important things we can learn from him—each story, each book, each whatever it is you’re writing provides a new challenge to be met and should be treated as such.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tempted To Idleness

Despite all the devices intended to make our lives easier it never fails to amaze me how many people complain of a lack of time to accomplish all they want to do. I can’t claim to exempt myself here, for I’ve made the same complaint often enough.

Yet, when you compare our lives, it’s astonishing how much people lacking our conveniences accomplished in the past.

Take Dickens, as an example. The man was a veritable fountain of energy. In a life of less than 60 years he penned 20 novels—many of them initially produced as weekly or monthly serials—none of which has ever gone out of print. He would often start one novel while halfway through another and in the midst of continuous journalism. Add to that three short story collections, numerous other short stories, non-fiction, poetry and plays.

And, at the same time, he was heavily involved in social reform efforts, doing public readings, engaged in family and social life and having a secret fling with a young mistress. Nor was he a sedentary creature. He was an energetic walker, often going more than 10 miles a day.

Dickens is only one example of many. There are many similar cases to be found in biographies of writers, artists and other notables of the past. There are lessons to be learned from their example.

What has happened to us? Are we so distracted by our conveniences and entertainment devices we willingly surrender our creativity to their temptation?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gift Suggestions

With the holidays fast approaching, it’s a good time to consider gift ideas for family and friends (or yourself, should you be so inclined). I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest one of my novels as a viable choice.

I’m taking a hint from my friend Margaret Blake and offering the following blurbs as enticement. (you can read Margaret’s blurbs here:

My blurbs:

Ben Yeager is a police officer, sworn to protect property of mine owners in the 1870s in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. His job makes him the enemy of the Irish. And that’s the crux of his troubles. For Ben is in love with an Irish girl. (Published by Whiskey Creek Press and available in both print and electronic form)

Retired police chief Daniel ‘Sticks’ Hetrick, still serving as unofficial consultant to his less experienced successor, has another murder to solve in rural Swatara Creek, PA. It soon develops the death of a local waitress is not the only trouble in the township. An elderly man has been seriously injured in the latest of a string of burglaries from the Amish and items are missing from the police department evidence room. (Whiskey Creek Press, third in the series)

Wounded and on the run from a sheriff, Dandy Dan McCracken, a rogue wandering around Pennsylvania and living by his wits during the American Revolution, is rescued and nursed back to health by the lovely ward of Benedict Arnold’s procurement officer in Philadelphia. McCracken is attracted to the girl, but when her husband returns from the front, he flees and falls in with a band of British spies. Love will have him discover his conscience, switch sides and become a hero. (Lachesis Publishing)

CRUEL CUTS (second in the Hetrick mystery series)
When a rash of animal mutilations plague a rural Pennsylvania community and a vicious poison pen campaign targets an ambitious young lawyer, it leads to murder. Dan “Sticks” Hetrick, retired police chief, and Flora Vastine, a novice officer, team up and encounter false leads, dangerous episodes and another murder before the case is resolved. (Whiskey Creek Press)

SOMETHING IN COMMON (first in the Hetrick series)
A lonely widow finds the severed head of an unknown young woman on her front porch in a quiet, rural community. In seeking her identity, retired Police Chief Daniel “Sticks” Hetrick discovers a link to a major theft of rare ornithological books and a trail that leads from the big city to his hometown where he is forced to confront danger and the darker side of his community and residents. (Whiskey Creek Press)

An elderly man hoping for one last deer hunt forces himself and his family to confront secrets that have separated them from one another and the truth for years. (iUniverse)

Early in the 19th century, expanding markets for Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal created a smaller scale prelude to the California gold rush. Many who flocked to the region were ambitiously ruthless in pursuit of this ‘black gold.’ Captain Isaac Schlussel is typical of the breed. When he’s felled by an assassin’s bullet his greed provides a multitude of suspects who are introduced in chapters which flash back and forth in time to reveal his history and his obsession with the beautiful woman who is both his wife and the unintentional source of his downfall. (iUniverse)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Don't 'Vook' Now

For many of us who grew up before the days of television a book was an opportunity to step into another world. Books were entertainment, education, friends that never let one down.

Of course not everyone in that time shared my enthusiasm for reading. There were probably more readers then than now. But it would be wrong to infer everyone read just because there was no TV or other distraction. And those of us who like to read continued to do so even as opportunity for visual entertainment expanded.

As Ruskin so aptly phrased it, “No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable, until it has been read, and re-read, and loved, and loved again; and marked, so that you can refer to the passages you want in it.” I’ve known books like that.

Film (which I love) and television have their value. But they’re a different style of entertainment/education and can’t replace reading for the true aficionado.

Unfortunately the visual trend and a faster lifestyle inevitably led to drastic changes in reading. People lost patience with lengthy books. They wanted everything in a hurry. We saw the adoption of speed-reading and condensed novels—a true travesty to my mind. If an author wanted us to skip words and passages wouldn’t he have written a shorter book?

Novels especially are not for speed-reading. They require attention, devotion to the beauty of words, even rare and unusual words, a willingness to accept the author’s eccentricities as a different way of looking at things. They were not meant to be fast food for the brain but a meal to be savored.

I don’t have a problem with electronic novels. I’ve even published some. They’re still books, even though they can never replace an actual tome held in the hand for the true believer.

But now I read this morning Simon & Schuster is teaming up with a multi-media partner to produce something called a “vook,” which intersperses videos with text—a nod to those incapable of visualizing. Has imagination truly been stifled to that extent?

I share the disdain of Walter Mosley, who said he would never allow videos to substitute for prose. “Reading is one of the few experiences we have outside of relationships in which our cognitive abilities grow,” Mosley said.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Endorse Your Freedom to Read

Banned Books Week is being observed Sept. 26-Oct. 3.

This celebration should have the support of every writer and reader. Particularly in a time when libraries across the nation are closing because of lack of funding and schools, libraries, bookstores and, yes, publishers are being assailed with bans and challenges to our freedom to read.

The community where I grew up didn’t even have a library until I was in high school. Fortunately my father had a good selection of books and I was free from an early age to read whatever I wanted. I absorbed everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey to Herman Melville and Miguel de Cervantes.

People and groups challenge books for a variety of reasons. Often those challenges are based on the slimmest foundations, on prejudice, on hearsay and other false premises. I remember when the film based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ there was an outcry to have both the book and the film banned. It wasn’t the first time the book had been challenged. As a reporter, I did a story on the issue. I didn’t find a single person who endorsed the ban who had actually read the book.

How can you judge a book you haven’t read? If you want, any book may be deemed offensive to someone. Does that mean it should be taken off the shelves and burned? I hope not. I just looked at this week’s New York Times list of top 10 bestsellers. There are only one of two on that list I’d care to read. Would I want the others banned? Absolutely not. Tastes and choice vary.

A long time ago Sir Thomas Overbury wrote “Books are a part of man’s prerogative.” I agree and I don’t believe any man, woman or group has the right to dictate what another can or can’t read.

The national celebration was launched in 1982 and is sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the National Association of College Stores. Banned Books Week is also endorsed by the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress.

More information is available here

Friday, September 11, 2009

How to Grab a Reader

A recent discussion by a writer group focused on how readers choose and read a book.

Several participants who have worked in bookstores commented on their observance of readers and noted they seldom made a judgment based on the first few pages of a book. Instead they seemed to observe the cover, read the back cover blurb and then examine pages “within” the book. Most of us were surprised to learn judgment was not based on the first few pages of a book.

There seems to be a lesson here for us writers on how to grab a reader. Presentation is important. And writing should be consistently good throughout a book.

A more important issue to me in the discussion was how readers read. Many contend they skim books, ignore the boring parts and don’t like books that are lengthy. The comments didn’t surprise me, many of the participants being from the speed-reading and television generation.

As a writer and reader, I abhor the idea of skimming. Speed-reading may allow one to get through more books in less time. But are they being enjoyed and digested? Aside from the fact the author’s hard work is being minimized, the reader doesn’t have/take the time to savor all the work has to offer.

As to the boring parts—what might they be? Elmore Leonard’s classic advice to writers is to “leave out the boring parts.” But he never defines what those might be. There is a difference between writing good narrative and padding. There are readers who don’t like lengthy description. Others do. That’s a personal choice. This does not necessarily mean one writer who uses description is less than another. I like and read both Dickens and Hemingway. I know of several popular writers who pen beautiful prose but their characters and plot leave me cold. I don’t read them. Again, that’s a personal choice.

The same applies to the length of a book. I’ve enjoyed novels that barely topped a hundred pages and others approaching a thousand pages. What they had in common was a good story.

What it all boils down to is readers (like writers) are different. You can’t please everyone. You’ve just got to do the best you can.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Grim History of a Struggle

Labor Day, which was instituted in 1882 in honor of the working man and labor movement, got me thinking about the labor movement and how much of its history connects to my home state of Pennsylvania.

One of the first unions in the U.S. was formed by shoemakers in Philadelphia in 1794. The Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers succeeded in securing moderate wage increases for its members for a number of years. But when they initiated a strike for higher wages in 1805 organizers were indicted on charges of conspiracy.

Eight union leaders were brought to trial. After three days of testimony, the jury found them guilty and they were fined $8 each (the equivalent of a week’s wages) plus the costs of the suit.

The law established by this trial, that unions were illegal conspiracies, remained in effect until 1842 when Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw ruled in a Massachusetts case they were legal entities with the right to organize strikes.

Much of the action in the so-called Great Railroad Strike of 1877 took place here in Pennsylvania. The worse violence in that strike occurred in Pittsburgh where more than 40 people were killed. Another 16 civilians were shot down by militia in Reading. On July 25, 1877, here in my hometown of Shamokin, 1,000 men and boys, predominately coal miners, marched on the Reading Railroad Depot when it was announced they would be paid only a dollar a day for emergency public employment. A vigilante group organized by the mayor, a mine owner, killed two and injured 14 of the protesters.

Speaking of miners, Irish laborers were the core of militant union activism in response to drastic wage cuts in the 1860s and 1870s. Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, which owned many of the biggest mines, focused blame primarily on the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish organization. Historians today disagree on the legitimacy of those charges which led to the hanging of 20 men. My novel, Watch The Hour, was partially inspired by tales of the Mollies I heard growing up in the coal region.

In 1892, a strike by Carnegie steelworkers resulted in more violence and deaths in Homestead, Pa. And on Sept. 10, 1897 a sheriff’s posse killed 19 unarmed miners and wounded 30 more in what is now known as the Lattimer Massacre near Hazleton.

As recently as the 1970s I interviewed a principal investigator of the murder of Joseph Yablonski and his family by assassins in retaliation for Yablonski’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat W. A. Boyle, president of the United Mine Workers. In the 1980s, I met and interviewed a son of Lech Walesa, who led the organization of Solidarity in Poland, one of the principal figures of unionism in the 20th century.

I’ve never belonged to a union. Both my parents did. My father worked on the railroad and my mother in the textile industry. Though I’ve witnessed many labor organizations becoming as greedy as the industrialists who fomented their necessity, I think it’s important we recognize Labor Day as more than just an excuse for the last picnic of the summer.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Does Height Influence Crime?

In researching for my newspaper column on local history I came across an article about a psychological study conducted in 1934 at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.

The article was of interest for several reasons. One, because the penitentiary involved is in my home territory. Another was because of the quirky nature of the some of the results reported in the study.

The examination involved some 800 inmates and was conducted by the Public Health Service under the leadership of Dr. Michael J. Pescor. Dr. Pescor was a respected clinician who developed a reputation as an authority on criminology and drug addiction.

The study at Lewisburg used as its basis a personality test originated by Professor R. E. Woodworth of Columbia University. To quote the report: “Every phase of the prisoner’s life before his entrance to the penitentiary is unfolded as the doctor puts pertinent questions to him which bring out his psycho-neurotic tendencies. They delve into the prisoner’s family history, his medical record, his experience in early childhood, and even ask him to what degree he can tolerate offensive odors.”

The study found that a majority of the prisoners gave answers about the same as ordinary citizens, except “…most worry easily, are irritable, have little or no sense of humor, and complain often of a bodily pain which does not exist in reality.”

Personally, I’d say those exceptions were pretty broad, though they might have been influenced by the fact of incarceration. The study also appears not to have taken into consideration the possibility the men were lying or boasting in response to some questions.

Regarding those inmates who were found to be emotionally unstable, the report said these were primarily composed of habitual criminals, chronic drunkards and men who had a disrupted home life before they were 16. Nearly all blamed their trouble on drinking.

Here’s the conclusion I found most interesting: “This group (the emotionally unstable) averages about an inch less in height than the stable group, and also average slightly more than seven pounds less in weight.”

So, does being short in height and light in weight indicate a propensity for a life of crime?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Good Translation

Some books fail in translation to the screen. The same is true of plays. One notable exception is Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth.”

I watched the 2005 film version last night and found it a superb bit of nasty entertainment. This was the remake of the 1972 film and I’m not commenting here on that version which stands on its own. This version’s success is primarily due to the scripting by Harold Pinter and the marvelous performance of Michael Caine and Jude Law. Kenneth Branagh's cinematography deserves a plug, also.

Caine plays the role played by Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1972 film and Law that played by Caine in the previous version.

Whether you agree with Pinter’s politics or not, no one can deny the man was a master wordsmith. He turned out 32 stage plays, 22 screenplays, numerous TV scripts and won the Nobel for literature in 2005.

There’s no denying Caine and Law are among the best of modern performers and both are in top form in this film.

In brief, Caine plays Andrew Wyke, an aging mystery writer, whose wife has left him for a younger man (Law). Law portrays Milo Tindle, a struggling actor and part-time waiter (or is it, hairdresser, as Wyke asserts?). Wyke has invited Tindle to his high-tech country mansion to discuss their situation. Tindle accepts, hoping to convince Wyke to grant his wife a divorce. Wyke is more interested in playing mind games, which become more and more dicier as they proceed.

Caine/Wyke wins the first round. Law/Tindle the second. Like the play, this adaptation is built on three acts, each raising the stakes for the protagionists. The whole is decidedly a dark and nasty bit. But, for my money, worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Killer Nashville

I had the opportunity last weekend to attend the 4th annual Killer Nashville mystery writers' conference. I was fortunate earlier in winning a competition sponsored by Tony Burton's Crime and Suspense magazine, which paid my registration fee.

Accompanied by my 17-year-old grandson, Michael, we drove to Tennessee (more than 800 miles one way), not knowing what to expect. Let me say right off the top, it was worth the effort.

The event attracts writers, filmmakers, publishers, agents and fans from across the nation and Canada. It includes programs on various phases of writing and publishing as well as seminars on investigative techniques and forensics by representatives of law enforcement agencies.This year’s guest of honor was New York Times best-selling writer J.A. Jance, author of four popular crime fiction series and winner of the American Mystery Award. She gave an interview and presentation Saturday followed by a book signing and dinner in her honor.

One of the key presenters this year was Lee Lofland, nationally acclaimed expert on police procedure and crime scene investigation, who conducted six sessions. I attended several of those, had opportunity to talk one-on-one with Lee and bought a copy of his book, "Police Procedure and Investigation."I also attended seminars on blood spatter, the mind of the psychopath, poisons and poisoners and another on the state of the publishing business.

Something I wasn't expecting to do (but enjoyed) was being a panelist on The Dark Muse: Inspiration and the Mystery Crime Writer. The panel was moderated by Philip Cioffari, filmmaker and author of "Catholic Boys." Others on the panel were Radine Trees Nehring, author of the Carrie McCrite mysteries, and Dr. A. Scott Pearson, author of the medical thriller, "Rupture."

Not only did I meet some people I've only corresponded with in the past--like Tony Burton, Chester Campbell and others--I talked to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agents, attorneys, a private investigator and many other writers.

In addition to all the writerly activities, I also spent some quality time with my eldest grandson and had dinner with Becky and Rick Crow, who drove in from Missouri to meet us. Becky and I share ancestry but had never met in person.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Killer Nashville

In just a few days my grandson Michael and I will be on the road to Tennessee for Killer Nashville.

Michael, a budding musician, is anxious to see the Music City and agreed to be navigator/companion for the 'Old Guy' on this road trip. Neither of us have been to Nashville before, but we're eager for the adventure.

I won admission to the conference in a competiton held by Tony Burton's Crime and Suspense magazine. It's an opportunity to promote my books, smooze with other scribes (some of whom I know through correspondence but have not met personally), pitch an agent and editor and attend seminars on various writing and forensics subjects. I'm especially eager to attend some of those seminars being conducted by Lee Lofland, nationally acclaimed expert on police procedure and crime scene investigation. Guest of honor for the affair is J. A. Jance.

I've also been invited to participate in a panel, "The Dark Muse: Inspiration and the Mystery Crime Writer."

Another plus will be the chance to finally meet in person a family connection made through genealogical correspondence.

It should be an interesting couple of days.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Another Good Review

A writer can't afford to ignore reviews. True, they are merely one person's opinion. But that solitary person might be the very one whose opinion drastically impacts on the future of the writer's career.

Naturally we all crave good reviews. Who doesn't prefer a pat on the shoulder to a kick in the butt? Still even a bad review (occasionally) can be helpful--pointing out to us the fallacy of a viewpoint, an error in judgment, a mistake in grammar. It might also inspire a fan to leap to our defense and tell the reviewer his/her opinion is hogwash.

When the good reviews come we are arrogant enough to leap up and shout, "Hey, look at this. This is why you should be buying my books." Nothing wrong with that either. There are a lot of books being published today. How else are we to get the reader's attention lest we brag a bit?

So, I'm going to do that now and encourage you all to see what Chris Speakman had to say about 'Corruption's Child,' third in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series. You can read her review at

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Harmful Philosophy

B. F. Skinner, the apostle of Behaviorism, spent much of his life preaching a doctrine proven false by his own achievements.

A failed novelist whose philosophy is best known through a novel which is not a novel, his career was in opposition to the forces he contended shaped individual existence.

A native of Susquehanna, Pa., a small community with socio-economic similarities to my own area, Skinner rose from a background of limited opportunity to achieve prominence as an educator, psychologist, writer and inventor.

Yet his theories negate free will, viewing man as a mere robot reacting mechanically to the influence of environment. His views influenced generations of students and have engendered much harm to a world sorely in need of hope and reason.

Despite his own achievements, Skinner was blind to the human capacity for change and adaptability exemplified by those who continue to overcome bleak existence and monumental obstacles through imagination and perseverance. He denied the wonders of faith, optimism and creativity which are responsible for all that is marvelous about the creature called man.

He abandoned hope of achieving success as a writer of fiction when he decided he had nothing to say. Turning to the study of psychology, he forged a radical philosophy which was as much rooted in the Calvinistic religion he abandoned as a youth as it was in the discoveries of Pavlov he championed.

Skinner’s experimentation with rats and pigeons convinced him man could be similarly be influenced for behavioral modification. He failed to grasp that man’s superior brainpower makes him less susceptible to generic gratification and more capable of eccentric resistance to control devices.

He taught that man could be reshaped for a happier and more productive life only through a tightly controlled system of rewards and punishment. Apparently he was unable to achieve the proper balance of these influences in his own life for he is remembered by colleagues as an unhappy person.

His 1948 utopian novel “Walden Two,” which quickly became a textbook in colleges across the nation, is little more than a polemic for his theories.

The thesis he expressed later in life already had been formed when he abandoned literature at age 24. This is confirmed by a quote from his journal of the period: “I feel that greatness is merely the result of a happy combination of trivial influences, that the great man cannot help being great, the poor man cannot help being poor.”

A critique of the playwright Ibsen in Skinner’s readable autobiography “Particulars of My Life” might as easily be applied to him: “Philosophy deals with or rather plays with objects of its own creation. Ibsen was essentially a philosopher in his habits of thinking. The desire for order led him, as it leads all of his ilk, to defining, to delimiting, an aspect of life into a word and hence to deal with the word rather than the aspect.”

Had Skinner contemplated Carantouan, the magic hill of the Susquehannock Indians which can be seen from his hometown, he might have been led to speculate on a people who defied the limitations of a harsh environment and the encroachment of stronger enemies to create a rich and complex society uniquely their own.

Each person chooses whether to float passively with the stream or swim boldly against the current.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Encouraging Signs

I had a signing for Watch The Hour yesterday at my hometown library. While sales were less than I might have hoped, I've had worse and consider any such opportunity worthwhile.

Though I'm a frequent visitors, I'm not usually in the library on a weekday morning. It was encouraging to see so many patrons utilizing the facility for a variety of purposes. I was especially happy to note the number of mothers (and some fathers) present and introducing their children to books and reading. How could a writer not rejoice in that?

I also spoke to several people engaged in genealogy, another major pursuit of mine. One of these was a young lady who came over to introduce herself, explaining she had previously contacted me by email on a genealogy issue. She has been working for some time on an expansive genealogy project dealing with some early prominent residents of our town and is a budding writer. She gave me her card and asked that I have a look at her on line project. I may have more to say on this later. For now, just say I found much to applaud in her enthusiasm and dedication to preserving history.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Busy, Busy

I've neglected writing here the past few days in favor of--what else? Writing.

I've off to a good start on a yet unnamed mystery featuring Sylvester Tilghman, the country sheriff I mentioned here previously. He is demanding my attention, and that's not a bad thing. Where exactly he'll take me over the coming weeks is a matter of conjecture. But, at least for now, I'm enjoying the journey.

On another front, I've completed arrangements for a booksigning next Tuesday at the Shamokin-Coal Township Public Library--my hometown library.

I also had a call yesterday confirming a speaking engagement in October for the Susquehanna Valley Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution. They've asked that I talk to them on the Mollie Maguires, a subject past study and research for the writing of Watch The Hour has amply prepared me to address.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Worthy Endeavor

Despite their less than affluent status, many writers devote energy and financial support to charitable projects.

An example of this is my friend Bob Bomboy who, since 2005, has been operating a free model railroading program called Saturday Trains in Bloomsburg PA. He is now expanding the program with the first ever hands-on railroad layout for wheelchair-bound children and adults. The program was recognized in the May issue of Classic Toy Trains magazine.

Simply creating the program for the benefit of handicapped children and adults is worthy of praise. But Bob is also using proceeds from his writing to support the project.

He's holding a book signing this Saturday from 1-3 p.m. at Waldenbooks in the Susquehanna Valley Mall, Selinsgrove PA. Proceeds from sales of his novel, Smart Boys Swimming in the River Styx, will benefit the project.

The novel, available on Amazon and from other major booksellers, centers around the Korean War and the tragic wreck of a troop train. The wreck is based on an actual event, one of the worst in American railroad history, which Bob remembers from his childhood.

If you happen to be in the neighborhood Saturday, stop by and support the project.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Character Asserting Himself

I recently wrote two short stories featuring a country sheriff named Tilghman. The first, “Dangerous to Mess With,” is in the current issue of Mysterical-E (he’s not identified by name in this story, but it’s him). The second has been submitted to another venue and the result awaits to be seen.

Tilghman is now demanding a book and the process has got under way.

Characters can be like that. They pop up, sometimes seemingly out of no where, in a writer’s imagination, develop personalities and go on to lead us into stories.

Tilghman’s grandfather was in my first novel, Schlussel’s Woman, and his father has a bit role in Watch The Hour. Maybe he thinks it’s a family prerogative to be one of my characters.

Some people believe plot to be the essence of story. I beg to differ. Every story begins and ends with character. Plot develops from character. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (a wonderful book, by the way) defines character as “An oddity. One who has a distinctive peculiarity of manner.”

We remember Sherlock Holmes, not the plot of individual stories in the series. Long John Silver. The Count of Monte Cristo. The Three Musketeers. Ripley. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Need I go on?

Plot is nothing more than the path a character takes and which entails us to follow. Philip Roth said he begins a novel with a character in his predicament. Or as Lester Dent says in his famous formula, “Introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble.”

Seems like a sound plan to me.

Lead on Tilghman.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Learning From Film

I recently watched the film “Heaven’s Gate” and was reminded how much a writer can learn from a film—even a bad one.

I’m sure Michael Cimino didn’t set out to make a bad film and may not consider this as broad a failure as history has judged it. Nonetheless, this 1980 blockbuster has been panned by hordes of critics—both professional and amateur; was a bust at the box office, contributed to the demise of United Artists and virtually destroyed the director/writer’s career.

Few books have had such a calamitous impact on their creators.

Personally I think it could have been a great film. I believe it was Cimino’s intent to make a great film (why aspire to anything less?). It had an ambitious and worthy premise: a historical incident in which wealthy cattle barons set out to slaughter immigrant settlers encroaching on their property, with government giving nod to the intent. The film had a stellar cast, much good dialogue, some beautiful music and poetic cinematography (though there were occasions when smoke and atmospheric effects made it difficult to see what was going on).

The major flaws in the mix were a lack of clarity in some important areas, scenes that contributed nothing to the flow of the work and an exhausting length.

The issue of clarity is the first lesson for the writer. The opening of the film devotes a good 20 minutes to the graduation of Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt from Harvard. It then flashes forward 20 years to Wyoming where the former is a lawman and the latter a drunken cattle rancher who can’t decide which side he’s on. Other than citing a previous relationship between the two men there appears little necessity for the lead in. It could have been handled with a simple bit of dialogue. I suspect Cimino’s intent in this and some other places was to parallel the privileged lives of the wealthy and the insecurity of the poor. If this was his good intention, it failed and served only to confuse most viewers. That was probably also the intent of the epilogue which, again, failed.

If you’re going to say something, say it clearly enough for all to get it. Symbolism is fine provided the symbols can be understood.

And, speaking of saying something, there’s the issue of mixed languages in a work. There’s a scene in this film where the immigrants assemble to decide whether to flee or fight. Apparently Cimino sought to be historically accurate but the lengthy period of babble is more annoying than enlightening. If introducing a foreign tongue, be sure the meaning is clear. Cormac McCarthy is good at this. When he has a passage in Spanish the action generally makes clear the message.

Now we come to scenes. There are several in this film that could have been cut with no loss to the project. For example it’s obvious Cimino loved the scene where characters dance on roller skates. Poetic—yes. But it contributes nothing to the forward movement of the plot. The time spent here could have been used to better advantage expanding on the major characters, who are all too thinly addressed. If you like a scene which does nothing to advance the tale save it for another day.

As to length, a story should only be as long as it takes to tell the tale. Make every word count.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Cure For Crime

As one who writes about the subject, I'm always interested in theories for reducing crime.

Dr. Arthur MacDonald offered an interesting one in address before Congress in 1903. His suggestion: eat more meat and potatoes.

Now before you jump to the conclusion he was a crank it should be noted MacDonald was a respected criminal anthropologist in the employ of the U.S. Bureau of Education. The author of numerous books and scientific papers, he was an advocate for the creation of an apparatus combining the pneumograph, psychogalvanometer and cardiospysmograph—what became the modern polygraph.

He was also a follower of the theories of Cesare Lombroso who believed criminals were born and could be identified by physical traits—profiling to the extreme.

As to meat and potatoes, the good doctor contended one of the reasons for an increase in crime was a decrease in their consumption and a tendency toward less solid and staple foods.

“The less cost of living and the increase of wealth, with the luxuries of the table,” he proclaimed, “have tended to over-eating, which, in connection with lack of exercise, has had its evil effects and doubtless produced an additional reaction on the nervous system. When the nerves are unstrung by overpressure the will may become weak, depression and pessimism set in and loss of self-control follow with its consequent abnormal actions leading on to crime and other social evils.”

In that same address to Congress MacDonald averred automobiles, electric cars and the telephone were equally to blame for the increase in crime, insanity, suicide and other forms of abnormality. He argued these inventions caused people to exercise less and think more. This, MacDonald said, puts an abnormal strain on the nervous system as compared with the muscular system. “States having the greatest intelligence and education also exceed in insanity, suicide, juvenile criminals, nervous diseases and paupers.”

So, if we want to reduce crime all we have to do is eat more meat and potatoes and stop thinking.

And you thought it was going to be difficult.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Miracles Do Happen


There was probably a lot of head-shaking and muttering of “milagro,” Spanish for miracle, yesterday when the U.S. men’s national soccer team humbled Spain—the best team in the world. The Yanks scored a 2-0 victory on the field in South Africa.

This is a big achievement. It’s the first time Spain has been beaten since they were trumped by the Romanians back in 2006.

Except for dedicated fans, many Americans won’t even have noticed this stunning achievement. Soccer still isn’t a big draw for sports fans in many parts of this country, at least not on a par with football, baseball, basketball and, even, golf (a boring sport). Why this should be is beyond me.

In my neck of the woods, football (American version) is THE SPORT. Personally, I’ve always considered it BORING. I mean, how can you get excited about big guys bumping into one another? If they run 30 feet it’s an achievement. And then they call a time out so officials can measure how far the ball rolled. See what I mean? Boring.

I was introduced to soccer when I went to Asia. Now here, I thought, is a sport worth watching. It’s fast, it takes individual and team skill to maneuver the ball and it’s exciting. Did you notice, they’re not all padded up either.

I was thrilled to see interest in the sport growing in recent years. I can even see it on TV now. Two of my grandsons played one season in youth leagues, then they moved on to baseball and basketball. Nothing wrong with those sports. But, I have to admit, there was some disappointment on my part that they didn’t want to stick with soccer longer.

I’m the only one in my circle of family and friends who cares about soccer. I get mystified stares when I mention Altidore, Dempsey or Bocanegra. That’s okay. I’ll keep hoping for another milagro Sunday when the U.S. goes up against Brazil in the finals.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Background For a Novel

Fleeing famine and brutal oppression, more than a million Irish refugees flocked to the United States between 1846-1855. It's been estimated 44 percent of immigrants to the U.S. in that period were Irish.

They couldn't have picked a worse time to come. The nation was coming up of one economic downturn and about to enter another. The majority of the immigrants were Roman Catholic and anti-Papist sentiments boiled up in tandem with the economic panic. Newspapers of the period are full of examples of anti-Catholic/Irish sentiment, including cartoons depicting them as savages and animals.

Many of the Irish found their way to Pennsylvania's anthracite coal region where they encountered some of the worst exploitation and hatred. Wayne Broehl in his excellent "The Molly Maguires" says, "All the past hatreds and slights came welling up again, and the mining patches were quickly divided, physically and socially, along ethnic lines. Soon the Irish turned to protective societies."

The subject of the Molly Maguires is controversial today with many refusing to believe there was such an organization or that its members were guilty of the crimes of which they stood accused. There is a possibility many more attrocities were attributed to them than did exist. But the organization's existence is documented and people do have a tendency to strike back at oppression.

It's against this backdrop I've set my novel "Watch The Hour." Benjamin Franklin Yeager is a coal company police officer who does his best to follow orders while trying to be fair to the workers whose lot he sees as little different from his own. Despite his efforts at fairness, Yeager's job makes him the enemy of the Irish. And that's the crux of his troubles. For Ben is in love with an Irish girl.

You can read an excerpt from the novel here

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Writer's System

I'm reading Michener's "My Lost Mexico," which details how he began the novel "Mexico," abandoned the manuscript for 30 years, then came back to complete what became an international bestseller in 1992-93.

Ironically, though I admire Michener as one of Pennsylvania's stellar writers and have read much of his work and love Mexico, its history and culture, I've never read this particular novel. I can't really say why I've neglected this particular book, but I expect now I will have to read it.

The interesting part of MLM is how it provides insight into Michener's writing process. He was a prodigious researcher and a hard worker. He often spent 12-15 hours a day at his typewriter. He was a genius at plot construction. Yet his lengthy, complex novels came together on the barest of outlines. The examples he gives of his outlining in this book show that the term to him might be as simple as a single word defining the 'outline' of a chapter. Other elements he refers to as 'outlining' include drawings and photographs which he used to focus his imagination.

He also talks about "the persistence of memory" and how his books tended to influence one another in symbiotic ways.

I may have more to say about this book later.

I should also note that although I've read and enjoyed much of Michener's fiction I particularly love some of his non-fiction. Some favorites in this category include "Rascals in Paradise," "The Floating World" and "Iberia."

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Successful Signing--Sort Of

I suppose many writers find promotion the most difficult part of the business. That's why God created agents and publicists, isn't it?

It takes courage to face potential readers and tell them why they should choose our books from among the multitude available to them. It's not that we're not conceited enough to think our words should take precedence. The problem is many of us are more introverted than extroverted and find it easier to face the keyboard rather than people. Where is that publicist, damn it?

I shared the bully-pulpit last night with another writer at the historical society where I'm librarian. We were both to speak. He being the guest, I graciously urged him to go first. (I wasn't just being nice; I needed more time to get psyched.) A former teacher, my friend had no problem facing the audience and speaking extemporaneously about his book.

My turn came and I felt reasonably confident. Rather than focusing directly on my book I thought I'd give some consideration to the reason the Irish flocked to Pennsylvania's coal region and the exploitation and bigotry they faced, which are themes of my novel. I'd just started on my spiel when my mobile rang. I'd forgotten to turn it off. My daughter was calling to see how things were going. Well, that shot my nerves and I stumbled through my presentation.

At the signing which followed I was surprised to find my listeners didn't think I did half as bad as I thought I had. In fact, a number said they enjoyed my talk. The signing went well and we both sold books.

And, before the night was over, I had a commission for another speaking engagement.

Life is wrought with surprises.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Signing Coming Up

I have a signing coming up on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Northumberland County Historical Society, 1150 N. Front St., Sunbury PA.

This will be the first for Watch The Hour and I'll be joined by Barry McFarland, author of The Northumberland Man, which is a non-fiction book about his ancestor who immigrated from Ireland and was a success in the coal business. It should make an interesting contrast with my novel, which deals with the hardships of Irish immigrants in the anthracite coal region.

Watch The Hour has garnered three positive reviews to date and I've had good feedback from a number of readers.

I'm optimistic about this event.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Finding a Fortune

Rare is the person who hasn't dreamt of finding a fortune in the attic, a dusty over-looked relic destined to allay economic concerns.

Many youngsters, particularly boys, are intrigued by treasure tales. Most abandon interest with adulthood, though the dream persists in the American obsession with the pursuit of sudden fortune through lotteries and other games of chance.

I'm librarian of my county historical society and I admit we'd like to find a bonanza in our collections. Recently, members of a neighboring historical society did find one: a dusty copy of what they hoped might be an original 18th century Poor Richard's Almanac.

While many doubted its authenticity, the Berwick PA society submitted the almanac to Sotheby's in New York. On Tuesday, June 9, an anonymous bidder paid $556,500 for the 1733 relic--the second highest ever paid for a book printed in America.

How's that for luck?

Need I say we at our historical society are envious. But, with tight funding plaguing all such institutions, we also applaud their good fortune.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Curiosity, the Key to Creativity

In his book 'Creativity, Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention' Mihaly Csikszentmihaly stresses the cultivation of curiosity as vital to creativity.

I'm convinced, curiosity is a major ingredient in the process.

We're born with an ample portion of curiosity. Children come equipped with a natural curiosity which enhances the ability to learn. Though curiosity got the proverbial cat in trouble, there can be no learning and, hence, no creativity without it. Curiosity is the seed from which all invention flowers.

Csikszentmihaly offers some advice on cultivating curiosity in our daily lives.

1.Try to be surprised by something every day. He suggests looking at the world around us in a new way. Being open to new experiences. Exploring.
2.Try to surprise at least one person every day. Break from routine. Don't be predictable. Try something new and see where it leads.
3.Write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others. This is intended to provide opportunity for reflection on the new experiences and to help see where they might lead.
4.When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it. This is where curiosity comes into full play.

Curiosity provides an adventurous outlook, the ability to take chances and risk falling on one's face in the name of experimentation. That, my friends, is creativity.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Bookland Heights

I'm guest today, Tuesday and Wednesday at Bookland Heights,

Information about my books is available and visitors will have an opportunity to learn more about me and my writing, ask questions and leave comments.

I'm looking forward to the interaction (I hope) with curious readers and potential readers.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Am I On A Winning Streak?

While attending an art auction in March I won a drawing for an original print by French/Brazilian artist Linda Le Kinff. I like her lush, colorful work and was pleased but took the win as a once and done pleasant experience.

Then, in May, I was informed I'd won a copy of Dianne Ascroft's novel "Hitler and Mars Bars" in another drawing. The following week came an email from publisher Tony Burton notifying me I've won a drawing for admission to the Killer Nashville writers' conference in August.

Two days later I received a $20 gift certificate for Amazon as a winner in The Keeper Game, which is being used to promote my friend Natasha Mostert's new novel, "Keeper of Light and Dust," and I'm still in the running for the grand prize, choice of a Kindle or a pair of boxing gloves.

By this time I'm thinking maybe I should invest in a lottery ticket and see if I can win enough to support my writing and travel without economic concern.

By the way, if you want to try your luck at The Keeper Game, here's the link:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Selling Yourself

Some creative people like to think they're different from business people.

That may work if you chose to live in an ivory tower and don't care about selling your product. If you want the world (customers) to value your work, then you must develop a business attitude. That's especially true in today's competitive market.

Take writing, for instance. Bowker statistics reveal 560,626 new books were published in 2008. That works out to 1,532 books a day. That's a lot of competition. The big name writers receive a lot of help from their publishers and their established reputation. If a newbie wants to compete in that marketplace, he/she must take efforts to stand out from the crowd.

How do we achieve that? We begin by producing the best product we can. Second, we seek every possible opportunity to promote our product and make it known to potential customers. Most important, we must cultivate an attitude of success.

As Cervantes so eloquently put it: "The brave man carves out his fortune, and every man is the son of his own works."

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Fourth in a Series

I never contemplated writing a series. But it seems my characters had other ideas and kept intruding on my imagination. I've just completed the fourth novel in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series and am preparing to submit it to my publisher for consideration.

In this novel, a wealthy doctor and entrepreneur reunited with a strayed son brings his family home to rural Swatara Creek. Investigation of the murder of an out-of-state reporter keeps bringing Sticks and his team back to this family.

The question here is one of identity.

Can anyone truly ever know another person? Who we are and how others see us is, at best, a matter of perception. The word person comes from the Latin and originally referred to the mask worn by actors. We, all of us, conceal our true identity behind the mask we present to others.

Sticks is still serving as unofficial consultant to Police Chief Aaron Brubaker but Hetrick’s political enemies are driving a wedge between the two friends which threatens to end their professional relationship. Hetrick’s new love-interest, Anita Bailey, is prodding him to accept a job offer as investigator in the county prosecutor’s office where she works. Hetrick’s interested but fears Brubaker might see it as confirmation he conspired with the politicians.

There are sub-plots concerning the ongoing relationship of Officers Flora Vastine and Harry Minnich, an attempt by professional criminal Earl 'Fingers' Schurke to go straight, and a competitive threat to Lena Stroble's restaurant.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reading Again, And Again

I don’t mean to steal another writer’s thunder but I find myself in full agreement with Verlyn Klinkenborg who had an excellent essay on the pleasures of re-reading books in today’s New York Times.

I have the same habit. Could one reading of Shakespeare ever suffice? The same might be said of Dickens, Cervantes and numerous others.

Klinkenborg points out his work requires a certain amount of re-reading. But the re-reading on which he focused is that done purely for pleasure, to reacquaint himself with old and cherished friends.

I agree, and I have my favorites. I can't recall the number of times I've read Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick. And don't even get me started on poetry. But we needn't be high brow or limit ourselves to literature with a capital L. I enjoy a visit with Thoreau, William Bartram and Gilbert White (subject of Klinkenborg's The Rural Life. And I confess to finding something new every time I read writers as diverse as Katherine Anne Porter, Peter Matthiessen, Ruth Rendell, Vladimir Nabokov and James Lee Burke.

In some ways I'm like the narrator in Maugham's wonderful tale, The Book-Bag, who says "Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit." Maugham says the latter is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Personally, I think there are worse habits.

Klinkenborg says the characters in the books he re-reads never change, the words remain the same but the reader always changes. It is that change in ourselves gives the habit merit.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Talent Tuesday

Author Jenny Turner (Dead Friends Forever) hosts an event called Talent Tuesday in her blog and I was her guest yesterday.
Traffic was lighter than we might have hoped--though she said we had over 60 hits. But I did have an interesting exchange with one visitor on several topics, including my writing process and the subject of revision.
Jenny has asked me to visit again and I've agreed to do so.
If you weren't among the visitors, you can visit Jenny's blog at and read it in the archive. Check out some of the other interesting material she posts on a regular basis while you're there.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Opportunities Materialize

The economy is proving difficult for many small businesses. One recent victim of the decline was the independent bookstore of my friends, Don and Karen Dobson.

The Dobsons were true friends to many struggling area writers, stocking their books and hosting signings throughout the years the shop was in business. But struggling with increasing cost of doing business and competition from the chains has finally forced them to close the doors of their shop.

This is a loss for the Dobsons and all those who love the independent shops. And, of course, all the area writers who benefited by their friendliness and support lament the closing and will miss the opportunities they provided.

We search now for other venues to promote our work.

I've been working to find opportunities both here on the homefront and on line. I have a signing scheduled for June and have been talking to librarians about some others. But yesterday I had a phone call that surprised and pleased me.

A woman who has been a supporter and buyer of all my books called and asked if I would speak about writing and my work at a meeting of a literary group she chairs. Naturally I was willing. The surprise was that the event isn't until February 2010. It seems they schedule their events well in advance.

To quote Cervantes, "Fortune may have yet a better success in reserve for you, and they who lose today may win tomorrow."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Love, Lust and Skulduggery in the Coal Region

My novel, Watch The Hour, is now available from Whiskey Creek Press,, in both print and electronic forms.

Fleeing famine and brutal oppression, more than a million Irish refugees flocked to the United States between 1846-1855 in search of opportunity for a better life. They worked whatever jobs they could find and were routinely exploited.

Many found their way to Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region where they encountered some of the worst exploitation and hatred.

By the 1870s, mine owners and their employees, particularly the Irish immigrants, were in conflict over working conditions.

Private police forces commissioned by the state but paid by the coal companies were sworn to protect property of the mine owners. The miners knew their real purpose was to spy upon targeted agitators and intimidate and break up strikers.

The Mollie Maguires—a secret society some see as working to improve the lot of the Irish and which others damn as a terrorist organization—were now seen as an increasing threat.

In this place and time, I've created one Benjamin Franklin Yeager, a coal company police officer. He does his best to follow orders while trying to be fair to the workers whose lot he sees as little different from his own. Despite his efforts at fairness, Yeager’s job makes him the enemy of the Irish.

And that’s the crux of his troubles.

For Ben has fallen in love with an Irish girl.