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.