Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Shopping Center of Yore

Two of my fictional characters operate general stores.

Lydia Longlow, the love of Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman in a two-book series, runs a general store started by her father in the fictional community of Arahpot, Pennsylvania. And Ellen Kauffman is proprietor of a similar establishment in my latest novel, Something So Divine.

In the 19th century, the time period of both novels, general stores were the center of rural communities. Not only did they supply food and other necessities for the community, they also served as a central meeting place for gossip and business and, often, as post office, polling place and even courtroom.

But I realize younger readers more familiar with shopping centers and specialty stores might not realize the importance of these mercantile operations to our ancestors.

Unlike the spacious, orderly and convenient stores of today, these emporiums were generally cramped, cluttered and dark. An array of shelving took up wall spaces and boxes, barrels, crates and other containers crammed the floors. A main counter for dealing with customers would hold the cash register, coffee grinder and scales for weighing various items.

The air in the store would be heady with a mix of scents, both pleasant and unpleasant--ripening fruit, various spices, teas and freshly ground coffee beans, cheeses, honey and molasses, soaps, toiletries and patent medicines, cigars and tobacco, not to mention human body odor and possibly animal manure tracked in by customers who failed to wipe their feet at the door.

The average store would have a supply of any of the various items that might be needed by town-dweller or farmer, from food and wearing apparel to tools and agricultural implements, sometimes including luxury items not otherwise available in rural areas.

Since money was often scarce in such locations, storekeepers usually ran a line of credit for regular customers as well as sometimes engaging in barter for items they might sell to others.

As a youth I accompanied my father to country sales where he purchased antiques and curios, some of which he refinished and sold to dealers and other collectors. We sometimes stopped for refreshment at country stores which served the Amish and Old Order Mennonites in our area of Pennsylvania. Because I was familiar with these old-fashioned stores, it needed little research to create such establishments for my fictional characters.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Purloined Pie

“Didn’t think you’d be open today,” Benny Spinosa said, glancing around and seeing he had his choice of stools at the bar. Donovan, the owner, was the only other person in the place.

“What? Why would I close when I know I got friends like you with nowhere else to go. You want a beer?”

“Sure. And maybe you could fix me a sandwich, too.”

Donovan’s eyebrows rose as he gazed at his friend. “You’re gonna spoil your dinner.”

Spinosa shrugged. He was surprised Donovan had opened since most of his trade had families and other places to be on a day like this. Spinosa wouldn’t have stopped if he hadn’t seen the lights as he drove by.

“You’re not havin’ a Thanksgiving dinner?”

“Where would I have it? Like you said, I got nobody. Besides—like you—I’m workin’. Just because it’s a holiday don’t mean there aren’t people gonna need a cab.”

Donovan tapped a Yuengling and sat the mug on the bar. Spinosa straddled a stool and drew it closer. The legs of the stool made an irritating noise as they scraped the linoleum. “You gonna make that sandwich or what?”

Donovan studied him a moment, then he grinned. “Tell you what,” he said, coming around from behind the bar and crossing to the door. He flipped the lock and turned toward Spinosa.

“What?” Spinosa asked, scrunching up his face.

“Whyncha bring that beer and come on upstairs.”
Spinosa scowled. “Upstairs? To your apartment?”

“Uh-huh. You can have dinner with us. Ain’t gonna be no trade down here anyways.”

Spinosa didn’t argue but his doubts were confirmed when he followed Donovan upstairs and Charmaine gave him a look that froze him in his tracks. Donovan’s wife was on the sofa watching the Macy’s parade. “What’s he doin’ here?” she snapped in a voice as cold as winter wind.

“I invited him to join us for dinner. We got plenty and he don’t got no place else to go.” He gestured to a chair opposite Charmaine. “Have a seat.”

Reluctantly, Spinosa folded his thin frame into the chair, shooting a cursory glance at Charmaine. She worked her lips and rolled her eyes for a moment, but didn’t say anything more. Then: “You close up?” she asked her husband.

“Yeah.” He sat next to her on the sofa. “Don’t seem like nobody else is comin’ around. If anyone gets desperate for a drink, they can ring the bell.”

Charmaine turned her attention back to their guest. “Didn’t think your people celebrated Thanksgiving.”

“What, you think because I’m a Jew I don’t like turkey?”

“How the hell would I know? I’m a Catholic. Don’t know nothin’ about your kind.”

“Everybody celebrates Thanksgiving, babe,” Donovan told her.

She shot him a look. “Just so’s he don’t go lightin’ up none of those stinky cigars he likes while he’s in my house.”

“Don’t worry,” Spinosa said, “I won’t. I’m tryin’ to quit anyways.”

They sat in silence, Spinosa sipping his beer and having a look around the place while Donovan and Charmaine stared at the TV. Benny figured he was probably the only one of Donovan’s customers who’d ever been invited up to the living quarters. If it weren’t for Charmaine’s attitude he might have considered it an honor.

“Everything’s ready,” a dulcet voice broke into his reverie.

Kelly, Donovan’s daughter, leaned in the doorway to what must be the dining room. If he was ten—well, okay, twenty—years younger and a bit better looking, Spinosa thought he might have been inclined to ask Kelly out. She was the prettiest, nicest girl he’d ever met. Okay, so she wouldn’t go out with a schmuck like him even if he was twenty years younger and had a lot more money than he did. You can’t blame a man for dreaming. Anyway, he was glad she was the one doing the cooking and not her mother. Charmaine would probably lace his food with arsenic if she had her way.

“Come on,” Donovan said, waving him up from his seat.

“How are you, Benny?” Kelly said and she patted his shoulder as he walked by her. “Glad you could join us. There’s plenty of food. So be sure and eat up.” Her smile melted his hesitation. “I’ll bring the rest of the food.”

Donovan took a seat at the head of the table where a platter with a golden-brown turkey awaited carving. “Sit,” he said to Spinosa. “Anywhere you want.”

Charmaine flopped onto the chair at the other end of the table, which meant the place left for him would be opposite Kelly. “Can I help you, Kelly?” he asked, taking a step toward her.

She graced him with another smile that made him blush. “Why that’s so nice of you, Benny.”

They bumped hips and elbows entering the tiny kitchen and Spinosa experienced a reaction he hoped none of them would notice. “Just grab whatever you can and put it wherever there’s room on the table,” Kelly told him, hefting a large bowl of mashed and sweet potatoes. The pleasant odor of the food and the sweet scent of her swept over him as they passed in the close quarters. Spinosa grabbed a couple more bowls and followed her back to the dining room.

“You don’t have to work for your dinner,” Donovan said, looking up from slicing the turkey.

“He’s a gentleman, Daddy,” Kelly said, giving Spinosa another pat on the shoulder. “Not like some of the other lugs who come in downstairs.” Their hips bumped again as they made another foray to the kitchen. Spinosa felt the heat rise over him and quickly turned his back to Kelly.

All the food transferred, they joined her parents at the table. Spinosa’s gaze swept over the array of vittles and he was amazed. His usual idea of a meal was a can of Campbell’s soup or a corned beef sandwich. This was a feast in comparison. There was the turkey, half a ham (glazed with pineapple), mashed potatoes and sweets, several varieties of vegetables (including a few he couldn’t identify), cranberry sauce, and an array of other holiday treats.

Spreading a napkin across his lap, Spinosa shook his head in wonder. “This is amazing,” he said to Kelly. “I never seen so much food on one table. And it all looks so delicious. It must have taken you a week to do all this.”

It was Kelly’s turn to blush. “Ah, it was nothing,” she said, waving a hand and lowering her head. “I love cooking.”

“Kel does all our cookin’ now,” Donovan said, pride in his voice. “She went to culinary school you know. Wants to be a chef.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

“It’s not like she’d be advertisin’ it to the likes of you,” Charmaine snarled.

“I hope you enjoy it,” Kelly said, ignoring her mother. “Please. Eat up. Before it gets cold.”

Spinosa took the suggestion as soon as he saw they were done with their Catholic ministrations. And he was right—everything was delicious.  He took a moment to compliment Kelly again.

“My Grammy taught me to cook,” she told him, her face going a pleasant rosy hue. “These are all her recipes.”

“Well you’ve made good use of the training.” He felt the heat of Charmaine’s gaze upon him. What? She don’t even like somebody complimenting her daughter?

“We lost Grammy last year, but I wish Poppy could be here,” Kelly said.

“They’d both be proud of you, honey,” Donovan said.

Charmaine snorted. “Only thing the old lady could do was cook—I’ll grant her that. But your old man is a lush.”


Spinosa had no idea what this was about. He concentrated on cleaning his plate as a pall of silence fell over the room. He was so stuffed he didn’t think he could eat another bite when Kelly finally broke the silence. “Anybody ready for dessert?”

“I shouldn’t,” Donovan said, “but…”

“There wasn’t room in the fridge,” Kelly said. “It’s downstairs in the cooler.”

Donovan pushed back his chair and started to rise.

“Lemme get it,” Spinosa said.

“Nah. You’re a guest…”
Spinosa tossed his napkin aside and stood. “Please. It’s the least I can do after what you guys have done for me today. Besides, I’ll need the exercise if I’m gonna eat anything else.”

With no further protests, Spinosa went downstairs, passed behind the bar and opened the big cooler. A pumpkin pie with whipped cream topping sat on the shelf.  Spinosa smiled. Hang around this girl long and I’ll look like a blimp.

“Where’s the mince-meat?” Donovan asked as Spinosa sat the pumpkin pie on the table.

“Huh? I didn’t see no other pie.”

Kelly gave him a chagrined look. “I put them both in the cooler this morning. Maybe you didn’t see it.”

Spinosa shook his head. “There was nothin’ else but bar stuff.”

Kelly was headed for the stairs. “It’s got to be there.”

Spinosa and Donovan followed in her wake.

“Oh, Daddy,” Kelly wailed as she peered in the cooler. “Somebody must have stole it.”

“But who? I locked the door when we came up.”

“There were some people in the bar when I brought the pies down this morning.”

“Do you remember who?” Spinosa asked.

Donovan scratched his head, thinking. “Jimmy Steele. He was here—like he is every day for his morning pick-me-up. And—oh, yeah—Rod, the refrigerator guy. Remember, Kel? We been havin’ problems with the little cooler. Rod was kind of miffed I called him out on a holiday.”

Kelly waved a hand in dismissal. “I don’t see Rod as the kind who would steal a pie. Besides I’m sure he’ll add a stiff surcharge on his bill. Was there anyone else?”

“What about Jimmy?” Spinosa asked.

Donovan and Kelly both laughed. “If it haint alcohol Jimmy haint interested,” Donovan said.

“But isn’t there some booze in mince-meat?”

“Not enough for a guy like Jimmy to notice.”
Kelly pondered. “There was someone else when I came down. Over there,” she said, pointing to a stool at the far end of the bar.

“Sparky,” Donovan said, dipping his head in agreement.

“Sparky Kohl?” Benny asked. “That old guy who’s always bragging about his high school football days?”

“He left before you came,” Donovan said. Then, exchanging a quick glance with Kelly, he crossed to the door and turned the knob. “Damn him,” he grumbled as the door opened.

“But I saw you lock it before we went upstairs.”

Donovan nodded. “Sparky was a locksmith.”

Spinosa gave him a puzzled look. “He always seemed like an honest old guy to me. Why would he steal your pie?”

Kelly exchanged another look with her father. “I think we know why. Benny, you have your cab, don’t you? Care to go for a little ride?”

“Sure. Just tell me…”

Kelly turned to Donovan. “Daddy?”

Donovan shook his head. “Just let it go, Kel.”

“No, Daddy. It’s your fault. Your’s and Mom’s. You should have made up with him along ago. The past is past. Live and forgive. He should have been here with us today. Are you coming?”

“You know I can’t, sweetie. Your Mom would skin me alive.”

“Well, I’m going. Benny?”

“Sure.” He opened the door for her and they went out to his cab. Spinosa turned the key in the ignition. He rubbed his hands together, briskly. “Brrr, maybe we should have grabbed our coats.”

“It’s not far. Turn your heater up. We’ll survive.”

“Okay. Just tell me where we’re going.”

Kelly snapped on her seatbelt and gave him directions.

“I still don’t understand why Sparky would steal your pie.”

“You’ll see,” Kelly said. “Family feuds are a bitch.” She leaned back in the seat next to him, staring straight ahead.

Puzzled, Spinosa drove.

Kelly jumped out as soon as he pulled into the parking lot of the Comfort Retirement Home. By the time Spinosa switched off the engine and followed she was already halfway up the steps to the entrance of the brick facility. “Wait up,” he called after her.

“Come on.”

“Does Sparky live here?”

“His best buddy does.” Kelly signed in at the reception desk and walked quickly down a hallway paying no attention to a cluster of elderly men and women whose attention she’d drawn away from a blaring TV.

“I’m glad you know where you’re going,” Spinosa complained, hurrying after her. “I sure don’t.”

He nearly bumped into her as she drew up suddenly at the open door of one of the rooms. “A-hah!” Kelly said and darted into the room. A white-haired man who looked vaguely familiar to Benny sat facing them in a rocking chair. Sparky Kohl was in an armchair next to him. The remains of Kelly’s pie sat on a coffee table between the two.

“Hello, sweetie,” the old man said to Kelly and gave her a toothy grin.

Kelly went over and gave him a hug. “Hello, Poppy,” she said, straightening up. “I see you enjoyed my pie.”

“Sure did. Your mince-meat has always been my favorite,” he said with a wink. “Thanks for sendin’ it over with Sparky.”

Hands on her hips, Kelly smiled down at Sparky who sank lower in his seat with a sheepish grin.

Kelly’s grandfather tilted to look past her at Spinosa standing in the doorway. “Whose this, darlin’, your boyfriend?”

Kelly grinned at Spinosa. “A friend, Poppy. Benny Spinosa. A good friend.”

“Spinosa? Your old man the cabbie?”

“He’s retired now. I drive the hack.”
“Youse want some pie?” Sparky asked. “There’s still some left.”

“No, thanks. We just came by to wish Poppy a happy Thanksgiving and see if you guys enjoyed the pie.” She knelt to give her grandfather a hug, then went over and hugged Sparky, too. “You’re a good friend, Mr. Kohl.” Placing a hand on her grandfather’s shoulder, she added, “Sorry you couldn’t come for dinner today. I’ll stop by to see you again over the weekend.”

As they walked back out the hall, Kelly brushed tears from her eyes.

“What’s the beef between him and your parents?” Spinosa asked.

Kelly made a sound half between a laugh and a sob. “Something that happened so long ago none of them remember exactly what it was. But you know my Mom, how she can hold a grudge. I hope one of these days Daddy will get the nerve to stand up to her on this. Poppy isn’t getting any younger.”

“Well, at least he has you.” He threw an arm around Kelly’s shoulders and was glad when she didn’t object.

They were nearly back to the bar before he built up the courage to blurt out, “Kelly, I was wondering—that is—if you’d like to—do you think we could go out sometime?”

Kelly shifted a little closer on the seat and laid a hand on his arm. “I thought you’d never get around to asking.”


Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Woman's Compassion May Have Helped

"The grim expressions of the twelve men gave little doubt as to how the circumstantial evidence stacked up for them. Roth almost wished women were allowed to serve on juries, though he doubted even a feminine presence would have earned the boy much compassion."

This quote from my novel Something So Divine illustrates one of those injustices afflicting women throughout our history--they did not serve on juries in the 19th century in the United States. In fact, it wasn't until late in the 20th century they were finally accorded that right in all states of the union (And the rest of the world wasn't more advanced).

In my novel, Ned Gebhardt, a mentally challenged youth, has been accused in the murder of a 16-year-old girl in 1897. Though the evidence against him is circumstantial, only Ellen Kauffman, village storekeeper, and Iris, Ned's stepsister, believe him innocent. Influenced by them, Simon Roth, the investigator, is inclined to give Ned benefit of the doubt, pending discovery of more evidence.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave states authority to set rules for jury service. As with suffrage, Wyoming was the first state to permit women to serve on juries in 1870. Eliza Stewart Boyd, a Pennsylvania native, was the first U.S. woman to serve when her name was drawn for that Wyoming  jury.  Unfortunately, objection by lawyers and the press put an end to the practice the following year.

Utah opened jury service to women in 1898 and more states followed in the first decades of the 20th century. Women in Pennsylvania--where my story takes place--didn't win the right to serve on juries until 1921.

Many reasons were espoused over the years for denying women this fundamental right. These included the old saws women lacked the mental and emotional capacities to render a just decision. Another standard argument was the belief  jury duty would take women away from their responsibilities as wives, mothers and homemakers--this opinion was particularly strong in agricultural communities. Even many women's organizations advocating female rights stood in the way of jury service, contending it would expose women to unseemly and disgusting situations.

By the 1960s most states permitted women to serve on juries, though some made it a voluntary and not a mandatory issue. A few states complied but with the added provision a judge could bar women from serving at his discretion.  It wasn't until 1975 when a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed that states must treat men and women equally with respect to jury service.

Of course, by then it was way too late for my character.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Memory, Imagination, Research

John Daniel is my guest today, and he offers three tools needed for writing historical fiction. Welcome, John.

I feel honored to appear on John Lindermuth’s blog. I think of John as a prolific and successful writer of historical fiction, and I also happen to know of his interest in genealogy. So if you read John’s novels, or if you frequently read his blog posts, I suspect you read, or maybe even write, historical fiction; and you probably share at least a passing interest in family history, as I do.

As much as I like to read historical fiction, I’ve never considered myself a historical novelist. It’s true that most of my novels are set in the past, but most of them have been inspired by turning points in my own life, which means they take place in the second half of the twentieth century. How historical is that? Although they are entirely fiction, and therefore rely primarily on my own imagination, they are also informed by my memory of changes major and minor (JFK’s assassination, changes in the publishing industry, the Loma Prieta earthquake, for example). So my two primary tools have always been memory and imagination.

There’s a third tool, though, that I learned I must use to write a novel that takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, between the Saint Louis Worlds Fair in 1904 and the Stock Market crash of 1929. Writing this novel, Geronimo’s Skull, I did use memory (of what I’d heard about my uncle’s youth, his college exploits, his experience in World War I, and his subsequent meteoric rise in the world of business). I also used my imagination plenty (the novel is, after all, a ghost story). But in writing Geronimo’s Skull I also learned the great pleasure of research.

I surfed the Internet for all I could find about the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis, 1904). Did you know that was the birthplace of cotton candy, Dr. Pepper, and hot dogs, or that there was a life-size statue of President Theodore Roosevelt made entirely of butter? Or that the Apache Geronimo, a captive of the U.S. Army, was put on display at the fair, for palefaces to gawk at?

I delved into the life and exploits of Geronimo, who was, I found out, a brilliant warrior and charismatic leader, a spiritual guide, an escape artist, and a sideshow celebrity who sold autographed photos of himself and once rode in a parade alongside President Teddy. He is buried at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and legend has it his grave was robbed one moonlit night, and his skull was stolen by a gang of Yalies who belonged to the secret society Skull and Bones—including my Uncle Neil, and Prescott Bush, the father and grandfather of two U.S. presidents.

I researched the life story of Uncle Neil. That meant researching Europe in the 1920s, the oil business, the history of Route 66, and much, much more. What fun that was! Of course I made up most of the story and the man I called Fergus Powers was a product of my imagination and my memories of family gossip. But I couldn’t have written Geronimo’s Skull without first discovering the sheer joy of research.

A word of caution, though. It’s possible to do too much research, and when that happens the research may delay or even replace the writing. Also it’s tempting to include in your story everything you’ve learned in your research. I made that mistake on my first draft of Geronimo’s Skull, and as a result that first chapter about the Worlds Fair dragged on and on, to my delight, but it was self-indulgent and it didn’t advance the plot. An agent I showed my manuscript to said, “This needs a big dose of caffeine.” So I cut the first chapter by half, and the book got its life back.

To read more about Geronimo’s Skull: http://www.danielpublishing.com/jmd/geronimo's_skull.html

John M. Daniel is a freelance editor and writer. He has published dozens of stories in literary magazines and is the author of fifteen published books, including four mystery novels, two of which (The Poet’s Funeral and Hooperman) earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly. He and his wife, Susan, own a small-press publishing company in Humboldt County, California. http://www.danielpublishing.com/jmd/index.html

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Justice Isn't Always a Straight Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Who Says 'Was' is a Bad Word?

Some writers are like religious fundamentalists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A Faithful Depiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 3, 2015

Read An Excerpt

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Tithing Herd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Not to Worry. The Bells Did Not Ring

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

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

But for me, it was almost personal.

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

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

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

Author’s website:           www.jamesrcallan.com  
Amazon Author Page:    http://amzn.to/1eeykvG

My new release, Over My Dead Body, is available at:   http://amzn.to/1BmYQ0Q

Sunday, April 5, 2015

What's Up Next?

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

There are several answers to that question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tomorrow I’ll be discussing The Importance of Place with http://marianallen.com/

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Women of the Revolution

We have organizations honoring ancestors who fought or otherwise assisted in making the American Revolution a success. Yet, how often do we give thought to the sacrifices of women in that same historical period?

On March 12, 1776 newspapers in the city of Baltimore urged citizens to recognize the sacrifices and contributions of women to the cause of revolution.

How much of an impact that acknowledgement had isn’t known. But history shows the role of women was critical to the success of the movement. Don’t forget, not only didn’t women have the vote at the time, they also had little say in what men determined to do.

While men were boycotting products in opposition to British taxation, we too often fail to recognize those products were usually items important to women. As an example, tea was the drink favored by women while men more often consumed alcohol. There’s a scene in my novel “The Accidental Spy” where Dan and Nell use counterfeit money to purchase imported fabrics: With the blockade, which had cut off imports to the city, many considered it patriotic to dress in homespun. Whether they were truly patriots or simply didn’t want to pay the price for what remained, I don’t know.

The mere lack of items they valued is a minor point in enumerating the sacrifices of women in behalf of the cause of liberty. Women could do little to prevent their husbands and sons from going off to war, a situation which left them responsible for the maintenance of home and/or business and could result in destitution. Records show many women followed their spouses and children to the battlefront. History often erroneously paints these “camp followers” as prostitutes when, in actuality, a majority provided moral and physical support as nurses, cooks, seamstresses and even occasionally as spies or soldiers.

A number, among them Deborah Samson and Margaret Corbin, have been identified as women who donned men’s clothing and enlisted as soldiers. Many more (on both sides) performed duty as spies. In “The Accidental Spy,” I included two Loyalists—Nell Bates (fictional) and Ann Bates (actual).

Women were even more important in raising the funds necessary to continue the fight. Esther deBerdt Reed, wife of Joseph Reed, Pennsylvania’s governor, and Sarah Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter, founded the Ladies Foundation in Philadelphia, which raised money to fund the war effort.

Nor was the sacrifice limited to the patriotic side. The wives and mothers of those who remained loyal to the Crown were equally active in efforts to support their husbands and sons. After the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the Act of Attainer in March 1778, the estate of Joseph Galloway, a Philadelphian who had sought to reconcile the colonists and Britain, was seized and sold at auction along with that of other loyalists. Galloway fled to safety in New York. His wife stayed behind and the auction left her impoverished.

So it’s fitting in this National Women’s History Month we recognize these women who equally sacrificed for what they held important.

Friday, March 6, 2015

First Ladies of Crime Fiction

Quick--who was the first woman to publish a mystery novel?

Despite her many achievement, no, it wasn’t Agatha Christie. Technically, the honor goes to Seeley Regester, the pseudonym used by Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, whose novel The Dead Letter was published in 1867. But, Anna Katherine Green (photo below), whose novel The Leavenworth Case became a runaway bestseller in 1878, is generally acknowledged as “the mother of the detective novel.”

I’ve chosen to pay tribute to both for their achievements, since March is National Women’s History Month.

Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, a native of Erie, Pennsylvania, was a pioneer in the dime novel tradition, penning more than 100 titles. After the family moved to Ohio, she and her sister Frances began publishing in local newspapers. Her first novel, Last Days of Tul, A Romance of the Lost Cities of Yucatan, was published in 1847 when she was only 15 years old.

After their marriage, she and her husband, Orville Victor, a newspaper editor, moved to New York City. Despite bearing nine children and having the responsibilities of a wife and mother, she continued to work, publishing in many genres as well as poetry, non-fiction and even a few cookbooks.

Her achievement as the writer of the first detective novel is marred by the fact a main character is clairvoyant.

Green’s novel, on the other hand, set the standard for mystery novels to follow. Her detective, Ebenezer Gryce, who serves with the New York Metropolitan Police Force, would continue to fight crime in a series of novels. Gryce is often assisted by Amelia Butterworth, a nosy spinster. Green also invented a ‘girl detective,’ Violet Strange, a debutante who leads a secret life as a sleuth.

Green’s father was a prominent attorney and it is believed some of his cases provided the basis for her plots. The Leavenworth Case sold more than a million copies and was lauded by Wilkie Collins, among other luminaries. The novel also sparked a debate in the Pennsylvania Senate over whether such a book could actually have been written by a woman.

Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were among later authors who acknowledged her influence on their work. Not a bad legacy, even if her own work is not known as well as it should be these days.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Facts Enhance Fiction

(My guest today is JL Greger, whose science background adds credence to her thrillers. Welcome, Janet. I'll let you tell our readers how it's done)

Good fiction writers carefully research facts before they begin writing. Sounds strange, but think.

The plots of modern mysteries and crime fiction hinge on laboratory results and computer analyses. Historical fiction, e.g. Downton Abbey, loses its zing if costumes and customs aren’t described correctly. Even fantasy novels are enhanced by a few facts. The evacuation of children from London during the Nazi blitzkrieg is the basis of CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

However, many authors are uncomfortable using scientific tidbits, historical facts, or accurate descriptions of locations in their writing. Maybe this advice will help.

Use facts to create realistic scenes, but not so many as to slow the plot.
Let’s start with the use of science in mysteries and thrillers. As a biologist, who regularly reads scientific journals, I’m intrigued by cancer immunotherapy. (Scientists are making vaccines that trigger the immune systems of cancer patients to more effectively fight their disease.) That’s the scientist in me talking. The novelist part of me says the plot and character development rule.

In my novel Malignancy, men disguised as police officers shoot at Sara Almquist twice in one day. Albuquerque police suspect a drug czar, who has tangled with Sara before, will order more hits on her. When colleagues in the State Department invite Sara to arrange scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, she jumps at the chance to get out of town. Soon, she realizes Cuba offers more surprises than Albuquerque.

That’s the plot. One of Sara’s surprises is Cuban researchers have patented a therapeutic vaccine for a certain type of lung cancer (actual fact). Other surprises involve her love interest and the drug czar. The scientific facts are essential for plot development, but so are other factors.

Now let’s look at historical fiction. John Lindermuth does a wonderful job of recreating 1898 with occasional references to Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders and a new motor car, without slowing the pace of Sheriff Tilghman’s investigation of a murder in Sooner than Gold. Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl wouldn’t have been a best seller if the book didn’t contain a few historical facts about Tudor England.

Pick relevant and exciting topics.
A great author can make any topic interesting but most of us aren’t great writers. Readers are more apt to be interested in facts that are relevant to real issues—global warming or curing cancer than in learning details about biochemical pathways. Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) and Robin Cook (Coma) were particularly skillful at selecting scary high-tech issues for their thrillers. I hoped readers would find the development of a new treatment for cancer thought-provoking in Malignancy.

Realistic locations improve any novel. The Sun Also Rises would be pretty boring without the hypnotic descriptions of the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona. The decadence and beauty of Venice set the mood for Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.

Be accurate.
A writer of thrillers told me recently that readers accept a couple inaccuracies in a novel if you have stated most of the information correctly. I don’t know if that’s true. Certainly, Dan Brown has been criticized for inaccurate historical information in his best selling novel, The DaVinci Code, but he’s included enough facts to ignite readers’ interest.

I’m a cautious type and think accuracy is important. In Malignancy, I state the truth about the cancer vaccine Racotumomab developed by the Cubans. It slows the progression of a certain type of lung cancer. Many clinical trials, which require international cooperation of scientists and physicians, are needed to test its effectiveness. Thus, it is logical in Malignancy when the U.S. State Department sends my heroine, a scientist, to Cuba to set up exchanges between Cuban and American scientists.

Why not pick up copies of Malignancy and see if you like how I incorporated facts into my thriller?
Maybe you’ll decide to include more facts in your next piece of fiction (novel, short story, or blog).

Malignancy is available at Amazon http://amzn.com/1610091779 and Oak Tree Press: pressdept@oaktreebooks.com

Bio: JL Greger is no longer a professor in biology at the University of Wisconsin, but she likes to include tidbits of science in her medical thrillers.
In the suspense novel, Coming Flu, learn whether the Philippine flu or a drug kingpin caught in the quarantine is more deadly.
In the medical mystery, Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight, discover whether an ambitious young “diet doctor” or old-timers with buried secrets is the killer.
In the thriller, Ignore the Pain, feel the fear as an epidemiologist learns too much about the coca trade while on a public health assignment in Bolivia.
In the thriller, Malignancy, know the tension as a woman scientist tries to escape the clutches of a drug lord and accepts a risky assignment in Cuba.

You can learn more at her website: www.jlgreger.com and blog (JL Greger’s Bugs): www.jlgreger.com.

Keywords: JL Greger, Malignancy, Cuba, cancer immunotherapy, science in fiction, facts enhance fiction

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Who Wrote The First Black Mystery Story?

February is Black History Month and an appropriate time to call attention to some African-Americans who write mysteries as well as some who have been protagonists in the genre.

Most readers will be familiar with such stellar examples as Chester Himes and his characters Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlins series, or even Ishmael Reed and his Papa LaBas.

But how many can name the author of the first African-American mystery story?

I’ll confess, I didn’t know the answer either until I began my research for this blog. Pauline E. Hopkins holds that honor with her story Talma Gordon, published way back in 1900. Hopkins, born in 1859 in Portland, Maine, was a remarkable woman and deserves to be better known. Her mystery is a classic locked-room tale, and you can read it here: http://www.hornpipe.com/mystclas/myscl19.pdf

Himes began writing and publishing while serving a hard-labor prison sentence in the 1930s and his stories appeared in such esteemed national publications as Esquire. By the 1940s he was publishing novels and critics were comparing him to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Mosley, who earned a degree in political science and later worked as a computer programmer, didn’t begin writing until he was in his mid-30s but has since penned some 40 books. His work includes mysteries, science fiction and non-fiction and he says he prefers to be identified simply as a novelist.

Reed, whose work is concentrated on African and African-American perspectives, is a renaissance man, widely recognized as a poet, novelist, songwriter, playwright, editor and publisher.

There are many well-known African-American detectives in the literature aside from those already mentioned. James Patterson’s Alex Cross quickly comes to mind, as does George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange, among more recent creations. Then there’s Reg Hill’s Joe Sixsmith. And who could forget John Dudley Ball’s Virgil Tibbs?

My personal favorite, though, would have to be Benjamin January, a free colored surgeon and musician. January is the creation of Barbara Hambly and the stories are set mainly in the 1830s in New Orleans.

If you haven’t sampled any of the writers mentioned, do yourself a favor and seek out their work. It will open a whole new realm of enjoyment and education.  

Monday, January 26, 2015

Man's Fate

“History is about happiness and suffering.”

That’s a quote from Yuval Noah Harani, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

The quote illuminates what life has in store for all of us, and our greatest hope is to enjoy more of the former than the latter. It’s also one fitting very well with the theme of my novel, Something So Divine (coming soon from Sunbury Press). The setting is a rural Pennsylvania village in the autumn of 1897.

The quote is true of Ned Gebhardt, a simple-minded fellow, whose main solace in life has been the hope of a kind word or act from the young girl he’s accused of murdering. Ned has been under the yoke of a hard father and an uncaring stepmother and subject to bullying and abuse by neighbors all his life.

And equally true of the detective Simon Roth, abandoned and divorced by the spoiled daughter of a wealthy mine owner, who puts his job and reputation in jeopardy to try and save Ned from the hangman.

Roth’s actions are influenced by Ellen Kauffman, a widowed storekeeper, and Iris, Ned’s stepsister, the only two people in the village who seem to have sympathy for the young man and believe in his innocence.

There are other suspects and Roth does his best to investigate their possible motives and alibis.

Roth’s devotion is put to the test when he uncovers what appears to be damning evidence. Will he forsake his duty out of his growing love for Ellen or uphold his moral responsibility? That’s for you, the reader, to discover.

Future blogs on the subject of this novel will look into differing views on insanity in the 19th century, 19th century autopsies and the absence of women on juries in the period.