Wednesday, August 15, 2012

You Don't Walk Alone

You may think I’m a bit late in writing a tribute to Ray Bradbury. Though I admire the man and his amazing output this little essay isn’t exactly a tribute. What I intend to stress here is that no matter how talented or dedicated to craft a person may be no one achieves the ultimate pinnacle of success entirely on their own. Bradbury’s life is an excellent illustration of this fact. Bradbury was born into a working class family. In his early years he was surrounded by a loving and encouraging extended family and the warmth of that relationship and its benefits would be reflected later in some of his best loved stories. He had fond memories of an aunt reading him stories as a child and that may have influenced him to begin setting down his own tales on paper before he entered his teens. He actually earned his first pay as a writer at the age of 14 when George Burns hired him to write for the Burns and Allen radio show. After graduating from high school, he joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, befriending Robert Heinlein and many of the other big names of the genre. It was with the help of Heinlein in 1940 he made his first professional sale to a West Coast magazine of which many have never heard. Ray Bradbury never went to college. Instead, he went to the library all day, three times a week, until he got married at 27. Ever afterward he continued to laud the library as his “university” and, in gratitude to his alma mater, made a practice of organizing fundraisers for libraries. Despite his fame, Bradbury had his share of rejection, too. For a long time, he couldn’t get a publication outside of science fiction magazines. It was Truman Capote who finally recognized Bradbury’s talent, pulled his story “Homecoming” out of the slush pile, and convinced his editor at Mademoiselle to buy it. The New Yorker has only ever printed one of his stories, even though he sent them several hundred over the years. And in the 1970s, The Paris Review declined to publish an interview with him because they found him “too enthusiastic.” The Review made up for that error of judgment in 2010 with Interview No. 203. Bradbury claimed a wide variety of influences, which included friends and family. And he never forgot his debt to them. That, my friends, is the purpose of this essay—never forget the importance of other people in your life. None of us walk alone.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Sheriff Rides Again

If you've read Fallen From Grace,I hope you'll be happy to hear Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman, Lydia Longlow and some of their friends from Arahpot are coming back in a sequel. I've signed a contract with Billie Johnson, publisher of Oak Tree Press, for Sooner Than Gold. What's it about? I'm glad you asked. It's the summer of 1898. The nation, just coming out of an economic slump, has been at war with Spain since April. And Sylvester Tilghman, sheriff of Arahpot, Jordan County, Pennsylvania, has a murder victim with too many enemies. There's Claude Kehler, who's found standing with a knife in his hand over the body of Willis Petry. Then there's Rachel Webber, Petry's surly teen-aged stepdaughter, who is quick to admit an act intended to do him harm. There's also a band of gypsies who claim Petry is the Goryo who stole one of their young women. If that isn't enough to complicate Tilghman's life, add in threats to his job by McClean Ruppenthal, former town burgess; missing money from illegal gambling; a run-in with a female horse thief; scary predictions by a gypsy fortuneteller, and the theft of Doc Mariner's prized new motorcar. There's plenty of good eating, church-going and socializing between the misdeeds. And, before all is over, Sylvester solves the crime and even comes a little closer to his goal of finally marrying the elusive Lydia Longlow. And, if you haven't read Fallen, there's still time. It's available in print and electronic formats:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Who's Afraid of the Prolific Writer?

I was amused by a recent New York Times article about mainline publishers urging genre writers to produce more than one book a year. The article told how publishers were desperately seeking to hold onto readers beguiled by other forms of entertainment and how the Internet was making readers demand faster output. Way down in the article it noted some authors are so productive they're difficult to match, giving as an example James Patterson who last year published 12 novels. (They failed to mention he rarely produces anything more than an outline these days, relying on a stable of co-writers to do the actual writing.) For God's sake, have these people forgotten about John Creasey, George Simenon, Isaac Asimov, Alexandre Dumas pere, and a dozen more I could name off the top of my head who were never content with a one book a year limit? Simenon created more than 300 novels in 20 years, churning out 60-80 pages a day. Creasey produced more than 600 under a dozen pseudonyms. Naturally, not all of these were destined to be Nobel Prize contenders--though Simenon was capable of being what is termed a literary writer. And consider Joyce Carol Oates, whose production stands at 100 books in a mere 45 years. The woman is definitely not to be considered a hack. Any writer is capable of being prolific, given opportunity, time and incentive. Many of those who made it to the top tier of fame and fortune in the past either didn't need the money or additional reward and/or were constrained by their publishers who expressed ill-founded fears of saturating the market. In my prejudiced opinion the market for MORE, not less books by popular writers always has been hot. Can you imagine any fan of Dickens shying from reading more than one of his books in a year? We needn't go that far back. Take, as an example, Stephen King. Despite a hefty bibliography, his fans clamor for more. No, it isn't lack of product has big publishers afraid. It's the new breed of small publishers who are willing to work and share the profits with their writers. It's the legion of writers now capable of publishing on their own without having to kowtow to a middleman who hogs the bulk of the profit. And it's new markets like Amazon which allow both the small publisher and the individual writer to take a chance on books which never got past the first reader (usually a smart-ass kid just out of college)in the old system.

Friday, May 11, 2012


The township where I live just passed an ordinance against the raising of chickens in residential areas. This is in a community of about 8,000 people, of whom perhaps a dozen still have chickens. When I was a boy (and, no, that wasn’t in the dark ages) nearly every household in this village and throughout the township had a vegetable garden and many, many had chickens. At various times, my father had chickens and ducks and, at one time, turkeys. Nearly every family had at least one dog or cat. One neighbor raised goats. The son of the family next to us had a penchant for wild animals and was always bringing home raccoon, opossum, turtles, snakes and assorted other critters. There was a slaughterhouse up the road and we’d often hear the squeal or bellow of a hapless animal being led to its fate. Occasionally, a hog or a steer would break out and make a dash for freedom. There may have been, but I don’t remember complaints about sounds or odors. If you raise animals—no matter how careful or clean you may be—there are going to be associated noises and scents to deal with. It’s a natural derivative and cost for the rewards. That’s why it always amused me when people started building houses in the country and complained because they smelled manure. I’m not writing this because I approve or disapprove of raising chickens in a residential area. I’m simply stating a fact—things change. As my character Flora Vastine put it in Being Someone Else, “Nothing ever stays the same. For good or bad, life deals us changes and it’s up to us to accept the challenge or consequences.” So what does this have to do with writing, you might ask? We’re witnessing a revolution right now in the world of publishing. Those changes in the way things are done, in how writing is produced and distributed are going to impact all of us, whether we like it or not. So what do we do? We’ve got to study how we can make those changes work for us rather than against us. We’ve got to stop complaining about the odor and seek out the rewards. Instead of fighting just for a place in the market we should be looking to exploit it by creating new markets. I’m not sure exactly how to accomplish this. But I think we begin by studying, being open to new ideas, working with other people and not fearing change. Let’s raise some new chickens.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Sample Chapter

Chapter 1.
A blond young man in a suit and carrying a briefcase stood at Cutter’s door awaiting a response to his knock. Impatient, the man leaned forward, peering through the screen-door. It was too dark to see into the room beyond but he thought he discerned a low growl from within. Thinking Cutter might be ill and unable to answer, he tried the door. It was unlocked. He pulled it ajar and called out, “Captain Cutter?” Not getting a reply, he stepped inside.
A dog flew at him out of the darkness, snarling and snapping.
The young man flung himself back against the door. “What the shit? No…no!” he cried.
“Stay!” a stern voice commanded and the dog backed off with a final defiant growl.
With the scratch of a match, a lamp glowed up on a nearby table. A man moved toward him from around the table. A big man, rangy rather than heavy, clad in a ratty tee-shirt, patched and tattered chinos, both spattered with paint. The man moved fluidly, light on his feet like a boxer. His short hair and beard were bristly and neither appeared to have had the attention of comb or barber for some time.
The man raised a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that hung on a throng around his neck and put them on. He studied the intruder intently, his eyes curious, not menacing.
The other blinked, swallowed. “Captain Cutter?” he inquired again, hoping the quaver he imagined wasn’t apparent in his voice.
“Surname’s right, but I have no claim to the rank,” Cutter said in a deep, friendly tone. “Have you come for a painting?”
“No, sir.”
“Antiques then?”
The young man shook his head, eyes moving from Cutter to the dog which stood at his side, hackles raised, teeth still bared. Cutter hovered over him and momentarily he could not find his voice.
“What? Who are you?”
Swallowing again, he managed, “Flood. T. J. Flood.”
“I was in the back. Thought I heard a car pull up.”
“I’m with Edgecomb-Smythe Insurance. I didn’t mean to disturb you.” Flood looked around him. They were in a sort of ante-room jammed wall-to-wall with antique furniture, clocks, china and glass, and a variety of maritime curios.
“Still might be disturbing me if you’re here to sell me a policy.”
“I’m an investigator, not a salesman.”
Cutter’s brow wrinkled. “Investigator? I don’t recall that I have a policy with your firm.”
“It’s not you I’m investigating,” Flood began. Then he glanced warily at the hound which now sniffed at his shoe.
“Don’t worry. She’s just checking you out. Curious. Like me.”
“Yes. Hum—you were one of the witnesses to the grounding of the Sandra Haviland, weren’t you?”
“Just getting around to that? Why, it must be—what—over a year?”
Flood nodded. “Nearly. The firm’s slow in paying off claims when a wreck is so—unusual.”
“That’s putting it politely,” Cutter said with a snort. “It was right up there with the Mary Celeste and Carroll Deering. No apparent reason for having abandoned ship. No sign of collision or violence. Yet the captain, the owner and two seamen gone without a trace.”
Flood nodded again. “A real puzzler. The Coast Guard searched for weeks; not a sign of any of them. The radio was working, yet no distress calls were made. Is this the dog?” he asked, glancing at her.
“The only survivor,” Cutter told him, stooping to pet the dog, which appeared to be some uncertain breed mixed with German shepherd. The dog, relaxed now, wagged her tail. “If only she could talk.”
“I was hoping you might tell me what you saw. I realize it’s late. I had a hard time finding your place. If another time…”
Cutter shrugged his shoulders. “I talked to the Coast Guard and police at the time. I suppose there are reports.”
“I have copies of those. I was hoping there might be something more, something that might not have seemed important at the time.”
“It was a long time ago. I’m not even certain what all I said then.”
“We could go over the reports to refresh your memory,” Flood said. He paused to check his watch. “It is getting late. If you’d rather wait until another time…”
“Time’s not a problem. I’m a night owl. But I don’t know how much I could add.”
“Besides the dog, did you remove anything else from the boat?”
Cutter scowled at him. “I may be poor, but I’m not a thief.”
“I didn’t mean…”
Raising a hand, Cutter gave him a thin smile. “I know. Just doing your job.” He shrugged. “Dog kind of adopted me. Couldn’t leave her behind. We took off the log, charts and instruments. I was afraid the spray coming over the side would damage the papers.”
“We meaning the men who boarded her with you?”
“Right. We took the wallet from the cabin, too. Turned everything over to the sheriff’s men—except for the dog. I assume they removed everything else. Say, would you like a cup of coffee? I have some brewing in back,” he said, gesturing toward a doorway behind him. “As long as we’re talking we might as well be comfortable.”
Flood followed him back a hallway and into a large room bright with several Aladdin lamps and with a fire blazing on the hearth. Cutter gestured him to a wicker chair by the fireplace and disappeared through another doorway. The dog curled up in its bed near the fireplace, calm but still watching the stranger.
The room faced the sea and the surf vibrated the glass of two open windows whose curtains billowed in a slight breeze. Despite the ventilation, the air in the room was thick with the mingled odors of turpentine, linseed oil and paint. Flood dropped his briefcase and sank back in the chair, scanning his surroundings. The room was sparsely furnished save for bookcases running around the walls and paintings of varied sizes hung over and between them on every free space. An unfinished large painting of rocks and crashing surf stood on an easel by the window, a taboret table with a paint box and jars of brushes beside it. Flood was no connoisseur of art but he thought these paintings rather good.
The dog lifted its head once, a growl rumbling in her throat. But she didn’t move from her position and Flood relaxed, assuming the dog’s sensitive hearing had picked up something beyond human hearing.
Cutter returned with a tray which he placed on a table next to Flood’s chair. He handed him a mug. “There’s milk and sugar if you need it,” he said, pointing to the tray.
Cutter took his own mug and went to stand by the fireplace. “Now, where were we?”
The dog leapt up, grumbling, as they were interrupted by the banging of the screen door, followed by a clatter in the hallway. As they looked up, a girl barged through the doorway, shoving a large suitcase before her. The dog crossed the room to her, tail switching.
“When are you going to get electricity?” the girl demanded, letting the suitcase fall at her feet and kneeling to pet the dog. “I barked my shin coming down the hall.”
“When I can afford it,” Cutter said, moving toward her. “What are you doing here?”
“You don’t have a phone, you don’t write, you don’t come to see me. How am I supposed to know you’re all right?” She rose and stood, legs spread, feet flat, hands on her hips, glaring at Cutter.
“I just spoke to you…”
“A month ago.”
Cutter stopped in mid-stride, arms slack at his side, head hung, nibbling at his lip like a scolded school boy.
Flood looked from one to the other, confused. He turned his attention back to the girl. Despite her brusque behavior, he thought her very attractive. Tall and slim with her dark hair short in one of those boyish cuts, she wore a white polo top and blue bike shorts that accentuated her long bronzed legs. Her big blue eyes blazed in the light as she tapped one sneakered foot.
“Dee,” Cutter said, starting toward her again.
“I don’t know how you can live like this.”
Cutter stopped. “Accommodations like these were good enough for Winslow Homer. I suppose they’re good enough for me.”
“…like a hermit.”
“I’m not a hermit. I have real friends here.”
“Hmph. Smelly fishermen. That woman.”
Somewhat irritated but more perplexed by her behavior, Flood squirmed in the chair which squeaked under his weight.
“Hello,” she said, seeming to notice him for the first time. “He doesn’t look like the others I’ve found hanging around here,” she said to Cutter. “Is he a dealer?”
Setting aside his cup, Flood rose.
“I’m sorry,” Cutter said. “This is Mr. Flood. He’s an insurance agent.”
“Investigator,” Flood corrected.
“Whatever,” Cutter said, swiveling his head to face him. “This is my daughter, Delia, who only acts this way when she wants to agitate me.”
“I don’t…”
“Normally she’s a pretty decent sort.”
“Really, I am,” Delia said, coming closer. “I hope you’ll excuse…” Then she saw the unfinished painting and halted beside it. “Say, this is really good.”
“You like it?” Cutter asked, starting toward her again. “I think I’m starting to get the feel of the place, seeing the light as it really is.” His eyes sparkled with excitement as he spoke.
“And—are you selling anything?”
He shrugged. “A few things. This isn’t exactly a tourist Mecca, thank God.”
“You need to show, Daddy. You’ll never get anywhere otherwise.”
Flood moved toward them. “If I could…” he started.
“No!” they shouted in unison. Then, seeing his shocked expression, both laughed.
“I’m sorry,” Cutter said, coming over and laying a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “You seem to have got caught in the middle of our little brawl.”
“Please. Forgive my insanity,” Delia said, nodding.
Flashing her a smile, Flood told Cutter, “I was going to suggest I come back another time.”
“Suit yourself. I don’t know if there’s anything else I can tell you, though.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But there’s one more thing I need to tell you before I go.”
“What’s that?”
“Mrs. Myers wants the claim for the ship paid to you. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand.”
It was Cutter’s turn to look startled. “Dollars? What? Why me? I wasn’t the only one went aboard, and there was nothing we could do.”
“You were the one rescued the dog.”

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Different Place

Setting is an essential feature of many mystery novels. Think Sherlock Holmes and you’re immediately transported to Victorian London. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series and you’re off to Louisiana. Tony Hillerman—the Four Corners country. You get the point.

My Sticks Hetrick series is set in a fictional community near Harrisburg PA and my faithful band of readers has become as familiar with the streets of Swatara Creek as they have with the regular cast of characters.

The Limping Dog, my standalone mystery coming next month from Whiskey Creek Press, ventures into a fresh territory. Though I don’t identify the specific place, it’s clearly the New England coast. The rugged setting was inspired by a visit to Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts some years ago.

The place appealed to my imagination and when I began writing this story I recalled images that fit my needs. I warn you now, though, don’t look for any of the towns mentioned in the novel—they exist only in my imagination.

In my tale, Gavin Cutter is an artist living in an isolated village. He’s among a handful of witnesses who see a yacht crash onto a reef. The first aboard the wreck, Cutter rescues a dog, the only living creature on the vessel. Ron Myers, wealthy owner of a growing computer firm, and the crew of the ship have disappeared without a trace.

T. J. Flood, a former detective now working as an insurance investigator, questions Cutter and the other witnesses and learns Myers is alleged to have developed a radical and valuable new microprocessor system. Some assert the system was lost with its creator. Others believe it exists and have devious plans to profit from the invention.

Flood is attracted to Dee, Cutter’s daughter, a newspaper reporter. They join forces in investigating the ship incident and strange coincidences that seem to surround it, including a break-in at Cutter’s house and mysterious concerns about the dog. The result is threats, danger and, ultimately, several murders before the case is resolved.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Ford Test

Ruth Rendell, one of my favorite writers, recommends that all who aspire to write read Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier.” Rendell says she reads this novel, which is ranked among the greats of the 20th century, annually.

Ford, an English novelist, poet and editor, was a champion of new literature and experimentation. He aided early careers of Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and other notables.

One of my favorite quotes by the man concerns his close friend, Jack London, another of my favorites: “Like Peter Pan, he never grew up, and he lived his own stories with such intensity that he ended by believing them himself.”

Though his own work is less known today, many will be familiar with his advice to select a book by opening it and reading page 99. His conclusion was by reading that one page “…the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian scholar known for the expression “the medium is the message” and who predicted the World Wide Web three decades before it was developed, made a similar recommendation, though his suggestion was to read page 69.

I’ve tested both theories on a variety of books. Personally, I give the edge to Ford.

Here’s Page 99 from my novel, “Fallen From Grace”. Based on the Ford theory, I believe there’s enough mystery suggested for a reader to want more of the tale. What do you think?

“Could they have been…”
“No. They weren’t together long enough and they left separately. I couldn’t make up my mind should I follow him or her when they parted. I still feared for her safety, but I was curious about his identity. The man saved me the bother of deciding. As Lizzie walked away, the man came flying out of the alley on horseback. Since I was afoot there was no way I could follow him.”
“And the girl?” Lydia asked.
“She came straight back home. Who do you think she might have been meeting and why, Tilghman?”
“That’s what I’ll be asking directly,” I told him.
This proved more difficult than expected.
“Gone? What do you mean?”
“Just what I said,” Matilda told me. “Packed her bag and left this morning without a word of explanation.”
“Well where do you think she went?”
“She didn’t tell either of us,” Barbara said. “I think it’s all my fault.” I saw tears brimming in the girl’s eyes. She sighed heavily and plopped down on the bench by the backdoor of the boarding house.
Tillie and I both glanced at her. “What does that mean?” I asked.
Barbara sighed again and dabbed at her eyes with an edge of her apron. “We had a fight last night. She snuck out after we went to bed. I heard her go and I was afraid. I waited up until she came back. She wouldn’t tell me where she went and we had a row.”
“A customer I didn’t know about?” Matilda asked.
“No,” Barbara said, shaking her head. “Nothing like that. She would have said if that were the case. This was something secret and she didn’t like me prying. She never got mad at me like that before.”
“Humph,” Matilda said and she scowled.
The woman stood with her hands on her hips and grunted again.
“Do you have an idea where she went?”
“He probably promised her more money, that’s what.”