Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Do You Ken Me Now?

May I have your attention.

Seriously. Getting and keeping another person’s attention is becoming increasingly more difficult.

Statistics show average attention span today is only eight seconds, a decline from 12 seconds in 2000. Eight seconds for a human is actually less than the attention span of a goldfish (nine seconds).

Of course, a goldfish has much less to engage its attention than a human. Still…

Some authorities are more generous with the figures, contending average attention span has dropped from 12 minutes to five. Minutes, not seconds. In either case, it’s not much as time goes.

Scientists have pointed the finger of blame at television and other technological distractions of our age. Look around you and note the focus of your peers on their smart phones and other devices providing a pathway to the Internet and all its distractions—aural, visual and tactile. Few of us are oblivious to these wonderful yet detrimental aspects of our society.

Fewer people are reading today and reading scores are on a steady decline. We’ve all heard too many of those who do read complaining of books being too long, too complicated or lacking in enough action. Where’s the challenge if everything is easy?

Some may want to pooh-pooh the idea, citing the awesome benefits offered by this access to so much information. The problem is, how much can an ordinary person digest without sacrificing concentration and the ability to absorb knowledge?

Our ancestors didn’t have the distractions of constantly ringing phones, blaring radios, TVs with streaming “news” everywhere you go, not to mention alarm clocks that wake one up with music, appliances and power tools adding to the din, and motor vehicles of all types rocketing around the neighborhood.

I’m not being a Luddite and advocating throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But wouldn’t it be nice every once in a while to shut off the technology and look—really look—at the person next to you and give him or her more than eight seconds of your time?


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Should You Know the History of the Place You’re Writing About?

(My guest today is Marilyn Meredith, prolific author of some 30 novels, including an award-winning series. Read on and you could have a character named for yourself in a future novel.)

Some might say, “No,” in my case since the setting for Spirit Shapes takes place in a fictional setting.

However, throughout the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series, I’ve woven in bits and pieces of the real history of the town it’s based on and I think that’s enriched each book.

In Kindred Spirits I wrote about the true history of the Tolowa people and the genocide that nearly wiped out the whole tribe and instigated by the then Governor of California.

I’ve written about the history of the Bear Creek Inn which once was a stage stop for people going higher into the mountains to see the big trees in several books. I wrote a lot about the history of the Tapper Lodge in Intervention even though that Lodge is fictional, but the history is borrowed from Camp Nelson.

Because at times I write about an imaginary Indian reservation but borrow a lot from the real one that I live near. I’ve often sprinkled wonderful facts of the history and legends from that reservation which have enriched various stories I’ve written.

In Spirit Shapes the haunted house is imaginary—but the old murders that happened in it are based on real murders—one that was highly publicized though changed in many ways for my mystery, and the other didn’t happen but was based on a story told me by someone long ago.

Finding out about the history of a place you’re writing about, even if you’ve fictionalized it, can give you material for you story that you might never have imagined.

As a reader, do you like to have interesting historical facts spicing up your fiction? And if you’re a writer, do you like to find out historical facts about the place you’re writing about?

Marilyn Meredith

Blurb for Spirit Shapes: Ghost hunters stumble upon a murdered teen in a haunted house. Deputy Tempe Crabtree's investigation pulls her into a whirlwind of restless spirits, good and evil, intertwined with the past and the present, and demons and angels at war.

Bio: Marilyn Meredith is the author of over thirty published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series. She borrows a lot from where she lives in the Southern Sierra for the town of Bear Creek and the surrounding area, including the nearby Tule River Indian Reservation. She does like to remind everyone that she is writing fiction. Marilyn is a member of EPIC, three chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and on the board of the Public Safety Writers of America. Visit her at http://fictionforyou.com and follow her blog at http://marilynmeredith.blogspot.com/


The person who comments on the most blogs on this blog tour will have the opportunity to have a character named after him or her in the next Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery.

Tomorrow I’ll be visiting here: http://thebookconnection.com.blogspot.com

Friday, October 11, 2013

About My New Book

History is story.

Story handed down orally, generation to generation. Story made more permanent in written form. Story as legend.

My latest book, “Digging Dusky Diamonds,” is this kind of history. Based on contemporary newspaper accounts, genealogical records, family stories and even some legends that have become part of the lore of Pennsylvania’s anthracite mining region where I grew up.

I clearly remember as a boy seeing throngs of miners pouring like a stream, their faces blackened, shoulders slumped in weariness, boots shuffling along the paving as they ended their shifts at the Glen Burn in Shamokin.

My paternal ancestors were mainly involved as canal boatmen and, later, as railroaders transporting the coal from place to place. But my great-grandfather, Henry Francis Fisher, his father and brothers were all miners. Three of Henry’s brothers died as the result of mine accidents.

My focus is on Northumberland and Schuylkill counties—the areas I’m most familiar with—though similar conditions prevailed across the anthracite mining region in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While there is some technical information on the process of mining, the emphasis is more on the miners and how they and their families lived and worked, loved and died. The stories reveal the harshness of their lives, their daily concerns, their diversions, social attitudes and prejudices.

The accounts reveal what was different about those people and what has remained constant in us, their descendants.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Rose By Any Other...

Writers are fascinated by names.

There’s a whole science to the study of the origin and history of names. It’s called onomatology. As writers, we’re more interested in finding the right name than in delving into its origin.

As we create our characters—unless they whisper in our ears and tell us what they want to be called—we often struggle to find an appropriate name. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has changed a character’s name in midstream because the first simply did not click.

I’ve often wondered why Fran Striker, creator of the Lone Ranger, chose the name Tonto for the masked man’s companion, since the term means foolish in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, surely an affront to the Native American community. Some sources indicate the name was proposed by James Jewell who contended it meant “wild one” in an unspecified indigenous language. Jewell also came up with Tonto’s trademark term, “kemosabe,” which he based on the name of an Upper Michigan summer camp. At least they did select Jay Silverheels, a genuine American Indian (Mohawk), for the radio and film roles.

Writers use a variety of means to select names. Some rely on the phonebook—just open to a page at random and take your pick. Others hold contests, offering readers the opportunity to have a character named for them. Not sure why anyone would want their name attached to a murderer—even a fictional one. I guess the quest for fame (or notoriety) takes us down some strange roads.

One thing we must strive to avoid is having characters with too similar names. This has a tendency to confuse readers. One way I’ve found useful to prevent this is to keep an alphabetical list of characters.

Names are important in my other life as a genealogist, too. I’ve found my work in that field a good resource for harvesting names. I keep a list of those which appeal for future use, forenames, surnames and even nicknames.

Frankly, I can’t think of a better source for a variety of common and unusual names.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Interview With Margaret Blake

My guest today is my friend Margaret Blake, a writer of page-turning contemporary and historical romances as well as thrillers. Welcome Margaret. Tell us about your latest novel.

MB: My latest novel “Under a Grecian Moon” is set on a Greek Island and in London. I have never been to Greece so it was exciting to do this. I chose the Greek setting because one day I was looking out of my window on a cold, dull November morning. I wanted to go somewhere warm. The novel is the story of past loves meeting after many years; there are secrets to be revealed and an adorable child. Although it is a contemporary romance there is an element of suspense, I think.

JRL: When and why did you start writing?

MB: I’ve always written for as long as I can remember. I never did anything about it until John (her late husband) persuaded me to take myself seriously. I think I wrote because I was an only child and often used to do this to amuse myself. My dad used to think it was smart of me and he was so proud when I had my first book published in 1978. I am so glad he was around to see that.

JRL: What do you see as the turning point in your career?

MB: I guess when I started taking myself seriously. John nagged me to do something about it and I researched publishers and then wrote a book I thought they might like. They didn’t like it but suggested if I had anything else I might send it in. This was a turning point. Always having loved Richard the Third I decided to write a novel and try in some way to exonerate his character. That book was accepted and it was the kick start for me to write more historical novels.

JRL: You’ve written in several genres. Would you give us your insight on the challenges in doing this.

MB: Well, you do the same, John; many writers do. It is challenging in that if you are writing historical you must do your research. I always try to remember that someone knows more than I do so I am very careful. Writing suspense is very challenging, I have changed things in these kinds of books. In one I fell right out of love with my hero. I think it worked but had it not done so, then I would have ditched the book.

JRL: Do you see switching from one genre to another as a good or dangerous thing for a writer to do?

MB: No, I see it as fun. Sometimes I feel I like to do something new and fresh. For me if I am just writing in the one genre I feel I might become stale.

JRL: Do you have a favorite genre?

MB: It’s all down to how I feel at that moment. For instance I loved writing “Under a Grecian Moon,” not only did it take me away from grey England in winter but it was fun, too. My last contemporary romance “Tilly’s Trials”I also enjoyed writing as it was looking at a young woman who had a serious problem with intimacy. Although it was a romance it looked at the challenges she had to face, it had humour, too, so I felt very light hearted at times. The funniest thing about this novel was when my grandson, then 14, saw the cover he asked. “Is it about bikes, Nana?” as there is a bicycle on the cover! Covers are very important!

JRL: What do you consider the biggest challenge in writing a novel?

MB: Since my husband died every novel has been a challenge. I would not say I have had writer’s block, but I have put off writing quite a lot. I really have to drag myself into my little study to work. Once I start work I am all right but it is getting there. I think this is because John always was the wind beneath my wing.  Generally, I didn’t have challenges, I just loved writing so much I got on with it. Really one challenge we all have is knowing when you have to ditch something you have been working on. Like parents with their children, they just don’t want to let them go when you know you have to.

JRL: Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers?

MB: It would be great if they would stop by my website and let me know what they think. It is quite new and I love it: www.margaretblake.com Also, if you want to be a writer, do it. I always used to tell people that it only costs the postage to mail a novel/story/article off to a publisher. Today it’s even cheaper than that with the Internet and e-book publishing. Don’t be shy. We all have to take that step into the unknown.

JRL: So, what’s next, Margaret?

MB: I have two books out next year. The first, in February, is an e-book version of a hardback novel I wrote a couple of years ago. Then, coming in April, is a new romantic suspense, “The Flower Girls,” which is set in Yorkshire and the South of France, both favorite places of mine. Thank you so much, John. It is always a pleasure to visit with you.

Readers can find details of all Margaret’s books at www.whiskeycreekpress.com and www.amazon.com

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Splendid Little War

This week we Americans will be celebrating the anniversary of the day the Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence. Between picnics and fireworks many will also be remembering the terrible and costly battles that occurred over a three-day stretch in 1863 at Gettysburg.

A significant turn in another lesser known war took place between July 1 and 4 in 1898.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 is occurring as a background to my novel, Sooner Than Gold. Though the characters are not directly involved in the war it does affect their lives and intrude on their thoughts.

For this reason, I took a closer look than I ever had in the past at this conflict. It was another of those politically- and industrially-motivated wars which could have been avoided. The fact we entered it because of propaganda spouted by some with selfish and/or profit motivations does not diminish the bravery and patriotism of men (and women) willing to sacrifice all for their country. In all wars it is most often the bravest and most honorable who decline to speak later of their experiences.

What Teddy Roosevelt dubbed a “splendid little war” was promoted initially as a means of supporting the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst drummed up public support for intervention. While their motives may have been sincere it didn’t hurt that the public clamor for information spurred newspaper sales as nothing had in the preceding months. It’s also worth noting the U.S. had important economic interests made uncertain by continued conflict between Spain and Cuba.

President William McKinley sought to broker a peaceful settlement. That effort was scuttled when an explosion rocked the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, killing 266 U.S. sailors. Though the exact cause of the explosion has never been determined, Spain was held to blame and the nation went to war.

On July 1, 1898 a combined American force of 15,000 infantry and cavalry troops launched an offensive that, along with a naval operation by the U.S. fleet, effectively doomed Spain’s hope of holding onto its colonies. There were setbacks, including a crippling outbreak of Yellow Fever, but the war was over by August 12, 1898.

A highlight of that July offensive was the taking of San Juan Hill by Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Credit is due Teddy and his bully boys. What isn’t acknowledged often enough is that they might not have made the crest had they not had the support of all four of the U.S. Army’s “colored” regiments and a force of rebel Cubans.

As to the aftermath of the war, the U.S. Congress promised Cuba independence but added an amendment which prohibited the island from signing treaties with other nations or contracting a public debt. The amendment also provided for the establishment of a permanent American naval base in Cuba. You may have heard of it. It’s called Guantanamo. The U.S. also annexed the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. For the first time in history, the United States became an imperial power with colonies.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Man Who Persevered

Comment in another person’s blog reminded me of a writer I admired in my youth and hadn’t thought about in a long while.

Jim Kjelgaard was one of those many writers who influenced me, and it’s fitting to pay him a bit of tribute here. Though born in New York City, Kjelgaard grew up in Potter County, Pennsylvania, which is less than 85 miles as the crow flies from where I was raised and now live again.

Best remembered today as the author of stories for boys, he was also a prolific writer of outdoor articles and Western short stories.

I was already an avid fan of Jack London, Zane Grey and James Oliver Curwood when a friend loaned me a copy of “Big Red,” probably Kjelgaard’s most famous book and one of the best dog stories of all time. This story about a young trapper and a champion Irish setter blew me away. Obviously it inspired the same feelings in others because it won some prestigious awards and became the basis for a Disney film (which bears tenuous resemblance to the book).

Since I spent a lot of my time roaming in the woods, fishing, hunting and trapping (I liked animals too much to ever be much good at the latter two activities), I felt an immediate kinship with Kjelgaard who had been doing the same things most of his life. Like Zane Grey, he began his writing career with articles about the sports he loved. Impressed by those articles, an editor urged him to consider doing a book for boys.

“Forest Patrol,” that first novel, came out in 1941 and was about a ranger in Pennsylvania’s Black Forest, a job one of his brother’s had held.

Sometime after his first books appeared, Jim received a letter from a fan named “Eddie.” As it turned out, Eddie was the nickname of a young lady named Edna Dresen. After a period of correspondence, Kjelgaard went to Wisconsin to meet Eddie, who soon after became his wife.

As I said, I early felt a kinship with Kjelgaard and since some of my own first published articles appeared in outdoor magazines that alone would be sufficient reason to remember him with fondness.

There’s another aspect of Kjelgaard’s career which is less known. In his youth he had suffered episodes similar to epileptic seizures which were tentatively diagnosed as the result of a tumor. An operation provided temporary relief. But for the last 20 years of his life he suffered chronic pain which eventually led him to take his own life.

When you’re feeling put upon by problems in your writing life consider what it would be like to persevere under those conditions. Despite being in constant pain, Kjelgaard wrote some 40 books, numerous short stories and articles. In a 1960 tribute, Mrs. Kjelgaard said her husband gave family, friends and readers 20 years of inspiring wisdom and courage.

You can read some of his short stories and learn more about the writer at http://jimkjelgaard.com/ and http://home.sprintmail.com/~charterbus/kjelgaard.htm

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pick Your Poison

I used poison as a murder weapon in Fallen From Grace and have utilized it again in Sooner Than Gold.

Poison has a long and respected place in the history of crime fiction. Agatha Christie employed poison in her first novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” and it was her weapon of choice in some 60 other fictions. Dorothy Sayers was equally fond of poison as a means of dispatch, as was John Carter Dickson, master of the locked room mystery, and even Arthur Conan Doyle.

Thinking of Lucrezia Borgia and some other early examples, some might consider poison as more suited to women as a weapon. In fact, an equal number of male murderers have turned to poison in preference to the gun or other weapons. For example, Thomas Neill Cream, Frederick Seddon and William Palmer, who some believe to have been Christie’s inspiration for that first novel.

The writers mentioned above (and many of the actual murderers) leaned toward chemical poisons, such as arsenic, strychnine and cyanide. I utilized arsenic in Fallen From Grace, since it was so readily available to our ancestors.

There’s nothing wrong in utilizing these time-honored tinctures, though one must be careful and provide the assassin with adequate medical knowledge. Some critics have challenged Christie on the qualification of the conspirator in that first and famous novel.

In Sooner Than Gold I decided to take a more natural turn. The Tilghman stories are set in an agricultural/mining community in the 19th century. Our rural ancestors were more inclined to forage in field and forests and many were familiar with a variety of plants with uses both benign and deadly. Since the cast of characters includes gypsies who have an even more extensive knowledge of such things, this particular plant seemed a perfect choice.

Growing up in a similar environment and fond of roaming the forest in my youth, I’ve long been fascinated by the many uses of plants most regard as mere weeds. This provides a fertile field for utilization in my stories and I’ve made frequent use of natural poisons over the years.

I’m sure this will not be the last time I dispose of a character by means of poison.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Origin of Sticks Hetrick

Have you ever wondered what inspires a writer to create a mystery series?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but my adventure with Sticks Hetrick began early one morning as I drove to work. I was wire editor at the time, a position requiring me to be at my desk long before other members of the staff arrived.

As I headed to work that morning, a man in a green baseball cap emerged from a bank of fog and strode across the road. There wasn’t anything particularly striking about the fellow, yet his image kept recurring through the day, haunting me as had the woman at the end of the quay struck John Fowles and resulted in his French lieutenant’s woman. Did this character actually exist or had I conjured him through my imagination?

I used him in a short story, thinking that would dispel him.

Later, working on a story about a serial killer who seeks a mail-order bride, Hetrick returned, nudged aside my original plot and gave me a tale involving a theft of rare books which leads to murder in a rural community. It would be several years and a few detours before Whiskey Creek Press published Something In Common, the first of the Hetrick series in 2006.

In that first novel, Hetrick, a widower and former police chief bored in retirement, convinces a reluctant Aaron Brubaker to accept him as an unofficial consultant to the Swatara Creek police department.

That was followed the next year by Cruel Cuts, which introduced Hetrick’s protégés, Cpl. Harry Minnich and rookie officer Flora Vastine. This case, involving a poison pen campaign against an ambitious lawyer and animal abuses, smoothes out some of the wrinkles in the relationship between Hetrick and Brubaker.

With the publication of Practice To Deceive in 2012, the series went up to five novels. Sticks now has a new love interest and a new job as county detective, though he’s still called upon to back up his old friends.

In March, I signed a contract with Whiskey Creek for A Burning Desire, a sixth novel in the series in which an arsonist is stalking Swatara Creek. As I await assignment of an editor for this one, Flora began asserting a more leading role in another plot involving the murder of a school teacher who conducts birding tours.

All of the Hetrick books are available in both print and electronic formats from Whiskey Creek, http://whiskeycreekpress.com/authors/JRLindermuth.shtml, on Amazon and from other booksellers. Hetrick and his friends have also appeared in a number of short stories, two of which are now available from Untreed Reads.

What does the future hold for the series? I’m sure Hetrick and the other characters will let me know. By now I’ve grown quite fond of them all.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Learn Science & Have Fun - Read a Novel on Science

(JL Greger, author of Coming Flu and the soon-to-be-released Murder: A New Way To Lose Weight, both published by Oak Tree Press, is my guest today. She has been a scientist, professor, textbook writer (Nutrition for Living), and university administrator. Now she writes medical mystery/suspense novels.)

The U.S.’s rank in the Global Innovative Index dropped from seventh to tenth this year. Although the validity of the survey could be questioned (Education Week, J. Tomassini blog, July 9, 2012), most experts on education would agree that the average American is not as scientifically literate as (s)he should be. Accordingly, government agencies and scientific organizations have invested heavily in science education programs for children and teens, for example, AAAS Project 2061: Benchmarks for Science Literacy (www.project2061.org/publications/bsl/default.htm). These programs focus on making science fun for children.

What about adults? Who makes science fun for adults?
Fun depends on the eyes of the beholders. Many adults enjoy the thousands of non-fiction books on science topics (medicine, the environment, astronomy, etc) published for the general public every year. A few of these “science books” read like action novels, particularly Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer. If you like horror, it’s hard to beat Preston’s description of the symptoms of smallpox with the skin peeling from the live bodies. And John Barry really “develops the character” of several of the dedicated (but quirky) scientists, leading medicine at the time of The Great Influenza (the early 1900’s).

What if you prefer fiction?
A number of authors, many of them scientists or physicians themselves, are using scientific tidbits to add color to their novels without overwhelming the plot. For example, a scientist asked me why I didn’t mention cytokine storms in my novel Coming Flu. I replied that I’ve seen a glazed look in the eyes of too many college biology students when cytokine storms (over reactions of the body’s immune system to the flu virus that cause many symptoms) were explained. Despite the “short cut,” you’ll learn a bit about vaccine development and immunology from Coming Flu. More importantly you’ll think about the wonders and limits of modern biology.

My next novel Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight (due out in March) is from the point of view of a physician investigating charges of scientific misconduct against a “diet” doctor. I was a professor in nutrition and toxicology.

Robin Cook, a physician, wrote more than twenty-five medical thrillers, the most famous being Coma.

Did you know Michael Crichton graduated from Harvard Medical School before he became an author and film director? Although his novels (e.g. The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park) are science fiction, I find he cleverly includes bits of real science in them.

Kathy Reichs, an anthropology professor, writes of modern forensic anthropological techniques in her Tempe Brennan series of crime novels. Her books became the basis of the TV series Bones.

Camille Minichino, a physicist, writes mysteries with titles based on the periodic table (e.g.. The Hydrogen Murder, The Lithium Murder).

So why not borrow one of these books from the library or better still buy one. I think you may decide that science is fun.

In Coming Flu, a new, mysterious flu strain kills more than two hundred in less than a week in the small walled community near the Rio Grande. The rest face a bleak future under quarantine. One of the residents Sara Almquist, as a medical epidemiologist, pries into every aspect of her neighbors’ lives looking for ways to stop the spread of the flu. She finds promising clues – maybe one too many? Not all her neighbors are what they appear to be.

Be the first in your neighborhood to read MURDER: A NEW WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT (Oak Tree Press is publishing it in March 2013). Someone in this southwestern medical school doesn’t like women. Two have been murdered already. At first, Linda Almquist suspects the deaths are related to her investigation of Dr. Richard Varegos, a “diet doctor,” who is recklessly endangering the lives of his obese research subjects. Maybe she’s wrong. The murders might be related to something in the past – something involving her boss the Dean. While Linda fears for her job, the police fear for her life.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Character You Might Love To Hate

September 14, 1829

Hatred was never a motivating passion for Joe Johnson. He could dislike another person but he was sincere when he claimed he never hated another man. Even the negroes and speculators he mainly preyed upon would concede (had any survived their encounters with him) his treatment of them was not motivated by hate. Like love, it was an emotion that simply did not exist or was, sadly, missing from his character.

Greed, however, was another matter. Johnson was a man who could not keep his fingers off the property of others. This failing had developed along with a bullying nature during his boyhood in Sussex County, Delaware. Being larger and stronger than his companions, it had developed unimpeded until it was an ingrained part of his nature by young manhood. From there it had expressed itself in a variety of unrepentant forms. Stealing neighbor’s chickens to feed a greedy stomach had led, progressively, to the theft of hogs, horses and cattle for profit and, from there, to exploiting human flesh, robbery and murder.

But it was neither of these emotions that brought him to Schlusseltown.

That had been the eventual result of unplanned, expeditious flight necessary to save his miserable life.

That was the nature of life, he had decided long before. Just as one began to feel content, satiated with a full belly, plenty of grog and coins to clink together, fate would snatch the rug from beneath one’s feet and it would become necessary to begin all over again.

Still, once he was a safe distance from the gallows, he began to rejoice in his freedom and set to work sniffing out new opportunities.

Once he was sufficiently distanced from the immediate danger, there was no great need to hurry. With the money he had managed to snatch before absconding he could afford to travel at his leisure, sucking the marrow from the bone of each day. As he crossed Maryland there remained the possibility of pursuit but he was not the type to look back over his shoulder and the prospect only added to the exhilaration he felt.

Subjectively, his peregrinations were based on a desire to escape; objectively, he had no specific goal toward that purpose. He thought he might distance himself from danger by going to Canada or, perhaps, the West.

From Baltimore, he headed up the Susquehanna into Pennsylvania. He knew his money would not last indefinitely and so his sharp ears were ever tuned to the conversations of others, his eyes ever watchful and his other senses attuned, alert to the chance which would allow him to increase his resources.

Johnson was skilled at ingratiating himself with others. Perhaps it was his long history of cozening others or his exuberance and disregard for convention as something they subconsciously desired for themselves; he drew them like a mirror but the reflection they saw was him magnified.

Still, it was a false image they saw. No one beheld the real Joe Johnson; only the image he projected. He was no Alonzo Jump (there was a bit of irony in the choice of the unusual name since the real owner was the sheriff who had put an end to Johnson’s nefarious Delaware enterprise), a Virginian ostensibly on a horse-buying expedition but who appeared more interested in drinking, carousing and gambling.

It was in a tavern near Harrisburg that the impostor Alonzo Jump first heard of Captain Isaac Schlussel. The latter was fast becoming a legend. It was alleged he had single-handedly carved out an empire in the coal country wilderness to the north where he manufactured gunpowder, operated sawmills, farms and various other enterprises. Aside from the visions of this man’s wealth and plots for grabbing a share of it, the thing that impressed itself most upon Johnson’s fertile mind were accounts of the man’s passion for horses which equaled the lust of ordinary men for nubile young girls.

As luck would have it, a farmer who bred racing horses was stopping at the tavern. After examining them and being assured of their quality, Johnson staked the last of his money against a string the breeder was taking down to Maryland on a card game that night. So obsessed was he with this opportunity, Johnson resolved that if he did not win he would follow the man and steal the horses.

“I’m not much given to cards,” the horse dealer said when pressed.

“Then what sport might entice you to wager?” Johnson asked, unwilling to relinquish his goal.

The man studied him a moment, tugging at his goatee. “I might consider rasslin’ you for the string,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile twitching at his lips.

Johnson laughed. “Sure you would. You’re taller and you outweigh me by a good twenty pounds.”

“Whadya got to be scairt about?” his adversary pressed, stepping close and squeezing Johnson’s arm muscle. “I’m older than you and you don’t look like no weaklin’.”

It wasn’t fear of the other’s size that put Johnson off. He’d done his share of brawling and, at one point, had earned his living as a slave-breaker, pummeling recalcitrant blacks into submission. He knew size alone was never a consideration in that pursuit. Still, wrestling was a slippery game and one could never be certain of the outcome. Besides, shrewd judge of character that he was, he already had arrived at a better means of achieving his desire with less effort. He was amazed at the beauty of the idea and how it had come to him like a flash of lightning across a summer sky as he thought about Schlussel’s major enterprise.

“You want us to sit on kegs of gunpowder?” the other asked, his eyes already bright and swollen with fear.

“That’s right. We’ll each plunk down on a keg and light the fuse with one of these,” he said, proffering a stogie. “First one to hop off loses. You haint scairt, are you?”

Johnson had judged his victim correctly. Eyes darting like bugs on a pond, already perspiring and wheezing, the farmer gave in, unable to back down in front of his neighbors. “Haint no braver man in Dauphin County,” he said, puffing out his chest. “I’ll outlast you, you Virginia cockadoodle.”

Two kegs of powder with fuses attached were quickly procured from a teamster whose wagon was parked in the yard and who had been a witness to the conversation. It was of no consequence but Johnson was unaware the driver was carrying a cargo from Schlussel’s factory to Harrisburg.

“I’ll thank you to take your sport outside,” the worried tavern-keep told them.

It was a bold stunt, though no true test of Johnson’s courage. In the sunlit yard, he calmly perched upon his keg, puffing his cigar, but hardly had time to work up a sweat of anxiety before his foe leapt up and stomped out the fuse of his keg which had burned barely an inch. “You win,” he cried. “I may be a fool, but I haint crazy.”

As well as print formats.) 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Creating Realistic Villains

Every mystery or thriller requires a villain.

Mention the word, and most of us automatically conjure up a character from a novel or film. Hannibal Lector leaps to mind for many—the prototype of the sociopath. Or Professor Moriarty—master criminal and arch enemy of Sherlock Holmes. The scalp-hunting Judge from Blood Meridian.

But not all villains are sociopaths, or career criminals, or however Judge Holden may truly be defined.

The term villain comes from an Old French term roughly translated as “rustic” or “boor.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable asserts our idea of wickedness associated with the word is “a result of aristocratic condescension and sense of superiority.”

Quite a different take on our interpretation of the word, isn’t it? Yet most of us do indeed look down on the villain. We may secretly admire his/her ability to transcend normal behavior in pursuit of a goal. But, would we seriously want to be him/her?

In a novel, the villain is the opposite of the hero. The main purpose of a villain is to provide conflict, which is the driving force of story. The villain must be as fully developed as the hero. The most important aspects of creating a villain are that they be realistic and properly motivated.

Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is clever and charming. But he’s not above murder. Pinkie Brown in Graham Greene’s excellent “Brighton Rock” is a selfish, teenaged thug, yet he worries about his immortal soul.

Human beings are complicated creatures. None are entirely good or evil. Not all villains are sociopaths or psychopaths. Some are simply driven into that situation by circumstance. And they come in both sexes. You didn’t really think the women were getting off unscathed, did you? There are plenty to go around: Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca;” Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” and who could forget Lady Macbeth?

Though we may not condone a villain’s actions, it is important that the reader understand and even sympathize to a degree with the motivation. For instance, we all have financial needs and can understand how a person might desire to improve his/her situation—even if we don’t condone the method. We’ve all experienced fear, jealousy, anger, sexual desire, wanting to even the score—the list goes on and on. These are all motivations a writer can utilize to create a memorable villain.

Think about it. I’ll wager you will remember more villains than heroes from the books you’ve read.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Not Just Another Day

Martin Luther King Day is just another day off work for many people who are too young to remember the reason for the observance.

For those of us who do remember King and pay tribute to his dream it’s disappointing the stench of bigotry still stalks the land, shaven-headed, red-necked and symbolically robed as well as coiffured and clean-shaven in expensive suits.

While it’s often forgotten, King’s work purchased equality and justice for all people and not a single race. Naturally there was a focus on his own race, but he was too great a man not to recognize the unity of all humans.

Prejudice is not always about race, nor has bigotry ever been restricted to one geographic area.

It shames us as a nation that we accept without reprimand those who piously quote the Bible and recite the Pledge of Allegiance while inciting atrocities or heaping disrespect on others they consider to be less equal than them.

As King himself put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Thursday, January 10, 2013

London's Secret to Success

Saturday (Jan. 12) is both the birthday of Jack London and Work Harder Day.

London is among my pantheon of heroes and a writer who exemplifies the virtues of working hard to achieve a personal goal. Read his novel "Martin Eden" (published in 1909) and you’ll realize making a name as a writer was as difficult in his time as it is now.

My introduction to London was in his early non-fiction works "Tales of the Fish Patrol" and "South Sea Tales" discovered early on in my father’s library. Later I devoured his most famous novels, though I agree with those critics who claim his true genius was in the short story.

Virtually self-educated, he pulled himself up from poverty working in canneries, mills and a number of maritime tasks which would later provide the inspiration for his stories. He saw his only hope of achieving his goal was to get an education. He managed to get in the University of California, Berkeley, but was able to attend less than a year.

His love of reading and learning was encouraged by a sympathetic librarian, Ina Coolbrith. Later he would attribute his literary success to eight factors, among them: “Vast good luck, good health, good brain, good mental and muscular correlation.”

In my reading of his career I discovered several unexpected connections to my own Pennsylvania roots. His mother, Flora, was the daughter of Pennsylvania canal builder Marshall Wellman. London was a participant in the Coxey’s Army protest march of unemployed workers in 1894, which passed near my home en route to Washington, D.C. (He was actually part of the Western contingent known as Kelly’s Army and related his experiences in the story “Two Thousand Stiffs.”).

In an article titled “Getting Into Print” published in 1903, London wrote: “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”

Good advice for Work Harder or any other day.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Looking For An E-Book?

This is the time of year people with new electronic reading devices and/or gift book vouchers go looking for fresh options. If you're in that category, the Crime Fiction group on LinkedIn has a special promotion made just for people like you. Come and find a new-to-you author. Visit the promotion at http://www.reviewsbytdev.com/content/2013-New-eBook-Reader-Promotion.

Crime Fiction group members include readers, authors and publishers who enjoy lively discussions of crime and mystery fiction. As of December 2012, the group had more than 1,600 members. If you're interested in joining, go to http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Crime-Fiction-1814346/about?trk=anet_ug_grppro. Oh, and in case you're wondering--yes, I'm a member and I have a book included in this promotion.