31 October 2023

What is Real Courage?

Earlier this week, Melodie Campbell ran a column here at SleuthSayers about couragehow it takes guts to be a writer. She mentioned Harper Lee's groundbreaking book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which addressed what true courage is in a conversation between Atticus, the father in the story, and his son, Jem. Atticus says, "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what."

Interestingly, I was planning to write about the same subject today. I have a new story that should be available soon titled "Real Courage," inspired in part by the same goal that Harper Lee mentioned, showing what real courage can be. My story doesn't involve a good man standing up to a town full of racists. Harper Lee did that better than I ever could. In my story, you'll see some courageous acts that are big and others that might seem small, but they all take guts. Here are some of them:

  • Standing up for yourself when the other person can ruin you
  • Following through with a promise to help a friend no matter what, even if the "no matter what" is riskysomething no one would expect of you
  • Covering up a crime to protect your child
  • Risking your future to make things right

"Real Courage" is told linearly from four points of view, starting with a teenage girl in the 1980s, moving on to her child more than thirty years later, then onto her husband, and ending with the perspective of another teenage girl, one the mother tried to help. It's a story about the ramifications of a seemingly insignificant incident and how it winds up affecting so many lives over so many years. It's a story about unexpected consequences. And it's a story about courage.

I don't want to go into too many details. I'd rather you read the story and be surprised. But I will say that one thing I wanted to illustrate with the story is that sometimes what seems right yet difficult, what can be courageous to do, is also the wrong choice. Not always but sometimes. 

"Real Courage" is included in issue 14 of Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The issue is listed as available for purchase on Amazon, but due to some behind-the-scene issues, the only current seller is a bookshop in England. I'm told Amazon itself should show up as the seller soon (I believe, I hope, that means in the next week or two), enabling people in the US to get local delivery.

Finally, a bit of BSP before I finish: I'm happy to share that last week my story "Beauty and the Beyotch" won this year's Macavity Award for Best Mystery Short Story. The story also won the Agatha Award in the spring and the Anthony Award in September. It originally appeared in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. I'm beyond thrilled by the reception the story has received. If you haven't read it yet, I hope you will.

30 October 2023

Our Spook Houses

Wicked Witch Jan Grape

My late husband, Elmer Grape, loved Halloween as much as Christmas, maybe even a little more. He always said kids liked to be scared. Nothing to hurt them, just something fun scary. So when Halloween rolled around, he was like a little kid himself. Every October 31st, I think of our Spook Houses in the mid-1970s. Our house in Houston had a sidewalk leading from the driveway to the front door located under an overhang eve, a little wider than the walkway. Elmer was a commercial construction superintendent and had access to rolls of black plastic, Visqueen. Like garbage bags but thicker and blacker. He hung the plastic from the overhang making a dark corridor to our front door where an evil looking Jack-O-Lantern sat. Kids would have to walk the ten feet to the front door and ring the doorbell. I dressed in a long black dress and ratted my dark hair out, giving me a witchy look as I opened the door. Kids were surprised that someone in costume greeted them.  

Elmer sat up in our dark garage, which had small glass windows where he could look out at the kids who walked up our driveway to ring the doorbell and say "Trick or Treat." He'd rigged up a PA system and with his normally deep voice he'd say, "Fee Fie Fo Fum, I Smell The Blood of an Englishman." Parents standing at the bottom of the driveway, were giggling and encouraging their kids to go to the front door. I usually had to open the front door and coax them to come up the walkway corridor to get candy. He would usually add, "I'll grind his bones to make my bread." 

One little boy about 6, was hesitant so I finally walked halfway to him to give him candy. The boy walked back to mom and safety. Then Elmer said, "I'll get him next year." The little boy looked up at mom and said, "Let's don't come back here next year." I could hear Elmer smothering laughter.

The next year we had moved to Memphis, Tennessee. We joined the PTA and discovered the PTA had a fall festival in mid-October, as a fund raiser, for school. It was their version of a Halloween Carnival. The previous year they'd had very successful a spook house. 

Without thinking twice about it, Elmer and I signed up to be the chairpersons for this one. I won't detail what all we did, because this article is about "OUR" spook houses, but I will say, Elmer built a wooden coffin to use in the school event. It was shaped like the ones you'd see in all those old Western movies. You know, with the angles at the top end. He painted it flat black, and it was long enough for him to lay his 6 foot, two inch body down inside. As kids came inside the room they saw the coffin, as they got near, he'd raise up, sometimes laughing maniacally. Our school spook house was a huge success, at 25 cents a ticket many kids came through multiple time.

Two weeks later was October 31st, "Halloween." Mr. Grape had already planned for it with that coffin. Again using the black Visqueen, he turned our carport into a spooky room. Of course we didn't charge kids anything. I was once again dressed witchy, in my long black dress. 

I had a little story, inviting kids inside, telling them of my friend who had been killed in a horrible accident. If they wanted, they could view his body and his parts if they would just come inside. 

I had a box with for them to put their hand down into with a bowl of cold wet spaghetti to feel like guts. Another box held a bowl with cold peeled grapes for eyeballs and brains. 

E. had added one new feature to his coffin, which was resting on a couple of sawhorses and draped with the black plastic, he cut an opening in the coffin side in order to stick his arm out and pretend to grab at a kid's arms or hand. He was also wearing a horrible rubber mask with a plastic eyeball hanging out. It had slits in order from him to see. As a kid got close he could raise up or grab, whichever seemed to work.

As the doorkeeper, I would have 2 or 3 kids come in at once. Usually, they were traveling in groups. Kids had so much fun, they went home and got their mom and dad to come see the spook house. No one in this neighborhood had ever done such a thing. 

One mom got so shook at the coffin watching another mom scream and jump, she said, "I think I just wet my pants." 

Elmer heard this and when he raised up, was laughing so hard he had trouble making a scary sound.

The next year we had to change it all up. We set up our living room with the coffin against the far wall. We had put a large cloth dummy inside.

We also had big moving blankets on the floor so when you walked in the floor felt squishy to walk on. Dim lights barely lit the room. A carved, evil Jack-O-Lantern had a battery electric candle inside. As kids rang the doorbell, yelling “Trick or Treat,” I opened the door, letting only 2 or 3 inside, they could see the coffin across the room but couldn’t see inside it.

Elmer as clown
Elmer never dressed up for Halloween
but one time his little sister made him
up for her grandson's birthday party,
the only pic I have of him in costume.

I’d tell my little story of my friend who had the terrible accident and had the "guts and eyeballs" for them to feel. Then I’d steer them to the coffin and while they're concentrating expecting Elmer, he’d come out of the coat closet by the front door, moaning like a ghost. Wearing his horrible mask, and a flashlight in his belt shinning up towards his face, he was scary.

Some of the parents came inside, then neighbor lady started screaming, "Damn you, Elmer Grape, I thought you were in that coffin."

That year was when mean people put razor blades or poison in candy treats and it became too dangerous for kids. Elmer and I both were angry and disappointed. The fun of Halloween was dead.

However, in the nineties after we moved back Austin we had a few kids walking their own neighborhood with parents. Our niece Dona and her family lived behind us. Her young daughter Tiffany and Tiff's best friend, Amber would walk around the block with their moms. Somewhere along the way, Uncle Elmer would jump out and scare them.

Along the whole way, they were expecting him but never knowing exactly when or where. The girls are now adults with nearly grown kids of their own but at Halloween they always tell the story of being scared by Uncle Elmer.]

So is it any wonder I write mysteries? Or that we owned a mystery bookstore for nine years? It's just a shame there are no photos or videos. People didn't have cell phones or digital cameras then and even if I'd thought of it, I was too busy telling the story and handing out treats.

29 October 2023

Going to Bouchercon

I assume that others will write about the Bouchercon held in San Diego long before this article gets published, therefore I will report mainly on our encounters at the conference.

The first step toward attending the conference was writing a story ("Shanghaied") for their anthology and submitting it before the deadline. Unfortunately, it didn't make the cut. Oh well, can't win them all. "Shanghaied" is the third story in a new series set during the California Gold Rush. It now rests in the AHMM e-slush pile for future determination. First in the series, "Sydney Ducks," was published in the West Coast Crime Wave e-anthology and the sequel, "Sydney Coves," was published in AHMM's July/Aug 2023 issue. Two out of three ain't bad and gives me hope for this third one to find a home.

Upon registering for the conference, I discovered two other writers with the last name of Lawton, Rob & Robin, on the List of Attendees. To my knowledge, we are not related, but I could see the possibility for some confusion. Sure enough, several months after registration and we still hadn't made the List of Attendees. I sent an e-mail mentioning this oversight, plus the difference between the two groups, just in case the conference planners thought we were already listed. Kim e-mailed back that she would take care of it. More months passed before our names were finally listed.

On the first of July, I was placed on a short story panel, but when the schedule came out in print, it said Rob Lawton, who is a novelist. I e-mailed Kim to explain the problem. In a return e-mail, she said she would fix it. I checked the schedule later and it said R,T, Lawton. I don't think I've ever seen anyone use commas with their initials. E-mails ensued. Kim explained she hadn't had her morning coffee yet.

We had learned in earlier travels to always build in an extra day when flying somewhere. It seems the weather and/or the airlines seldom co-operate anymore in getting the passenger to his destination on time. Therefore, we arrived on Tuesday. Many of those flying in on Wednesday found themselves stacked up over the San Diego airport due to thick fog. Some flights were even diverted to other airports to refuel. Our MWA Chapter President ended up at the nearby Ontario airport and was left behind along with some other passengers in the airport restaurant when the aircraft resumed its flight. They rented a car to finish the trip. She missed the panel she was supposed to be on.

Kiti and I had an excellent cab driver from the airport to the conference hotel. He spoke perfect American English which he learned in a school in Somalia. We had a great conversation in which I learned about his culture, to include food on their menu. I have eaten some exotic food, but never camel meat, a staple in Somalia. Arriving at the hotel, we over-tipped our driver, but he was worth it.

Our room on the 16th floor of the South Tower had a tremendous view of the marina, the bay and the naval harbor. It was worth the extra $20 a night, especially when the large Navy ships were gliding past our window on their way out to sea.

Wednesday morning, we had breakfast at Richard Walker's House of Pancakes with Rob & Teri Lopresti and Michael & Temple Bracken. Good company, good conversation and good food. My bacon and Havarti cheese omelet was so good that Kiti and I returned to the restaurant the next morning for a rerun on another omelet.

Wednesday evening was supper at Roy's with the Brackens, James & Dawn Hearrn, and Hugh Lessig & his partner Shana. Once again, good company, good conversation, good food. Roy's is one of those first class restaurants where the online menu shows no prices, however our macadamia nut encrusted Mahi-Mahi turned out to be quite tasty.

The panels were entertaining, the conference rooms convenient, the hospitality room well stocked with coffee, muffins and pastries. The Marina Bar inside the hotel was handy for appetizers, drinks and a good place to find old writer friends, which is one of the best reasons for attending a B'con.

So there I was leaning against a wall in the hotel while Kiti made a shopping foray into a store when this guy walked by. He stopped, looked at me and said, "I know you." If I was working undercover in the old days when I heard those words, then it became a tense time until we figured out whether or not he really knew me.

Most of the time the speaker of those words did NOT know who I actually was, It appears I have a common face, or resemble someone they knew. Whew. This guy and I talked for a while, but couldn't place each other. We exchanged business cards. It was only much later that I realized Frank Zafiro, a retired police captain, and I had met at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Vancouver. I was with several authors celebrating the publication of Brian Thornton's Die Behind the Wheel anthology and signing copies, while Frank knew and conversed with several of the writers.

L to R: Walker, Taylor, Hearn, Steinbock, Loomis, Lawton
(don't know the white-hat guy down in front)

And then, there was Steve Steinbock who had the misfortune to fumble his cell phone while in the elevator on the 8th floor. Yep, it slipped through that narrow opening between the floor and the elevator. The hotel was going to charge him for the cost of the elevator company making a service call to retrieve the phone, but fortunately Steve had insurance on the phone, in which case replacement was considerably less expensive than the elevator service call would have been.

One morning in the hospitality room, I saw a lady arranging the muffins. When I noticed she was wearing a purple t-shirt from the New Orleans B'con anthology from a few years back, I approached her and mentioned that I too had a t-shirt from that B'con anthology. Turned out she was a current volunteer at the San Diego conference. She told me that other volunteers were also wearing B'con anthology shirts. I thanked her for her service. Writers conferences need lots of volunteers in order for events to go smoothly.

There were many new and old writer friends that came to the San Diego Bouchercon. Too many to name individually. Just know that we enjoyed conversing with you all, and hope to see you at another conference in the future.

28 October 2023

The Guts that it Takes to be a Writer

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand."  Harper Lee

As I sit at my desk looking out the window at the black October lake, it occurs to me that I've been contemplating how to write this post for a long time.  Perhaps I was waiting for a suitable trigger [sic].  Ironically (just can't resist these puns) I sold the last of my gun collection after Sandy Hook, and no longer engage in sport shooting. For that reason, and perhaps the fact that I also no longer fly small craft and gliders, a person close to me hinted that I had become rather conventional.  

For some reason, that bothered me. Dagnabbit, was he equating conventional with boring?  That got me thinking about being a writer.  And frankly, I don't think any of us are conventional.  We are the very opposite of that.

The point of this post:

I've always told my classes that you need three things to be an author:

Talent -  the ability to come up with new story ideas again and again

Craft -  the dedication to learn the craft of writing, which takes time, instruction, and what I like to call an 'apprenticeship'

Passion - the determination to spend hours alone at your keyboard, creating those stories

I've known a lot of adult writing students who have talent.  I've been able to teach them the craft.  But if they don't have the passion that being an author requires, then the first two don't mean much.  It takes me nearly 1000 hours to write an entire novel, in final form.  That's a lot of butt-in-chair passion. 

In addition, I have taught people who show talent and passion, but won't take the time to learn the craft.

But lately, I've come to recognize something I've overlooked, something absolutely critical for a writer to stay in the game.  I'm adding a fourth essential to the list:


I didn't fully understand how much courage it took to be a writer, until after I'd been published a dozen or so times.  Now, with more than 60 short stories and 18 novels, perhaps 200 humor columns and comedy credits, I've found my courage faltering at times.  But what exactly do I mean?

Voices stronger than mine have said that writing is easy - you just open a vein and bleed.  I can attest that my protagonists, while different from each other, often have my moral beliefs and views on life.  They put forth and discuss issues of ethics and politics that support a Canadian woman's viewpoint.  Mine.

So that when I am writing fiction or humour, I am not only demonstrating (for better or worse) my talent as an entertaining writer.  I am also exposing the things that are important to me and that I believe in.  What it boils down to is this:  not only is my writing open to being criticized, but my personal beliefs and morality are also up for grabs.

For this, I have - like many female writers - been hounded by trolls on social media.  Usually men (but not exclusively) who wish to make me uncomfortable, to diminish me in some way.  To erode my confidence, and hopefully make me fearful.  In all cases, they wish to silence me.  They hide behind the screen of anonymity.

In the old days (by this I mean pre-Amazon) we took criticism from professional critics, plus our editors.  In a way, it was a jury of our peers, and we accepted that.  Now, to use a military analogy, we can't see the enemy.

It takes real courage to put your work out there, and take the slings and arrows of  criticism from unknown players, many of whom have sinister intent.

It takes guts.  

Harper Lee said it best.

Melodie Campbell writes from the northern shore of Lake Ontario.  Mainly mob capers, but also classic whodunits like The Merry Widow Murders, online and at most bookstores.

27 October 2023

Historical Inaccuracy

Historical Inaccuracy in movies is nothing new. It's called poetic license.

Historical Inaccuracy in non-fiction articles is not usual and not good. If there are facts, get them right.

Case in point was the article put up on Google Alerts from The Loveland-Reporter Herald of October 21, 2023. A review of the movie THE BUCCANEER (Paramount Pictures, 1958) with historical notations.

There's no problem with the writer expressing opinions about the movie. I agree with many of them. The casting of Yul Brenner as Jean Lafitte was a good choice, so was Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson, Charles Boyer as Dominique You and Claire Bloom as pirate Bonnie Brown. However, the wonderful Inger Stevens, who plays Louisiana Governor William C. C. Claiborne's daughter who has a love affair with Lafitte, well, Claiborne did have a daughter at the time but she was three years old.

However, the article describes the "well done" battle scenes, which were clearly filmed on a Hollywood sounds stage where the dialogue and sounds of horses and bagpipes echo from the walls of the sound stage. British troops wearing kilts march slowly in a wide line to their deaths, when in fact they marched at the quick-step in two long columns. There were no kilts worn at the Battle of New Orleans. The Scottish 93rd Regiment of Foot (Sutherland Highlanders) wore trews, tartan trousers – their winter uniform as the Battle of New Orleans, The battle itself involved six engagements from December 14, 1814, through the climactic battle on January 8, 1815, to the final engagement south of New Orleans at Fort St. Philip, January 9-17, 1815. It occurred in one of the coldest winters in Louisiana history. Hence, no kilts.

As much as the writer of the article suspects "there is a grain of truth in the song" The Battle of New Orleans sung by Johnny Horton, the British did not run after the battle as the song goes, “They ran through the briers and they ran through the brambles/ And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn’t go/ They ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch ’em/ On down the Mississippi to the gulf of Mexico.” This is untrue.

In fact, the British withdrew to its original position at the start of the climactic battle, the de la Ronde Plantation, and waited to see if General Jackson was dumb enough to come out from behind his formidable fortifications to try and destroy the British army. Jackson was too asute to try this. His job was to protect New Orleans and he remained behind his fortifications between the British army and the city.

The new commander-in-chief of the British Expedition (Generals Pakenham and Gibbs were killed at the battle and third-in-command General Keane so severly wounded he was supposed to die), GeneralJohn Lambert conducted a disciplined, orderly withdrawl of his defeated army back through the swamp to the Royal Navy ships outside Lake Borgne. He was decorated for this strategic withdrawl. He left Louisiana to capture Mobile, which highlights the fallicy (restated in the article) that The Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war ended.

While U.S. and British representatives agreed to end hostilities, initially signing a peace treaty at Ghent, Belgium, on December 24, 1814, the British and Americans were already fighting outside New Orleans. They just finished the second engagement on December 23, 1814 and fought again on December 28 and January 1, before the climactic battle on January 8. The Treay was not ratified by the U.S. Senate and Parliament until February 17, 1815, ending the War of 1812.

OK, it's a review of an inaccurate movie. Just don't add historical inaccuracies in an analysis.

I worked long hours accumulating 72,000 words of historical research before I wrote my epic novel BATTLE KISS. I made it as accurate as I could make it, so much so, my 16,303 word  January 8 battle scene was published in the historical journal SOUTHEAST LOUISIANA REVIEW (Vol. 4, Winter 2012/2013).

The article THE BUCCANEER can be found at: https://www.reporterherald.com/2023/10/21/trivially-speaking-the-buccaneer-seized-a-place-in-movie-history/

The book:


Thanks all for now.


26 October 2023

When Writing Historical Fiction, It's Better to Travel

(A repost from a few years back. Still useful, still timely. Hope you enjoy! - B.T.)

[Elmore]Leonard was originally no more a man of the West than was the Ohio-born dentist Zane Grey. While a kid in Detroit, Westerns enthralled him as they did most people in the 1930s and 40s. When he grew interested in writing during college Western fiction seemed a promising genre he could work in part-time. Unlike many writers then selling Western tales to pulps, though, Leonard insisted on accuracy, and kept a ledger of his research over the years, later crediting his longtime subscription to Arizona Highways magazine for many of his authentic descriptions. All had to be genuine: the guns, Apache terms and clothing; the frontier knives, card games, liquor, and especially the horses. 

  Nathan Ward, from "Elmore Leonard's Gritty Westerns," in Crime Reads

It's certainly never a bad idea to follow the writing advice of the great Elmore Leonard. His Ten Rules For Writing are rightly famous as terrific advice for any writer of fiction.

The Great Elmore Leonard

In those instances where Leonard's advice isn't readily available, it never hurts to follow his example, if at all possible. Take the one in the quote above from Nathan Ward's Crime Reads article on Leonard. For years Leonard apparently leaned heavily on the content of Arizona Highways magazine.

It's a fine notion. Now, don't get me wrong: it's always better to travel. There is no substitute for actually going to and spending time in the place you're writing about. But, if you're writing about someplace and you can't afford to go, read travel writers. For that matter, even if you can afford the investment in both time and treasure to visit the region where your work is set, read travel writers. No one can help you get a feel for a certain place like people who make their livings helping their readers get a feel for a certain place.

Take William Dalrymple. The British-born-and-raised son of a Scottish baronet, Dalrymple these days is best known for his recent run of riveting books on the history of the subcontinent: India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Dalrymple is a terrific writer and a first-rate historian who splits his time between a farm just outside Delhi, in India and a summer home in London.

William Dalrymple
But before he began to make a name for himself with books such as White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century IndiaThe Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, The Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-1842, and The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of An Empire, Dalrymple began his writing career as a travel writer, taking readers on a tour through the Eastern Mediterranean and the Holy Land (From the Holy Mountain: a Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East), and of course, chronicling the early days of his life-long love affair with India. With his first book In Xanadu: a Quest, published in 1989, Dalrymple chronicles his modern retracing of the journey of Marco Polo from Jerusalem in the summer palace of Kublai Khan in China. But it was with his second book, 1994's City of Djinns: a Year in Delhi, a memoir of his first visit to the city which has had such a tremendous impact on his adult life, that Dalrymple really began to make his mark.

And there is so much to this memoir which can be of use to the writer reading about the city. Here's an early excerpt laying out his introduction to Delhi and to India:

I was only seventeen. After ten years at school in a remote valley in the moors of North Yorkshire, I had quite suddenly found myself in India, in Delhi. From the very beginning I was mesmerized by the great capital, so totally unlike anything I had ever seen before. Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices. Moreover the city—so I soon discovered—possessed a bottomless seam of stories: tales receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend. Friends would moan about the touts on Janpath and head off to the beaches in Goa, but for me Delhi always exerted a stronger spell. I lingered on, and soon found a job in a home for destitutes in the far north of the city. The nuns gave me a room overlooking a municipal rubbish dump. In the morning I would look out to see the sad regiment of rag-pickers trawling the stinking berms of refuse; overhead, under a copper sky, vultures circled the thermals forming patterns like fragments of glass in a kaleidoscope. In the afternoons, after I had swept the compound and the inmates were safely asleep, I used to slip out and explore. I would take a rickshaw into the innards of the Old City and pass through the narrowing funnel of gullies and lanes, alleys and cul de sacs, feeling the houses close in around me.

Now, I ask you. Can this guy set a scene, or what? Really helpful for drinking in the flavors, colors, scents and sounds of what on the face of it comes across as a truly unforgettable place. Really not a bad guide if you're interested in writing about modern-day India.

But what if, like me, you're a writer of historical fiction?

In Leonard's case, as stated above, he exploited a modern magazine to help give him local flavor not just for another region of the country, but for that region in another era. No mean feat. It's a testament to Leonard's talent, coupled with his singular vision that he was able to "world build" (to borrow a phrase from our friends who write speculative fiction) using these building blocks for his foundation.

So sure, you can (and should) definitely use your imagination to fill in the cracks. There is certainly no substitute for imagination in the fiction writer's tool kit. That said, you need more than one tool in order to get the job of writing fiction done. I've often felt like our "tool kit" as fiction writers should be more aptly called a "tool warehouse." And of course, another way to use travel writing as one of those tools, to help get the feel for a city or street, or region or state or county or what-have-you during a bygone time is to go and find travel writing from the time in which your work-in-progress is set. 

I have a writer friend whose current work-in-progress is set during World War II. One of his major characters has a back-story in which he lived in Germany during the 1930s, in the run-up to the war. I referred him to A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, the first volume in a superb three-volume memoir of a trip on foot across Europe, from Holland all the way to Turkey by travel writer, war-time British commando (the account of his part in a successful kidnapping of a German general in Crete is not to be missed), bon vivant, and (some say) one of Ian Fleming's models for his literary creation James Bond, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 Leigh Fermor set out for Constantinople (Istanbul) in December of 1933, less than a year after Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had come to power. His narrative is replete with rich details about German life during that period, laying out how the Nazis had both a heavy and in some ways, a negligible impact on the country they would eventually drive to absolute ruin. Here is Leigh Fermor's initial impression of Cologne, the first major German city he visited:

After a first faraway glimpse, the two famous steeples grew taller and taller as the miles that separated us fell away. At last they commanded the cloudy plain as the spires of a cathedral should, vanishing when the outskirts of the city interposed themselves, and then, as I gazed at the crowding saints of the three Gothic doorways, sailing up into the evening again at close range. Beyond them indoors, although it was already too dark to see the colours of the glass, I knew I was inside the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. Except for the little constellation of tapers in the shadows of a side-chapel, everything was dim. Women knelt interspersed with nuns and the murmured second half of the Gegrüsset seist Du, Maria rose in answering chorus to the priest’s initial solo; a discreet clatter of beads kept tally of the accumulating prayers. In churches with open spires like Cologne, one could understand how congregations thought their orisons had a better start than prayers under a dome where the syllables might flutter round for hours. With steeples they follow the uprush of lancets and make an immediate break for it. Tinsel and stars flashed in all the shops and banners saying Fröhliche Weihnacht! were suspended across the streets. Clogged villagers and women in fleece-lined rubber boots slipped about the icy pavements with exclamatory greetings and small screams, spilling their armfuls of parcels. The snow heaped up wherever it could and the sharp air and the lights gave the town an authentic Christmas card feeling. It was the real thing at last! Christmas was only five days away. Renaissance doors pierced walls of ancient brick, upper storeys jutted in salients of carved timber and glass, triangles of crow-steps outlined the steep gables, and eagles and lions and swans swung from convoluted iron brackets along a maze of lanes. As each quarter struck, the saint-encrusted towers challenged each other through the snow and the rivalry of those heavy bells left the air shaking. Beyond the Cathedral and directly beneath the flying-buttresses of the apse, a street dropped sharply to the quays. Tramp steamers and tugs and barges and fair-sized ships lay at anchor under the spans of the bridges, and cafés and bars were raucous with music. I had been toying with the idea, if I could make the right friends, of cadging a lift on a barge and sailing upstream in style for a bit.

 Again, this is quite a scene the writer is setting! So much good material, such a solid feel for the place. Leigh Fermor wrote the memoir some forty years after the trip, based on large part on the deep and thorough entries he made in his journal as an eighteen year-old looking for adventure in a rapidly changing world. And then he goes on to talk about his attempt to "make friends" in that timeless way young people have from time immemorial: he went to a bar:

I made friends all right. It was impossible not to. The first place was a haunt of seamen and bargees shod in tall sea-boots rolled down to the knee, with felt linings and thick wooden soles. They were throwing schnapps down their throats at a brisk rate. Each swig was followed by a chaser of beer, and I started doing the same. The girls who drifted in and out were pretty but a rough lot and there was one bulky terror, bursting out of a sailor’s jersey and wearing a bargeman’s cap askew on a nest of candy-floss hair, called Maggi—which was short for Magda—who greeted every newcomer with a cry of “Hallo, Bubi!” and a sharp, cunningly twisted and very painful pinch on the cheek. I liked the place, especially after several schnapps, and I was soon firm friends with two beaming bargemen whose Low German speech, even sober, would have been blurred beyond the most expert linguist’s grasp. They were called Uli and Peter. “Don’t keep on saying Sie,” Uli insisted, with a troubled brow and an unsteadily admonishing forefinger: “Say Du.” This advance from the plural to the greater intimacy of the singular was then celebrated by drinking Brüderschaft. Glasses in hand, with our right arms crooked through the other two with the complexity of the three Graces on a Parisian public fountain, we drank in unison. Then we reversed the process with our left arms, preparatory to ending with a triune embrace on both cheeks, a manoeuvre as elaborate as being knighted or invested with the Golden Fleece. The first half of the ceremony went without a hitch, but a loss of balance in the second, while our forearms were still interlocked, landed the three of us in the sawdust in a sottish heap. Later, in the fickle fashion of the very drunk, they lurched away into the night, leaving their newly-created brother dancing with a girl who had joined our unsteady group: my hobnail boots could do no more damage to her shiny dancing shoes, I thought, than the seaboots that were clumping all round us. She was very pretty except for two missing front teeth. They had been knocked out in a brawl the week before, she told me.

 And that's just a taste. Leigh Fermor's three volumes here truly form a treasure trove: a window into a long-vanished world, and a feel for both the time itself and the timeless humanity of its cast of thousands. Well worth a read whether you're writing something set in Middle Europe during the 1930s, are a student of human nature, history, great writing, or (most likely) some combination of all of the above.


Patrick Leigh Fermor (Right) in Crete, 1943

And that's all for now. Let's hear from you in the comments! Favorite travel writer(s)? I'm always on the lookout for new material!

See you in two weeks!

25 October 2023


Unforgotten, it ain’t.  But it’s still Nicola Walker.  And even if we don’t have Sunny and the rest of the Unforgotten crew, we have a new team, up in the wilds of Glasgow.

Annika is another police procedural, courtesy of the PBS Masterpiece channel (which, along with Acorn, carries a bunch of good stuff).  It follows the Marine Homicide Unit – is there, in fact, such a thing?  Not that it matters, it makes for a good set-up.  The episodes are self-contained, so unlike Unforgotten, or Shetland, there’s no story arc over the full season.  Nor is Annika as dark as either of the aforementioned.  It has a lighter touch.  And it has a gimmick where Nicola’s character breaks the fourth wall, and speaks directly to us, sharing not so much her thoughts about the specific case in hand, but more her textural observations, Ibsen or Sophocles, whatever pops into her floating stream of consciousness.  I find this device both charming and revealing, it has transparency; I can also see where people could find it aggravating, fey and cutesy. 

The show has grit, without being horrifically brutal or down in the mouth.  Glasgow has the rap of being a pretty tough burg, but as shown here, it’s not all murk and spit and shadows.  And people don’t seem oppressed or bitter.  It doesn’t come across like a province of the former Soviet Union. 

The other three cops on the squad are individuated enough to give them flavor and specifics, without falling into the generic, or caricature, but it’s Annika herself who has an inner life, and a domestic one.  She’s a single mom, with a teenage daughter, and this is nowhere near as deadly as it might sound.  Their relationship is prickly, and feels organic, and it’s interesting from the outside.  Both actresses feed into a natural dynamic, adversarial and anything but treacly.  Part of what makes it work is that our hero, while very perceptive and on-game as a cop, is a lot less skillful as a mom.  She has a hard time navigating the shoals. 

The mysteries are better than serviceable, although not terribly mystifying; the cop shop stuff is convincing; the cops are really good, you get to like them, the cast wins you over.  Mind you, they can be rather dour (dure, the Scots would say), and the humor – of which there’s a fair amount – is delivered very deadpan.  You can turn on the subtitles, too, but if you’ve gotten used to the accents in Shetland, it shouldn’t pose a problem here.

You kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. The first season in, I think this one’s a keeper.

24 October 2023

West of Here

I was driving through West Texas when a story idea struck me.

I'm speaking about West Texas, the geographically vague portion of my state that is, well, west. That landmass, by the way, does not include West, Texas, the Czech community located in the central part of the state. You'll likely pass through there if you're heading down to visit Michael Bracken in Waco. Should you be near that West, pause, pull over, and take a kolache break. They're pretty good. 

It's hard to pin down the precise borders of West Texas, the region. Some people set the boundary at the Brazos River. Others argue that the line is linguistic. The border between East Texas and West Texas gets crossed when twang slides into drawl. 

Basil the Bat Lord, Creative Commons
The boundary may be imprecise, but at some point, westbound motorists realize they've entered West Texas. 

A while back, a friend and I were driving to Lubbock. His Texas Tech football team was squaring off against my alma mater. He'd offered me a ticket. 

Many miles of semi-arid country separate the communities in that region. When you come to a town, you notice. 

Every community, everywhere, has character and characters, but I think the isolation of the towns in West Texas encourages a particular eccentricity. No town can model itself on the neighboring community because, likely as not, there isn't one. Each hamlet is a big fish. 

Lubbock came to be an urban oasis in the middle of the high plains. It fostered a music scene producing most famously Buddy Holly but also a host of other musicians from both country and rock genres. 

Sweetwater chose a different direction. It celebrates its rocky isolation through an annual rattlesnake roundup. Volunteers roam the local countryside, collecting Western Diamondback Rattlers and maintaining the local wildlife population. They bring the snakes back for milking, skinning, and eating. The high school girl chosen Miss Snake Charmer will likely have to pass by the occasional PETA protester. 

A visitor to the region needs to check out Marfa. At the far end of West Texas, this town was named for a character in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Hardscrabble farmers work alongside modernist art installations. The art crowd and the agriculture crowd don't always get along. The higher prices brought about by the hip community burden the working-class locals. A casual visitor might miss the tension, distracted by the weirdness. The town has a public radio station worth a listen, public art along a farm-to-market road, a mocked-up Prada store, and supernatural lights. Some folks say the lights betray the presence of space aliens. 

There are the towns of Plainview and Levelland, so named because they're...well, you can probably figure it out. 

Post, however, is the place that really got me thinking about a story. Given the rural setting, many assume the name derives from a fence post. The town is actually named for C.W. Post, the cereal manufacturer. He sought to build a utopian community from a ranch he purchased just below the Caprock Escarpment. C. W. Post planned the town from his office in Battle Creek, Michigan. The local chamber of commerce might better testify to whether the founder's vision as a capitalist haven for hardworking, honest, simple folk was achieved. He spent years trying to better the locals' lives. He theorized, for instance, that exploding dynamite in the clouds would generate reliable rainfall. The plan failed. 

In West Texas, communities settle bragging rights on the athletic fields. This area is the home of Friday night lights. 

Quirkiness, secrets, and conflicts hidden below a seemingly peaceful surface, the settlements of West Texas have all those things. But towns everywhere probably do. All a writer needs is a Miss Marple to ferret out the truth. 

The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine includes my story, "The
Experimental Theater Company of Barb Wire, Texas." In it, I try to tell a whodunit while incorporating those hints of place I see when I point my car west. 

Building a sense of place when "place" is thousands of square miles and includes hundreds of independent communities presented a challenge. I thought about the elements any representation would have to include. The story must grab the peculiar oddity of the place. It would need to incorporate isolation. A West Texas story ought to have football, not only because the sport brought me to Post, but also because it is a lifeblood of the region. The short story needed a splash of art because, I think, it's an underappreciated element of West Texas. And any story had to have some cowboy spirit. 

Admittedly some elements, such as isolation and an independent protagonist, frequent many amateur sleuth mysteries. Fortunately, they are cowboy tropes and are easy to place in West Texas. The story that emerged from that germ of an idea, I hope, not only entertains but also gives a fair flavor of the land beyond the Brazos. 

What started as a trip to a football game became a research junket. That's a win. "The Experimental Theater Company of Barb Wire, Texas" was a fun story to write. I hope you enjoy reading it. 

I'll be on the road Tuesday when this posts. I apologize in advance if I'm slow to reply. 

Until next time. 

23 October 2023

To __, or not to ___.

My computer just developed a strange glitch.  It stopped letting me type the letter that lives right after A, and ahead of C .  It’s the second letter in that thing we learn in grade school (often sung in an cloying little ditty) that I can’t name, since the word includes the letter that my computer no longer allows.  This has resulted in moments of frustration, and creative resilience, since I need to write around the impediment. 

It's not too much to ask, I think, to have access to all the letters at the tip of my fingers.  We are accustomed to this handy array, and hardly need some censorious technical quirk to interfere with the free flow of expression.  Though here I am, tethered to the need to come up with endless workarounds that I hope make sense, and with luck, still demonstrate a facility with the language. 

If you’re still wondering which letter is now out of reach, it's also the name of a stinging insect.  Think of a creature with orange stripes that zings around flowers and often lands on your egg and croissant sandwich when you’re having an outdoor, early morning repast.  I’ve come to deeply respect the utility of this letter, and wonder if the whole experience wasn’t instigated to alert my attention to its value in written discourse. 

You don’t know what you’re missing till it’s gone.   If you want to know what it’s like to live without sight, put an opaque cloth across your eyes for an hour or two.  Try walking around with one leg pulled up at the knee.  Or try writing the expression, “With one hand tied….” without that crucial letter.   Or refer to the most significant rock group in history, whose name also gives indirect reference to a common insect. 

I’m grateful the computer didn’t rule out the letter E, which that famous word game (which kicks off with an S and has two of the omitted letters in the middle) tells us is the most common.  Indispensable.  As is true of the other vowels.  Losing S would also pose a major hurdle. Try making a plural without an S.

When I write an email, spell check is now an ally, rather than a nagging, and often presumptuous, irritant.  I write a word with the missing letter, and it often offers up the correct version.  This works, though not always.  I can also scope out older documents for the word I want, copy it, and paste it in.  This also works, though I would need a longer lifespan to compose a decent amount of text. 

When writing a Word document, I would love to go to the thesaurus function to find an alternative, yet can’t write the word I’m trying to replace.  So I just mutter, “This is all such _ullshit.”

I’ve scoured Microsoft and Lenovo help screens hoping to find a quick fix, for naught.  Try asking, “Why can’t I type the letter…?” Oh, yeah.  I can’t type it.  My Apple devices, the iPad and iPhone, have no such restrictions.  This could also provide a workaround, though I can’t type nearly as fast with the two fingers scientists claim gave us an evolutionary advantage.  Good for flipping coins and catching a ride on the highway. 

I’ve determined that the world could go on without this mislaid letter, though in a very diminished state.  We would discover new creative powers, and perhaps accomplish unexpected works of art.  Yet at the end of the day, having exhausted ourselves dodging and weaving around this lexicographical curse, how satisfied would you feel saying, “I’m so tired, I just want to fall into that piece of furniture uniquely configured to facilitate sleep.”