Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts

25 November 2021

Thanks!


Well, it's that time of year again. 

Time to take a few moments and reflect on the blessings we have received, and to give thanks for same.

Some highlights:

First and foremost, I'm grateful for my family and friends. Furthermore, I'm grateful that they have remained healthy during this pandemic. And of course I'm grateful to have my health as well.

I'm grateful for the vaccine. Doubly grateful for the new one for children (our nine-year-old got his first shot just last Saturday).

I'm grateful for the love of my wife and son. I'm grateful that my wife is my best friend. I'm grateful that my son seems to be developing "my" sense of humor.

I'm grateful for my writing (of course). I'm grateful that 2021 has been for me, the "Year of Finishing Things," so many half-finished writing projects (and several new ones) wrapped up, sold and placed for publication. I'm grateful to have a number of new projects on the horizon for 2022. 


I'm grateful for my day gig, the people I work with, and the students I serve. I'm grateful for public employee unions (especially my own). 

I'm grateful for President Joe Biden, his amazing wife, his family, and the same goes for Vice-President Harris, her husband and family, as well. I'm grateful for my country, and for everything it represents, the positive and the negative- for America as a whole.

I'm grateful to live in a gorgeous part of this country. 

I'm grateful for books. All of them. Every last one.

I'm grateful for the Seattle Mariners (World Series 2022! This is our year!).

I'm grateful to have healed up from my cascading series of leg injuries last Spring.

I'm grateful for my son's unflagging and continually escalating excitement about the impending Christmas season. And I'm grateful to be here for it!

I'm grateful to be member of this community, for my fellow Sleuthsayers, and for my regular turn in the rotation. And of course, I'm grateful for all of you, our readers.

Lastly, I'm grateful for the opportunity to be grateful, today of all days, and to get to share it with my family. How about you? What are you grateful for? Feel free to share in the comments!

See you in two weeks!



11 November 2021

Working With A Timeline


I have written before about the importance of a believable timeline to your work-in-progress, especially to your longer pieces. The rule of thumb I have consistently followed is "the longer your piece, the more detailed your timeline needs to be."

There is an inherent logic to this maxim. The longer your piece the easier it is to lose track of pieces of your plot, either details or entire subplots. It's easy for things to get away from you over the course of a 90,000 word novel. And while it's also possible to lose the thread in a short story with a length of a few thousand words, you're less like to do so because you're juggling less words, less scenes, less characters, and less action.

Author Nancy Christie lays out a lot of great guidelines for getting the most out of your respective timeline in a blog post on her website. You can read it here.

For today's blog post I am going to offer up a detailed timeline of actual events as they occurred during a pretty emotionally charged (for myself, and my family, at least) event: my nine year-old son's recent surgery. Okay, here goes.

Tuesday, September 28th:

Doctor's appointment with a specialist regarding my son's persistent health condition. Discussion of options, including surgery to correct the condition. Decided on surgery and scheduled a call from the specialist's support staff.

Every day for the next two weeks:

Played phone tag with the specialist's support staff, who seemed unable or unwilling to call on our primary number (my wife's cell) rather than our home number. Calls to the support staff's number in response to the messages they left on our home voicemail went unanswered, requiring the leaving of multiple voicemails consisting of detailed requests for information/guidance on our part.

Tuesday, October 12th:

Finally made contact with specialist's support staff, Scheduled surgery for Tuesday, November 2nd. received instructions for pre-surgery preparation, including a flu shot and a COVID test for our son on the Sunday before his surgery. Also informed that contact via our HMO's website could sub in for actual phone contact going forward.

Every day for the next three weeks:

Played another round of phone tag with the specialist's support staff, who, yet again, seemed unable or unwilling to call on our primary number (my wife's cell) rather than our home number. Calls to the support staff's number in response to the messages they left on our home voicemail went unanswered, as did repeated email requests for information/clarification as to what other information the specialist's support staff required in addition to everything we had provided thus far. This again required the leaving of multiple voicemails consisting of detailed requests for information/guidance on our part.

Friday, October 29th:

Finally made contact with the only member of the specialist's support staff able to understand the phrase, "Please contact us on our primary number, rather than the secondary one listed in our patient profile." Very knowledgeable, and very helpful, EXCEPT when it came to setting the actual time of the surgery on Tuesday, November 2nd. Knowledgeable support staff member assured us that these schedules tended to firm up the day before said scheduled surgery. And that "someone from this department will definitely called you on Monday, November 1st, with your son's scheduled surgery time, as well as with detailed instructions for when/how to get there."

Sunday, October 31st:

Our son receives both his flu shot and his COVID test. Went trick-or-treating that night as planned. Still wading through the pile-o-candy he plundered from the willing hands of our very generous neighbors.

Monday, November 1st: 

Waited all day by the phone for the promised final call from specialist's support staff. No call was forthcoming. Finally at 3 PM called support staff number and waited on hold until after 5 PM. Finally hung up and called the 800 consulting nurse service. The consulting nurse got into the HMO's system and looked up our son's scheduled starting time for the next. Said that according to the system, our son was scheduled for surgery at 7:40 AM the following morning. We asked whether that was when he went in to surgery, or when we needed to have him there. Consulting nurse assured us that according to the information available in the H MO's system, 7:40 was when we needed to have our son there. We also received pre-surgery dietary instructions (no food after midnight, etc.).

Tuesday, November 2nd:

6:45 AM: Putting on my shoes preparatory to driving our son to the hospital, we received a call from specialist support staff. Luckily this time the call came on my wife's cell, and she was able to catch it before it went to voicemail. "Where are you?" the caller demanded. "Surgery is in an hour, and you're supposed to be here an hour before!"

My wife explained that we never received the promised call from specialist's support staff on Monday, and further how we called the consulting nurse service just to get his surgery time at all. "Nevermind that!" the caller fairly shouted. "You need to get here NOW!"

7:25 AM: After breaking the sound barrier to get to downtown Seattle in heavy early commute traffic and in the middle of a driving rainstorm (I know, heavy rain in Seattle, in November? Who'd have thought?), my wife directed me into the first available parking structure labeled with the name of the hospital where our son was scheduled for surgery. Wrong building. After several wrong directions from well-meaning employees, found the right building, and trudged 5 long blocks to it in a pouring rainstorm.

7:38 AM: Checked in at surgery front desk.

7:50 AM: Checked in by surgery staff, escorted to pre-op prep room. Quick side point: everyone on this hospital staff was friendly, professional, kind, and compassionate. From the point we checked in we were in the best of hands. In fact, the exact term we heard over and over again from the staff who took part in our son's surgery was, "We'll take good care of him." And they were as good as their word.

8:25 AM: After meeting the anesthesiologist, the surgery nurses and meeting again with the specialist who would perform  the surgery, our son was wheeled into the surgical station and placed under anesthesia. We adjourned to the waiting room to do just that.

Wait.

And wait.

And wait.

(The surgeon had assured us that the operation would take anywhere from an hour to to two hours, based on when she found when she made her incisions. Two days after this surgery, a voicemail from the surgical staff with date/time stamp of 11/2/2021 at 9:32 AM popped up on my iPhone. In it the staff member who called-my phone never rang- stated that our son was fully anesthetized and going in to surgery at that time.)

11:25 AM: My wife's cellphone battery dies. She returns to the car to both charge her phone and move the car to the parking garage for the building where our son actually had surgery.

11:28 AM: Surgical staff come find me in the waiting room after being unable to raise my wife on her cell. I go upstairs to where my son is coming out of surgery.

11:32 AM: I get a seat next to the bed where my son is being brought out of anesthesia. The specialist informs me that our son did very well and we talk about follow-up procedures and scheduling, etc. The anesthesiologist enters and begins to remove the tubes connected to my son as he's coming out of anesthesia. She and the attending nurse anesthetist cheerfully dodge my son's flailing arms as he's beginning to be aware of his surroundings, all while deftly removing every tube connected to him. It's clear that this is not their first rodeo.

12:15 PM: My wife meets us in a recovery room on the 9th floor, where we're informed that our son will need to eat something and keep it down before we can take him home. When asked what he would like to eat, our nine year-old repeatedly responded: "Nothing, I just want to go home."

2:00 PM: After repeated attempts to order food for our son (no reply to several calls to the dietary department), the recovery room nurse succeeded in contacting our specialist, who told her what she had told me when our son was coming out of anesthesia: he didn't need to eat. He could just go home. I had assured the nurse of this, but she did her job properly and, since it apparently wasn't recorded that way in our son's chart, she followed protocol until able to contact our specialist for confirmation.

2:30 PM: Our specialist, thinking she was doing us a favor, arranged for our son's post-surgery medication to be available at the busiest downtown Seattle pharmacy our HMO runs. We parked there and forty-five minutes later my long-suffering wife emerged from the building with our son's prescription in hand. At this point we realized none of us had eaten that day.

3:10 PM: After making our way out of downtown Seattle during early rush hour traffic, we pull in to a Burger King to get something in our stomachs.

3:17 PM: We order.

3:20 PM: We pay at the window.

3:35 PM: We FINALLY get our order. Which all three of us wolf down.

4:00 PM: We arrive at home.

4:03 PM: It stops raining for the first time all day. Because of COURSE it does.

4:15 PM: Our entire family crashes. Thank God for California King beds!

*************

And that's it for this particular timeline. See? If it's detailed enough, the resulting story will be the richer for it, am I right?

And on that note, that's all for me this time around.

See you in two weeks!

28 October 2021

Setting As Character: Coda


Two rounds back in the rotation, I trotted out some notions about "setting as character," and shared a few examples of my personal favorites from the writing of writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

This time around I'm including other examples, suggestions from writer friends which have struck me as wonderfully diverse in their collective approach. I'm posting them here in hopes of giving tangible examples of the ways in which setting is all too infrequently employed to do some of the heavy lifting of getting the author's story out there.

So read on. Hope you enjoy them!

++++++++++

“Living in Seattle is like being married to a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.” 

— G. M. Ford, Thicker Than Water

"The blacktop road stretched empty in either direction, the sky hazy and the air heavy as a sodden sponge. The heat of the late-morning sun amplified the autumn scent of drying cornstalks, the putrid sweetness of persimmons rotting in the ditch. Insects swarmed the fermenting fruit, buzzing like an unholy plague. Sarabeth brushed away a sweat bee. She walked the long, twisting path from the house to the roadside stand alone, pulling a wagon with one bad wheel, her legs sweating beneath her heavy ankle-length skirt.

"Her little sister, Sylvie, sometimes worked the family's produce stand with her, but today she was home in bed with a fever and vicious sore throat. Their mother had spent the early-morning hours praying over Sylvie and coaxing her to swallow a concoction of garlic, cider vinegar, and honey. Mama was piling more quilts on the bed when Sarabeth left, aiming to sweat out the sickness, shushing Sylvie when she cried that she was too hot. Mama said fever was nothing compared to the fires of Hell, and maybe God liked to remind us. She said to Sylvie, but Sarabeth knew it was meant for her."

— Laura McHugh, What's Done in Darkness

"Dust when it was dry. Mud when it was rainy. Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, bellowing, cheating, the carny went its way. It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns—lights and noise and the chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the ferris wheel, to see the wild man who fondles those rep-tiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been."

— William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley

"When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio's on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off. One his wife had given him for Christmas a year ago, before they moved down here.

— Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty

''I stared at the plaster Negro and felt a little embarrassed....Even in Cincinnati, that sort of thing had gone out with the Civil Rights Act, although I'd have been willing to bet that there were thirty thousand little Negro jockeys sitting in dark basement corners from Delhi to Indian Hill, like a race of imprisoned elves, waiting to be returned to daylight. . . . Racial prejudice didn't die in this city; it just got stored in the basement.''

— Jonathan Valin, Day of Wrath


''There's Treasure Street, and Abundance and Benefit....Humanity, Industry, and Pleasure Streets - all these in the midst of hopelessness and squalor and stone meanness....Maybe some fool put names like that on those miserable streets to give us black folks inspiration. Or to make fun of us.''

— John W. Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington (writing about New Orleans in) A Project Named Desire


"The wetlands dedication ceremony was a resounding success until the gunman showed. Alex Carter had felt happy, blinking in the bright sunlight, gazing out over the green marshy area. The gold and scarlet of fall touched a handful of trees. Where the blue sky reflected in patches of visible water, a great blue heron stood vigil, gazing down for a glimpse of fish. It was sunny now, but huge cumulus clouds were building on the horizon, and she knew that a thunderstorm would descend over the city before the day was out."

— Alice Henderson, A Solitude of Wolverines

"The sky had gone black at sunset, and the storm had churned inland from the Gulf and drenched New Iberia and littered East Main with leaves and tree branches from the long canopy of oaks that covered the street from the old brick post office to the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at the edge of town. The air was cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night-blooming jasmine, roses, and new bamboo."

— James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead


"The sun on the grass was dry and hot. So in plunging into the wood they had a cool shock of shadow, as of divers who plunge into a dim pool. The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows. They made a sort of shuddering veil, almost recalling the dizziness of a cinematograph. Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them. Now a man's head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a negro. The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers. The fancy tinted Syme's overwhelming sense of wonder. Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything? This wood of witchery, in which men's faces turned black and white by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people. That tragic self-confidence which he had felt when he believed that the Marquis was a devil had strangely disappeared now that he knew that the Marquis was a friend. He felt almost inclined to ask after all these bewilderments what was a friend and what an enemy. Was there anything that was apart from what it seemed? The Marquis had taken off his nose and turned out to be a detective. Might he not just as well take off his head and turn out to be a hobgoblin? Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe."

— G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

"I parked the Charger in the first available space, halfway down the block from the house. Roy Street was steep, like every other street running east-west this side of the hill. Before I got out, I turned the wheel so that the tires were wedged against the curb on the steep grade. Habit.

"I looked at my old neighborhood for the first time in over a decade. Unlike downtown, it didn't seem to have changed much. Two-story homes packed close together on small lots. Most of the cars were a few years old, but none of them showed signs of being permanent fixtures along the curb.

"It was cold enough that the dew had turned to frost on the thicker lawns, and condensation formed on my lips and jaw as I walked up the hill. Damp leaves made the sidewalk slick."

— Glen Erik Hamilton, Past Crimes

++++++++++

And that's it for this round! There are lots more wonderful examples out there. If you have a particular favorite, please share it in the comments.

See you in two weeks!

14 October 2021

A Very Special Character Study


Dear Readers:

As you may recall, last time around I dropped some thoughts on "Setting as Character," and promised to expand on them this go-round. I'm going to make good on that in two weeks, because I've got the perfect idea for this current turn at the wheel. So instead of talking about "Setting as Character," Let's talk about "character."

******

Sooooo....character.  It's not plot. It's the only other thing aside from plot that can drive a story. And what makes for interesting characters?

Realistic (and often contradictory) personality traits.

I've been thinking about this very thing quite a bit lately, as I wrap the final draft of a long-delayed novel that will be finished and off to my agent before the end of this year!

Of all things, it was a vacuum cleaner commercial that gave me my own particular epiphany about how to write great, interesting, realistic characters. This one, to be exact:

Smoothies!

A biker who's a neat freak? Another who does needlepoint?

Interesting characters because they subvert expectations. Just like real life.

I have a cousin who is outdoorsy as hell: hunting, fishing. Sells cars for a living. A real man's man.

And for relaxation, he taught himself to crochet.

Interesting, right? Unexpected?

And even better because it's real life.

The best fictional characters mirror real life. Let's talk about one.

A woman, mid-seventies, married over fifty years, outgoing, friendly, caring, compassionate. A good friend, great sister, terrific mother and grandmother. Unironically loved Barry Manilow back in the '70s.

Once won enough money playing the slots on a visit to Vegas that she was able to buy herself a new floor for her kitchen (Including what it cost to have it installed). Not an isolated occurrence. This woman has a system. Every time she goes to Vegas, she wins thousands.

Enjoys gardening. LOVES Bruce Springsteen's music.

Was the queen of her high school's "Senior/Junior Ball" during her senior year.

Is strictly a social drinker. And yet, once, as a young woman, she stayed up late with her in-laws, drinking. By morning she had matched her father-in-law drink for drink, and the two of them had drunk every other adult member of the family under the table.

Slipped on the ice getting the morning paper one New Year's Day, and broke her ankle. Was able to laugh about it that same day (there's a "great pain meds" joke in there, somewhere!).

While in her thirties, once drove across the Columbia Basin from Yakima to Spokane with her eldest son, then in his teens. Drove for an hour shortly after sunset with the domelight in her car on so her son could finish a book he was reading.

Loves the color yellow. Hates surprises. Has a very close relationship with her daughter-in-law.

Started taking piano lessons last year. (That's all you get on this one. There's a ton of backstory there that the reader doesn't need to know for this tidbit to work, especially with the writer keeping it in mind while writing about it).

Possesses one of the most subversively bawdy sense of humor you'll ever encounter.

Is one of the kindliest souls I've ever known.

Okay: confession time. This character is a real person. My mother, Berniece. And it's her birthday tomorrow. Please join me in wishing her a happy one!

Love you, Mom! Hope this is pleasant surprise!






17 September 2021

SleuthSayers Tenth Anniversary: What It's Meant To Me


Ten years ago today the Great John Floyd, one of several mystery author refugees from the long-running Criminal Brief blog, became the first SleuthSayer by posting the initial Sleuthsayers blog entry, "Plots and Plans." Ever gracious, John modestly pointed out that he was not posting first in the new Sleuthsayer rotation because he was best-suited to do so, but because it was simply his turn at bat.

Today, I have the honor of posting the 10th Anniversary post for the SleuthSayers blog, and I'd like to echo the sentiment. Long-term readers of this blog will know that my own usual turn at the wheel comes not on Fridays, but on Thursdays. So why did I draw 10th Anniversary duty?

Not because of what I bring to this blog, but because of what this blog has brought to me.

In a recent late-night conversation with Fearless Leader Leigh Lundin, I expressed how much posting at SleuthSayers had helped me as a writer, how I felt the better for the experience, and how grateful I was for the opportunity to share as part of this endlessly shuffling ensemble of writer friends.

Leigh suggested I reproduce the sentiments I expressed in that conversation in this tenth anniversary post. So here goes.

A bit of background: I'm not an original SleuthSayer. My tenure with the blog dates back to February 21, 2013, when the Immortal Rob Lopresti (Leigh's co-Fearless Leader) introduced me as the freshest-minted Sleuthsayer. My baptism by fire came that very day, with my maiden Sleuthsayers post: "I Owe It All to Rilke." So, yep, I'm not an O.G. SleuthSayer. My tenure only clocks in around eight and a half years and counting.

But that's one of this blog's greatest strengths: the breathtaking diversity of the writers who share their experiences here. People have stayed a while and moved on. Others, such as old friends R.T. Lawton and Eve Fisher have been here for years (both longer than I. I'm positive R,T. is a founding member of the blog and Eve must be close to that, if not also one.). Folks have even left and returned. And the best part is that all of this endless, diverse content churns out daily, and has for 3,650 straight days.

Imagine, whether you're a writer or a fan or some combination of the two, being able to learn something new about the art and science and blood and sweat and swearing and muttering to yourself in a crowded supermarket and dancing in the parking lot when having the Eureka moment that fills that plot hole that had you muttering to yourself in the supermarket in the first place and all the depth and breadth and heights that mystery writing has, can, should, and will again reach.

Every. Single. Day.

Rob and Leigh's invitation to join this happy band came at just the right moment for me. I was recently married, with an infant son, and two years removed from the publication of my most recent book. Getting married, buying a house, combining households and having a child, all in just a couple of years, put a genuine crimp into my writing time/head space.

Turns out, SleuthSayers was a lifeline.

My wife, wise woman that she is, maintains that I work best when I'm working on a deadline. SleuthSayers really allowed me to keep my hand in, as it were, by giving me an on-going bi-weekly deadline. This was instrumental in maintaining my chops, developing other aspects of my writing voice, and outlining new projects. This was the case especially early on, when my total actual output was a single published short story over a three-year period.

These days I'm back on pace: with several completed and published projects-my three-novella collection Suicide Blonde (Down & Out Books, Octobber, 2020) the most recently published. And 2021 has been a great year writing-wise. As I've expressed multiple times over the years, I'm a very slow writer. The process for me just takes as long as it takes. And yet this year alone I've placed three new short stories, wrapped a fourth, and am nearing completion on a too-long delayed historical novel.

And I owe it all to this blog. Thanks to all my fellow SleuthSayers, past and present, to Rob and Leigh for believing in me and my writing enough to invite me to take part in this supportive and welcoming community, and especially to our readers, for taking the time and trouble to read what we lay down here for you. Without the audience, the artist is irrelevant.

So Happy Tenth, SleuthSayers! Here's to another ten!

Feels like we're just getting started!

See you in two weeks!



19 August 2021

More Fun With Plagiarism — Led Zeppelin Edition


In case you were wondering what this post will really be about.

On August 2nd, fellow Sleuthsayer Steve Liskow posted a wonderful piece on plagiarism (Take a moment and go read it here.). And like all of Steve's well-written pieces on this platform, it really got me thinking.

As a fellow writer with a long tenured day-gig teaching at the secondary level, I too have a ton of stories about plagiarism. And with the advent of the internet, the instances of student plagiarism that pop up and slap me in the face when reviewing their work have, if anything, increased tenfold. 

And half the time these days, kids don't even bother to change the font of what they lift from other sources. It's literally just a search/highlight/double right-click deal.

Part of my job (I teach 8th grade) is to help students wrap their heads around the notion of original versus plagiarized work. And in their defense, they start my class aged around thirteen. Most of them have rarely, if ever, heard the "P" word before. So I spend quite a lot of time working on it with them. And as I point out over and over and over throughout the year: I am MUCH more interested in reading their original, unfiltered thoughts on what we're studying than those of someone they copied and pasted (usually wildly out of context).

After using his experiences catching out plagiarizers as a teacher for an introduction, Steve pivots and does a terrific job of laying out the case that former First Lady Melania Trump heavily (and notoriously) plagiarized a speech from her predecessor, former First Lady Michelle Obama. 

Robert Plant (left) and Jimmy Page (right) of Led Zeppelin

From there he moves on to rock band Led Zeppelin and the case for their having plagiarized the intro to their most famous song, "Stairway to Heaven" from "Taurus", an instrumental piece by American rock band Spirit, who toured with Zeppelin right before they recorded Led Zeppelin IV, the album on which "Stairway to Heaven" appears. Spirit these days is probably best known as the band that produced singer/songwriter Jay Ferguson, who went on to compose the theme music for hit TV comedy The Office.

Did Spirit steal from The Duke?
Steve is convinced by the argument that Zeppelin ripped off Spirit. I have to respectfully disagree, and I cite music producer and YouTube giant Rick Beato, who does a better job than I ever could of defending the notion that while the two pieces are written in the same key, if Zeppelin stole their intro from Spirit, then Spirit stole from a whole bunch of writers who came before, including the Beatles and Duke Ellington. You can hear his argument here. It's worth watching. Beato even makes the case that employing this standard across popular music would mean insisting that Eric Clapton stole from bluesman Robert Johnson, who in turn stole from Mozart.

As a long-time fan of Zeppelin’s work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Steve charitably neglected to mention many of Zeppelin's other cases of outright thievery, both proven and unproven. There's no question that musically (and especially lyrically) these guys were thieves. Just a few of the more egregious cases:

1. “Whole Lotta Love”/“You Need Love” by bluesman Willie Dixon who gets co-writing credits on the song after suing in 1985 (The linked version above is Muddy Waters' classic version of Dixon's song.).

2. “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” - this one is Joan Baez’s fault. The folk-singer covered it on a 1962 live album (I think her version is too showy, with her voice on it too high and "bright." If you'd care to judge for yourself, you can listen to it here), and rather than crediting the original author Anne Bredon, Baez credited it as “traditional.” So Zeppelin did too. Years later, when Bredon got wind of the cover (apparently she didn’t listen to hippie psychedelic blues-rock in 1969) she and Zeppelin agreed to splitting the royalties 50/50. I like to think she got a nice fat royalties check when Pink released her own scorching live cover of the song. Bredon only just recently passed away (aged 89 in 2019).

3. “Dazed and Confused” - Steve cited this one, and rightly, so, but I feel like it needs expanding upon. Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page clearly stole this song from folksinger Jake Holmes after Holmes opened for Page’s then-band the Yardbirds in 1967. The lyrics were reworked, but it was clearly Holmes’s song. And what's more Page stole it twice. Here's an earlier version he did with the Yardbirds live on French TV shortly before they broke up. Listening to both versions in order makes it painfully clear how much Robert Plant's voice is an upgrade over Keith Relf's. Holmes never bothered to seek damages or a co-author credit. He repeatedly said that he enjoyed their new take on his original.

English folk singer Roy Harper
4. "Hats Off To (Roy) Harper" - Where to begin? The final song from Led Zeppelin III is a bouillabaisse of lifted influences. It's intended as a tribute to English folk singer and friend of the band, Roy Harper. Harper is probably best known either for serving as a frequent opening act for Zeppelin, or for subbing in for Roger Waters and singing lead on Pink Floyd's classic song "Have a Cigar", from their 1975 album Wish You Were Here. According to Jimmy Page in an interview with Melody Maker, "This came about from a jam Robert and I had one night. There is a whole tape of us bashing different blues things. Robert had been playing harmonica through the amp, then he used it to sing through. It's supposed to be a sincere hats off to Roy because he's really a talented bloke, who's had a lot of problems."

Bluesman Bukka White
But the song itself is a hodgepodge of bits and pieces lifted from country-blues classics, mostly Bukka White's "Shake 'Em On Down", (from which Plant pulled the majority of the lyrics) and another version of the song (same name, similar refrain, different verse lyrics and different melody) by Mississippi Fred McDowell, whose melody Page used for the bottle-neck guitar part he played for this song. Other influences include a verse from Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me", and two verses lifted verbatim from "Lone Wolf Blues", by Oscar Woods.

5. "In My Time of Dying" - Zeppelin's longest studio recording, and the centerpiece of its masterpiece Physical Graffiti, this song is pretty much another case of outright theft. The website for the psychedelia-based podcast "Turn Me On, Dead Man" lays out the least confusing lineage for this blues classic, including Zeppelin's crediting the song to its four members as the writers:

Led Zeppelin’s recording of “In My Time of Dying” bears all of the hallmarks of the band’s best work and it stands out as one of their greatest moments. The problem here is that the songwriting credits on this track are listed as “John Bonham/John Paul Jones/Jimmy Page/Robert Plant”. While Led Zeppelin may have recorded a great arrangement of this tune, “In My Time of Dying” is not an original song. It has long been common practice to list songwriting credits of songs from the folk tradition as “Traditional, arranged by…”. “In My Time of Dyin'” is credited as “arr. Bob Dylan”, the credits on the Fear Itself LP read “adapted & arr. by Ellen McIlwaine”, and [Lovin' Spoonful frontman] John Sebastian cited [Bluesman] Josh White as the arranger of his 1971 version of the song, entitled “Well, Well, Well”. But, of course, there were others took full songwriting credit for their recordings. Guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen took songwriting credit for Shocking Blue’s version of “In My Time of Dyin'”, and though Harry Belafonte listed a few songs on Ballads, Blues & Boasters as traditionals, arranger Bill Eaton claimed songwriting credit for “Tone the Bell Easy”.

The legendary Robert Johnson
The above examples (and there are many others) demonstrate that, as with many popular music acts during the mid-to-late 20th century, Led Zeppelin indulged in the all-too-common mindset of it being "easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission." And the notion that "everyone was doing it" doesn't really wash. 

Again, I say this as an unabashed fan of the band's stuff. They did amazing work. I just wish, as someone who generates original ideas, writes them down, and (occasionally) gets paid for them, that they had gone about crediting where credit (and dollars) was due in the right way.

What's most frustrating is that Zeppelin was not incapable or, in some cases, unwilling, to credit their original sources. Their scorching 1969 BBC Session live cover of Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues", carries the correct credits. Many of their other songs, which ought to, do not.

And now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go watch Celebration Day, the concert film of Zeppelin's one-off reunion at the O2 Arena in London back in 2007. Hey, they're thieves, but I'm still  a fan!

John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, Jason Bonham (original drummer John Bonham's son), Jimmy Page–2007

Thanks again to Steve Liskow for the inspiration for this post!

See you in two weeks!

05 August 2021

Five Tips on Getting Back into the Pensieve


 Two weeks ago I wrote about burnout, and the importance of being good to oneself as a way of combatting it. You can read that post here..

Today's post will be a short one. After all, I'm on a deadline. But it's in no way an unimportant subject, for all of its brevity.

As I mentioned in my previous turn at the blogging wheel a couple of weeks back, I've been using this Summer to clear up a whole slew of unfinished projects, and meet requests for submissions. Plus, in the past couple of years I have collected and edited two themed anthologies and expanded three previously sold and published historical mystery short stories into longer form (novella) pieces, and had them published last November.

It feels really good to get all of these projects wrapped and out there. But it does leave my most challenging partially finished project: a half-written, long-delayed historical novel that I have GOT to get to my agent THIS YEAR.

And it's been a while since I had my head deep enough into this novel that I feel comfortable moving around in it, let alone remodeling it any further. So that got me thinking:

How do you get your head "back into the narrative" after a fair amount of time away from it?

With apologies to Harry Potter fans, I call it "getting your head back into the pensieve."

So...this.

We've all been there. You get going on something, and 20k words in, you get pulled away by real life, by your day gig, by the fact the house needs painting, the dog needs walking, the fact that you're busy and you've always got stuff you need to get done. 

And you mean to get it done, but then there's that other thing and that other thing and that other thing, and so on and so forth...

And the next thing you know, it's been months, and you really need to get this piece wrapped. Don't want 20k solid words to go to waste!

What to do to get your head back into this particular pensieve?

Here's what I came up with.

Five Tips to Get You Back into the Pensieve:

1. Read what you've already written. Notice I didn't say "re-read." Make of this dilemma an opportunity to read your own work with fresh eyes. Also note I didn't say "read and takes notes." First time through, just read it. Let the impressions wash over you as they come one at a time.

2.Now Re-read it. And Take Notes. This will go slower than the first read, but it's absolutely essential if you want your finished product to make a lick of sense.

3. Consult your outline and amend it, using your notes. If you didn't outline it, outline it as you re-read it. There's no substitute for this.

4. As you're re-reading, also consider writing out dialogue between your characters, just stream of consciousness stuff. Character monologues (interior is fine) work well too. It doesn't matter whether any of what you write here gets into your final draft. The point is to get your head back into the story, and this is a powerful way to do it. Carry a notebook with you (if you don't already), and if you start hearing your characters' voices in your head while you're out and about, jot something down. And not to show your therapist. This is one time when "voices in my head" is a GOOD thing!

5. Lastly and most importantly: Be Open To Change! This might be an old story, one where you were going in a definite direction, with the ending all worked out. But you re-entering the narrative is the first step toward re-working it. You're not gonna write the story you would have written months ago. Maybe you'll do something close, but you're not that person anymore, and the novel you would have finished then is likely to have been very different from what you're writing now.

BE.

OKAY.

WITH.

THAT.

Take it from a guy who's cleared six long-term projects from his desk over the past few months. No matter how good the novel you might have written back then could have been, the reality is you didn't write it then. You're writing it now. Because you're finishing.

And that's the difference between "starting a novel," and "writing a novel."

Hope this helps! Let me know what you think in the comments, and if you have your own methods for getting your head back in the story, feel free to share those there as well!

See you in two weeks!

22 July 2021

Balance: the Key to Keeping Burnout at Bay!


Fact #1: Like many other artists (musicians, scupltors, painters, actors, etc.), most writers can't subsist on what they make by writing alone.

Fact #2: Like so many other artists, most writers have either a side hustle or a full-on day gig (or both) to make ends meet.

Fact #3: Juggling the writing career and the side hustle can be draining.

Fact #4: Sometimes the day gig/side hustle can take so much from you that you've got nothing left for the writing.

Fact #5: The above four facts are a pretty good thumbnail of my COVID Year-From-Hell.

Amazingly enough, this is NOT a recent selfie.

Those of you who follow my rotation in this blog (BOTH of you! *RIMSHOT*) know that my day gig is (and has been for decades) teaching history. And I love my day job.

That said: "COVID."

Let me repeat for emphasis: "COVID."

I'm not here to gripe about my COVID experiences. Other teachers elsewhere have done a great job laying out the challenges teachers across this country faced during the past fifteen-to-sixteen months. You can read some of their stories here.

Instead, I'm here to talk about the resulting burnout, and its impact on my writing. And also about what I did to counter the effects of said burnout.

Truth is, in this case, it was a simple choice. Allow me to illustrate with a visual aid:

Just in case you needed directions.

And yes, it really is all about "Balance." 

Not THIS kind of "balance." (Crappy album, by the way. Avoid it if possible.)

So what did I do? How did I achieve this "balance"? Well, it wasn't easy. Basically, I had a four-step process:

FIRST: Commit to whatever is right in front of you.

When I was in college, I had a terrific professor. Really engaging lecturer, tons of charisma. He also happened to be assigned as my academic advisor. And in between funny stories about his time as both an undergraduate and a graduate student at a prestigious university that shall remain nameless, he gave me a single piece of advice.

"I found this great job working as a night-time security guard. I was manning a desk all night and it gave me so much time to study while getting paid."

Now, I worked a lot different jobs in college, including several that were part of the campus "work-study" program. At exactly NONE of them did I get a single opportunity to crack a book and catch up on my homework. I know there are jobs out there like this (and I believe my advisor was telling the truth about his own experience), but it has never been my experience that you can do one thing well stealing time from something else you're obligated to succeed at.

So what I'm saying is: "Lean IN." Give it your all. Leave everything you've got at whatever you're working on, on THAT particular playing field.

In a conversation with my agent the other day, she told me how she's more swamped than ever, because so many people, while cooped up during COVID, have been writing books. That doesn't surprise me.

But the day job I work isn't the type to which I would feel good about phoning in the work. It's just not a job you can do well if you're half-assing it. On top of my day gig, I have a mortgage and a marriage and a child.

So how much writing was I going to get done during COVID? I published this, and I'm pretty proud of it:


In fact, I used COVID to finish up several project I'd left in various stages of completion during the previous couple of years. I've also written and placed three short stories (so far) this year (2020-2021). Three stories, three different anthologies. Publication dates forthcoming.

And yeah, I know, three short stories in a year might sound like light output, but a couple of things:

1. I write VERY slowly.
2. If I write it, it sells, it gets published and I get paid.*

(*with the exception of my first "mistake" novel, and a few early dry runs of short stories that have really not progressed much past the "rough sketch" stage.)

How did I manage this? Simple: when I was at work, I worked. When I was playing with my son, I played with my son. When I was spending time with my wife, I spent time with my wife.

And when I wrote, I wasn't worrying about my day gig. Or my mortgage, or my family. Because, by leaning in and taking care of business on each of these fronts, I was able to clear my mind and better focus/be way more productive than I had any right to be.

Second: Find a way other than writing to keep your subconscious working on your writing.

I keep a writing journal in which I write about my creative process, into which I transcribe story ideas, snatches of dialogue or narrative as they come to me, and I make a point of writing in it three to five times per week, writing day or not.

Find your thing that helps you continue to churn. Keeping out heads in the pensieve (I know, I know, Harry Potter reference) is part of makes us successful.

Third: Be kind to yourself.

This is a tough one. It means not kicking your own ass if you don't write for a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year. There were several months while trying to teach during COVID that I was so stretch so thin and so stressed and so gassed, that I was lucky to journal a couple of times per week.

Whoever said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans," boy, did they have that right. Beating yourself up about not writing just takes time and energy away from where it is better spent: getting your butt into that chair and getting to work. Work now. Recriminations on the way up the aisle to accept that Lifetime Achievement award.

This one is essential to combat the burnout that is an inevitable portion of most of our professional lives during the Time of COVID. You want to finish that novel? You're not gonna get it done kvetching at yourself about it. In fact, your work is likely to suffer all the more if you're playing these sorts of mind games with yourself.

Or better yet, don't!

Fourth: Build in transitions!

With the challenging day-gig year that I just wrapped up on June 25th (you read that right, June 25th!), I'll admit that I ended the school year pretty danged fried.

Which was why I cut a deal with myself: I didn't even think about writing until I'd had two weeks' distance from the end of the school year. 

I did other things: read. Organized my stuff at home. Played with my family. Slept. A LOT.

Transition time helps the brain reset itself. I've never regretted down time in my writing schedule. My work is always the better for it.

And that's it. My four step process for coping with, and transcending, burnout. What's yours? Let's hear from you in the comments!

Now that's more like it!


See you in two weeks!


08 July 2021

I've Got This Great Character In Search Of A Story


(Still on a deadline—in fact I'm behind. So I'm updating and reposting this blog post from 2014 about character, and how it's where you find it! Back in two weeks with all new content!) 

So I know this guy.

70 years old.

Recently retired elementary music teacher for the past two decades.

Married three decades. Father of two.

He is one of the most interesting characters I know.

Really.

Seriously.

He is.

Go back and re-read the thumbnail I just gave you.

Now let me elaborate.

All of the above AND...

Thirty years a professional musician (including opening for the Grass Roots at age 15 in 1965!).

So, these guys. And yes, the dude second from the left really is Creed Braxton from "The Office."

So of course I ask him, "What were they like?"

("They" being the aforementioned Grass Roots.)

He smiles and says, "They were dicks."

He doesn't dance. Ever.

When I ask him why not, he says, "I never had to."

"Why not?"

"I'm the drummer. I never needed to dance to get girls."

(Note: the guy's wife is a knockout and they have been happily and faithfully married for the above-referenced THREE DECADES)

He once took a gig in Guam for four weeks that wound up lasting six months.

He knows an uncle of mine who is the amazingly-not-yet-dead black sheep (and then some) of our family. Their paths crossed years before I got to know him, back during his playing days. I'll leave it to your imagination how he knows him.

(And you're RIGHT!)

I once referred to someone we both know as a "hot mess." His response?

"I played in a band called 'Hot Mess'..." followed by reminiscences about same.

(This has happened more than once and is always entertaining.)

He once hid out in Alaska for over a year. This after getting stranded in the Queen Charlotte Islands on the way there. I infer that there was a girl (or several) involved.

I convinced him to go to a Rush concert with me (I'm a HUGE fan). He is the only drummer I've ever known who attended a Rush concert and came away much more interested in what Alex Lifeson (the guitarist) was doing onstage than in what the then-world's greatest living rock drummer (Neal Peart) was doing behind his drum kit.

He's clean and sober now, and has been for years, if not always continuously.

He is one of the most painfully honest, most loyal and gentlest souls I have ever met.

I have seen him with blood in his eye and murder in his heart over the treatment of our society's most vulnerable members. I am hardly a conservative, and yet he makes me look like William F. Buckley.

And yet he lives on a golf course (It's a long story!) and sports a significant handicap.

All of the above is true.

I started this blog posting intending to wrap it up by saying that I had a great idea for a character based on this friend of mine, but no story in which to insert him. And then a funny thing happened.

I remembered a story he told me once about this woman he met, who turned out to be married, and....

...oh, forget it.

Wouldn't want to give away the ending!

Characters can come to us from the strangest of places and by the most indirect of routes sometimes, can't they?

See you in two weeks!

10 June 2021

Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Speculator, Spy...Murderer?


Edward Bancroft
[The natives of the South American mainland prepare poisons] which, given in the smallest quantities, produce a very slow, but inevitable death, particularly a composition which resembles wheat-flour, which they sometimes use to revenge past injuries, that have been long neglected, and are thought forgotten. On these occasions they always feign an insensibility of the injury which they intend to revenge, and even repay it with services and acts of friendship, until they have destroyed all distrust and apprehension of danger in the victim of the vengeance. When this is effected, they meet at some festival, and engage him to drink with them, drinking first themselves to obviate suspicion, and afterwards secretly dropping the poison, ready concealed under their nails, which are usually long, into the drink.


—Edward Bancroft, An Essay on the Natural History of Guiana in South America

Two weeks ago I discussed the strange circumstances surrounding the career and sudden death of American diplomat and merchant Silas Deane. This time around I delve into the backstory of the man who may well have murdered him.

As I mentioned previously, Connecticut-born Edward Bancroft was briefly a student of Deane's a number of years before the American Revolution. Apprenticed by his step-father to a doctor, Bancroft rebelled by running away to sea. He wound up in Surinam (known at the time as "Dutch Guiana."), where he worked as a surgeon on the plantation of a British subject named Paul Wentworth (more on him later).


Bancroft quickly established himself as an expert on the local flora and fauna, and after a brief return to Connecticut to square things with his family, moved on to London where, at the age of twenty-five he published the above referenced book-length "essay," which dealt, among other things, with South American curiosities such as a completely new method of dyeing wool/cloth, and poisons such as curare, and in which he offered proof that the shock generated by a local variety of eel really was a result of a type of bioelectricity they generated.

Benjamin Franklin in London
This work quickly established Bancroft as a man of letters, and with his background studying electric eels, he soon made the acquaintance of, and became friends with, another American-born intellectual who was conducting experiments with electricity: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had been living in London for nearly twenty years, ostensibly serving as the colonial agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. It was Franklin who eventually recommended Bancroft to Deane as a possibly useful personal secretary when the Continental Congress sent Deane to France to negotiate a treaty of alliance with the French crown.

To Franklin Bancroft was the ideal choice: still living in London, he would be able to come and go between England and France without attracting the attention someone like the firebrand Thomas Paine (who was English-born) would. And he could likely be enticed to pass on what he could learn of British war plans to his employer, Silas Deane.

So that's what Deane did, asking Bancroft, whom he knew, but not especially well (not having seen him since 1758, the year Bancroft ran away to sea), to cross the Channel and meet him in the French port of Calais, ostensibly to reminisce over old times. When Bancroft returned to England, he had agreed to work for Deane, and, in turn, to spy for the Americans.

And once back in London, Bancroft then wasted no time getting in touch with his old friend and mentor Paul Wentworth, who had returned to England from South America, and was now working in some capacity for Britain's intelligence apparatus. And Wentworth, in turn, introduced Bancroft a couple of government department secretaries, who quickly struck a deal with Bancroft.

Bancroft would spy on Deane and the American delegation in Paris, and in return he would received an annual pension of £200 per year.

For life.

Bancroft and Lord Stormont, the British ambassador in Paris, quickly worked out a system whereby he would pass information about the American negotiations with the French over the question of a potential French entry into the war with Britain on the American side. Every Tuesday morning Bancroft would take a walk in Paris's famed Tuileries Gardens, and place a bottle containing information about the aforementioned negotiations in the hollow of a tree. One of the ambassador's aides would retrieve the bottle, while in turn passing along useless information that Bancroft could in turn pass along to the Americans.

And this went on for over a year. Although there were those among the American delegation who suspected Bancroft of being less than honest (and they included John Adams, who once wrote of Bancroft that he was, among a host of other sins, "a meddler in stocks as well as reviews, and frequently went into the alley, and into the deepest and darkest retirements and recesses of the brokers and jobbers...and found amusement as well, perhaps, as profit, by listening to all the news and anecdotes, true or false, that were then whispered or more boldly pronounced."), none of them apparently suspected him of selling them out to the British.

Silas Deane when he still just a wealthy merchant
As I mentioned in our previous installment on Deane's death, Bancroft had a profound interest in this relationship with the British intelligence services not being found out, especially after the war, around the time that Deane intended sailing to America to rehabilitate his own reputation. Bancroft was still receiving his secret pension (which had subsequently been raised to £1,000 per year), and had applied for a potenially lucrative patent for dyeing wool and cloth using the techniques he'd learned in Surinam.

But, as laid out by historians James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle in their 1992 book After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, Bancroft and Deane also shared some unsavory secrets about Bancroft's time in Deane's employ:

It turned out Deane's arrangement worked well—perhaps a little too well. Legally, Deane was permitted to collect a commission on all the supplies he purchased for Congress, but he went beyond that. He and Bancroft used their official connections in France to conduct a highly profitable private trade of their own. Deane, for instance, sometimes sent ships from France without declaring whether they were loaded with private or public goods. This if the ships arrived safely, he would declare that the cargo was private, his own. But if the English navy captured the goods on the high seas, he labeled it government merchandise and the public absorbed the loss.

Deane used Bancroft to take advantage of his official position in other ways. Both men speculated in the London insurance markets, which were the eighteenth-century equivalent of gambling parlors. Anyone who wished could take out "insurance" against a particular event which might happen in the future. An insurer, for example, might quote odds on the chances of France going to war with England within the year. The insured would pay whatever premium he wished, say £1,000, and if France did go to war, and the odds had been five to one against it, the insured would receive £5,000. Wagers were made on almost any public event: which armies would win which battles, which politicians would fall from power, and even on whether a particular lord would die before the year was out.

Obviously, someone who had access to inside information—someone who knew in advance, for instance, that France was going to war with England could win a fortune. That was exactly what Bancroft and Deane decided to do. Deane was in charge of concluding the French alliance, and he knew that if he succeeded Britain would be forced to declare war on France. Bancroft hurried across to London as soon as the treaty had been concluded and took out the proper insurance before the news went public. The profits shared by the two men from this and other similar ventures amounted to approximately £10,000. Like most gamblers, however, Deane also lost wagers. In the end he netted little for his troubles.

So Bancroft, angling for a patent that could well be the foundation of a fortune, had to be worried that his speculation on "sure things" alongside Deane would come to light at precisely the right time to sink his patent application. Such behavior was ungentlemanly, and Bancroft, as Adams had said, carried the stench of someone who hung out with unsavory back-alley money men.

On top of this, Bancroft had already been forced to flee to France once before to escape hanging in the years since he'd worked for Deane. Many in the British government did not trust him, with his having publicly worked for one of the Americans negotiating with France, and this included King George III himself. 

So while Bancroft was outwardly prosperous and seemingly headed for more wealth and fame at the time of Deane's return to London en route to America in September of 1789, he had plenty to lose, should Deane open his mouth about their adventures in insider trading in the run-up to the Franco-American alliance of 1777. 

And Bancroft knew how to use curare.

While we'll never know for sure whether Bancroft had a hand in Deane's sudden death, there is plenty to consider in the case that can be made against him.

See you in two weeks!

27 May 2021

The Strange Death of American Diplomat Silas Deane


Silas Deane
Silas Deane

Silas Deane's career began with one of those rags-to-riches stories so much appreciated in American folklore. In fact, Deane might have made a lasting place for himself in the history texts, except that his career ended with an equally dramatic riches-to-rags story.

— James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle


You know his ambition… his desire of making a Fortune… You also know his Art and Enterprise. Such Characters are often useful, altho always to be carefully watched and contracted, specially in such a government as ours.

— John Adams writing of Silas Deane


The over-achieving son of an ambitious Connecticut blacksmith, Silas Deane was by turns a graduate of Yale, a teacher/law student, merchant, politician, and the first "minister plenipotentiary" from the rebelling British colonies of North America to the Kingdom of France. By the time he died in 1789, aged fifty-one, he had long since experienced a complete reversal of his fortunes: for the final decade of his life Deane remained a discredited pauper, hounded by scandal, plagued by declining health, and eventually forgotten by history. A puzzling turn of events for a man who racked up success after success during the early years of his life.

And yet nothing about Silas Deane is more puzzling than the manner of his death.

After graduating from Yale in 1758, Deane supported himself by teaching school while simultaneously studying law. One of his pupils from this period, a tavern-keeper's son named Edward Bancroft, figures prominently in the final years of his life, first as Deane's secretary during his negotiations with the French over the question of a possible alliance with the rebellious colonies against the British, and later as his benefactor: one of the few people who would advance the penniless Deane money. 

Bancroft was Deane's pupil for only a brief amount of time (he ran away to sea), but the two remained friends, and when Deane needed a private secretary to assist in negotiations with the French, he contacted Bancroft, now a physician and scientist of some note, then living in London, and invited him to come work for the American delegation which by then consisted of three men: Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and the dour William Lee.

But more on Bancroft and the American diplomatic mission to France in a bit.

After being admitted to the bar in 1761, Deane briefly practiced law in Hartford, Connecticut, before eventually moving to the town of Wethersfield, where he married Mehitable Webb, the wealthy widow of a merchant, took over the family business, and built a big new house next door to the one where his wife and her children had lived with her first husband. His wife gave him a son, Jesse, in 1764, and died herself not long afterward, in 1767.

On the left is Deane House, the house Silas Deane had built for his new family. On the right is Webb House, the one his widow had lived in with her children during her marriage to her first husband.

Deane remarried, this time to the wealthy and politically-connected granddaughter of a former governor of Connecticut, and decided to go into politics. When the first Continental Congress was convened, Deane found himself a member of the delegation appointed by the Connecticut legislature to attend. 

However, Deane was not without his enemies, especially those who envied him his wealth and the swift rise in his political fortunes, and he was not selected to return to Congress the following year. Instead, members of Congress approached Deane about acting as minister to France, and securing badly needed military supplies for the Revolutionary cause.

Deane agreed, departed immediately for Paris, and began throwing quite a bit of his own money around trying to raise more money, and secure a treaty of alliance with France. By the time he called on Bancroft to join him from London, Deane had spent a considerable sum of his own private fortune on this mission for which he drew no salary. 

And at this point things began to go south.

Franklin shortly after arriving in France in 1777
While Benjamin Franklin remained a friend to Deane for years, Arthur Lee, the other member of the American delegation in France, seemed far too disagreeable to have much in the way of friends. A member of the wealthy and powerful Lee family, one of his elder brothers—Richard Henry Lee—later served as president of the Continental Congress and senator from Virginia, another brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Along with being accomplished, the Lee brothers had in common the fact that neither of them much cared for their irascible, ill-tempered younger brother Arthur.

Not surprisingly, Arthur Lee took a distinct dislike to ever-on-the-make Deane, who, in addition to working on an alliance with the French, was also attempting to line up investors in a possible canal linking Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, and a scheme to secure steam engines of the type he had seen being used in England a use them in American grist mills.

To complicate matters, negotiations with the French slowed down, likely due in no small part to the fact that Bancroft, whom Deane trusted implicitly, was in fact a British spy. Every Sunday for well over a year Bancroft would drop a parcel containing his weekly reports of the progress of Franco-American relations into a hollow tree in the Tuileries Gardens, whence it was retrieved by another British agent and posted to London.

The Disagreeable Arthur Lee
It wasn't long before Arthur Lee denounced Deane to Congress, claiming he had used his position in Paristo enrich himself to the tune of £50,000. This charge resulted in a heated debate, which in turn resulted in Deane being recalled from France.

When Deane returned to America he had not been apprised of the nature of the recall. He had come back from France on a French warship, accompanied by the first French ambassador to the United States—treaty secured. As a result he had left his account books in Paris, and was left to defend himself without the documentation of his considerable expenses.

Things went downhill from there. After a long, public and ugly back-and-forth, both in congressional session and in the press, Congress rebuffed Deane's requests for reimbursement, and he returned to France a much poorer man than he had been, thoroughly embittered by the experience. 

Shortly before Cornwallis' hugely consequential surrender  to Washington's Continental/French forces at Yorktown in 1781, letters written by Deane to friends back in America—in which he denounced the Congress and suggested the best course of action for Americans might be to patch things up with Britain—fell into the hands of Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of British forces in New York City. Within days they had been published by a Tory newspaper in that city.

Now unwelcome in America, and with France getting too hot for him, Deane moved to Ghent, in Belgium and spent his time drinking and importuning old friends and acquaintances for money. This continued until 1789, when Deane decided enough time had passed that he might be able to restore both his reputation and his fortune at home.

He went to London, where he visited Bancroft (who continued to supply him with money) and the American painter John Trumbull. From there Deane booked passage to America on the Boston Packet in September. The ship departed London, but soon ran into fierce winds and laid to in order to make necessary repairs.

During a stroll around the deck with the ship's captain, Deane suddenly became violently ill. The captain put him to bed, where he soon died.

As recently as 1787 Deane had been bedridden by a protracted bout of ill health, so not much was made of his death by the British authorities who investigated it. He was buried in Kent, and for them that was the end of the matter.

In American circles the rumor ran riot that Deane might have been a suicide, what with his poor fortunes and shattered reputation. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine both referenced the event and the possibility of suicide in their correspondence.

Deane's fortunes were eventually posthumously restored. in 1841 Congress paid $37,000 to Deane's granddaughter as compensation for his expenses, along with admitting that the process by which his claims had been initially denied was rushed, shoddy and unprofessional.

As for Deane's death: natural causes? Suicide? Absent an exhumation and an autopsy, who can say what really happened here.

However, in 1959 historian Julian Boyd advanced a theory that Deane was, in fact, murdered. The most likely suspect? Deane's old pupil and secretary, Edward Bancroft.

Edward Bancroft
The Duplicitous Edward Bancroft

Because when Bancroft ran away to sea, he washed up in Barbados. While there he took a position as a surgeon for one of the sugar plantations on the island.

During his sojourn there Bancroft learned quite a bit about the science surrounding textile dyes. It was how he would make his name later. The plantation owner took a liking to Bancroft and sent him all over the Caribbean as his representative. During that time Bancroft became an expert in the making of dyes, and set about perfecting the process.

He also became an expert on poisons. While in Surinam he came in contact with native peoples who tipped their arrows with all manner of nasty concoctions. And Bancroft took notes. More than that, he touched on the subject in a book he wrote about his travels in the Caribbean.

As Boyd's theory went, Deane managed to work out the fact that Bancroft was a spy. Bancroft, by now drawing a hefty pension from the British government in exchange for his efforts in its behalf during the Revolution, also hoped to be awarded a lucrative patent for his dyeing process. 

Said patent might not be forthcoming in the event of Bancroft being unmasked as a spy. And Bancroft saw Deane on his final day in London. Oh, and the initial source of all of those rumors about Deane committing suicide? You guessed it. Edward Bancroft. Apparently he spread the word far and wide.

So...natural causes? Suicide? Murder? History is mute on the subject.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

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