Showing posts with label Susan Rogers Cooper. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Susan Rogers Cooper. Show all posts

12 March 2018

Viva la difference


by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
As a female writing about a female character I feel it is all natural because I am a woman. I can put my head into the mind of a young woman or an older woman.

I also think I can write a fairly good representation of a male character. Mainly because I had two boys and I had a husband for almost 40 years who was a great teacher about men and how they think.

Of course, I'm not an expert because I have never been a man. I did mention good maybe not great.

However, through the years of reading I have run across writers who I think are able to write strong and excellent characters who happen to be of the opposite sex.

Susan Rogers Cooper has a male character, Milt Kovack, who is a sheriff. He is such a realistic male character that Susan has even relieved a fan letter chiding her for publishing under a woman's name. The fan swore she had to be a man.

I have to agree in part because I know Susan is a woman, but she does write a very realistic male.

On the other side, John Lutz writes very realistic women characters. They are strong, independent and certainly never depend on a male to rescue them.

Robert B. Parker also wrote strong women. He often got into philosophical discussions with women leaving them surprised.

Best-selling author Michael Connelly has written a new book, THE LATE SHOW, featuring  Detective Renee Ballard. This is a female character he fully intends to be a series character.

In the back of the book is an interview. The question is asked if he can describe Renee with one word. He has described Harry Bosch as "relentless." Michael says he knows a real-life homicide Detective Roberts that Renee is loosely based on and he would describe Roberts as "fierce," which is close to relentless.

A woman detective working in a job that is predominately male has to be better than her male co-workers in order to gain respect. She must be fierce.

I think this is true and yet to make a female character more realistic she should show a little vulnerability. Unless your plan is to have her be a bitch. Personally, I think Connelly has done a fine job with Detective Ballard.

Viva la difference.

12 June 2017

Suspension of Belief, too




I turned on my tablet a short time ago and read Leigh's post about suspending belief. Oddly enough I'd been working an article in my mind all day about suspended belief. Thank goodness my idea is a different take on the subject.
The idea of suspended belief has never really bothered me because as a voracious reader, every time I pick up a mystery, thriller, science fiction or even a western to read I know I'm going to suspend belief.

Do you really think that each time Jack Reacher goes to any new town he's always going find someone that needs his help? An underdog, often a vulnerable female needing him to go up against a  monstrous gang of bad guys he'll have to beat-up or better yet kill them all.

 Remember, Murder She Wrote. We all laugh and say, I don't want to go to Cabot Cove Maine.  Because in that quaint little beach town, that's the murder capitol of the world, I might find a body. Angela Lansbury/Jessica Fletcher always did.

But we always suspend belief to read the story. As writers, we try very hard to make our mystery world as real as possible so our readers will absolutely suspend belief and read our books. One of the major strengths of a mystery story.

To make our character's world as real as possible we research our character's job. If it's law enforcement or private investigation or newspaper reporter or international spy we try our best to make that job sound as authentic as possible. It helps tremendously if we have actually worked in the field we are trying to portray. The lingo of the field is especially important.

If our character is an amateur sleuth it often helps if that character has a love of cooking or bird-watching or quilting or something that we also do ourselves. It can add to the "reality" of our story.

If as a writer we don't have the job or hobby experience then research, research, research. Naturally, life experience or life knowledge can help. All can be used when writing and setting up the suspension of belief for our readers.

Something I try to do, in my book especially, is to include as much "truth" as possible. A "universal truth," as my mystery writer friend, Susan Rogers Cooper and I call it, is often a good thing to include. For instance, if my female character is to pack for a four day trip, she notes that she only has three clean bras that are really nice enough for the trip. So she either has to go buy a new bra or two, plan to wash one on her trip or pack one of her old "house only" bras. Almost all women can relate. It is so true. A lot of men can't relate but, men probably won't mention what he is packing in his book.

 My main hope is when I do find a body someplace and write about it, you know I probably have not found a body our here in the Texas Hill Country but, you will believe me and suspend belief.

27 March 2017

Writing Like a Girl with Gayle Lynds


My inspiration for this column today is a post by Gayle Lynds which she posted to Rogue Women Writers yesterday and gave me permission go use here.

Today I was thinking about how mystery writing has changed and one big change that is one I welcome as more and more women are writing big thrillers and they are outstanding books. One such writer is my guest poster, Gayle Lynds. We don't often hear, "You write like a girl anymore." Or as my friend, and a previous fellow SleuthSayer, Susan Rogers Cooper, who got a letter almost daring her to prove she wasn't a man. He didn't think a woman was capable of writing a male protagonist like Milt Kovacks. Yet Susan still writes Milt novels and he is very definitely a strong male character.

Here Gayle Lynds talks about her inspiration.
— Jan Grape

Gayle Lynds
How The Jackal Became My Writerly Inspiration
by Gayle Lynds

In the mid 1980s I was writing and publishing not only literary short stories but books in a genre the industry considered among the lowest of the low — male pulp fiction.

Some called my ability to do both artistic range. But it puzzled and slightly offended others, and after a while I began to wonder myself — was there something wrong with me? Maybe I was literarily schizophrenic. Okay, let's ask the real questions: Who was I? What in heck did I think I was doing?

And then I got lucky and was able to dig deep. I found my muse, my inspiration, maybe it was really my siren's song — I stumbled on The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

What follows is a tale of hubris and, perhaps, redemption.

Published first in the United Kingdom in 1971, the novel dramatizes the desperate hunt for an international assassin hired by a secret paramilitary organization to kill French president Charles de Gaulle in 1963. The assassin is so clandestine even his employers know him just by a code name – the Jackal.

From the French police inspector under unrelenting pressure to stop the Jackal, to the young war widow who seduces an elderly government bureaucrat to extract from him the inspector's plans, the author guides us unerringly into the hearts and fears of the story's characters – on both sides of the political drama.

In the end we resonate with all of Forsyth's characters not necessarily because we approve but because he reveals each's humanity, and once we understand we can't help but care at least a little – a feat of high artistic skill.

I'd avoided reading The Day of the Jackal when it was first published because, although many attempts were made on De Gaulle's life, he died quietly, a private citizen in his own home, in 1970 — seven years after the novel's purported events.

The daring of Forsyth's concept and marvelous conceit that an author could create not only believable but compelling fictional suspense about an assassination that never happened had been lost on me. Instead, it buttressed my naive arrogance – if the book was a hot bestseller, it couldn't be good.

Fast forward to the mid 1980s: I'd begun writing pulp adventure novels and experimenting in them with literary techniques from my short stories. At the same time, I had two young children to support, and words-on-paper isn't a food group. (The literary journals paid in copies, while the pulp fiction paid in checks just large enough I could buy extra copies of the journals.)

That was when a paperback copy of The Day of the Jackal stared at me from the shelf of a thrift store. It had been read so many times the spine was cracked and the pages tattered. Obviously it had riveted readers. I wondered why. I bought it.

As I read, I felt as if I had finally come home. Forsyth's prose was rich and smooth, often lyrical. The characters were memorable. The insider details of the workings of the French government were not only accurate but, under his hand, fascinating. The Jackal's violence was remorseless, as it should have been.

My love of history, culture, geopolitics, and fine writing had finally come together in the pages of this exemplary novel. I was more than grateful; I was inspired. My future in international espionage was sealed. Thank you, Mr. Forsyth.

Thanks so much to Gayle for allowing me to use her blog posting on Rogue Women Writers.

List of some of Gayle Lynds Books:
  • Masquerade
  • The Coil
  • Mosaic
  • Mesmerized
  • The Last Spymaster
  • No Rest For The Dead
  • The Book of Spies
  • The Assassins
  • Covert One books with Robert Ludlum.
    • The Hades Factor
    • The Paris Option
    • The Altman Code

19 September 2016

Unconventional Convention —
Susan Cooper, Unbarred


*hic* You may be wondering why my name is attached to this post instead of Susan’s. See… we went out drinking… Well, not drinking exactly but imbibing slightly. Okay, we were drowning in our cups, flippin’ inebriated. And at the bar Susan says “There’s Brad Pitt,” and I say no, it can’t be, we’re too blitzed to see straight. “It’s Brad Pitt, I tell you. He’s drinking mimosas and flirting with me,” except she pronounced it “mirmoshash.” It’s not, I say staring into my empty glass and then she says “He tastes like Brad Pitt.” I’m not sure what happened or if Suze has a 2-foot Tex Avery tongue, but I grabbed her and we ran before the cops arrived. We raced to SleuthSayers Corporate Headquarters to post her article when she says, “Oh, no. I slipped Brad Pitt the wrong key.” So without her office key, the Crider Building security guard, who was already irritated by Leigh’s stupid article a couple of weeks ago, wouldn’t let Susan in. While she happily napped snored in the lobby, I rattled up the elevator by myself and posted her freakin’ article. So there. *hic*

Velma

by Susan Rogers Cooper

In honor of Bouchercon week, I thought I would tell tales from previous conventions. The Statute of Limitations has expired, so any admissions made in this post cannot reflect adversely on those involved. That said, let’s talk about ClueFest.

Many of you may never have heard of this particular convention, mainly because it was very small, held in Dallas, Texas, and only lasted about four years. The mystery fans who started and ran this convention did so with gusto and grace. The tales to be told revolve more around the hotel of choice than the convention itself. It is only apt that I tell these tales now as I plan on traveling to New Orleans with my dear friend Joan Hess (a co-conspirator) and rooming with my other dear friend Jan Grape (at times an instigator).

My first inkling that the location of the convention was not at a Five Star hotel was when I took my shoes off in my room and my feet stuck to the floor. Never a good sign. Then we, my roomie Jan Grape and I, discovered that the hotel bar closed at ten p.m. For a mystery convention? Were they out of their minds? Did they not want to make the big bucks? Had they never heard the rumors about writers? This brought about the great wine opening fiasco. They – the hotel staff – wouldn’t allow us into the closed bar to find a corkscrew, nor would they send someone up to the room with one, due to the fact that there was only one staff member on duty. In the entire hotel. The fact that we also did not have any pillows in our room only intensified the situation. That was the first day. And it was only half a day.

The first full day of the convention the air conditioning in a room that was to be used as a panel/discussion room failed – this convention was held in July, in Dallas, where temps often reach and steady at 100 degrees or more. This caused them, the staff of the hotel, to relocate the panel/discussion to, you guessed it, the lobby. Yes, the lobby. Joan Hess and I, both smokers at the time (this was the ’90s, get over it) had moved to the lobby to smoke as the bar was, again, closed. They, the staff of the hotel, made us leave. Seeing as it was over 100 degrees outside, we, Joan and I, decided to sneak into the bar to smoke. I mean, come on, we could see into the bar and there were ashtrays everywhere! A clear invitation.

The bar was a section of the hotel lobby area bordered by a half wall. Joan, in pants, jumped over. I, in a dress, managed to keep my ladylike demeanor intact by carefully maneuvering my way over the wall. We were halfway to an ashtray when the alarm went off. Let’s just say I wasn’t as ladylike as I lept over the wall to safety. Walking carefully to the front of the hotel, one could clearly hear Joan Hess say, “Is it a fire? Must be. Maybe we should leave.” I could not respond. I was giggling too hard. And I’m not much of a giggler, but then the situation clearly called for nothing less.

It was that evening that we discovered that the hotel next door to ours (with, we assumed, clean floors and an open bar) was hosting a sci-fi convention. Joan, Jan and I looked at each other and, of course, Joan said, “Well, duh. Let’s go.” So we did. On the escalator to the lobby we saw a man dressed in a full “Cats” the musical costume. He was gorgeous.

Once in the lobby area we saw more women than we cared to see dressed in the skimpy Star Fleet women’s uniform, a man with a black wig and pointy ears, three or four red suits (we didn’t stand too close to them -- you know they’re always the first to die), and then the contingent of Star Wars characters: three Princess Lea’s, a couple of Han Solos, and one Chubaca. Which was all quite fascinating and instigated a discussion of why we mystery people didn’t dress up. Of course, for the guys it would be easy: a couple hundred Sherlock Holmeses, a few Hercule Peroits, a Sam Spade or two. But for us, the women, who did we have besides Miss Marple and a few dames in red dresses? We decided to let that idea stay on the back burner. Eventually we found ourselves in the basement level in a room occupied by fantasy gamers (always the basement, the poor guys), with nothing very exciting going on. So we headed back to our dingy, mostly barless hotel.

The one really good thing about those conventions are the stories that can be told. When everything goes right, there are no stories. It’s the mess-ups and derailments that made a con memorable. If I could remember the name of that hotel, believe me I’d post it here. Hell, I’d post it anywhere, although I’m pretty sure it died a natural death years ago.

Looking forward to new adventures in New Orleans, where I’m sure the bar will always be open.

P.S. Whatever Velma might have told you isn't true.

— Susan Rogers Cooper

15 August 2016

Origins of a Character


Way back in the olden days when I came up with the character of Milt Kovak, then deputy sheriff of Prophesy County, Oklahoma, I imbued him with the best features of every man in my life: husband, father, brothers, and even a little bit of my father-in-law. And, yes, there was some of me in there, too. They say we all have a feminine side and a masculine side. My masculine side went wholeheartedly into Milt.

Later came E.J. Pugh and her family, which were basically loosely patterned after my own nuclear family of husband, daughter and myself. So much so that, in the first book, when my husband read it, he asked (he said commanded, I said begged) me to let E.J.'s husband Willis save her at least once, instead of E.J. saving him four times. I reluctantly agreed.

My short-lived Kimmey Kruse series came from watching too much Comedy Central on cable, and the fact that a good friend of mine had moved to California and become a stand-up comic. Kimmey wasn't really based on her, but rather inspired. And, of course, my friend gave me all sorts of inside scoop on the biz.

But have you ever just met someone you'd love to turn into a character? Well, I met that someone last week. I'd known her since I was nineteen years old – we won't say how long ago that was – but only as my best friend's cousin. That older cousin who told her what to do and when to do it and took all the fun away from what we'd been about to get into. We'll call my best friend Kathy, mainly because that's her name. Her cousin, we'll call her Jon, again because that was her name, I'd only known as that mean one who was always making Kathy sad, mad, and very occasionally glad.

Then last week I drove to Houston for Jon's funeral. She'd been fighting cancer valiantly for the last two and a half years, but lost that battle last week. Theirs is a big family and well represented, as was every place Jon had ever worked in a long and varied career of helping people – mostly kids and the elderly.

And then something wonderful happened. Jon's granddaughter, now the mother of two small children, took the podium and began to speak. Her sister came up with her and held her hand as she gave the eulogy. She talked about how many things her grandmother had taught her, how her grandmother and stood by her in thick and thin, and then she asked for a show of hands of the people in the room that Jon had pissed off on a regular basis. Almost every hand was raised. Then she asked for a show of hands of those people who loved her anyway. Again, almost every hand was raised. And I began to discover, listening to her granddaughter and later hearing her friends and other family members speak, that this was a woman who did not suffer fools gladly. She said what she thought and to hell with those who didn't want to hear it. She fought unconditionally for those she loved and those who had no one else to fight for them. And it occurred to me, sitting in that over-crowded chapel, that I could only hope to have a quarter of the amount of people at my funeral, hoping that a lot of daughter's friends would show up. But Kathy and I agreed, on the drive back to her house, that we'd come to each other's funeral. It might be hard to achieve this goal, but we're going to try.

Since then I've been thinking about Jon and the kind of person she was and what a profoundly challenging and awe-inspiring character she would make – if, God willing, I have the talent to do her justice. She laughed loud, fought hard, and loved unconditionally. It's going to be a privilege to attempt to do her justice.

01 August 2016

The Four Seasons


Okay, so the title is a misnomer. Since I live in Central Texas, we only have two seasons: summer and winter. Winter is generally mid-December to mid-February. Everything else is summer. We consider our winters to be cold, which, of course, is a relative term. Sixty degrees is cool, fifty-four degrees is cold, and anything lower than that is, excuse the expression, freezing your butt off. I know, I know, those of you who live above the Mason-Dixon line are sneering as you read this. Fine. But before you become too snarky, come spend an August with me, then we'll talk.

The point of this is that this whole two-season thing can reek havoc on the creative process, especially when one is writing about something that happens in January while writing in July. It's sorta cold in January in Austin, which one can easily forget while sweating away in July. Which is why, two hundred and some odd pages into the newest E.J. Pugh mystery, I've had to remind myself that, oops, where are the jackets?

The story takes place at the University of Texas when E.J.'s son, Graham Pugh, comes back to school after the winter break. Yes, that would be January. Then he's accused of the murder of his obnoxious roommate. Just because he'd been thinking about doing it, doesn't mean he actually did it. So of course E.J. has to come to Austin to ferret out the true culprit and free her eldest child. And she should probably bring a coat. Just saying. And just because I'm writing in July when it's quiet plausible to forget about that wet stuff that falls from the sky, doesn't mean it's not available in, excuse the expression, winter. So maybe a raincoat. Okay, just an umbrella. Never rain boots. No one over the age of six does rain boots here. Maybe some ice? We had ice in 2006. It was scary. But I just had an ice storm in my last Milt Kovak book (which was more believable because he lives way up north in Oklahoma).

As I sit here writing this and staring out my window at the relentlessly perky sun, I'm reminded of something my late friend, the writer Nancy Bell, once said to me in a depressed voice: “It's another goddammed beautiful day in Austin.”

So, it's off to the writing mines for me to add the winter stuff: jackets, coats, a nice scarf, a little rain, you know, weather. We don't have weather in the summer months. Just that relentlessly perky sun. I need to go turn the air conditioning down.

18 July 2016

Rediscovered Favorites


By Susan Rogers Cooper


For the past few months my mind has been wandering back to a couple of mysteries I read back in the 80s. They were my second introduction to the mystery genre after I'd read everything John D. MacDonald had ever written. Of course I'd gone through Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys as a child, and Agatha Christie as a teenager, but it wasn't until my early thirties that I got back to the mystery genre. But, alas, those mysteries I'd read after Mr. MacDonald alluded me. I didn't remember the authors' names, the book titles, or even the characters' names. Which began to gnaw at me. But far be it from me to let a little thing like lack of knowledge stop me. I have access to the internet! Voila! And, after several aborted attempts, a lot of swearing, and a couple of phone calls to my eleven year old grandson, I was able to find what I was looking for. And was delighted to find out things about two of my early influences that I never knew.

The first author I found again was Dimitri Gat, author of the Yuri Nevsky series. These were written and were read (by me) before the fall of the Soviet Union, so “white” Russians in America were still the good guys, as opposed to the way they are portrayed these days. There were three Nevsky novels, NEVSKY'S DEMON, NEVSKY'S RETURN, and THE ROMANOV CACHE. I truly loved these books. Great characters and vivid descriptions. I was delighted to see that Mr. Gat is still writing, both under his own name and under pseudonyms. But then I found out something I never saw coming. Like I said earlier, I was a great reader of John D. MacDonald. But in Googling Mr. Gat, I discovered that NEVSY'S DEMON was admittedly a direct “homage” to Mr. MacDonald's THE DREADFUL LEMON SKY. Having read both within probably a year or two of each other, I was shocked I hadn't seen it. But it was such a direct “homage” that the publishing house had to recall the book and Mr. Gat was asked to apologize to Mr. MacDonald, which he did.

The second rediscovered author is Lucille Kallen who passed away in 1999. She was the creator of four C.B. Greenfield mysteries, INTRODUCING C.B. GREENFIELD, THE TANGLEWOOD MURDER (one of my favorite all-time reads), NO LADY IN THE HOUSE, and A LITTLE MADNESS. These were definitely cozier than the Nevsky books, which were rather dark, but an enjoyable read. Personally I can travel between cozy and hard-boiled without suffering any kind of whiplash. But in Googling Ms. Kallen, I discovered something I didn't know: She was the lone woman writer on Sid Ceaser's “Your Show of Shows,” and the prototype for such TV characters as Sally Rogers from “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

In reading about Ms. Kallen and her books, it has dawned on me that perhaps I never read A LITTLE MADNESS. It appears that Amazon will be hearing from me shortly. But, in reality, I can't remember that much about the other books in the Greenfield series, or, to be honest, in the Nevsky series. So maybe I'll be adding a little to my Amazon cart. Oh, and I really should get another copy of THE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE, just for comparison's sake. But if I do that, I should probably restock my Travis McGee selection. Does anyone know if Amazon does lay-a-way?

I hope that someday, thirty or forty years from now, some other writer will re-discover my work and think as highly of me then as I do of these two now.

04 July 2016

An Independence Day Conspiracy Theory


As today is the Fourth of July, I felt it only fitting that I do something patriotic, and what's more patriotic than a good conspiracy theory? Nothing notable has happened in our country that hasn't been clouded (or, to some, sprinkled with sunshine) by a good conspiracy theory. Was there someone on that grassy knoll? Did John Wilkes Both really act alone? Did FDR really know about Pearl Harbor before it happened? Did the FBI have forewarning of 9/11? Who knows? Well, somebody surely does, but maybe not the ones who purport the juicy theories.

I decided (mainly because I'm not beneath loving a good theory or two myself) to research rumors that might have been running a muck during those latter years of the 18th century. And I came across a doozy: Massachusetts writer J.L. Bell, a leading historian on the Revolutionary War (author of, among others, THE ROAD TO CONCORD), revealed some interesting tidbits in an article entitled, “History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.”

In an article written on July 19, 1775, The Reverend Ezra Stiles of Newport reported that on a trip to Paris, British Captain Jno. Hansen, due to irrelevant (in my view) circumstances, became intimately acquainted with the French Pretender's secretary. During a meeting with this unnamed secretary, he – the secretary – left Capt. Hansen alone in his office. On the secretary's desk was an unsealed packet. Capt. Hansen read the contents of this packet, which stated that Lord North and the Earl of Bute (present and past First Ministers of Britain) said the “plan” was almost finished, that the “draught of troops for America would soon leave England so defenseless that the Pretender with 20,000 troops might land and march all over England.”

Hansen fled with the packet to England and informed Lord North of the contends of the packet. Lord North then paid off Capt. Hansen. But by spring of that year, America was “deluged” in war and Hansen felt guilty about his part in this. He went to New York where he told the Congress, which credited the information and sent Capt. Hansen to show it to the Continental Congress.

Rev. Stiles concluded in this article that Lord North had regained the packet from Capt. Hansen. Stiles felt that if Capt. Hansen had retained custody of the packet he could have convinced the King and the Nation and “restore tranquility between Britain and America.” Rev. Stiles went on to surmise that perhaps the top ministers of the British government had started the trouble in America just to tie up the British army, letting the Pretender sail from France and seize power.

Rev. Stiles wasn't the only one to think along the lines of a conspiracy theory. Roger Lamb, a sergeant in the British army, wrote in an article that, in essence, the French supported America in the Revolution so as to separate Great Britain from the colonies and help France regain their former station in Europe. He went so far as to claim France sent “secret emissaries” to the colonies to “spread dissatisfaction.” The colonists began to gradually change from the “warmth of attachment to the mother country, which had so particularly characterized them,” to, well, pissed off. As J.L. Bell concluded, Sergeant Lamb, writing for a British audience, could not concede that the American colonists might have felt dissatisfaction all on their own.

On reading this, my take is we must thank the French for more than just the Statue of Liberty. Whatever their reasons for supporting the colonies in their bid for independence, we appreciate the help. So this fourth of July, tilt back a Coors Lite with a Perrier chaser, and grill yourself a cheese burger with a side of escargot. Just a thought.

AN INDEPENDENCE DAY CONSPIRACY THEORY


As today is the Fourth of July, I felt it only fitting that I do something patriotic, and what's more patriotic than a good conspiracy theory? Nothing notable has happened in our country that hasn't been clouded (or, to some, sprinkled with sunshine) by a good conspiracy theory. Was there someone on that grassy knoll? Did John Wilkes Both really act alone? Did FDR really know about Pearl Harbor before it happened? Did the FBI have forewarning of 9/11? Who knows? Well, somebody surely does, but maybe not the ones who purport the juicy theories.

I decided (mainly because I'm not beneath loving a good theory or two myself) to research rumors that might have been running a muck during those latter years of the 18th century. And I came across a doozy: Massachusetts writer J.L. Bell, a leading historian on the Revolutionary War (author of, among others, THE ROAD TO CONCORD), revealed some interesting tidbits in an article entitled, “History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts.”

In an article written on July 19, 1775, The Reverend Ezra Stiles of Newport reported that on a trip to Paris, British Captain Jno. Hansen, due to irrelevant (in my view) circumstances, became intimately acquainted with the French Pretender's secretary. During a meeting with this unnamed secretary, he – the secretary – left Capt. Hansen alone in his office. On the secretary's desk was an unsealed packet. Capt. Hansen read the contents of this packet, which stated that Lord North and the Earl of Bute (present and past First Ministers of Britain) said the “plan” was almost finished, that the “draught of troops for America would soon leave England so defenseless that the Pretender with 20,000 troops might land and march all over England.”

Hansen fled with the packet to England and informed Lord North of the contends of the packet. Lord North then paid off Capt. Hansen. But by spring of that year, America was “deluged” in war and Hansen felt guilty about his part in this. He went to New York where he told the Congress, which credited the information and sent Capt. Hansen to show it to the Continental Congress.

Rev. Stiles concluded in this article that Lord North had regained the packet from Capt. Hansen. Stiles felt that if Capt. Hansen had retained custody of the packet he could have convinced the King and the Nation and “restore tranquility between Britain and America.” Rev. Stiles went on to surmise that perhaps the top ministers of the British government had started the trouble in America just to tie up the British army, letting the Pretender sail from France and seize power.

Rev. Stiles wasn't the only one to think along the lines of a conspiracy theory. Roger Lamb, a sergeant in the British army, wrote in an article that, in essence, the French supported America in the Revolution so as to separate Great Britain from the colonies and help France regain their former station in Europe. He went so far as to claim France sent “secret emissaries” to the colonies to “spread dissatisfaction.” The colonists began to gradually change from the “warmth of attachment to the mother country, which had so particularly characterized them,” to, well, pissed off. As J.L. Bell concluded, Sergeant Lamb, writing for a British audience, could not concede that the American colonists might have felt dissatisfaction all on their own.

On reading this, my take is we must thank the French for more than just the Statue of Liberty. Whatever their reasons for supporting the colonies in their bid for independence, we appreciate the help. So this fourth of July, tilt back a Coors Lite with a Perrier chaser, and grill yourself a cheese burger with a side of escargot. Just a thought.

20 June 2016

Memoirs Are Made of This


I've taught classes on writing the mystery for several years now, off and on, and feel I know the genre well. Recently I was asked to teach a writing class to a group of seniors, but, unfortunately, mystery was not the focal point of this group. Mostly the participants wanted to write memoirs – something I know next to nothing about.

I like make-believe. Fiction. Making up a story and telling it. I've been doing that since I learned to talk, much to my parents' dismay. But I did manage to entertain my captive babysitting charges a great deal with my abilities – such as they were. But memoirs? That's a whole 'nuther ball of wax.

I tried for several sessions to translate what I actually knew about writing into something these participants could use. And I did – to some degree. Then one day, as the class was winding down, we started talking about experiences we've had in our lives, and I told a couple of stories. One of the women looked at me and grinned. “You should write a memoir,” she said.

Well, I may not go that far, but there were a couple of things I thought I should probably put in writing, just for my grand kids, and maybe even their grand kids. Because I was witness to some world events that will still be part of history when those further away grand kids are up and running.

I remember in high school reading a book entitled something like “When FDR Died,' and asking my mother where she was when that happened. This was history from before I was born, and I wanted to know. And she could tell me every detail of her day and where she was when she heard the paperboy's cry.

And so I thought maybe my grand kids might like to know that their grandmother was standing in the road that led out of Love Field Airport in Dallas and was close enough to touch President Kennedy on the day he died. Actually, I did try to touch him, but a secret service man looked at me and I backed off quickly. My mother had taken my older brother and I out of school and the three of us stood there, not knowing we were about to become a part of one of history's darkest hours. I remember going back to school. I'd missed lunch with my class and had to go eat alone. When I got back to home room, a boy came over and told me the president had been shot. Knowing he knew where I'd been and why I was late, I just told him it was a really sick joke and to leave me alone. Some of the other kids came up and tried to tell me the same thing – I shooed them away, getting madder and madder at such a stupid and mean joke. Then my teacher came to my desk, squatted down, took my hand and convinced me that it was true. It was my first experience with the death of a person I felt I knew and knew I admired greatly. I still have the slip of paper the school secretary gave my mother to get me out of class. It has the date on it and as for the reason, it simply states, “President.”
Many, many years later, my grown daughter was in a car wreck on I-35 from Austin to San Antonio during a bad rainstorm. Her little Toyota Celica was T-boned by an over-sized Ford F-150. Her head cracked the driver's side window. Basically she wasn't physically hurt so much as emotionally wrecked. She couldn't get back on the freeway and, since her job was half-way between Austin and San Antonio and the only way to get there was on I-35, she lost her job. I thought she needed a vacation. And to get her mind off of the trauma, I decided the two of us would fly to Las Vegas. We boarded a plane at nine a.m. on September 11, 2001. Not a good way to get over a trauma, you say? Agreed.

We, of course, didn't know what had happened until we landed. There were little clues – like all the flight attendants disappearing into the cockpit for longer than seemed reasonable, and the fact that the people who were taking this plane on to Los Angeles were told to deplane ASAP. When we got into the airport, I noticed they were playing the old films of the bombing at the World Trade Center. When I asked a man standing there why, I found out those weren't old films. The long and short of it was we were stuck in Las Vegas for five days, away from home and family, horrified, in mourning, scared of what could happen next, and unable to get out as all planes were grounded and all rental cars were gone. Finally I was able to get a rental car and we left all the seemingly inappropriate bells and whistles, drunken laughter, and revelry, my daughter and I singing “Leaving Las Vegas” at the tops of our lungs as we vacated that city. It was a long drive back to Austin, but in some ways a cathartic one. Driving through the dessert with no traffic and watching the changing of the colors from midday to midnight was soothing on the soul. But that didn't stop us from jumping out of the car when we got to the Texas state line and singing “The Eyes of Texas”, again at the top of our lungs. (Which is not a pleasant thing since I can't carry a tune in a bucket – even with a wheel barrow attached.) Getting home to where my husband and her father awaited us was the best part of the trip. But I think being so close to real disaster helped my daughter put things in perspective. She never got her Toyota Celica back – it was totaled – but she got a new car and eventually got a new job, and, yes, has been able to drive on I-35 since then. It was a bonding experience for mother and daughter, one we'll always share, and one her kids and their kids need to know about.

Okay, maybe not memoirs, but I think I'll write this stuff down.

09 May 2016

That Damn Book


It was 9:30 in the evening, April 25, 2016. I was sitting in front of the computer, staring at that damn book. I couldn't take it any more. I decided to take a break and quickly checked my email. There it was, right there in front of me: an email from Leigh, asking where my post was for tomorrow. Post? What post? OMG, that damn book! I quickly explained to Leigh that I was trying to make a deadline in three days and I was still @#*& words short. He rescued me – at least from the post.

So it was back to the book. That damn book. I'd basically finished the story at @#*& words, which weren't nearly enough. So I added weather: an ice storm. That would be good for a few thousand words, I thought. Wrong. Less than one thousand. Okay, bite the bullet (so to speak) and kill somebody else. Over a thousand words! Yay! Still short.

My hero, Milt Kovak, was the only one of the regulars in the book who'd not been targeted by the bad guy. Okay, let's get Milt. I didn't want to shoot him – the Milt books are basically first person narrative. It would be difficult for him to narrate while dead or even hospitalized. I didn't want to physically hurt his family. A fire! I thought. Scary but not necessarily harmful to anything but his house! And of course Milt's not there because --- because it happens in the middle of the ice storm! Two thousand words! I was on a roll! But I still had @#*& words to go.

Someone suggested a bomb. I'd never done a bomb. Did this book even call for a bomb? Not really. But what the hell! I added a bomb.

The minutes, the hours, the days wore on. And still not enough words for that damn book. But with one day to spare, I finished it. It was ready to go. I didn't want to even think about reading it yet again, but I knew I had to. That damn book! Well, actually, it wasn't half bad. It could be better – every book could be better when you send it off – but it wasn't half bad. But mainly, it was gone.

Now on to the second book in the contract!

P.S. And thanks, Leigh, for the title to this post!

28 March 2016

Research Schmesearch


I'm not an outgoing person. I'm not like my partner here on SleuthSayers, Jan Grape, who never met a stranger and can and will talk to anyone about anything and has friends all over the world. That's not me. I picked writing (or writing picked me) because I thought it was a solitary endeavor. I knew nothing about conventions, and book signings, and publicity. And all I knew about research was: Get in the car, go to the library and pick out a book on whatever I needed to know. Then along came the internet, and it was even easier. I didn't have to get out of my PJ's or put on shoes. My late husband told me everything I needed to know about guns, and, because he was the exact opposite of me when it came to interacting with people, I used him to make telephone calls and go visit people when necessary. He developed a friendship with the Travis County ME and even got an excellent murder device from Dr. Biardo that I used in a short story. Of course, I never met the man.

Recently I was able to use the internet for intense research into China Marines. My father had been a China Marine – U.S. Marines stationed in China in the 1930s before and during the Japanese invasion. My bad guy in the newest E.J. Pugh mystery DEAD TO THE WORLD, was not the upstanding jarhead my daddy was, but I took him to China and on to the Philippines, following the plight of the many who fell under the forces of the Japanese. Luckily my father was not among them. But this became a very personal research project and one I enjoyed immensely. Also, I didn't have to actually talk to anyone.

But that brings me back to the one book I wrote where I became totally involved with people and their stories, and their sights, and their sounds, even if I was being pulled into it yelling and screaming. Quietly, of course.

Back in the 1990s, I wrote two books with the character of a stand-up comic named Kimmey Kruse. In the second book, FUNNY AS A DEAD RELATIVE, I decided to take Kimmey to a place I knew. Port Arthur, Texas. Now I only knew this town because it was sort of an in-law. It was where my husband had been born and bred and where all my in-laws (and there were a lot of them) lived. My husband was part Cajun and that had always intrigued me (although my idea of a first married Christmas dinner was not goose and dirty rice dressing, but that's another story entirely). The story of DEAD RELATIVE was that Kimmey was called upon to deal with her Cajun grandfather who had broken his leg down in Port Arthur. Me-maw, his wife, had thrown him out many years before, so the cousins all took turns when it was time to deal with Pee-paw. Which meant, that although I knew all about Port Arthur – that it smelled of rotten cabbage from one refinery and dirty socks from another and that it had mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds – I really needed to spend a weekend researching the place.

And my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were happy to take on that challenge. They drove me all over the town, by the ornate homes of the ship captains who had started the town, to the beautiful Buddhist temple in the part of the city that housed mostly Vietnamese immigrants. They took me to a wonderful spot under the Orange Bridge (the bridge isn't orange but it connects Port Arthur to the city of Orange across the Sabine River) with funky restaurants and even funkier homes – Quonset huts and RV's and shacks decorated with art work made of junk. And I knew that this was where Pee-paw now lived.

While wandering around under the bridge, we saw some shrimp boats tied up there on the Sabine. I innocently said to no one in particular, “Gee, it would be nice to see the inside of one,” where upon my mother-in-law (from whom my husband inherited his tendency of never meeting a stranger) shouted out to a man on said shrimp boat, “Hey! Y'all! My daughter-in-law's a writer and she wants to see inside your boat!”

To say I was mortified was an understatement. Unfortunately my complexion lends itself to turning colors under stress, so I could feel the heat of the bright red shade I'd suddenly turned. But, having no other choice, I followed my family members onto the boat, shook hands with the captain and his wife, and got to see all there is to see on a small shrimp boat, and learn all about their lives and the vulnerability of fishing for a living. Thanks to my in-laws, I met several people that weekend, all with a story to tell.

That trip opened my eyes about research and what it can do. For one thing, it made it clear to me that Port Arthur, Texas, was more than a smelly place with big mosquitoes. It was the home to many, many refineries, with containers full of oil and gas and other flammables. It was only a stone's throw from the town of Texas City that had experienced the ultimate nightmare of living in that kind of world. The people of Port Arthur were brave souls, I discovered, living under the constant light of flames shooting from the pipes of the refineries, going to work, taking their kids to school, falling in love, getting married, having babies. Just living their lives, knowing that the horror of what befell Texas City could happen to them, at any time, in any of the many locations. So they drink a lot, eat a lot of sea food, and make bottle trees and paint tires white and bury them half way in their front yards. They listen to very loud zydeco music and still think Justin Wilson is the best comedian who ever lived.

I try to remember that experience when it's time to do research. I try to remember how ultimately good it really was. But I still need a little shove, a push in the right direction. That's where Jan Grape comes in. She shoves hard.

14 March 2016

The Character of Characters


By Susan Rogers Cooper

As writers we create characters. We create good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones. And I'm not talking about the quality of writing here. I'm talking about the character of a character. Personally, I need someone to root for. Some one I care about. Someone who's outcome means something.

Anybody ever read the book or see the movie of Paddy Chayesky's ALTERED STATES? I admit to only seeing the movie, not reading the book. And if the book was anything like the movie, I doubt I'll ever read it. Why? Because there wasn't a single person in that story I cared about. Weak-kneed, whiny wife and a husband I liked better as the monster than as the man. But that was the 70s and the anti-hero was all the rage.

I don't necessarily want a hero – I just want somebody who's real. A decent person put in an unreasonable situation. Someone who sees a wrong and feels a need to right it. A lot of us write characters whose jobs it is to do these things: police, PI's, lawyers, and others of us write about non-professionals becoming innocently involved in the carnage. I write both. I have one series with a small town sheriff, and one series with an amateur sleuth. The one major problem with writing an amateur sleuth is just how many dead people can she/he find before we begin to suspect a mass murderer? Personally, I always felt Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer.

And I don't think it's unreasonable to want to root for the bad guy. If the bad guy is a full blown person, and not a cartoon cutout of a villain. People kill for a variety of reasons, most of them stupid, but sometimes you can understand that stupidity. I've created bad guys that make you go “ick,” and bad guys that make you go “ah.” But either way they need to be real, and the only flaw should be one of character.

And must the victim be the villain? No. Maybe there was a reason he was killed. Maybe he did do something wrong, something that forced another person to this act of stupidity. But if we can feel for the bad guy, can't we also feel for the dead guy?

Hero, victim, murderer. The holy trinity of what we do. But with all three, above all else, they must be real. And there better be somebody, anybody, to root for.

29 February 2016

Rules?


While teaching classes over the years on how to write a mystery, I've come across other people's rules for how to and how not to write. And there are some fine rules out there. But, let's face it, as writers we are already dancing to the beat of a different drummer. Is it okay to bend some of these rules? Break one or two? Or totally ignore them? To screw up a wonderful quote, “Rules? We don't need no stinky rules!”

Now a man named Resnicow wrote some charming rules on how to write a mystery. He didn't specify – but I must – that these rules are only for the classics, or cozies, or drawing room mysteries.

Number one I agree with, unless you're writing under the name of Carolyn Keene:

1. You're writing a mystery: so kill someone.” That's mostly a keeper.

2. All clues should be presented clearly and preferably more than once.” Unless you're writing a police procedural, hard-boiled, or suspense.

3. The information given the reader must be accurate. Do your research.” Okay, another keeper.

4. All questions must be answered, all loose ends tied up.” Unless, of course, the book is going to have a sequel, or the whole point of the story is unanswered questions.

 That's just some of Mr. Resnicow's rules. But he's not the only one with a list. Back in the day, I found an interesting publication by a group of sci-fi writers out of Houston. They called their opus “The Turkey City Lexicon,” and they divided their rules into groups: Words, Sentences and Paragraphs, Background, and Plot. I'll just recount some of my favorites.

From Words:

“Said” Bookism: Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” or the all time favorite, “he ejaculated.”
And on that subject, my own pet peeve, no identifiers in a discussion involving more than two people. For God's sake, it's two extra words, people! (Now putting soap box away.)

 Tom Swifty: Similar compulsion to follow the word “said” with an adverb. As in, “We'd better hurry,” said Tom swiftly.” Remember, the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. (I love that last line!)

“Burly Detective” Syndrome: Fear of proper names. This is when you can't call Mike Shayne “Shayne,” but substitute “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” It comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the same sentence.
From Sentences and Paragraphs:
Laugh-track: Characters giving cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn't have to.
Hand Waving: Distracting readers with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw.
Fuzz: Element of motivation the author is too lazy to supply. The word “somehow” is an automatic tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story: “Somehow she forgot to bring her gun.”
Background:
 
Info Dump: large chunks of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper of “Encyclopedia Glactia” articles inserted in the test, or covert, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.
As you Know, Bob: A form of info dump in which the characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up to speed.
I've Suffered for My Art And Now It's Your turn: Research dump.
I call this my personal favorite because, if I do the research, by damn, I'm gonna use it! Okay, half the time I have to go back and delete the boring stuff I learned, but please, ask me about it! I'll give you all the details!
 
And my favorite under Plots:
 
God-in-the-Box: Miraculous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. “Look, the Martians all caught cold and died!”
Like I mentioned earlier, rules are meant to be used, edited, adapted or broken, but sometimes it's fun to see what other people think good writing is all about.

15 February 2016

Confessions of an Addict


I'm an addict. I wasn't exactly born this way, but, to my shame, I was encouraged by my parents, and my peers. It started small: a little Nancy Drew, a couple of Hardy Boys, the elusive Winslow Brothers. It didn't take long before I was mainlining Agatha Christie. For a while I switched drugs, went with Steinbeck and McCullers and a few Russians. But your first hit is always the best: I found John D. MacDonald and I was back on the hard stuff.

It wasn't until my mid-thirties that I became a truly hard-core addict. I'd played around with the real drugs a little as a kid, writing short stories and plays, starting a couple of novels. But in my mid-thirties it hit me: I should try writing mystery! Oh the rush. The tingle of my nerve ends. The fast beating heart. And so it began, this never-ending torture of writing a mystery. How many times have I told myself you can stop this. All you have to do is turn off the computer! And I do! Lord help me, I do! Every night I turn the damn thing off.

But then the morning comes. I try to ignore the siren song, but it just sits there, right in my living room, taunting me. Beckoning me. “Just turn me on,” it says. “You don't have to write. You need to check your email, don't you? You need to see what's on Facebook, right? Maybe play a game or two? It'll be okay. Really.”

But it isn't. Oh, I can do all those things: email, Facebook, a game or two, but in the end I'm right back at it: writing a mystery.

The books do end, which is just a hoax, really. My agent wants me to change this, my editor wants me to change that. Then the copy editor and the galley copies and it's over! But it isn't. Not really. Because the buzz is going on in my head, and my pulse is beginning to race. A new idea is forming. And it wants to come out and play. I've tried to stop. I held off for almost six months once, but this addiction has me by the balls. If I had balls. One day I might be able to pull it off. To stop. To end this torture of endless hours at the computer, of trying to figure out why one character did that when the other character should have seen it coming. Of wondering if there really is a plot, or if I'm just fooling myself. One day. Or I'll die trying.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Is it too obvious that I've been binge watching “Nurse Jackie” on Netflix? I didn't think so.

01 February 2016

The Last Camel Collapsed a Noon


The last camel collapsed at noon.” This is the opening line of Ken Follett's THE KEY TO REBECCA, and it says a lot. You have a fairly good idea where you are, and you know that the people in this story are in some serious trouble.

Several years ago I was asked by Rice University to speak at their summer writer's workshop on the subject of hooks – those words that entice a reader to stay beyond the first line. And, I've discovered, that first line, paragraph, or page needs to be a dozy. Before I wrote my first mystery, I was told that if I wanted to write one, I'd better get a dead body in there pretty damn quick. So, the first line of my first Milt Kovak, THE MAN IN THE GREEN CHEVY, is: “Her body was found by her daughter-in-law.” See how I did that? “Body.” That means dead, right?

While I was preparing for my Rice workshop, I sat down on the bed and went through every mystery I had in my house. The bed didn't collapse, but it was touch and go there for a moment. I read the first lines and paragraphs of every book and found the ones that grabbed. And, strangely enough, they were differences enough for me to categorize them. Why not? I like to be neat.

Slap in the Face: Bill Crider's SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT: “Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.”

Goosebumps: William Bernardt's PRIMARY JUSTICE: “'Once again,' the man said, pulling the little girl along by the leash tied to his wrist and hers. 'Tell me your name.'”

Too Cool for School: Raymond Chandler's TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS: “Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said, 'I need a man.'”

The Scenic Route: James Lee Burke's THE NEON RAIN: “The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola penitentiary.”

I could go on. But let's sum up. What questions should a reader be asking at the end of the hook? My favorite, as a writer and a reader, is to get the response: “What the hell is going on here?” Always a good question – if the reader is hooked enough to care. Then there's this: Is this person, this character I've already decided I like, going to make it all the way through these three-hundred-odd pages?”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is now part of the language. People who've never read Dickens use that line in everyday conversation. That's a hook.

18 January 2016

A Little Ditty About Poisons


When I thought I'd been misspelling “arsenic” in my newest Milt Kovak, I thought I'd write an article on how how bad spellers of the world should untie. But then I found I'd actually been spelling it correctly and thought, well, hell, there goes that thought. (Although if it weren't for spell check I'm sure I'd never have gotten published in the first place.) 
 
Then I thought about the fact that I'd been spelling “arsenic” at all – in the new Milt there's arsenic found in the peach melba. (Don't ask. Buy the book.) A couple of semesters ago I taught a series of class on writing the mystery and had one class exclusively on poisons. So I've got the research and you're going to have to deal with that. (Info dump, anyone?)

First off, poisons have been around and used about as long as there have been human beings. One fun fact is that Cleopatra reportedly did a little experimentation on poisons before selecting the asp as her way of doing herself in. She did her experiments on her prisoners and slaves. (Fun lady.) She at first tried henbane and belladonna, but, despite their rapid action, they appeared to cause too much pain in her subjects. She ditched the per-curser to strychnine (strychnos nux-vomica) – also rapid action – because it produced convulsions that left facial features distorted at death. (And who doesn't want to be a pretty corpse?) But the asp, her final selection, supposedly produced a serene and prompt death.

Then, of course, there were the Borgias who fine-tuned the act of poisoning, bringing it to the height of its art. In defense came the establishment of the position of food taster in royal households. If nothing happened to him after a short period of time, the royal would go ahead with his meal. Unfortunately, this did little to stop the serious poisoner.

Formal study of poisons began in the early nineteen century, with the isolation of morphine from opium and research into the effects of curare – a vegetable poison used by South American Indians to poison their arrows. Matthew J.B. Orfila, considered the founder of modern toxicology, experimented with and cataloged poisons and their effects. Arsenic, the poisoner's favorite, was tracked down by James Marsh around 1836. But Orfila, using Marsh's test on biological specimens, was an expert witness who helped convict Madame Lefarge. Remember her?

With the increase of industry at the beginning of the twentieth century, new and niftier chemicals became available to the poisoner. Then came synthetic drugs, which only added to the problems of the toxicologist. With the increase of barbiturate use after WWII, the suicide rate increased.

Currently the trend indicates that medicines for internal use are the favorite for both suicide and homicide, while external use goodies – such as cleaning fluids, pesticides, and vegetable alkaloids – run a close second, with gas and fumes running behind.

Unfortunately concentration on antidotes has not been as thorough as one would hope. The old wives tales of using milk (it really only dilutes the poison), and salt water (which can be dangerous as large amounts of sodium chloride can bring on fatal heart attacks), are just that – old wives tales. Basically, get medical attention when poisoning is suspected.

And on that happy note, have a nice day.

04 January 2016

It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Worst of Times


I claim it was 1998, but it really all started in 1997.  I was lucky.  I'd been around for quite a few years by then, and still had an intact family.  Two parents, still married to each other, a big brother, his wife and two sons, and a little brother and his wife.  I was most fortunate to have a husband to whom I'd been happily  married since 1972 and a beautiful teenaged daughter. As a family we were blessed.
My big brother's name was Frank Rogers.  He was three years my senior and had been my hero as long as I could remember.  He had two webbed toes and eventually grew to be six foot, fix inches.  He saved me from death (or a slight concussion) when I almost fell off the porch into a pile of bricks our dad was saving for a patio he might (or might not) build.  He benignly blackmailed me for multiple decades for an indiscretion when I was seven years old.  He missed me so much when our family went on vacation without him that, upon my return, he took me to downtown Dallas to see a Troy Donahue movie -- and he didn't even like Troy Donahue.  He introduced me to the Kingston Trio, the Smothers Brothers, and Alan Sherman.  He made fun of me for a week when I cried while watching an episode of "Wagon Train."

As adults we became scattered as jobs took us to different parts of the country, but we seemed to manage to all get together at least once a year, and quite often on Thanksgiving.  As the years progressed we started a Thanksgiving tradition:  tequila shots before dinner.  Our parents didn't partake, but the three siblings and our spouses certainly did (and even some of the kids when we weren't watching closely enough).  It was silly, but, hey, it was tradition!

Then in 1997, Frank got sick.  He was in the hospital and I called him as I had been doing on a daily basis since he'd been in there.  But something was wrong.  My big brother was crying.  And I could hear my sister-in-law sobbing in the background.  Never, in all those years, had I ever known my big brother to cry.  The doctor was in his room.  The doctor just told him he had terminal cancer.  The doctor just told him he had a year to live.  To my knowledge, Frank never cried again.  He yelled, got drunk, and laughed a lot, but never cried.

The whole family was staggered by this.  We were blessed.  Things like this didn't happen to us.  Our family members only died when they were in their eighties or nineties.  Not like this.  He was only fifty-four.  One child left in college.  Things like this didn't happen in our family.  We were blessed.

We learned that what Frank had was cancer of the common bile duct -- a very rare cancer that no one was studying.  He could try chemo and radiation, but the results wouldn't amount to much, if anything at all.  He opted not to bother.  He and Rosella, his wife, took leaves of absence from their respective jobs and decided to spend the year he had left doing whatever they wanted and, as he told me, he had no intention "of suffering fools gladly."

In those last months of 1997, my sister-in-law and I conspired to save him.  It was a real reach, but one does what one can.  There was a Mexican bodega my husband and I frequented when we wanted ingredients we were unable to find in the regular grocery store.  But this bodega had more than mere spices and strange fruits; it had talismans and cancer cures.  Frank and Rosella lived in Baltimore, and I lived in Austin, but I found a way to send a talisman and cancer-curing tea to my sister-in-law.  Both of us knowing Frank would laugh at such an attempt, she hid the talisman deep in his wallet (the lady at the bodega said he must always have it on him for it to work - duh), and slipped the tea into Frank's morning coffee.  And then Rosella prayed and I kept my fingers crossed.  One does what one can.

That last Thanksgiving, 1997, before our tequila shots, we had a meeting at my younger brother's house in Dallas and decided we were going to take a vacation together -- something we hadn't done since we were kids.  So we made plans.  It was to be eight days at a rental house on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I started saving for the trip we'd take in March.  But in February of 1998, I got a call from my agent in New York.  I'd been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Novel of 1997.  After telling my husband, who was in the room at the time, the first person I called was Frank.  He was elated, I was elated, everybody was elated.  And I wanted to win it for him.

In March of 1998 we left for St. John.  It was a wonderful eight days of conch fritters, rum, and too much Jimmy Buffett on the CD player.  We saw giant turtles, beautiful white beaches, and pigs walking along the roads.  We learned to drive on the wrong side of the street and found that a pint of Ben and Jerry's cost over eight dollars.  And we discovered my daughter and Frank's youngest son had "found" a bottle of champagne and had taken that and a bottle of orange juice out to the pool late one night and were making "mouth mimosas."  And it was all over way too soon.

In April I left for New York and the Edgar banquet.  My friend Jan Grape had also been nominated that year for Best Non-Fiction and we were able to rent a small apartment on the east side and spent a wonderful week up there.  I had strict orders to call Frank the minute I won.  He never said anything about my not winning.  Needless to say, I didn't win, and it was the hardest phone call of my life.  I called my husband first and he was stoic about it, but then I had to call Frank.  Somehow in my mind I'd confused my winning that Edgar with my brother living.  I'm sure my winning would have worked as well as the talisman in his wallet and the tea in his coffee; i.e., not at all.

In early October I went to Bouchercon in Philadelphia, just a train ride from Baltimore.  Frank was once again a guest at Johns-Hopkins, and I took the train down to see him.  He was excited.  He and his doctor had just seen Carl Ripkin, Jr., in the halls of the oncology ward.  The two of them, on seeing Mr. Ripkin, Jr., going down the stairs, followed him, my brother carrying his IV pole and clutching the back of his hospital gown.  Frank's doctor told me the son was there to see his father, Carl Ripkin, Sr.  I found the mental picture of my brother chasing the baseball star down the stairs amusing and shared this later that evening, back in Philadelphia, with my dinner companions.  I forgot that one of them was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.  The headline in the next day's paper?  Carl Ripkin, Sr., hospitalized in cancer ward at Johns-Hopkins.  For a short while, my family referred to me as "deep throat."

It was only a few short weeks later that I got a call from Frank.  "I need to tell you something," he said.  His voice was ragged.  "Anything," I said.  "I'm sorry I blackmailed you," he said.  "That's okay," I said.  "It's what brothers do."  And he told me he loved me and I told him I loved him.  Two days later he died.

We buried my brother's ashes on Halloween on a beautiful hill in the Maryland countryside.  My sister-in-law stuck one of Frank's favorite cigars in the hole with his ashes, then we went to her home, got drunk, and all smoked the rest of his cigars.

And our family was no longer blessed.  I lost both my parents in 2001 -- Dad in January, Mom in April.  Five years later my beloved husband, Don Cooper, had his fourth heart attack and was unable to come back from that one.  He was sixty-one.

To this day, my sister-in-law, my daughter and nephews all call each other on Thanksgiving and give a tequila toast to Frank.  After a few years, we added Don's name to the toast.

But I'll always remember the year 1998 as the best and the worst.  An Edgar nomination, a trip to St. John, a week in New York -- and the death of my hero.  My big brother.

21 December 2015

An Early Christmas Present


In my latest Milt Kovak book, COUNTDOWN, I told three stories that were mostly connected.  The first half of the book deals with Milt's wife and all his female employees and wives of his male employees being held hostage at what was supposed to be a surprise wedding shower.  But while this is going on, Milt's son, Johnny Mac (yes, Johnny Mac Kovak -- it rhymes, get over it) and his friends ride their bikes into the woods after a teenager who they believe is going to kill a dog he's dragging in there.

The reason why I'm telling you this:  My grandson who is eleven -- the same age as Johnny Mac in this story -- has always wanted to read one of my books.  I've always thought they were a little too adult (read boring) for an eleven year old boy.  But Johnny Mac's story has him and his friends getting caught in a tornado and having to survive.  My grandson is way into survival stories.  So I thought:  Yay, an early Christmas present!  I took the book and highlighted just the portions dealing with Johnny Mac and his friends and gave it to him to read.  It took a while -- he was reading two other books at the time and, oh, yeah, there was homework, but we won't go into that.

Finally, the day came.  He brought the book back and handed it to me.  I had to ask: "What did you think?"

He shrugged.  "It was pretty good," he said.  "I mean I liked the part with the tornado and all.  But--"

"But?" I queried.

"Yeah, you know.  Where were the zombies?"

Have I failed as a grandmother?  Or, even worse, failed as a writer?  Yes indeed, where were the zombies?  Or at least an alien or two?  What was I thinking?  So for Christmas next year I'll write him his own story full of zombie aliens caught in the snowy wilds of Alaska trying to survive.  Think he'll like it?