08 May 2012

The Devil's Dictionary

Ambrose Gwinett Bierce
    In 1913 noted columnist and short story author Ambrose Gwinett Bierce, then 71 years old, rode his horse across the Rio Grande River into the Mexican town of Ciudad Juarez and from there into oblivion.  Bierce’s intention was to observe first-hand the Mexican revolution, which at the time was well underway.  Bierce managed to track down the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juarez and then reportedly tagged along with Villa’s ragtag army of revolutionaries at least as far as the Mexican city of Chihuahua.  While there is some argument among historians, apparently the last communication from Bierce was a letter written to a close friend, Blanche Partintron, on December 26, 1913.  Only notes concerning the letter, safeguarded by Bierce’s secretary, survive, but according to those notes the letter closed with the following: 

    “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination."  

    Thereafter Ambrose Bierce disappeared without a trace. 

Pancho Villa

   There are many theories concerning what eventually happened to Bierce.  In The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes, the author speculates that Bierce was eventually shot in the back while serving with Pancho Villa’s band of desperados.  The1998 film version of Fuentes’ book, featuring Gregory Peck (in one of his last roles) as Bierce, opts for the same ending.  Local legends in the Mexican Sierras hold that Bierce, who had reportedly become somewhat critical of Pancho Villa toward the end, was executed on Villa’s orders before a firing squad.

    Bierce was always a dark fellow who marched to a different drummer.  The essayist Clifton Fadiman has argued that "Bierce was never a great writer. He has painful faults of vulgarity and cheapness of imagination.”  However, Fadiman also notes that Bierce’s “style, for one thing, will preserve him; and the purity of his misanthropy, too, will help to keep him alive."  Fadiman’s criticism of Bierce may be unfounded – Bierce wrote many columns and short stories, and his stand-out short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, to single out one, has likely been the basis of more television and radio dramas – most recently an episode of Lost – than almost any other short story.  But Fadiman is unarguably correct in his observation that Bierce’s work, and his dark streak, have kept him alive.

    While there is uncertainty as to how Ambrose Bierce met his end, what is certain is that at least one great, albeit brooding, work that he left behind vigorously survives:  The Devil’s Dictionary.   Since 1911 The Devil’s Dictionary, originally titled The Cynic’s Word Book, has never been out of print.  Thanks to the expiring nature of copyrights and the wonders of Project Gutenberg it is also currently available on line and for free.

    The Devil’s Dictionary, for those unfamiliar with the work, is comprised of tongue-in-cheek definitions for common English words.  The definitions were written by Bierce during the period from 1881 through 1906, and were originally offered up in his newspaper columns.  They derive from the commonly understood meaning of each of the defined words, but then tilt that meaning on its axis in a manner that reveals a darker underlying truth.  The definitions, therefore, are not unlike paraprosdokia, the subject of a previous article, but they differ in that they are uniformly (not just occasionally) dark, and are unsparingly cynical. 

    But enough of introductions.  Let’s dive in and examine some prime examples, still relevant after over one hundred years:
  • ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.
  • ACCORDION, n. An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin.  (A little close to home, but I will address that in a subsequent column!)
  • APOLOGIZE, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offence.
  • ARDOR, n. The quality that distinguishes love without knowledge.
  • BAIT, n. A preparation that renders the hook more palatable. The best kind is beauty.
  • BAROMETER, n. An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.
  • BEFRIEND, v.t. To make an ingrate.
  • BIGOT, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.
  • BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
  • BOUNDARY, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.
  • CANNON, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.
  • CHILDHOOD, n. The period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth -- two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age.
  • CLAIRVOYANT, n. A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron, namely, that he is a blockhead.
  • COMFORT, n. A state of mind produced by contemplation of a neighbor's uneasiness.
  • CONGRATULATION, n. The civility of envy.
  • CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
  • CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.
  • CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.
  • DEFENCELESS, adj. Unable to attack.
  • DESTINY, n. A tyrant's authority for crime and fool's excuse for failure.
  • DIPLOMACY, n. The patriotic art of lying for one's country.
  • DISCUSSION, n. A method of confirming others in their errors.
  • EGOTIST, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
  • FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
  • FIDELITY, n. A virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.
  • GENEROUS, adj. Originally this word meant noble by birth and was rightly applied to a great multitude of persons. It now means noble by nature and is taking a bit of a rest.
  • HASH, x. There is no definition for this word -- nobody knows what hash is.
  • HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
  • HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homocide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another -- the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.
  • IGNORAMUS, n. A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.
  • INCUMBENT, n. A person of the liveliest interest to the outcumbents.
  • INFANCY, n. The period of our lives when, according to Wordsworth, "Heaven lies about us." The world begins lying about us pretty soon afterward.
  • INJURY, n. An offense next in degree of enormity to a slight.
  • JUSTICE, n. A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.
  • KILT, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland.
  • LAWFUL, adj. Compatible with the will of a judge having jurisdiction.
  • LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.
  • LOQUACITY, n. A disorder which renders the sufferer unable to curb his tongue when you wish to talk.
  • MAGNIFICENT, adj. Having a grandeur or splendor superior to that to which the spectator is accustomed, as the ears of an ass, to a rabbit, or the glory of a glowworm, to a maggot.
  • MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
  • MONKEY, n. An arboreal animal which makes itself at home in genealogical trees.
  • NIHILIST, n. A Russian who denies the existence of anything but Tolstoy. The leader of the school is Tolstoy.
  • NON-COMBATANT, n. A dead Quaker.
  • OATH, n. In law, a solemn appeal to the Deity, made binding upon the conscience by a penalty for perjury.
  • OUTDO, v.t. To make an enemy.
  • PATIENCE, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
  • PEACE, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
  • PIETY, n. Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.
  • PLEASE, v. To lay the foundation for a superstructure of imposition.
  • POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
  • PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
  • PREROGATIVE, n. A sovereign's right to do wrong
  • REALLY, adv. Apparently.
  • RESIDENT, adj. Unable to leave.
  • RESOLUTE, adj. Obstinate in a course that we approve.
  • REVERENCE, n. The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.
  • RUM, n. Generically, fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers.
  • SAINT, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.
  • SELF-EVIDENT, adj. Evident to one's self and to nobody else.
  • TWICE, adv. Once too often.
  • ULTIMATUM, n. In diplomacy, a last demand before resorting to concessions.
  • UN-AMERICAN, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.
  • VOTE, n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.
    Some months back the Washington Post ran a contest in its weekly Style Invitational to come up with additional definitions in the manner of Bierce.  Herewith, the top four entries and winners:
  •  HERO, n.  Someone who, in a crisis, exceeds our lowest expectation.  (Melissa Balmain, Rochester New York)
  •  MUSIC, n. Songs you listened to in college (Kevin Dopart, Washington, D.C.)
  • GRAMMAR, n.  The rules of language as spoken by the generation immediately preceding one's own. (Robert Schechter, Dix Hills, New York)
  • SUPERCOMMITTEE, n. A committee designed by a committee (Gary Crockett, Chevy Chase Maryland)
See you in two weeks!

07 May 2012


by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
I had really wanted to see the Super moon as the media called it and touted it to be something special to see. But it was solid cloud cover at my house and there was no moon to be seen. But I comforted myself that I'd just look at it on TV or on computer or on my phone. Gosh we've come such a long way, Baby. If we don't have a chance to see or hear something we can just look it up on our computers or you can record it on your TV. You never have to miss anything and yet sometimes I wish I had missed something.

Take the current political campaign. We waded through debate after debate, ad after ad until our stomach turned and Mr. Romney is now FINALLY the Republican candidate. Yippee. Now we've got six more months of debate after debate, ad after ad until our stomach turns listening to the same old, same old stuff from both sides of the political aisles. And guess what, you can watch it all on TV or your phone or you can TiVo the whole affair and watch at your leisure.

Time was when you could only know about something that happened from your newspaper or radio. And things came to you at a Pony Express pace. There's something rather calming about that idea.

And gosh, NO. I'm not going to open a political debate but my own personal feelings are strong right now. There are a lot of cock-eyed things going on in this country against women. My own beloved state of Texas is a prime example. There are some in our country who want to roll back the clock and put a foot down on women's throats and trounce all over women's rights. I strongly oppose that idea and will continue to fight against that. We ALL were created EQUAL.

I think I did already announce here once about a new anthology that I recently co-edited. But I'm not above shameless promotion. It's titled MURDER HERE, MURDER THERE and follows the first anthology by the members of the American Crime Writers League, (ACWL) MURDER PAST, MURDER PRESENT. There are nineteen count 'em stories by our multi-talented, multi-award winning members. The setting are as diverse as you would imagine. From east coast to west coast and multi places in between and if that's not enough to excite you there's a couple stories with exotic locales and times. I have a story "The Confession," featuring my female private eye characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn, who I hadn't written about in several years. It was fun to visit with them again. The book is from Twilight Times and will be released the end of May, so look for it at your favorite Indy Bookstore.

It's already been summertime hot in Central Texas, so much so that I long for travels to cooler climes in an RV. However, if what I've seen lately on TV, even the cooler locations in the US have have heat waves and places you expect to be cool aren't necessarily so. Guess I'll just have to wait and long for December which is now only six months away.

I have two reunions to attend this year if I can manage the time and money to travel. The first if my 55th (gasp) high school reunion on June 1st. Since it's in the state of TX, I'm going to try to manage to get to that one. The second is the Grape Family reunion which will be in NJ, actually right outside of NYC on starting on July 1st. The family is so scattered we only hold reunions every three years and we have them at different part of the country where some nice family member lives. That person or persons plan the food, sight-seeing, partying, and hosting for around 50 people for around a week. It's fun and most enjoyable unless you are hosting and then it can be a lot of work. I have to admit I've hosted it three times. It really is fun to see everyone and to meet the new who have joined by marriage or to have been born into the family. It's a wild and crazy bunch of GRAPEs I have to admit.

Guess that pretty much covers my random thoughts for the day. Are any or all of you still writing?

06 May 2012

Finer than Fiction

by Leigh Lundin

How to Lose a Reader

Reading for pure pleasure seems to have slipped by the wayside in recent years, but a common cold– natures' way of telling me to slow the hell down– waylaid me. I relaxed with a friend. It's good when another's bookshelf looks at least as interesting as my own, so there I am facing Jeffrey Deaver, James North Patterson, and a host of others. Literary historicals like The Name of the Rose and The Rule of Four intrigue me, so I pluck up a book that compares itself to these along with Possession and A Case of Curiosities.

Sixty-some pages later, I toss the book aside. It isn't a bad book and if I find myself cast away on a desert island with it versus a trunkful of National Enquirers, I'll certainly read it.
I don't name the title in question, partly because it isn't a bad book– it simply didn't engage me. Moreover, I didn't finish it– It might burst into excitement mere pages after I abandoned it. Besides, I don't like the idea of criticizing another writer, a practice that might come back to haunt one.

The problem is nothing happens. It's like Waiting for Godot set in New York and London. To illustrate chapter-by-chapter,
  1. Edward, bored and boring options trader, is asked to uncrate ancient books.
  2. He's invited to a party, but falls asleep.
  3. He plays a video game, then falls asleep.
  4. He returns to unpack books and the reader falls asleep.

Sure, the writing is clever. I can see what looks like setups for future plot points. But worse than the lack of forward motion, I feel no bond with the main character. Burdened with a Kerouac-like lack of direction, the guy's not particularly likable. I'm well aware the book could suddenly take off but reading time is precious. Instead of plucking another book off the shelf, I seek a recommendation.

My hostess hands me two books, non-fiction. She tells me there's an unlikely link between them.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff Literary Crossroad

The first is 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. It's a series of actual letters between the author and a London bookshop between 1949 and 1969.

Wait, stay with me here. Within a handful of pages, this little book does what the novel above failed to do– it captures the intellect and the emotions.

The book isn't about the war, but it quickly capsulizes post-war America and Britain. Rationing in the US ended in 1946, but while North America poured millions into rebuilding Germany and Japan, British citizens were starving, subsisting on two ounces of meat a week and one egg a month. Stiff upper lip, they soldiered on with the importance of maintaining an ordinary life. That's only background… the real story is yet to come.

How does this relate to crime writing? In the early 1950s, Helene Hanff wrote for Ellery Queen. I don't mean the magazine, I mean E-l-l-e-r-y Q-u-e-e-n. More than once I thought of Dale Andrews. While he'll appreciate that special history, anyone can admire this fast read.

Marks of Excellence

The other book is Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks. I don't like war novels; I don't like them at all. Lose a friend or two and war doesn't seem entertaining. But I appreciate tales of espionage from Erskine Childers' classic The Riddle of the Sands to Alistair MacLean's brilliant novels.

Between Silk and Cyanide is fact, not fiction, told wryly with a self-deprecating charisma. It's about code-breaking and as those with deep computer backgrounds know, the British led when it came to codes and cracking them.

See, after World War I, Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the military code-breaking department, MI-8, famously saying "Gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail." He took steps to punish cryptologist Herbert Yardley, who considered monitoring coded messages vital.

Franklin Roosevelt recognized the need for intelligence and worked with former classmate William 'Wild Bill' Donovan and famed Canadian spymaster William 'Little Bill' Stephenson, a man considered the inspiration for fictional spies such as James Bond. However, the OSS found itself lagging far behind its allies.

I Spy with my Little Eye
Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks
In the 1970s, whenever a television series ran thin on plots, the writers suddenly revealed their hero(ine) secretly worked for the CIA. Thus we found the likes of Jessica Fletcher conspiring with British Intelligence against the KGB, a ghastly plot device that burdens lackluster television today.

I promised to connect 84 Charing Cross Road with a book about spies. The London address happened to be that of Helene Hanff's bookshop, Marks & Co, and their son, 22-year-old Leo Marks, turned out to have a gift with cryptography and wrote the book Between Silk and Cyanide.

For young Marks' initial interview, his superiors devised a sort of test. They handed him a coded message and a key and left him to his devices. An hour later, they looked in on him and again an hour after that. With dismay, they said, "Our code girls decrypt these in twenty minutes."

Marks persisted and just before closing handed them the decoded message. His superiors sighed, obviously disappointed. As Marks turned to leave, they asked him to return the key.

"What key?" he asked.

"The cypher key. Surely we gave you the key for it?" they said.

Er, no, they hadn't. Marks hadn't decoded the message given the key, he'd actually cracked the code as if he'd been a foreign spy.

Marks asked, "You don't actually use this code, do you?"

"Not any more."

And thus Marks went on to rattle SOE, the Special Operations Executive, and battle its entrenched 'good enough for us' director who detested innovation, even when lives were lost.

Since Marks wasn't permitted to tell anyone where he worked, speculation spread among neighbors he was avoiding military service. His family endured white feathers in their mailbox– the insidious shaming device the British used to call others cowards.

I haven't reached the halfway point, but my hostess gave it the greatest compliment when she said she hadn't wanted it to end.

The Bottom Line

So, when nothing on the bestseller list appeals to you, consider a pair of books, Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road and Leo Marks' Between Silk and Cyanide.

They may be non-fiction, but they're damn fine storytelling.

05 May 2012

What If? The heart of the story

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve heard it said that every story starts with a “what if,” a question in the writer’s mind that provides the seed from which all the rest grows. It makes sense to me.
Let’s look at the classics. Romeo and Juliet: What if the children of two families engaged in a bitter feud fall in love? King Lear: What if a man divides his estate among his heirs while he’s still alive? Hamlet: What if a man finds out his uncle may have murdered his father—but he’s not sure? Pride and Prejudice: What if a rich bachelor moves into the neighborhood of a family with an entailed estate and five daughters with no dowries? Jane Eyre: What if a man with a mad wife locked in the attic falls in love with the governess?

In a whodunit or a novel of suspense, “what if” can trigger the action, the plot, the mystery itself. Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar: What if a foundling with a yearning to belong is persuaded to impersonate the missing heir to a family whose members look just like him and share his passion for horses? Stuart Woods, Chiefs: What if a serial killer is a pillar of the community who spreads his murders out over 40 years? The DaVinci Code: What if Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child whose descendant still lives in the present day? The Hunger Games: What if in a dystopian future America, teens chosen by lottery are forced to fight to the death on reality TV?

But for some writers, the plot is not the starting point. A situation, setting, or relationship can generate a “what if” that becomes the stage on which the solving of the mystery is played out. Or the “what if” may generate a whole series. Laurie R. King: What if the aging Sherlock Holmes meets a young woman who’s just as smart as he is? Margaret Maron: What if a modern Southern woman whose father was a famous bootlegger becomes a judge? In science fiction, sometimes called speculative fiction, “what if” is the whole point. But mystery writers too need a reason to set their characters in motion, a burning curiosity that they can impart to the reader.

I didn’t consciously think “what if” when I sat down to write Death Will Get You Sober (2008), the first mystery in my series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. But when I applied the question to what I’d written, I realized that my central “what if” did not pertain to the murder and its solution but to the characters I had created to solve it and future mysteries in the series: Bruce, his best friend Jimmy, and Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara. What if there were two best friends, inseparable from childhood? What if both were alcoholics? What if one of them got sober and the other didn’t? What if fifteen years later the other one stopped drinking too? What would happen to the friendship? What if we throw in a codependent girlfriend who cares as much about what happens between them as they do—and is much more eager to talk about it? To me, the relationships of the protagonist and his friends gave life to the mystery.

I knew all along that I was not going to allow Bruce to drink again. There are enough novels about the struggle with the bottle. My mission was to write about recovery , which as an alcoholism treatment professional with many years’ experience, I know can be rich, complex, rewarding, moving, and sometimes hilariously funny. In Death Will Help You Leave Him (2009), I needed a new “what if?” What if Bruce, having dealt with his addiction to booze and achieved stable sobriety, discovers that codependents, who become addicted to destructive relationships in which they try in vain to control and rescue the alcoholics and addicts that they love, are not only “those other people who have to go to Al-Anon” but also alcoholics like Bruce himself? Bruce had to struggle against being hooked in a relationship with his crazy ex-wife that could destroy them both.

In the new book, Death Will Extend Your Relationship, I wasn’t ready to give Bruce yet another addiction. I wanted him to enjoy his recovery in the clean and sober group house in the Hamptons where, as it says on the jacket flap, “somebody’s not abstaining from murder.” So what if this group of holiday housemates is as dysfunctional as an alcoholic family? What if one of Bruce’s friends gets blindsided by another kind of addiction? What if “as the summer heats up, secretes and lies start buzzing around this dream vacation like flies at a beach picnic”?

04 May 2012

Cowboy Days

For a six-year old boy living in Ft. Worth during the late 40's, cowboys were the heroes of the day. Every Sunday noon on the black and white television, Hopalong Cassidy and his pal Lucky rounded up the boys and headed the bad guys off at the pass. Somehow, Lucky always got "winged" in an unimportant place, nothing serious, but "we" always won. That next year, I sent off in the mail for my official Hopalong Cassidy billfold and ID card. A big brimmed hat and pointed toe boots soon followed as my mark in fashion. After all, we did live in Texas, with New Mexico and Kansas just down the trail in my near future.
During high school in Kansas, my nicknames were Curly and Cowboy. The Curly part didn't work out in older age, but there must have been something prophetic about the Cowboy nickname, even if it did take a few decades to get there.

As the Spring of '96 rolled around, one of my neighbors across the street, who also owned a small ranch south of Rapid City, pressed me into service building a few miles of barb wire fence. Spring Creek had flooded that year along the Front Range of the Black Hills, and when it took a shortcut across one of his pastures, it took out a lot of fence, drowned two high dollar registered Black Angus and scattered the rest downstream. I soon learned the intracacies of fencing pliers, post hole diggers, spud bars and fence stretchers. For corner posts, we sometimes used a two-man, gas-operated, post hole digger. Problem was, if the drill bit hit a rock or tree root underground, then the drill bit screeched to a sudden halt while the rest of the machine decided to rotate. If the operators weren't firmly braced, they ran the risk of going around like helicopter blades. Fun work.

When a second neighbor across the street heard about my fence work, he invited me to go branding at his father-in-law's ranch down by Buffalo Gap. Well okay, I'd always wanted to be a cowboy. We drove down in his pickup. The calves from two herds were already rounded up and waiting in a huge corral. This next particular operation was called "tabling." We squeezed the calves, one at a time, into a narrow chute with a gate in front and a gate in back. A large metal contraption clamped the calf to one chute wall (similar to photo). A lever then rotated that wall into an operating table about waist high. If the calf was a bull, it lost its horns on one end and its Rocky Mountain Oysters on the other end. (I'm trying to be delicate here for the ladies.) All got ear tagged, vacinated and branded. Some brands required two hot irons to make the brand, thus the owner did his own branding and had to live with any mistakes that got made. At the end of the day, my wife hosed me down in the driveway and took my clothes to a commercial laundromat. For some reason, she refused to launder them in her own machines.

After a few of those types of brandings, I got invited to an old style roundup where all the ranch neighbors come together and help each other in turn. Riding horses, we herded the cattle into a corral at the high end corner of several sections of land, cut the momma cows out and turned them to pasture. Then the day's work commenced and age had its advantages. The 70 year old men rode horses into the corral, lassoed a calf by its two hind legs and dragged it out backwards to the wrestling crews. The 60 year olds got to do the ear tagging, cutting and vacinating. The owners branded and everyone else ended up wrestling calves as they came out of the corral. I can testify that wresting small cows at age 52 is damn hard work whether you do the tailing or heading.

As the calf came out backwards, the tailer grabbed the rope in one hand and the calf's tail in the other hand, depending upon which side needed to go up for the brand. He pulled toward himself and down on the tail while pulling up and pushing away on the rope. When the calf landed on its side, the tailer then dropped onto his rear end on the ground, planted one boot into the calf's rear (if he was smart, he trapped the calf's tail under the sole of his boot), grabbed the upside hind leg at the ankle, released the the lasso loop so the roper could go get another calf, pulled back on the upside leg and blocked the downside leg with his other boot. Some calves were stronger than others, but you knew if one got loose, you were in trouble. The header, for his part, dropped his weight on the calf's upside shoulder to pin him down and grabbed the calf's upside foreleg at the ankle, bending it in towards the body and up to keep him as still as possible, plus this way, the cutter didn't get kicked by a loose hoof. You'd best have a good grip when the branding iron hit.

In later years, I helped round up and trail cattle from Winter pasture on government land down by the Indian Reservation, along back country roads to the owner's sections of grass land nearer home and into the corral. This old cowboy used the Norfolk System, which I heartily recommend for us old guys. Here, the oldest cowboys still roped the calves and drug them out backwards, but now we didn't have to wrestle. There was a metal stake driven in the ground. Attached to the stake was a length of rope which was tied to an inner tube. Tied to the other side of the inner tube was another piece of rope which was attached to a large metal clamp. As the roped calf came by a cowboy, he clamped the contraption around the calf's head. When the ropes and inner tube came taut, the roper stopped his horse, which stretched the calf out for every operation needed done. Me, I got promoted to ear tagger. Not near as strenuous as wrestling. This ole boy's operation ran six lines of calves at the same time, plus an occasional line for those high school age cowboys who wanted a taste of the old ways. We ran about three hundred calves through that morning.

Seemed like everybody from that community and nearby small town turned out for his branding. One of the nice things about it was the hot lunch and cold beer the wives served us afterwards. It was a bonding of neighbors for a common cause, a feeling of belonging to something good. I'd definitely recommend helping out at a branding if you ever get the chance. Just know that you're gonna need a long bath afterwards.

You know, now that I think of it, I never did see Hoppy or Lucky do any work with calves or cattle. Them slackers.

PS~ me and Dix had a slight schedule swap due to technical difficulties (Google Chrome & Blogger Dashboard), but we should be back on track by Friday, May 25th

03 May 2012

Tough Broads


In creating characters for my stories, I lean toward tough women. I like the idea of spending time with an Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck or Jennifer Lopez type. Tough on the outside, but have a softer side just beneath the surface. They have to be smart, sassy and have a sense of humor that isn't bawdy or giggly, but ready to take a tense moment down a notch if need be. I don't often write about these type of characters when they have reached their maximum strength, but somewhere on the path to that growth. I don't believe whiny, wimpy people -- female or male -- are often heroic and I want the best for my characters and especially for my readers. When I saw the above quote from Joss Whedon, I knew I was in good company.

There has always been something about tough broads in literature that keeps my interest. Keep Pollyanna and send me Scarlett O'Hara. Nancy Drew was one teenage girl who didn't wait for a boy to save her even though the mothers of that time period would have probably advised her to feign a bit of damsel in distress in order to catch her boyfriend's attention. Bring on the Zena, Warrior Princess!

Don't misunderstand. I like a "John Wayne-take charge-kind of guy" for my hero. I just don't think he has to "help the little lady" when she is perfectly capable of doing so herself most of the time. And women with brains are sexier than anything.

I recently read a novel that is selling like hotcakes during a pancake race where the main character is female and supposedly the hero of the story. When she gets into a predicament where I couldn't imagine how she could manage to escape, I was correct. She couldn't. The cavalry arrived in the form of her new and mysterious love interest who "saved" her. I was disappointed and I wondered how many other mystery readers would be also. We'll see if her sequel sells as well as this first book did.

In today's world, equality still doesn't exist in terms of equal pay. Men are still deemed better in combat than their female counterparts. Female roles in movies and television are still less in number than the male opportunities.

That doesn't mean incredibly smart and talented women aren't moving on up the corporate ladder and making their voices heard. They aren't regulated to the kitchen or tea parties in the afternoon unless that is their choice.

Men also have evolved to a new playing field. Men are choosing to become nurses, stay-at-home-dads and airline attendants; choices a few generations ago would have been taboo.

We're changing and I think today's readership enjoys real life women and men as characters in their fiction reading.

I read Johnny Depp will be starring as Nick Charles from Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" series and as yet an uncast Nora. I look forward to seeing who will play that character with a certain bit of sass, brains and sex appeal. What a tough broad she'll be. Can't wait.

02 May 2012

What a whiz of a quiz it is

This is a variation of a quiz I gave in 2009.  Last time you had to match definitions with mystery authors.  This time you have to match them with characters.  For example, if I wrote A garden implement or a private detective you would respond Dashiell Hammett's Sam SPADE.
But be warned.  It doesn't have to be the most obvious definition.  I could have said A playing card for SPADE..

The answers are in alphabetical order by the author's name.  Answers next week.

1 A type of mustard, or a priest.
2 A wetland, or an English Professor. 
3 A school of Buddhism or a Roman cop.
4 A type of hole, or a Seattle private eye. 
5 A child's transportation device, or a Detroit private eye.
6 A financial instrument, or a spy. 
7 A boatman, or a Seattle private eye.
8 A builder in stone, or an attorney. 
9 An adverb or a British police inspector
10 A shirt size or a clergyman. 
11 Cheerful, or a British spy.
12 An expert with an ancient weapon, or a private detective. 
13 A state capital, or a British police inspector.
14 A playing card, or an amateur detective 
15 A part of the face, or a New York City private eye.
16 A greeting card, or a gambling consultant. 
17 A circular water movement or an Akron private eye.
18 Something bestowed, or a British Inspector.

01 May 2012


April 9th: At the time of my writing this (but not at the time of your reading it), I do not yet know the outcome of the Edgars awards. As you might surmise, I am keenly interested for entirely selfish reasons--my story, "Tomorrow's Dead" is a nominee. Strangely, it appears that other writers have had stories nominated as well. In my fantasy world this would not be necessary, as the flawless crafting of my gem of a tale would simply preclude the necessity. In the real world, however, there's a very good chance that one of them, and not my humble self, will be waltzing out the door with the coveted bust. It appears that these 'others' have written some pretty good stories themselves...at least according to some.

I've been writing for twenty-three years and, like most writers, I have largely done so without much notice. That's not to say I haven't been published, but my walls aren't exactly groaning under the weight of plaques and awards for it. My biggest thrill to date, and it was thrilling, was winning the Ellery Queen Readers Award for "Ibrahim's Eyes". Even then, I shared the award with the late, great Ed Hoch with whom I tied in the balloting, though he was certainly good company in which to find myself.

Other stories have received nominations for various awards, but none have come up a winner, and though I don't like to admit it, each loss was something of a blow. Considering the undeniable prestige of the Edgar Allan Poe Award, I can't help but prepare for a correspondingly heavy one in this case. Of course, it's a great honor to have a story nominated at all (and trust me, after twenty-three years I had put the very thought of it completely from my mind) but it also places something of a burden on one's shoulders. I know that many of you have already experienced this (or will in the future) and understand what I'm talking about. As the season of euphoria dwindles and the day of reckoning draws nigh, how I handle not getting the award becomes just as important as what to do should I win it. Not only will many of my fellow writers be in attendance, but so will Janet Hutchings, the editor of EQMM and a wonderfully kind person who has shown great faith in me over the years. My wife, Robin (She Who Walks In Beauty), will be by my side, as will my brother, Danny, and his wife, Wanda. They are traveling all the way from Georgia for the occasion and, I'm sure, expecting a big finale! Even my editing staff, which is to say my children, will be standing by their various phones for news of the outcome! Thank God, I handle pressure really, really well, damnit!

Whatever the outcome, be it tears or joy, the following day (or perhaps just a little longer under the circumstances) I will find myself sitting in front of my computer trying to write something again. Something good and worthwhile and that someone will want to publish. I may find it easier if little Edgar's bust is perched on my desk overlooking my efforts, or I may find it more difficult because expectations have been raised and now I must meet them. His absence may be a blessing in disguise, allowing me to carry on unencumbered and free to do exactly as I wish and that I have always done. Or, just the opposite; creating a black hole that sucks the creativity out of me with a violent implosion. Whatever the outcome, I'll have to start stringing together words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs just as I did before Little Eddie came into the picture. But will I be the same? I doubt it. We writers are always affected by the things and events that surround and touch us, and this will be no different for me. I just hope that when the dust settles that I've been made somehow better by the experience. Saint Thomas More, patron of lawyers and writers (Utopia) put it this way:

Give me the Grace Good Lord, to set the world at naught; to set my mind fast upon Thee and not hang upon the blast of men's mouths (I especially like the 'blast of men's mouths' part). To be content to be solitary. Not to long for worldly company but utterly to cast off the world and rid my mind of the business thereof.

Though it is often referred to as the 'Lawyer's Prayer', I think it is good advice for writers too, don't you? I will complete this posting upon my return from NYC, but will not alter what I have written up to this point regardless of the outcome. Here you have my true thoughts and feelings prior to the conclusion of the whole affair. When I return, you will have the rest...for better or for worse.

April 30: As promised, I have returned to complete my posting and I didn't alter one word of what I had previously written. Most of you probably already know the outcome of the Edgars, but for those of you who don't--I didn't come home with the coveted bust. Peter Turnbull is the very happy writer who carried away the prize; though I use the phrase loosely, as he was not actually present, but at home in England. His story was very deserving, and I'm not just saying this to appear a gracious loser. When I read it some months ago to acquaint myself with the competition, I actually did remark to Robin, "I may be in trouble here." It turns out I was prophetic.

We had a wonderful time at the banquet and got to meet many a writing celebrity; several of whom we stalked like paparazzi. Mary Higgins Clark and Sandra Brown were kind enough to act as if my wife and sister-in-law were old acquaintances and not two strange women who may have gotten past security. It was also a distinct pleasure to visit with many of our colleagues, including my Tuesday counterpart, Dale Andrews (at the EQMM cocktail party) and Criminal Briefers, James Lincoln Warren (as dapper and clever, as ever), Melodie Johnson Howe, and Steven Steinbock. It felt a little like a reunion on fast forward. Doug Allyn sat next to me at the EQMM table and gave me his napkin after the announcement for best short story was made. I believe he was muttering something like, "Show some spine, Dean...my god man, people are looking!"

Alright, it wasn't as bad as all that. In fact, when the dust settled, I felt I might be able to go on after all. As I remarked, quite bravely, I thought, "Tomorrow I will be writing again." And I am.