Saturday, January 31, 2009

My peek into Hoover's FBI

I’ve encountered zillions of people during my sixty years in the writing business, but none more intriguing than an ex-FBI agent we’ll call Scotty. I first met him back in the sixties during my days of editing Nashville Magazine. He was a friend of one of my equally intriguing staff members. She would relate stories about him that sounded a bit off the wall but still believable.

After a few years, she asked me to meet with him at her place one night to talk about a book he wanted me to co-write. We talked for hours and the strange tale unfolded.

Scotty went to Washington just out of high school and got a job as a clerk at the FBI. He worked there while getting a degree in accounting. According to his story, he got close to Director J. Edgar Hoover in the process, often delivering files to his home. After graduation, he took the FBI training course and became an agent.

At some point, he was assigned to the Nashville office, which is how my magazine staffer met him. This was during the Cold War, and she reported some suspicious activity she encountered. Scotty met her on assignment.

But back to his story. Scotty was chosen to participate in a small group of agents known as Hoover’s Goon Squad. They were tasked to do jobs that were not exactly in the rule book. That included assignments outside the country for counterespionage, something that should have been in the CIA’s bailiwick. But, as Scotty said, the CIA was ignoring the Bureau’s sole jurisdiction in the U.S. also. Records of the operations were buried in a special group of restricted safes known as the T Files.

One of the weird stories he told was of an agent who was sent out to Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah to pick up a package containing a chemical compound for use in some kind of skullduggery. They figured he must have gotten curious and opened the package. He was found a day or so later wandering naked around a little town in the Provo area, babbling like the village idiot.

Scotty said Hoover and Asst. Director Bill Sulllivan picked him to try to infiltrate the Cosa Nostra, a favorite Hoover target they had been unable to crack. First he had to resign from the FBI. He was instructed to commit a few crimes like bank robbery to build some bona fides, but not get caught. He said it was easy. Then he hung out in Las Vegas and tried to weasel his way into the mob but was never successful.

When he gave up and went back to report to Hoover, the man he had idolized all those years, the director refused to see him. Apparently Hoover had written him off and didn’t want to admit what they had done.

The last I heard of Scotty, he was trying to get copies of his personal files from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act. He sent me copies of his correspondence, including a request for $50 to cover duplication at ten cents per page. That was in March of 1985. We never made it to the point of putting anything on paper. I had contact with his friend in later years and heard that Scotty had died. I know she did.

Though nothing ever came of it, it would have made a hell of a story.

I used Scotty as the model for the protagonist in the first novel I wrote after retirement. It was a post-Cold War thriller, something that went out of vogue about that time. Several of them have been published in recent years. I may resurrect it and try again.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

10 things you can do to help a local author

This is something I copied off the Internet a few years ago. Unfortunately, I didn't copy the author's name, so it will have to go as Anonymous. The writer was self-published, but the advice would go well with most any non-bestselling author these days. I have shortened the opening paragraph and made a few editorial changes.

SURE, I'd love for my book to be a bestseller, but for that to happen not only does it have to be a good book which, of course, I think it is, but it has to have fantastic support from the buying public--that's you. Please, after reading it, if you like what you've read, won't you help make it a bestseller for this local author by doing one or more of the following?

1. Books make great gifts. Buy another copy as a gift and help spread the word about it by sharing it with new readers and tell your friends they've just got to read it, too!

2. Drop a line or email to your local newspaper. Tell them and their readers that you've discovered a great new writer that they don't dare to miss.

3. Go to and give a review of the book. And, yes, be honest. If there's something you don't like about it, feel free to say so. I think I'm a good writer but I'm smart enough to know I'm not perfect and I can't please everyone all the time.

4. And while you're online, go to your address book and tell everyone you know that they've just got to read this great new book by a great new author! Tell them they can go to or any of the other book sites to order the book.

5. Host your very own Book Reading/Signing Party. That's right. Invite 10 or more of your good friends for an evening of fun. I'll bring the books. You provide the wine and cheese or whatever you'd like. Oh heck, maybe I'll even bring a bottle of wine. Then you pick the section of the book you'd like for me to read. Afterwards, I'll be happy to answer questions about the book and the research I've done or even about writing in general. And, of course, I'll sign books.

6. My daughter tells me everyone has to write Oprah about how good the book is and how hard it is for good writers without celebrity status or connections to get noticed by the big publishing houses. Well, why not? If anyone can give a book bestseller status, it's Oprah. And I'm not the least bit snooty--I'd be thrilled if Oprah liked my book.

7. I'll be very happy to do a Reading & Book Signing at your club or organization.

8. Buy an additional copy of the book and donate it to your public library. You'll be providing the library with a great book and introducing new readers to a great new local author. Donations of new books to the library are even tax deductible.

9. Are you a blogger? Heck, I didn't even know what that was until recently. But if you have your own blog or visit other blogs on a regular basis, add your thoughts about the great new writer you've discovered. And let people know how they can get their hands on a terrific new book.

10. And if you have connections to the entertainment world, please pass the word about this great new author and book you've discovered.

Thank you so much! Please feel free to contact me with your thoughts or suggestions.

End of story. Come to think of it, this could very well be Support an Author Week. Feel free to pick a few of those ten and...uh, the name is Chester Campbell and the new book is The Surest Poison. No obligation, of course.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Happiness and Lemonade

How's that for a combination. It's all the fault of my erstwhile colleagues in the BlogBookTours Challenge, also known as the Flog Your Neighbor Group. I had decided not to play tag, but two of my fellow bloggers put the bee on me today, so I guess I'll have to comply.

First there was Ann Parker, she of the historical mystery bent, who went for the funny bone. She tagged me to name six things that make me happy. So here goes:

Cappuccino to get the morning off to a good start.

A holiday weekend with our extended family (you should hear the stories).

A brisk walk before the mall opens (keeps me young).

Writing a page that really sizzles.

Hearing from a reader who loved the book.

A goodnight kiss with "I love you."

According to the rules, I must now tag five individuals out there in bloggerland. If they've already been hit before, sorry, I didn't make the rules. I just follow 'em.

Beth Groundwater

Christine Rose

Joan De La Haye

Joy Delgado

Karen Sayed

Now for the lemonade. Freelance Novel Editor Helen Ginger graciously saddled me with the "When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade Award."

I suppose this came about as a result of my blog "What happened to Sunday?" If you haven't read it, drop down two notches. As it happened, she didn't know the rest of the story. That night I came down with a gastrointestinal virus, or some such bug, that definitely qualified as a lemon experience. Fortunately it was gone by the next day, and I'm back to being my usual ornery self.

The rules of this game are that it must be passed on to ten other worthy blogs. So here goes:

1. Candid Canine

2. Jane's Ride

3. Mysterious People

4. Art and Words

5. Circle of Friends Books

6. Mystery Writing and Musings

7. Grandma Is a Writer

8. Speakeasy 1935

Okay, so I ran out of names at eight. Squeeze a few more lemons and enjoy the ade.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sylvia Cochran reviews The Surest Poison

Sylvia Cochran did a great review of The Marathon Murders for Roundtable Reviews a couple of years ago. When I contacted Tracy Farnsworth, who runs Roundtable, about my new book, she said she was so swamped with review requests that she wasn't accepting any more. So I wrote Sylvia and asked if she'd like an Advance Review Copy.

I received the following today, which can be found at the Associated Content website. I couldn't resist posting it here.

By Sylvia Cochran

THE SUREST POISON is the fifth book penned by octogenarian mystery writer Chester D. Campbell. Proving that you don't have to be in your 30s or 40s to write a heart stopping, action packed whodunit, this former journalist, magazine editor, public relations genius, and political speechwriter is finally channeling his love for the written word into the kind of fiction writing that those with a penchant for Lawrence Block can enjoy.

THE SUREST POISON is the start of a new series. Loyal mystery readers may know that thus far Mr. Campbell is renowned for his Greg McKenzie series. The Sid Chance mystery presents a foray into the world of a former small town police chief falsely accused of bribery who, after a long hiatus from society, comes back as a private investigator to chase criminals on the private payroll rather than at the taxpayer's behest.

THE SUREST POISON pits Sid Chance and his indomitable sometimes-sidekick Jaz LeMieux against a small town shyster, a former auto parts shop that seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth - except for the sickening pollution left behind - and several dead bodies that seem to be piling up quite rapidly because of the old business.

The cast of characters is reminiscent of John Sturges' "Magnificent Seven" or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but without the capes and transformations. Chester Campbell succeeds in crafting a solid "good versus bad," "law versus lawlessness," and "little guy taking on the machinations of scheming lawyers" mystery that has more twists and turns than your average rollercoaster. Ex cops, detectives, a judge, journalists and others form a loosely knit poker round where the case is discussed and solutions suggested.

The result is a happy ending - albeit with a fly in the ointment! - that can be squarely traced back to solid investigative work. As an avid mystery reader, I am in awe at the writing skill of Mr. Campbell who can make even a records search sound interesting on paper -- no deus ex machina for this writer!

Mystery readers who like solid whodunits without clichés, easy answers, and stereotypical female characters will love Chester D. Campbell's THE SUREST POISON!

Now, if he could only write faster and release the next few installments in this new Sid Chance Mystery series ...

End of review. I hasten to add that the book won't be out until April but is now available at for pre-order. It should also be available on in the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

What happened to Sunday?

I am normally a disorganized person, but today has been exceptional. Nothing has gone the way I planned it. Did I say the P word? That's a bit of an exaggeration in itself.

My wife let our eleven-year-old grandson invite a friend over to spend the night, and we told them to be prepared to get up and go to church this morning. So, of course, they didn't get to sleep until about 2 a.m. When she tried waking them, there was not a stir.

Since grandson's dad is currently staying with us because of a bad back (he mostly takes pain pills and sleeps), we went on to church and left them at home. When we got back, they were just in arousal mode and looking for breakfast. Granny cooked pancakes for them. Since she had plenty of batter left, we ate pancakes, too.

Which messed up our normal Sunday routine of walking two miles at the mall, then eating out (Red Lobster more often than not).

From there it went downhill. We finally did the walk and squeezed in a sandwich at mid-afternoon. So here I am at just before 7 p.m. blundering around at my blog, and my wife is thinking of scrambling eggs to go with a couple of left-over biscuits. (You probably found this post by clicking on "scrambled eggs.")

Ain't life grand?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why do they murder?

I haven’t indulged in any scientific study of the subject, but it seems to me that in crime fiction the most popular motive for murder is greed. I say that using the dictionary definition of greed: “An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves.” Most often it involves money in some form or another, but it could be almost anything, including somebody else’s wife.

One of the classic Bible murders occurred when David got his henchmen to arrange the death of Uriah. That left him free to marry Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba. James M. Cain used a similar plot (sans henchmen) in The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a classic tale of greed. All the killing is done in an attempt to acquire the supposedly ancient black bird.

Another popular fictional murder motive is revenge or retribution. This has spawned the good guy killer fad seen most notably in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. The hero doesn’t consider them murders but retribution for injustices to himself or other friendly characters.

Interestingly enough, this type of rationalization is similar to that of the schoolyard killers. At Columbine and Virginia Tech, the students rationalized that they were punishing other kids who had bullied them, ostracized them, made fun of them, or generally made them feel unwanted. In the fictional world, authors make sure their targets are painted black enough that there’s no doubt “they deserve it.”

Actually, rationalization is the balm that most murderers use to justify what they’re doing in their own minds, even when they know it is against the will of the law and society. They become determined to do it anyway.

I say most murderers, because there are always the psychopaths—serial killers. These guys (and a few gals) are so egocentric and socially disconnected that they know what they’re doing is right. Nobody else matters, so what’s to rationalize? Psychologists say there are plenty of them around. Fortunately, only a few drift into the murderous category. Except in fiction.

So why do they murder? If you’re writing a novel, they can do it for any good (or bad) reason you can dream up. Just try to keep it believable.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Writing in present tense

I have always harbored a prejudice against books written in present tense. Just something about it bugged me. Then I ran across Timothy Hallinan and his new series featuring expatriate travel writer Poke Rafferty. Poke (or Tim) chose Bangkok as his stomping grounds, and he haunts the seamy underbelly of the Thai capital.

I reached the end of the first chapter of the first book, A Nail Through the Heart, before I realized it was written in the present tense. Tim Hallinan does it seamlessly.

I recently finished the second in the series, The Fourth Watcher, which brings in more of Poke’s family background. Talk about dysfunctional families, you ain’t seen nothing yet. His immediate circle includes fiance√© Rose, a former go-go dancer in Patpong Road, where bucks or baht will buy you anything, and adopted daughter Miaow, a waif he rescued off the street.

Past experience added to the intrigue of the setting as I spent a month traveling in Southeast Asia with my then-wife, son, and Korean daughter-in-law. That was back in 1987 when my son had just completed a tour of duty with an Army Special Forces team assigned to Thailand. We visited Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, and The Philippines.

The character Rafferty’s name brought to mind Raffles Hotel in Singapore, where the Singapore Sling was invented. He’s much more complicated than the drink. The Bangkok descriptions reminded me of walking through the city on a Sunday morning, at times pushing it to keep pace with my son, a two-mile cross-country runner. Plus marveling at the dissonance of travel sounds while cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, and assorted wheeled vehicles dodged about through hairbreadth holes in the traffic flow.

Tim Hallinan’s descriptions are not lengthy. In fact, most are quite brief. Pithy would be a good label. They paint a colorful picture in a few words. Like this image of Rose’s friend clutching a brown paper bag full of money:

“Peachy is staring at the bag as though it has a red digital countdown on its side, signaling the number of seconds before the world ends.”

Or this one:

“The man nearest Rafferty also has a gun in his hand, a tiny popgun just big enough to die from.”

The books are thrillers and full of suspense, but it’s the characters, including the city of Bangkok, that keep the story shining with brilliance and unputdownableness (so I made that one up; I can be creative, too).

As you might have guessed, Tim divides his time about half in the States (he hails from Los Angeles) and half in Southeast Asia, primarily Thailand and Cambodia. He also teaches writing and has a wealth of information on learning the craft under Writers’ Resources at his website:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The 911 call from hell

"Nine-one-one, how can I help you?"

"I'm caught in the midst of a blazing inferno."

"What's your address?"

"Address? Hell if I know."

"Sir, we must have an address to send firefighting equipment and rescue crews. Is there a nearby intersection?"

"Uh, yeah, I see a red-hot sign--Torment Trail and Damnation Boulevard."

"I'm sorry, sir, but those streets aren't on my map. What city are you in?"

"I don't know about cities, but hurry up. It's hot as hell here."

"Are there other people caught in this fire?"

"You'd be surprised at how many."

"And you're at the corner of Torment and Damnation and you don't know what city?"

"City, schmitty, I need water...cold water. Hurry!"

"Sir, this sounds like a hoax to me. If you can't provide a location, I'll have to cut you off. I have important calls to answer."

"What the devil do you want me to do?"

"Frankly, sir, you can just go to hell."

"I've been trying to tell you--that's where I am."

For less hellacious foolishness, check my website.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Thoughts on a historic occasion

Today is Inauguration Day, and I suppose blogs all over the map will be covering this historic event. Were I black instead of lily white, I'm sure I would be super-thrilled at this occasion.

However, I must confess I did not vote for Barack Obama. I did not think he had enough experience for the brutally tough job of President, and he appeared much too far to the left for my comfort.

Happily, he appears to have moderated his stance and moved toward the center in his recent pronouncements. His financial advisors are more mainstream, though like most others in the Wall Street-Washington axis, they appear determined to push the deficit to unmanageable heights in an effort to cure the ailing economy. What that will ultimately achieve remains to be seen.

I'm an optimist, and I am confident the country will come out of its current troubles stronger than ever. What is still to be determined is how far down the economy will dip and how long it will take to recover.

Like any President, Obama will have to listen to the advice of those around him and choose the course he feels is best. I hope and pray that he makes the right choices.

Watching the news last night, I was struck by the commentators' sense of a pervasive atmosphere of friendliness and goodwill among the crowds arriving for the inauguration. There will always be fringes who can't stand whoever occupies the White House. Hopefully this occasion will be the start of a new coming together among all facets of the population.

As a mystery writer, I enjoy creating stories with happy endings, or at least endings that give hope for the future. May that be the result of today's celebration in Washington.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Small towns make for good signings

I took part Saturday in the second annual author signing at the Manchester Coffee County Public Library in the small town of Manchester, TN, around 70 miles south of Nashville. I was one of twenty-four authors, including five from my Sisters in Crime Chapter in Nashville. It was a cold, blustery day, but a nice crowd of readers came out.

I sold enough books to make the trip worthwhile. What was more interesting, one of the librarians told me a lot of their patrons work at Arnold Air Force Base nearby. She had been telling them about my books, which feature retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg McKenzie. The library is buying all of the books and expects them to circulate well.

I had a similar experience at this signing to one I had the previous Saturday at the Trousdale County Historical Society. A couple of older men told me all about a famous unsolved murder in the area. Apparently people in small towns take pride in their murderous pasts.

Both signings went well. These types of appearances have several advantages. You get to tell lots of new people about your books, and you can go there and get back home in one day. That makes them less expensive.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Interview with Greg McKenzie, LTC, USAFR

Today we’re interviewing Lt. Col. Gregory McKenzie, USAF, Retired. If you’re unfamiliar with Greg (shame, shame), he’s the narrator and chief protagonist of the Greg McKenzie Mysteries, of which four have been published. I don’t have a photo of him (I think he’s camera shy), but his first description of himself in Secret of the Scroll is: “Gannon stands half a head taller than my five-foot-ten, and he’s depressingly slim while I bulge in all the wrong places.” Let’s get on with the interrogation.

CC: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Greg. Give us a little background about yourself.

Greg: I was born in St. Louis to a red-faced, garrulous Scotsman who was a master brewer for Anheuser-Busch. He came to the U.S. with his parents as a teenager. My mother, a schoolteacher, had some Scottish blood in her, as well. After high school, I majored in political science at the University of Michigan, then worked as a St. Louis County deputy sheriff for about four years. I joined the Air Force and became a special agent with the Office of Special Investigations.

CC: What’s an OSI agent do?

Greg: They’re like police detectives, similar to the Army’s CID and the Navy’s NCIS. We investigated crimes, on and off base—I jokingly say I pursued cases like overpriced wrenches and stolen toilet paper, but it was a lot more serious than that. I was involved in murder investigations, drug cases, espionage, terrorist incidents. Anything that might pose a threat to Air Force personnel and installations.

CC: You stayed in until retirement?

Greg: Yeah, stayed in sounds good. When my time was up, I was sort of invited out. I never minded stepping on toes if it got the job done. But when you step on toes that wind up marching around the Pentagon and oversee the OSI, it gets a little sticky. I found my career maxing out as a lieutenant colonel. Unless you’re promoted to full colonel, they cut you off after so many years.

CC: You really did the retirement thing at first, didn’t you?

Greg: Oh, yeah. I was only sixty, so Jill and I bought an RV and set out to bum our way around the country. We wintered in California, then summered through Idaho and Montana and the Dakotas. We headed for Florida when the weather turned coolish, and made our way up the East Coast as spring pushed its way northward. For two years after that, we enjoyed sniffing the jacaranda around the American retirement community outside Guadalajara, Mexico. But Jill longed to return to her roots in Tennessee. So we bought an immodest log house in the Nashville suburbs, and now it’s very much home.

CC: I believe you worked for the DA in Nashville for a while?

Greg: You had to bring that up. I enjoyed my stay but it didn’t last too long.

CC:P What happened?

Greg: There was this case, made a lot of noise in the papers and on TV. The wife of a young CPA who lived in a fashionable section of town disappeared. She was a successful interior designer and the daughter of the president of a big local bank. The lead investigator for the Metro Police was a detective named Mark Tremaine. He immediately zeroed in on the husband and hounded him to death. Tremaine ignored some other leads and continued to expound his theories on what the young man had done with his wife’s body. When he couldn’t take it any longer, the guy took his son and went back home to Philadephia. I made some pretty strong remarks about what I thought of Tremaine, believing it was off the record. They showed up on the front page on the newspaper. The banker, who didn’t like his son-in-law, was the DA’s chief backer. End of career.

CC: So you’re now a PI. How did that come about?

Greg: That was mostly my wife’s idea, but I bought into it. After that situation down at Perdido Key, Florida, where we looked into the death of our best friends’ son, Jill had the bright idea that we should open a private investigation agency. I had enjoyed getting back into the role of criminal investigator, though strictly on a volunteer basis, so I agreed.

CC: Your wife had no experience, right?

Greg: Right. She’s had lots of experience as a commercial pilot, ran her own charter service while I was in the Air Force. But investigations, no. However, in Florida she showed a real knack for getting information out of women in an informal setting. She still does it, and she’s turned out to be a great assistant in my investigations. Oh, better not let her hear that “assistant” thing. We’re equal partners, of course.

CC: As I recall, your military service was sort of a family tradition. Tell us about that.

Greg: As far as I’ve been able to determine, it started back in 1794 when sixteen McKenzies were mustered into the 98th Argyllshire Highlanders at Stirling Castle, north of Glasgow. After the unit was re-designated the 91st, other McKenzie relatives followed them on down to 1881. That’s when the 91st was merged with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders to form the regiment my grandfather fought with in the Boer War and World War I. My dad, Rob McKenzie, was a little less combative. He was an Army cook in World War II.

CC: You haven’t mentioned your age. You’re still in your late sixties, aren’t you?

Greg: Right. Thanks to you. It’s still 2004 where I live.

CC: Wish I could slow down the calendar like that.

Greg: Hey, you should be a character instead of a writer.

CC: Sorry, I don’t believe anybody would want to write about me. Stories have to be exciting, not boring.

Greg: I’ve been shot, mauled, threatened, insulted, disparaged . . . how about taking it easy with me next time out?

CC: All that action keeps you on your toes, keeps you young at heart. All that and your good-looking wife. Thanks for being with us today, Greg. I look forward to seeing you around again soon.

Greg: How soon? People keep asking when am I getting another case.

CC: Tell them to be patient, it won’t be long.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The newsletter and how it works

Newsletters are one of those promotional ventures that you’re never sure just how much good they do, but I’m sure they’re worth doing. I started mine a few years ago, around the time my second Greg McKenzie mystery came out. I advertised it as a quarterly, but only managed to write three the first couple of years.

I compiled my mailing list mostly from people who signed up when they bought books at bookstore signings. I carry a three-ring binder with sheets set up to get names, addresses and email addresses. Each sheet holds ten names. I have only sent out one or two newsletters to those who just have a snail mail address, however. As you know, the cost of stamps has become horrendous.

The first year or two, I put the names in my address book in groups of fifteen or so, with the groups named Newsletter 1, Newsletter 2, etc. I would send the newsletter as an email by group.

When that became too burdensome, I switched to Vertical Response. I set up my newsletter there and they email it for a cent and a half per name. Since I usually run around 500, that’s $7.50 per mailing. They handle the list maintenance and give me reports on bounces, unsubscribes, and clicks on any hyperlinks in the newsletter.

Vertical Response provides code to put on your website for people to sign up with a double opt-in system. But any new subscribers I get, I simply upload to my list on their server. The sign-up box is on a website page containing the latest issue of the newsletter. Back issues are on an archives page.

I always get good feedback from several readers after it goes out, and my website visitors take a bounce after I send a newsletter. But there’s really no way to check on how it affects sales. I always include something about new books, though, so hopefully it gets readers to thinking about buying the next one.

Here’s a link to my newsletter page where you can see the latest issue.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

With book sales slowing, look for new outlets

There’s been quite a bit of talk lately in the newspapers, on TV, and across the web about the deteriorating state of the publishing industry. Publishers are cutting staffs and accepting fewer manuscripts, booksellers are selling less, many are folding their tents. A Waldenbooks in the mall where I walk is closing in a week or two.

Sounds bleak for writers, doesn’t it? But there are still lots of mystery fans out there, buying books and reading them. And one area that continues to buck the trend is the ebook market.

I now have all four of my Greg McKenzie mysteries in the Kindle Store, where they can be downloaded for reading with’s Kindle device. I haven’t done any promotion yet to encourage purchases, but I sold 30 books last year.

I priced the Kindle versions at $8.94. Amazon sells them for $7.15. I get $3.13 per sale. I’m obviously not getting rich with it, but the $93.90 I made last year buys a lot of postage stamps.

I don’t have my mysteries with any of the ebook publishers, but I am looking into that as another alternative. I’ve heard Fictionwise is one of the top ebook publishers, but they want you to have at least ten titles before they will take you on.

Meanwhile, I’m looking to ways to promote sales of the Kindle version. If you have come across any good schemes to do the job, I’d like to hear from you. I’ll pass along via these pages whatever I find.

These days an author must use every available resource to get his or her book out there. If you own the ebook rights, exploit them.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thoughts for the day

Yesterday I was given a list of 25 suggestions, resolutions, aphorisms, or whatever you choose to call them, titled "A Great Holiday Recipe." I thought they were pretty good, but rather than stretch it out that far, I picked out ten to get things going as "thoughts for the day." Here goes:

1. Eat breakfast like king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a college kid with a maxed out charge card.

2. Try to make at least three people smile each day.

3. Don't take yourself seriously. No one else does.

4. Life isn't fair, but it's still good.

5. Forgive everyone for everything.

6. Make peace with your past so it will not spoil the present.

7. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

8. What other people think of you is none of your business.

9. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

10. When you are feeling down, start listing your many blessings. You will be smiling before you know it.

Have a nice day!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why things happen in mysteries

I suppose things happen in fiction as in life, the result of random choices made on the spur of the moment. I was reminded of that yesterday when I made a talk to the Trousdale County Historical Society in Hartsville, TN.

It was an interesting group. About twenty-five people came out on a cold rainy afternoon to listen to a mystery (not history) writer. Why Trousdale, the smallest county in Tennessee with only 7,700 residents? That's the result of one of those random choices.

Incidentally, the photo above shows one of the county's main claims to fame, the abandoned cooling tower for the Hartsville nuclear power plant, the $12.3 billion project TVA scrapped in 1982.

When I started writing The Marathon Murders, I had only a basic plot idea in mind. Back in 1914, when Nashville's Marathon Motor Works went into bankruptcy, a company official disappeared and was accused by his boss of embezzlement. Now, 90 years later, documents are found during restoration of the defunct company's plant and administration building that may show the accused man was framed and murdered. His great-great granddaughter hires PIs Greg and Jill McKenzie to recover the documents, which have gone missing.

I had used a Metro Nashville homicide detective as Greg's main police contact in previous books, so I decided to do something different this time. On every trip downtown, I always passed an impressive building that housed the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Why not use a TBI agent in this book, I thought?

I knew little about the TBI except that they worked mostly with county sheriffs and small town police forces that lacked the expertise to tackle major crimes. So I started looking for a small county not far from Nashville. That's when I found Trousdale, only 35 miles away, was the ideal candidate.

I put the contractor who possessed the long-lost documents in the small county, and as fate (and the muse) would have it, arranged for three murders to be committed there.

It had been a couple of years since I finished writing the book, and I hadn't really thought about the way it had happened until a lady in the Historical Society asked how I came to use Trousdale County in the book.

I had been a bit concerned when the organization's president invited me to speak, since I barely got into the county's history in the book. But it turned out many of the members were avid mystery readers and they asked numerous good questions. They also bought books.

Before I left, they told me about a famous unsolved murder in the area and invited me to come back anytime and set some more mayhem in the county. I received a copy of The Hartsville Vidette, their small weekly newspaper, and the editor, who took pictures during my talk, promised to write a story about another of my books next week. Happily for me, another random choice.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My fascination with murder

My fascination with the subject of murder began back in 1948, during my early days as a newspaper reporter. I had gone to work for The Knoxville Journal the previous fall, at the start of my junior year in journalism at the University of Tennessee. It would make a lot more interesting story to say I was involved in writing about murder cases back then, but no such luck. My assignments were on the order of reporting on dog shows. However, I read a couple of books by Horace McCoy—They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and No Pockets in a Shroud—during that time, firing up my imagination. The latter featured a reporter covering a murder case.

I sat down at my little portable typewriter in the dank depths of my fraternity house and banged out a murder mystery. It featured (what else?) a reporter helping solve a homicide. The editor at a Philadelphia publishing house declined, saying he had too many manuscripts already. Yeah. And though it was twenty years before I tried my hand at another novel, I was hooked on murder and mysteries.

I’ve often thought about what gets us all, writers and readers alike, so jazzed up on murder. To most of us (with the exception of those mentioned below), taking a human life is the ultimate crime. The damage done by thieves and robbers can be overcome, but death is as final as it gets. We love to delve into the motivations of a killer, peel away the layers of cunning behavior and rash activity that lead to the inevitable outcome. And we stare through voyeur eyes at how the crime affects those around the victim.

Serial killers have been a staple of crime fiction for several years now, but I’ve found few who could match the real thing we encounter occasionally on TV. There’s one type of killer who hasn’t appeared much in fiction yet, or maybe I just haven’t read enough books. That’s the unconscionable youth who kills without remorse. The news in Nashville, my hometown, deals too often with a teenager who robs a clerk and then shoots him or her for no apparent reason. We may see more of that in fiction soon.

Writers flock to murderous subjects since that’s where the action is. The mystery genre, taken in its broadest context, ranks second to romance in terms of book sales. I suspect man’s inhumanity to man will keep mystery writers busy at their keyboards for years to come, and as long as I’m around, I’ll be right there among ‘em.

If you’d like to read the long version of how I got started and where I’ve been, check out “Reflections on the Writing Life—my 60-year odyssey with the written word” at

Friday, January 9, 2009

Life's Little Foibles

I got to thinking this morning about life’s little foibles and decided to list a few of mine. The first would have to be procrastination.

Or should I put it first? Well, I could put it off till a little later. Wouldn’t hurt, there are so many other things to consider. Anyway, I don’t have time for it right now.

Sound familiar? My wife says I always wait till the last minute. Probably came from my newspaper experience, which is where I started this word game many years ago. I got so used to working with deadlines, often pushing right up to them, that I tend to get things done just before they’re due (the ultimate deadline).

As she readily points out, it occasionally means I get bogged down and miss the deadline for using a discount coupon, making a hotel reservation, or getting something done with a manuscript. Okay, I admit, I’m a procrastinator.

Another foible is I’m too trusting. I take people at their word unless they’ve shown I can’t believe them. I get lied to a lot. And I accept that people are basically good until they prove I’m wrong. I don’t buy bridges from strangers, but I’m not as wary as I ought to be.

How about this one? I hate to dress up. You’ll rarely see me in anything but jeans (blue or tan), a knit shirt, and sneakers (I prefer Rockports). At a book signing, I’ll opt for navy or black (Timber Creek by Wrangler) dressy pants. I’ll usually wear black loafers. I haven’t worn a tie in about a year. Can’t remember why I did then.

I’m always “running out of time” because of a tendency to get too involved. I spent eighteen years in association management, running a 4,000-member organization of volunteers. I spent my career encouraging people to get involved. My feeling is if you’re going to belong to an organization, you should commit to take part in it. I volunteer for things. Presently I’m secretary of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime. I help with the Killer Nashville conference.

I’m sure I could come up with lots more foibles, but I’ve run out of time to get this up on Blogspot. Anyway, at this stage of the game I wear my foibles proudly. My theory is when you make it past eighty, you get a free pass to do as you danged well please. If somebody doesn’t like my lifestyle, they can complain after they pass the eight-zero mark.

Any takers?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A nice place for a few murders...

I’m giving a talk Saturday to the Trousdale County Historical Society in Hartsville, TN, the location of a lot of the action in my last Greg McKenzie mystery, The Marathon Murders. I visited the area several times while doing research for the book. It’s an interesting place.

First, Trousdale is the smallest county in Tennessee. It has only one town, Hartsville. The population is around 7,700, which makes it only the seventh smallest county populationwise.

But guess what? A few years ago, Hartsville and Trousdale County instituted a metropolitan form of government. I learned that when I saw a patrol car marked Metro Sheriff Hartsville/Trousdale Co. It’s probably the smallest county nationwide with a consolidated government, although the smallest in population goes to Lynchburg/Moore County, TN, home of the Jack Daniel Distillery.

I was intrigued by the old red brick courthouse built after the previous one burned in 1904. The well-worn stairs still have the original wooden steps. None of the interior appears to have been modernized. There’s a mark high on the wall with a sign identifying it as the high water mark from the famous 1927 flood that took the Cumberland River far from its banks nearly a mile away.

I tracked down another interesting bit of history after reading the inscription on a weathered plaque attached to the tall shaft of stone standing in front of the courthouse. You see it displayed above. Driving out of town toward a spot I had already picked for one of the murders, I noticed a sign pointing to the Battle of Hartsville Park.

There I found displays showing the locations and how the battle unfolded. And I found this marker, which I quoted in the book:

“After marching 24 miles in four inches of snow and crossing the icy Cumberland River, Colonel John Hunt Morgan and 1,300 men attacked the Federal 39th Brigade under the command of Colonel Absalom B. Moore. Although greatly outnumbered, Morgan succeeded in capturing 1,800 prisoners and recrossing the Cumberland before Federal reinforcements arrived from Castalian Springs. Federal losses were 2,096 while Confederate losses totaled 139.”

My murder took place around where the Confederate artillery was emplaced on the other side of the river. Those famed Confederate cavalry commanders, Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest, were something else.

I’ve always been a history buff, and things like this really get my corpuscles pumping. The only problem is, I tend to get carried away and spend a lot more time that I should. You can read more about The Marathon Murders by clicking this link.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Thoughts on a Cold, Gray, Blustery Morning....................

Looking out my office window, the most prominent features in view are gaunt bare trees, listless brown grass, and the colorless circular sweep of an asphalt cul-de-sac. The trees are swaying in a stiff breeze. Not a sight to beckon me out with any desire to get on with the program.

But that’s what I’m about to do. My wife and I will be leaving shortly to pick up and deliver Meals on Wheels at a high-rise apartment for not-too-well-off seniors. It’s no big deal from our standpoint, only takes about an hour, and it’s just a few miles from our home.

What makes you feel good about it though are the bright smiles you get from the residents.

We pick up two large insulated canvas bags at the kitchen in one of two buildings in the complex and take them to the other building, where we deliver the meals. I pull the hot meal dolly, which normally holds aluminum trays like a TV dinner. Sometimes it looks pretty good, sometimes not, sort of like in a school cafeteria. Sarah’s dolly has the cold part, which is usually a carton of milk, maybe a piece of fruit.

Our favorite customer is a man whose legs have been amputated just above the knees. He always sits in his wheelchair in the lobby, or out front on warm days, waiting for us. His apartment (one room with bed, table and chairs, minimal kitchen facilities, and bath) is on the first floor. We follow him around to his door and put his lunch on the table.

We’ve gotten to know him a bit over the past couple of years. He’s a remarkable fellow. He drives a red pickup, and we see him in the food court at the mall often when we go to walk. We wondered how he managed to get around until we saw him out in the parking lot one day.

He sits with the door open until somebody comes by. He asks if they would help him out. A lot of people have come to know him and readily help. We’ve done it many times. He carries his wheelchair strapped to the truck bed with a bungee cord. I lift it out and roll it up to the open cab door. He has a grip bar above the door, lifts himself with it, and swings out into the chair. You have to lock the chair wheels and hold the handles to keep it from flying back.

He usually brings a sandwich and a soft drink in a can, then goes to the Chick-fil-A counter and gets a cup of ice. He sits at the same table every time and munches on his lunch. I suppose he saves the Meals on Wheels stuff for supper. He always smiles and asks how we’re doing. We’ve never asked how he lost his legs, and he hasn’t volunteered to tell us.

Most of our other meal patrons are elderly women. Sarah is the talker. I mostly watch and smile. They appear to be lonely and eager to have someone to talk with. One always insists on giving her candy or cookies. They invariably smile and thank us.

We hardly feel deserving of any accolades. Our church is called on for only one week each month, and we’re responsible for just one day of that week. But it’s gratifying to see those smiles and hear those voices indicating the impact we’re having on the lives of those less-fortunate people.

Bottom line, regardless of how gloomy it may look out when you get up in the morning, take heart, it just may be your day to be a Good Samaritan.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

And you thought the election was over

Well, this isn't exactly about an election. Maybe it's more like a roll of the dice, but it is about voting. There's a website called Preditors and Editors, which you may have heard of in relation to checking on a scamming agent or a less than savory publisher. It seems that P and E also has something called the Preditors and Editors Readers Poll, which it conducts each year between Jan. 1 and Jan. 14. Mystery Novels is one category, and the winner receives a GIF (that's .gif for the computer savvy) announcing it as the best in 2008.

Okay, it's just another thingy to put on the website beside your book, attesting that it got noticed by several somebodies. You'll note it's called a Readers Poll, which would give the impression that people who vote for a book have read it. Would that it were so. Realistically, it's a popularity contest.

I would love for you to read The Marathon Murders before you vote for it. The next best thing would be to read the first two chapters through this link to my website. But if you can't do that, I'll still take your vote.

They even give prizes to random voters in the poll, so you might be a winner, too.

Time to get down to the nitty gritty. Here's the link to the voting site: P and E Readers Poll-Mystery Books. Scroll down and click on the circle beside The Marathon Murders, continue down to give your name and email address, then click on Submit data. I'm assured that there are no exit polls, so you won't be bothered on leaving the premises.

Sorry I don't have any "I Voted" stickers to pass out, but you can sit down, enjoy a cup of coffee, and feel good that you've done your civic duty.

Gad, I hope there are no hanging chads in this deal.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Let the buyer beware!

A topic that comes up frequently in author discussions is the matter of used books. The legitimate complaint is that if you buy a book from a used bookstore, the author (and publisher) get nothing out of it.

However, the author got his or her royalty and the publisher its wholesale price when the book sold the first time. The buyer then became the owner of a product that he could do whatever he wished with it. He could read it, tear out the pages, burn it, eat it (on a really hungry day), or sell it to somebody else.

The argument that says "so what" boils down to this: if somebody reads one of your used books, hopefully she'll like it enough to buy another of your books new. Not only that, but tell her friends and neighbors about this great new author she read.

When you buy a book at a used bookstore, you expect to get it at a nice discount. But if you buy online, you'd better watch out. I'm signed up with Google to get what is called Google Alerts. Whenever someone does a Google search on one of my books, I get an email telling me where they landed.

Today I got one on Designed to Kill, my second Greg McKenzie Mystery, which took me to eBay. Yep, someone was auctioning a "signed copy" of Designed to Kill. It was in good condition, they assured me, signed only with the author's name. Under that was "9/9/89."

Hmm. The book didn't come out until 2004. I don't recall signing any with the date September 9, 1989. Oh, well, that was a minor point. What got me was the asking price...$22.99!

Hey, folks, you can go to my website and buy the book for $9.50, 40% off the retail price. So don't go eBay, try I'm leaving my Christmas Gift Blowout Sale up until the middle of January. It's a real deal.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The envelope, please...

Okay, it's not a statue of Oscar, or Emmy, or any of those folks, but what good are they except to put on a shelf? I'm announcing the winners of my contest for Advance Review Copies of my newest mystery, The Surest Poison.

And the winners are:

P.J. Coldren of Michigan, Helen Kiker of Virginia, and Linda Newman, of North Gower, Ontario, Canada.

Thanks to all of those who sent in their entries for the contest. I'm sorry I didn't have enough ARCs for everybody. But, hey, there will be a book to buy soon. The Surest Poison is up on Barnes and Noble ( for pre-order and should be on soon.

When I went to the post office this morning thirty minutes before closing time (my usual late appearance) to mail the books, it looked like Christmas deja vu. The parking lot was packed, the line snaking out the door despite multiple clerks working the windows. Maybe everybody is sending back those on-line gifts for exchange.

At any rate, I gave up and went back home. So the books won't be mailed until Monday. You can learn more about The Surest Poison at my website:

Friday, January 2, 2009

Close encounter with the wrong kind

Mystery writers are always conjuring up situations dealing with guys on the wrong side of the law. Sometimes, you run into them in real life. My most memorable close encounter with the wrong kind took place at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC back in the 1980s.

I was executive vice president of the Tennessee Association of Life Underwriters, a trade association made up of life and health insurance agents, general agents and managers. Our national association was having its annual convention at the Shoreham, which is adjacent to Rock Creek Park near the Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street intersection.

One of my tasks, along with a volunteer leader, was to look after the “Tennessee Suite,” which had a large reception area that was a gathering place for Tennessee delegates, wives, and others. I always arrived a few days early to attend an association executives conference and get the suite set up. My room, which I would share with the volunteer in charge, a genial ex-Yankee named Pete Mitrushi, was just down the hallway.

It was on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in late September. Most of the delegates would arrive the following day, but I had opened the suite for a few early birds. My roommate would not get in until later in the afternoon, when we would go out to buy snacks and booze for our bar.

One of the early arrivals paid me for something he owed with three twenties. I stuck them in my pocket and headed back to my room to pick up some literature for the suite. I unlocked the door and walked in but didn’t close it since I would only be a minute.

Hearing the door close behind me, I looked around. A black man, his face covered with a handkerchief, stood there with a shiny revolver aimed at me. He wore a white jacket like a room service employee.

“Turn around,” he ordered.

I did.

“Empty your wallet on the bed.”

I dropped my bankroll of $23 as instructed.

“Take off your shoes. Hand me your belt and put your hands behind you.”

He tied my hands with the belt and ordered me to lie on my stomach on the floor. All the while I’m remembering those stories I’d read about robbers getting upset with their take and shooting their victims. But I wasn’t about to argue with that shiny pistol, probably a .38.

“You have any money in your pockets?” he asked.

Having quickly forgotten what I’d been doing, I said, “No.”

His answer was to reach in my pocket and pull out the three twenties. Then he said, “Stay where you are for five minutes, or I’ll shoot you.”

When I was sure he had left, I freed my hands and called the front desk to report what had happened. Then I went up the hallway and told my story to a group of wide-eyed life underwriters. Soon the hotel called to tell everyone to stay in their rooms until they were cleared.

Within minutes, a police helicopter appeared overhead and police cars swarmed about the hotel. Shortly afterward, a whole troop of motorized cops crowded the street in front. SWAT officers in paramilitary outfits combed the corridors, knocking on doors, checking out the rooms.

Later in the afternoon, after Pete had arrived, two D.C. detectives came up to question me, and we learned the reason for all the commotion. The robber had entered the room of a delegate and his family two floors above me just before he caught me. Our calls to the front desk came at nearly the same time, and they assumed there were multiple robbers hitting the hotel.

The motorized cops had been attending some sort of celebration a few blocks away and were diverted to the scene.

The robber got away, of course. Neither victim could identify him because of the handkerchief. The lead detective said he had a pretty good idea who it was, but they wouldn’t likely be able to do anything about it.

The hotel sent me an apology and the money I’d lost. The lesson I took away was always close the door when you enter a hotel room. I still remember that.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Getting 2009 off to a blogging start

It has been a quiet New Year's Day around here. Everybody but me slept till noon. I've been banging around on the computer most of the day, cleaning up this and that. Finally got around to setting up my new blog. Welcome aboard.

So why should you read mine in addition to the 99 million others out there? Will I have anything worthwhile to expound upon? There's the mystery. You'll need to check in now and then to find out.

In a world where the economy is sliding down a greased pole, where people like me have a granddaughter-in-law in Iraq and a grandson in Afghanistan, hopefully not getting shot at today, where legislators seem more adept at arguing than accomplishing, where food on the table is a luxury in many places, is this a a great time to be alive or not? You bet it is.

This is my eighty-third winter, and I've seen a lot of crazy goings-on in this topsy-turvy world. I've managed to survive it all by being an incurable optimist. Things are going to get better. You can count on it. And I plan to take part in the good times ahead. That's why I like mystery writing. The good guys may take a beating along the way, but they're gonna win in the end.

I hope you'll come along for the ride.

By the way, you'll find me blogging at two other sites: Tuesdays at Murderous Musings and the first and third Fridays at Make Mine Mystery.