Friday, February 27, 2009

Is there a future for newspapers?

I’ve been hearing disturbing news about the newspaper business the past few days. Major companies that publish large dailies in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia have filed bankruptcy petitions. Smaller papers around the country are struggling. One network commentator stated flatly that newspapers will soon be gone, a casualty of the Internet.

For a writer who got his start as a newspaper reporter, that is a sad prospect to consider. I don’t know that I would go so far as to agree with the idea that newspapers are dead, merely waiting for somebody to shovel the dirt over them. But if they’re to survive, a lot of re-inventing will have to take place.

The traditional daily in Nashville, a morning newspaper that survived after its evening competitor, for which I once worked, fell by the wayside several years ago, has shrunk considerably from its former size and bulk. An old page out of my files measured 14 by 24 inches. The current 11 by 23 is a one-fourth reduction. Sections have been combined, some dropped, and the number of pages has steadily declined.

Classified advertising, once a mainstay of newspapers, has been decimated by Craiglist and other Internet sites. Newspapers have beefed up their online presence, but I understand the ad revenue from their Internet ventures isn’t sufficient to support the effort.

I feel about newspapers the same as I do books. I like the touch of the paper and the opportunity to sit and thumb through them at my leisure. I use the Internet quite a bit for research, for communication by email, and at times to read snippets of the news. But I hope the daily press will find a way to maintain its presence in our lives. I think we’ll be poorer for the loss if they don’t.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tim Hallinan's Writing Resolutions

The following Writing Resolutions were written by Timothy Hallinan, author of a series of Bangkok thrillers featuring an expatriate travel writer named Poke Rafferty and published by William Morrow. The most recent was THE FOURTH WATCHER. Coming next, in August, is BREATHING WATER, which Adrian McKinty has called "Another masterpiece of crime fiction from Hallinan." Tim bides his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia, where he is now hard at work on his next book. I thought these worthy of repeating for those who (like me) call themselves writers.

Writing Resolutions

Okay, I know that resolutions are made primarily for the brief flush of accomplishment that always accompanies good intentions, however remote the possibility of their being carried out. I make a new set every New Year and watch them recede behind me, forlorn and abandoned, by the middle of January. But I made the resolutions that follow in August of last year, and I'm still following most of them most of the time. And, for me, they work, which is to say that pages actually do emerge from wherever they come from, and pile up on my desk in an extremely satisfying fashion. And I also find that keeping these resolutions active does two important things: It actually makes me write a little better, if only because it keeps the world of my book open to me from day to day, and it reduces the anxiety that (for me, at least) always accompanies creative work.

So here are my August 2008 writing resolutions. I promised myself that I would:

1. Write daily, and by that I mean seven days a week. I will take a day off only when it’s absolutely unavoidable and never, under any circumstances, take two days off in a row.

2. Read widely, not just the kinds of books I write, but classics, science, history, biography, poetry, drama — remembering, as Nero Wolfe says, “The more you put into a brain, the more it can hold.”

3. Live consciously, remembering that everything in the world, even the things that are most unpleasant (and maybe especially those things) are all material.

4. Take chances every time I write. Try to write things I haven’t written before and don’t know how to write. Take myself off the map of the familiar.

5. Avoid glibness and try instead to bring the words from the heart. Remember that clever isn’t the same thing as smart.

6. Follow my characters rather than trying to push them around like chess pieces. Remember that plot is what characters do, not a box to jam them into.

7. Remember that the book I eventually write will not be the book I thought I was going to write. Have the courage to take off in new directions as they present themselves, and to discover, as you do when you travel, that it's possible to get on the wrong bus and then discover it's the right bus after all.

8. Be grateful that I’m allowed to take part in this internal miracle, in which whole worlds appear inside my head, usually one vivid glimpse or one turn of phrase at a time, and I have the freedom to chase them down and try to get them on the page.

9. Be open to criticism from my circle of first readers, without getting defensive; remember, if nobody likes it, it’s just barely possible that there’s something I didn’t get on the page.

10. Write hot, edit cold: when I am writing, keep the thermostat on high; be open, fecund, and grateful for everything that comes through. Rewrite only when something obviously better presents itself. When I am editing, be cold, assessing, and gimlet-eyed, willing to sacrifice even the most precious of my babies in the cause of the book’s greater good.

I could easily list ten more, but ten is the tradition. So I'll add an eleventh in the guise of a closing paragraph. In the first chapter of his new memoir, What I Think About When I Think About Running, the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami quotes a marathon runner as saying, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” I need to keep that in mind whenever I write.

What that means to me is that there are going to be times when writing hurts: when the words won't come, when the story seems to end in a blind alley, when your characters all turn into people so awful that you would come back from the dead just to prevent them from attending your funeral. All of that is inevitable. What's optional is internalizing that, handing it to the writing demons so they can make me doubt my idea, my characters, my talent. The trick to writing (for me, at least) is the same as the trick for running: keep going anyway. The pain may be there, but I can run (or write) through it as long as I don't turn it into suffering.

And get the next word on the page, which is all that really matters.

Thanks for that sage advice, Tim. And just to show that I have followed it somewhat, here's a link to the opening chapters of my new book, The Surest Poison.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Observe or Participate

Basically, I’m an observer, not a participant. I suppose over the years I’ve experienced a modest share of participating. I always dreamed of being a big sports star, but my high school football career lasted only two weeks. When I caught a knee in the mouth and broke off a front tooth, I knew my mother would give me the old Porky Pig line: “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!” With problems I’d already encountered, it resulted in a fixed bridge spanning my four front teeth.

World War II came along and I dreamed of flying fighter planes and shooting down Messerschmitts or Mitsubishis. The closest I got to the enemy was watching German prisoners in the chow line at Moody Field, GA. One of my jobs there was filing Air Force Regulations in the Air Inspector’s office. Since I liked to read, I spent most of my time reading the regulations before filing them. (Haven’t found a place to use them in a plot, however.)

As an Air Force intelligence officer in the Korean War, I combined my observation skills with a little deductive reasoning (prep school for writing crime investigation) to monitor and interpret enemy air activity in the war zone. They gave me a Bronze Star medal for that.

My observer status took front and center when I studied journalism and became a reporter on a daily newspaper. I’ve never been much of a talker, so it took a bit of effort to get the hang of asking questions when on a news assignment. I soon learned to get the maximum amount of information with a minimum of queries. Fortunately, most people, unlike me, are eager to talk and tell you what they know. In an interview with a famous violinist, all I did was introduce myself and he proceeded to regale me with many times as much information as I needed.

I never had much ambition to be a thespian, but I participated in the annual Gridiron Shows put on by Sigma Delta Chi (now the Society of Professional Journalists). While editing Nashville Magazine, I even took a bit part in a local production of Ionesco’s play, Rhinoceros. It was actually research for an article on the theatre, so it doesn’t count as pure participation.

I logged more observer time in the fields of advertising and public relations. As a copy writer in the ad agency’s Creative Department, I spent many hours dreaming up ways to glorify products in as few words as possible. Try writing billboard copy. On the PR side, I wrote news releases and brochures and manuals. I wasn’t the spokesperson type.

The closest I came to being a real participant was during the 18 years I spent managing a statewide trade association with over 4,000 members. I had to set up and participate in board meetings and conventions, and I made numerous speeches to local associations. Most of my work, though, was done from the sidelines. I wasn’t a get out front and take the glory guy. I created programs and sold them to my volunteers, who would bask in the limelight and get things moving. Only interested in results, I was happy to observe while they took the credit.

When I became a more-or-less fulltime fiction writer (meaning I have lots of other responsibilities that take up too much of my time), I put my observer status in high gear. The old cliché “writing is a solitary profession” is pretty well on target. But in the current milieu, hand-in-hand with writing goes promotion. I’ve been forced to become a full participant in that arena.

Normally, I don’t speak to people with whom I am unacquainted (or, as they caution little kids, I don’t talk to strangers). I rely on my wife to do most of the ice-breaking at book signings, though I’ve learned to hold out a promo folder or business card to anybody who looks like they might be a mystery reader. I will talk about my books to anyone who will listen. I used to do lots of appearances at book clubs, libraries, and such, but I’ve had to curtail that because of worn out vocal chords. How did I wear them out if I don’t like to talk? That’s another story.

The observer role suits me fine as I pursue my life as a mystery writer. I don’t go as much as I used to, but I see enough of mankind (sorry, no PC womankind or personkind) in all its permutations to satisfy my curiosity about the current scene. If you don’t happen to encounter me in one of my participatory ventures, check out my books and see if you like my observations.

Friday, February 20, 2009

How do you start a book?

I’m in the process of working on the plot for my fifth Greg McKenzie mystery. So far it has been mostly ideas stirring around in my brain. That’s been going slowly, I suppose, since the brain deteriorates with age. Doesn’t it? To paraphrase an old folk song, "the old gray matter, she ain't what she used to be."

Oddly enough, the first idea out of the box did not deal with character or setting or plot action. Well, setting, in one of its narrow aspects. We're talking about time. The series has been moving at a leisurely pace through the calendar. Designed to Kill took place at the first of November, Deadly Illusions followed with the first blush of spring (does spring really blush?), and The Marathon Murders sweated out the steamy days of August. So, I reasoned, the next adventure should occur at Christmastime.

Wouldn’t you know, in Greg years, it’s still 2004. If I could do that, I wouldn’t be quite 80 yet.

Okay, back to the plot. As all my fans (both of them) know, I am a seat-of-the-pants plotter. I don’t outline the whole story in advance. I take a basic idea, brief my characters on it, and shove them out the door. Heck, why should I do all the work?

The problem is I have to come up with more characters than Greg and Jill McKenzie, my indefatigable pair of senior sleuths. That’s where the fun begins.

With a one-paragraph plot summary on paper, I quickly came up with job descriptions for four possible bad guys. And just as quickly I spotted the one who really “did it.” I started out by giving him an age, then began to delve into his background. What about his early life would make him an interesting character? How did he become what he is today?

Okay, this is a mystery, and I’m not giving you any clues. I did a lot of Googling and bounced around the Internet quite a bit to track him down. I even used one site to pick his name. Hmmm, come to think of it, when I first began searching stuff online, Yahoo was the big thing. But you don’t hear of people Yahooing. They’ve been sort of left in the dust, haven’t they?

The subject of the plot is not one in which I’m particularly well versed, so I also searched about for some basic information on the business. I’ll give you a little hint there. It concerns professional sports. I decided my best bet to start my research in that field would be with a TV sportscaster. Interviewing one of the local guys will be my next step in the process.

I haven’t decided how Christmas will fit into the plot, but I’m sure Greg and Jill will be able to handle that. They’ve carried the day through four books so far. I have unlimited faith in them.

Sometimes I start a book before I’m ready with a full-blown plot by sitting at the computer and writing a first page. It may not be the same first page I end up with, but it gets the window open and the curtains blowing. I’m close to that point now. I’d better wrap this up and get me a cup of hot coffee. I think I here the Muse plodding up the stairs.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Garden of Beasts - a review of sorts

I'm not much of a book reviewer. I probably have three showing on A friend has asked me to review an anthology, so I'm currently reading that one. But I just finished Jeffery Deaver's Garden of Beasts and thought I'd make some comments here.

It's a bit larger than most books I read, running 536 pages in mass market paperback. I really enjoyed the book but found it interesting that the publisher put "A master of ticking-bomb suspense." - People on the cover. While the book contained lots of suspense, it wasn't one of those page-turners you couldn't put down. In fact, it took me several weeks in my hit-and-miss reading style.

I suppose one reason the story appealed to me is that I'm a history buff. It deals with a short period before and during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I like intrigue. This one involves a rogue American plot to assassinate a top Hitler aide responsible for preparing Germany's armed forces for a major war.

Deaver obviously did a mountain of research on pre-war Berlin and the Nazi hierarchy. I've never visited the German capital, but his descriptions of the neighborhoods and the people who inhabit them are so realistic you feel you've been there.

Hitler and his inner circle are depicted chillingly with all their little quirks, like Hitler's obsession with drinking hot chocolate. Obese Herman Goring, thin, clubfooted Paul Joseph Goebbels, and bespectacled Heinrich Himmler are portrayed as edgy schemers, always mindful of Hitler's volatile temper.

The American plot was hatched by a senator and a business magnate working with a small group in an Office of Naval Intellgience hideaway on New York's Upper East Side. The most intriguing part was the killer they chose, a "button man," or hitman for the Mafia. But Paul Shumann was a native German brought to New York as a boy, not a Sicilian mobster. He chose to eliminate the bad guys because of what they had done to his father.

The two most interesting characters, those who hold the point of view, are Paul and his nemesis, Berlin Kripo (criminal police) Detective-Inspector Willi Kohl. Deaver does a masterful job of plotting to keep the path of events inexorably pushing the two men together for the climax.

Unexpected twists and turns fill the book. I did not guess the ending (though I'm rarely that prescient). Did the assassination succeed? Was Paul captured? Did Kohl suffer the fate of Germans who did not share Hitler's hatred of the Jews?

Read Garden of Beasts and find out.

I suppose you could call it "ticking bomb" suspense, but it ticked rather slowly. One reason was the meticulous characterization used throughout to give everyone the feeling of reality. It was accomplished by careful use of thoughts and actions rather than overuse of details.

In an Author's Note at the end, Deaver tells what happened to some of the places mentioned in the book, and he details the fate of the Nazi bigwigs who carry much of the plot. Though it's a work of fiction, it makes you wonder what might have been the outcome if something similar had actually occurred.

Who knows?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Deciding how to commit murder

Early in the process of writing my last Greg McKenzie mystery, I decided on the title The Marathon Murders. At the time, I had no idea how many murders would occur or who all the victims would be. Since the story revolved around a man missing in 1914, I knew the identity of the first victim, but not how he died.

In his blog awhile back at Murderous Musings, Ben Small wrote “Bump ‘Em Off, Eh?” and mentioned several methods of dispatching people who needed killing. I wound up using different methods for each murder in the Marathon book but didn’t consciously plan it that way.

As a “seat of the pants” plotter, I let the story develop as I write. The characters move the plot as they do their own thing.

I didn’t get very far into the Marathon story until somebody was pulling a body out of a lake. Hmm, I thought. How did he die? At first it looked like a blow to the head. To be sure, I turned to the mystery writer’s favorite medical forensic guru, Dr. D. P. (Doug) Lyle. I emailed him with the situation my characters found and asked a few questions. He sent an answer and referred me to his website for more elaboration. All things considered, it turned out the guy had drowned.

Two more murders occurred in the book before Greg and Jill McKenzie could lay the case to rest, but based on the circumstances, they were pretty straightforward.

One of my blogging colleagues mentioned a book on poisons that provides plenty of fodder for writers trying to decide how to kill. I bought two of Dr. Lyle’s books, Forensics for Dummies and Murder and Mayhem. The latter is subtitled “A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers.” It is organized under three main headings: Doctors, Hospitals, Illnesses, and Injuries; Methods of Murder and Mayhem; and Tracking the Perp.

The good doctor has revised his website since I last visited. Now has a section called The Writers Forensic Community where questions from authors and Doug Lyle’s answers are archived. He also has a section with articles of interest to writers written by himself and Lee Lofland, a former cop who has a blog called The Graveyard Shift that is a goldmine of police info.

The goal of all this, of course, is to make our fictional murders sound authentic. As Dr. Lyle says in one of his articles, “To write a good mystery that will keep the reader guessing to the end, you must plot the nearly perfect murder.” Deciding what makes it nearly perfect is the writer’s number one task.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Crime up front and personal

Most mystery writers (ex-cops excluded) don't get involved with crime on a personal level. When the subject of home invasions came up recently, however, it got me thinking about my close encounter with the wrong kind. It didn't take place at home, but 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 shared with the volunteer in charge, was just down the corridor.

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 shut 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. I wasn’t about to argue with that 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. It seemed a little overkill for a small-time robbery.

Later in the afternoon, after my roommate 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 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. Fortunately, I've had no more encounters of that kind. But I still remember the lesson. Maybe I'll use it in a book sometime.

Before any of you sharpies get on my case, I know that's not a shiny revolver in the photo, but it was the only thing available in my album.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Arson - tough crime to prove

Last night we had an arson investigator with the Nashville Fire Department speak at our Sisters in Crime Chapter meeting. He had lots of interesting info. Perhaps one of the most significant observations was that the crime of arson is quite difficult to prove unless someone actually sees the fire being set.

He told of a case where the perpetrator had served time for arson in another state and had been arrested for it in a third. There were indications the man had been around the scene, but no one saw him. They found a lighter fluid container in a nearby garbage can that had his fingerprints on it.

But, as the investigator said, how are you going to prove he didn’t just walk by, see the can, be a good citizen, and throw it in the garbage?

Arson investigators respond to every fire except burning automobiles. Those don’t leave enough to deal with. The exception is if there’s a body inside. Then the fire investigator works with police detectives.

He said most arson cases involve stupid things like getting angry at a spouse, dumping their clothes on the bed, and setting them on fire.

He talked about how fires develop, going upward and toward the best source of oxygen. He showed us a large book titled Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigators, known as NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 921, and said it was the best source of information on the subject.

The investigator’s first and primary job is to determine the origin of the fire. This is usually done by tracing patterns made by the flames moving away from the site of ignition. A knowledge of building materials and how they burn is necessary in the tracing of the fire’s progress.

Discussing fires in general, he mentioned the three elements necessary for a fire to start and continue to burn – fuel, heat, and oxygen. It was called the Fire Triangle until they added the element of chemical reaction and now call it the Fire Tetrahedron. He mentioned that you could put out a match by sticking it into a pan of gasoline, so long as there was no vapor present (as they say, don’t try this at home).

If you want to read a good book about arson and its investigation, he recommended Joseph Wambaugh’s Fire Lover, which chronicles the career of the worst arsonist in U.S. history. He was a former fire captain and fire investigator named John Orr, who worked for the Glendale, CA fire department. He is believed to have set more than 2,000 fires and is currently serving a life sentence in a California prison.

The investigator said two of the main causes of fires he investigates are space heaters in the winter, usually left too close to flammable objects like drapes or bed linens, and clothes dryer spontaneous combustion. Particularly in gas dryers, which get quite hot, towels left in the dryer will begin to smolder, then break into flames.

“I never leave the house or go to bed with the dryer running,” he said.

One subject he dealt with humorously was the necessity for the investigator to restore the scene to the way it looked when the fire started. The problem, he said, is that firemen like to break windows and throw things out.

“I have to carry everything back inside,” he said. “It’s hard to get a sofa back upstairs by yourself. Sometimes I make them help me.”

Carelessness is a major cause of fires. He told of one case where workmen needed some parts and removed them a natural gas connection in a utility room at a motel. It allowed the gas to escape and build up in the closed room. After the manager saw the men leave, he decided to go see what they were doing. He opened the door, flipped the light switch, which produced a spark that touched off a gas explosion.

He was thrown back from the door, badly burned, and died a few weeks later.

In the case of a home fire, the investigator noticed cigarette lighters and matches lying all around. He asked the owner what happened. The man said he had no idea. He came in and found the place on fire, looked for his son and found him on his bed crying. As expected, the boy admitted playing with a lighter.

“After watching their parents use those things. The kids are curious as to how they work.”

The investigator said in his opinion the number one cause of fires was stupidity.

For a different look at an explosion and fire, check out my new book, The Surest Poison. Read opening chapters and ordering information here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Israel, a fertile ground for mystery writers

Herod's Mountain Fortress at Masada

A recent news story about new findings from King Herod’s burial site in Israel brought back memories of my trip to the Holy Land in 1998. We visited the impressive construction projects Herod the Great built in the port city of Caesarea and atop the famous mountain fortress of Masada.

Being a mystery writer, though not published at the time, I viewed most places on the trip with an eye to how they might be used in a novel. I had bought a camcorder just before heading to the Middle East and took about three hours of videos during the tour.

Traveling by Royal Jordanian Airlines, we flew into Amman and spent a day cruising by bus through the mostly desolate Jordanian desert to visit two interesting sites. We stood on Mount Nebo where Moses gazed across the Jordan River before his death. Then we toured the ancient city of Petra, made famous by one of its striking building fronts, carved out of rose sandstone, being featured in the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Our first taste of the dichotomy between Israel and its neighbors came as we approached the Allenby Bridge over the Jordan River. It’s called the King Hussein bridge on the east side. We had to leave the Jordanian bus and board an Israeli bus for the crossing.

Jericho provided our first taste of the Promised Land, the same as Joshua in the Bible. Billed as the world’s oldest and lowest city (820 feet below sea level), its ancient tel, or archeological site, has been peeled back to reveal 26 layers of civilization dating back to 8000 B.C. Heading on to the Holy City, we checked into our hotel in East Jerusalem, the Arab district.

Our savvy Nashville travel agent, who joined us on the tour, booked us through a tour company run by two Palestinian brothers (who, incidentally, attended the University of Tennessee). He said we wouldn’t have any trouble in the Palestinian territories as they knew the bus was owned by Arabs.

For the next few days, we shuttled around various Jerusalem sites, plus Bethlehem, the Dead Sea Scroll caves at Qumran, the Dead Sea shoreline, and Masada. We were advised to steer clear of the West Bank hotbeds of Hebron and Ramallah. We visited such fascinating spots as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, dug 1,500 feet through the rock from both ends at once in 700 B.C. We also toured the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls; Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum; the Temple Mount with its striking Dome of the Rock; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on several levels and occupied by several different religious orders.

One of the more interesting stops was an Arab market filled with small but colorful shops. We had to stop and try the Israelis' favorite fast food, a falafel (spiced chickpea fritter) tucked into pita bread.

During the next week, we traveled north through Samaria, with a stop at Jacob’s Well, heading into the fertile Yizreel Valley. We visited Mount Meggido, called Armageddon in Revelations, walking among the ruins, including a trip down 183 steps to see the historic water tunnel. Then it was on to the Sea of Galilee, where we stayed in Nazareth. We sailed on the sea in a fishing boat allegedly like the one Jesus rode in. They dipped in a net, but it came up empty.

We toured biblical sites around the Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret, including the Mount of the Beatitudes, Capernaum, and churches dedicated to various incidents such as the multiplication of loaves and fishes. We visited the attractive Kibbutz Ein Gev and traveled up the steep slopes of the Golan Heights to an old attillery emplacement looking down over the kibbutz where Syrian gunners fired on the Israeli settlers.

Our tour began to wind down with a visit to Mount Carmel, where Elijah vanquished the priests of Baal. Then we headed for Israel’s third largest metropolitan area, Haifa. The hillside Baha’i Shrine and Gardens provided a striking panorama, as did a view of the Haifa port. Afterward, we headed south along the Mediterranean to the historic city of Caesarea, built by King Herod.

At the outdoor Roman Theater, our guide stood on the stage and showed how a normal voice could be heard all around the seating area. We also checked out the ruins of Herod’s hippodrome, which had seating for 20,000 people. Then we toured the remains of the king’s port, now part of the Crusader city. Just beyond this stood a Roman aqueduct built in the A.D. 100’s. It had steps leading up so we could walk along a section of the monstrous project.

After overnighting in a seaside hotel at Netanya, we headed into Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial center. Our final stop was the old port city of Jaffa on Tel Aviv’s south side. Old Jaffa had a special attraction for me, with its warren of stairstep streets through the reconstructed ruins of Turkish palaces, flanked by pastel colored artist’s studios, galleries, and outdoor cafes.

In fact, the experience led me to open the first chapter in Secret of the Scroll, my initial Greg McKenzie mystery, in Old Jaffa.

On our flight home from Amman, I read in the Royal Jordanian magazine about an archeological dig at Bethany in Jordan, the area where John the Baptist preached. It mentioned finding caves that had been occupied by monks in the early centuries. I thought what if someone found an ancient scroll in one of those caves. After I got home, it quickly developed into a plot. Happily, I had my videos to help out.

I used much of my travel experience to tell the story, sending Greg and Jill McKenzie on an identical trip. Many of the locations appear just as they did to me. It was a classic example of using your travels to create a mystery. You can get a feel for it by reading the opening chapters at my website.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The danger of wearing hats

In many cases, the cogent advice is to wear a hat. My wife is always telling our grandson to put on his cap before going out in the cold (he will likely take it off as soon as he's out of sight). But I'm not referring to traditional chapeaux. The cliched version is "wearing too many hats."

It looks good on a resume, but I'm past the resume stage. Even back in the days when I was changing jobs (too many times, incidentally), I never wrote a resume. I was either recommended or knew the people I dealt with.

But back to hats. Hats can be particularly dangerous for writers. Each time you don another top piece you're taking a step away from the story. But, then, how can you not?

I spent my last eighteen years in the business world as manager of a trade association. I ran an organization of 4,000 members, people known as "volunteers." To get things done, I had to depend on my volunteers to get out and work for the cause. As a result, I am a dedicated volunteer to the causes I've chosen to join.

Take Mystery Writers of America. I served four years as West Area Representative for the Southeast Chapter, which includes six states. Now I have volunteered to put in another two years as Secretary. Then there's Sisters in Crime. After serving as Secretary-Treasurer and Vice President, I'm now in my second year as President of the Middle Tennessee Chapter. I also do the website.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. I enjoy working with other writers and getting our role out before the public. It helps me as well as my fellow authors. But it takes time.

Like everybody else, I wear several other hats that occupy segments of the clock. Grandfather, chauffuer, household handyman, assistant grocery buyer, Sunday School class vice president, writers group critiquer. Oh, yes, and don't forget book promoter and salesman.

Isn't Google great? I searched on "wearing too many hats" and came up with scads of advice, mostly aimed at small businessmen (hey, I'm only about 5' 7"). One article advised having a work-free weekend every six weeks. The way I'm going, that may be my only chance to get some writing done.

What about you? Is your hat rack bulging? How do you suggest we cope with trying to juggle all this variety of head coverings?

To see that I have gotten something accomplished in the recent past, check my website.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Words: the building blocks of knowledge

Does that sound profound, or what?

I've always loved dealing with words of the written variety. At spoken words, I'm not too great. This has been increasingly true over the past few years as my voice has deteriorated from a chronic cough and other things we won't go into now...

The love of words is something writers like to play around with. In this case, it's a game called tag. You might think playing tag a bit juvenile for a guy less than ten months away from 84. If I'm gonna be involved in all this bloggishness, though, I suppose I'd better play along.

My colleague Ann Parker provided the adjacent pile of letters and tagged me with this setup:

List at least five things you do to support and spread a love of the written word, and tag five people. (If you list something that touches youngsters, you get a bonus letter!)

So here goes:

1. I write mysteries that I hope will encourage people to spend some time with a book and be entertained.

2. At book signings, when someone stops by with a little Janie or Johnny who enjoys books, I encourage them to keep reading and follow their dreams if they aspire to be writers.

3. I support libraries and booksellers whenever I get the opportunity and take part in as many book fairs and festivals as I can.

4. I've done radio and TV interviews discussing the merits of reading and writing.

5. I appear at book clubs whenever possible and try to spread the gospel that reading is fun and fashionable.

Okay, Ann, I did it. And I earned one extra letter. I think I'll take a Q. It seems to be a rather lonely letter and, like me, doesn't get much respect. I also have to tag five other people. Let's see...

Christina Rodriguez
Heidi Thomas
Joy Delgado
Katie Hines
L. Diane Wolfe

And if you really love words, check out those in an excerpt from The Marathon Murders.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Call me curmudgeon (but don't be nasty)

I suppose it’s my time to act curmudgeonly. I recently read a mystery that has been highly praised by some big-name authors. The main character is quite well drawn and is an interesting mix of tenacious cop heavily flawed by fate and a highly abrasive manner.

He has some serious medical problems that are described at great length. Ditto his personal problems with some ladies. Maybe I’m too jaded, but for me all the personal introspection and excess police department rivalry slow the story and impede the progress of the mystery. Admittedly his illness ties in with the plot, but at times it seems to weigh it down as if tied to a concrete block.

There’s also the tendency to over-describe the settings. I can do without knowing about every knick-knack that fills a room, whether it be in a home, a bar, or an office. I like to throw in occasional scenes in restaurants and other locales that add color to the story, but I get the feeling this book overdid it. It’s not alone, I hasten to add.

As I indicated, I readily concede to being a bit of a curmudgeon here, but I’m a fan of the faster-paced mystery. My style is to keep the extraneous stuff to a minimum and keep the action on target.

Perhaps it would be better to call this book a character study more than a mystery. My problem is that though I felt sympathy for the cop, he was too harsh to enjoy a score much above a 2.5 on the Likability Scale. His determination to get to the bottom of the crime was admirable, and of course he made it by the end of the story, but his penchant for laying waste to the landscape left scant room for endearment.

I like my protagonists to be flawed. That’s what makes them interesting and believable. But this guy carried a chip on his shoulder the size of a two-by-four. And one other thing. The “f” word was thrown around like a ping-pong ball bouncing about the table. That’s one of my pet peeves. Sure, some cops cuss like sailors. Some sailors cuss like cops. But if you’re not going to tell me every other word they use on a regular basis, why dwell on this one? Use it once or twice and I know it’s in their lexicon. More than that it’s gratuitous trash.

Okay, enough ranting. This, of course, is one reader’s opinion. Others, maybe most others, may differ. They will see the book from an entirely different perspective and probably give it five stars. I hope it does well.

One final note, my new Sid Chance mystery, The Surest Poison, due out in April, can now be pre-ordered from Barnes & Noble online.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The mystey of February 2nd

Okay, you know what today is. The day otherwise sane people gather in great numbers to watch a squirrelly rodent emerge from his hole in the ground. Their interest is centered around whether there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring.

The mystery is why the news media will make such a fuss over this rather ingenuous ceremony. Hollywood even made a movie a few years back titled Groundhog Day. Do a Google search and you'll come up with 2,340,000 mentions in .06 seconds. One of the more interesting ones is on, where an astrology correspondent says "As Groundhog Day approaches, Mercury predicts three more weeks of chasing our tails trying to catch up with our shadows."

The biggest fuss, of course, takes place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where a groundhog named Phil has been known to attract up to 40,000 people. I trust the crowd will be a bit smaller today as many of them will be out looking for work. I wonder if Congress has provided a bailout for groundhog keepers in its $800-plus billion boondoggle?

Getting back to the murder mystery angle, what if some nefarious malcontent should take a potshot at Phil? Since this has pretty much become a national holiday, would that make it a Federal crime? It could be a terrorist act, you know.

To get into the historical mystery category, I delved back into the day's origins. It seems a bunch of German immigrants brought the practice to Pennsylvania. Some intrepid historian found a diary entry dated February 4, 1841 with this beguiling note:

"Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate."

That takes us back to Candlemas Day, a Catholic observance also known as Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, observed on February 2 and involving a blessing of the candles. How the groundhog got in on this I'm not sure.

The really curious part of the whole deal is why if the sun is out, thus indicating a warming trend, the critter's seeing his shadow should mean six more weeks of winter. Logic would seem to point the other way around. But, then, who said it had anything to do with logic anyway?

For an interesting take on the situation, check this article on

Maybe I'll write a groundhog mystery and clear up the whole thing. Meanwhile, to keep with the times, get out and do something silly today.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Adages for the Ages

A few weeks ago, I listed ten "thoughts for the day" taken from a long list I had received titled "A Great Holiday Recipe." In response to popular demand (well, at least two), here are another ten that we'll call "Adages for the Ages." Your age, of course. To follow the theme of my blog, the mystery is why we have to keep reminding ourselves to use good common sense.

1. Take a 10-30 minute walk every day. Smile while you walk. It is the ultimate anti-depressant.

2. Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes each day. Talk to God about what is going on in your life.

3. Eat more foods that grow on trees and plants and eat less food that is processed.

4. Don't waste your precious energy on gossip, energy vampires, issues of the past, negative thoughts or things you cannot control. Instead, invest your energy in the positive present moment.

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

6. Don't compare your life to others because you have no idea about their journey.

7. No one is in charge of your happiness except you. Will this matter in five years?

8. Your job will not take care of you when you are sick. Your friends and family will. Stay in touch!!!

9. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

10. Each night befo0re you go to bed, complete the following statements: I am thankful for ______________. Today I accomplished ______________.

Okay, here's a bonus:

11. Remember that you are "too blessed to be stressed."