Tuesday, November 17, 2009

How it all started in the Holy Land

About this time eleven years ago, I was in the midst of a trek through the Holy Land with about twenty people from my brother's Sunday School class at Brentwood (TN) United Methodist Church. What came out of the trip was the idea for a mystery plot that became the first book in my Greg McKenzie mystery series, Secret of the Scroll. Interestingly, Secret still sells well when I do a signing with all of my books available. Many Readers like to start a series with the first book.

Though the present does not seem like an auspicious time for Americans to travel in the Middle East, I would wager that a trip similar to the one our group took would enjoy pretty much the same reception we received then. Radical Muslims might cheerfully spit at us, but ordinary Jordanians and Palestinians would likely accept our devalued dollars just as eagerly as before.

The travel agent who set up our trip, and traveled with us, was a sharp guy who knew how to play the odds. He 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.

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 used 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 look at the Promised Land, just as had been the case with 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, which the Palestinians want to include in their new state..

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 over the years and occupied by a variety of religious groups.

One of the more interesting stops was an Arab market filled with small but colorful shops. We had to stop and try the Israeli’s 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, and walked 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 artillery 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 with an incident in Old Jaffa.

On our flight home from Amman, I read in the Royal Jordanian Airlines 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, the idea quickly developed into a plot. Happily, I had taken three hours of videos to refresh my memory.

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. You can read the opening chapters at my Website. The above is a revised version of a story I told a year ago on the Mysterious Musings blog.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A design for writing

A few people seem to possess a sort of inherent compass that guides their minds into creating stories that satisfy all the requirements of good writing in one fell swoop of the pen, or a single foray across the keyboard. I'm in awe of the one-draft author. That's because I’m the polar opposite. I constantly edit and revise as I go.

Every writer must find what works best for him or herself. I don’t advocate that anyone follow my style of creating a book, but if you find something here that validates what you do or in some way intrigues you into trying a different approach, I’ll feel I have succeeded in some small manner.

I approach a new a novel with a basic idea for an incident that could lead to lots of complications. In my second Greg McKenzie mystery, for example, I considered what might happen if a penthouse balcony collapsed during a party at a new beachfront high-rise condo, killing two people. That presented the questions: what caused the accident, and who was responsible?

With the major premise in hand, I needed a cast of characters. I’m not a detailed plotter or an outliner, so I depend on my characters to dictate the direction of the story. I decided on a young architect/engineer from the previous book to bear the brunt of blame for the accident. For potential bad guys I picked a developer, a contractor, and an inspector. I later added a female real estate agent.

At that point I needed a little initial research to put me on the right track. Since I knew little if anything about condo construction, I consulted a couple of friends. One was a civil engineer, the other a structural engineer who dealt with concrete, the material of choice for building beachfront condos. That gave me enough information to start writing.

I began with a Prologue that, thanks to later revision, introduced all the suspects and most of the major characters, except for my protagonists, Greg and Jill McKenzie. I set it at the penthouse party and used a third person omniscient viewpoint so I could let the reader know the balcony was in trouble from the opening line. Starting with Chapter 1, the story is told in first person from Greg's point of view.

The architect/engineer is found dead the next morning of what the sheriff calls a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The young man’s parents are the McKenzies’ best friends, and his father doesn’t believe he would commit suicide. He asks Greg, a retired Air Force investigator, to look into it.

After the first few chapters in Nashville, the story moved to Perdido Key, FL. It was time for more intensive on-scene research. My brother had a condo there where my wife and I had stayed a couple of times a year, which is how the plot idea came about. We spent two weeks there checking out various angles. Since the so-called suicide occurred at the Gulf Islands National Seashore, I interviewed the National Park ranger responsible for law enforcement. Following up on what I learned from him, I talked to a sheriff’s investigator, a medical examiner’s tech, and a man in the building inspection office.

I also researched locations and backgrounds on Perdido Key, in Pensacola and around Escambia County.

Although I don’t outline, I did extensive character sketches for the major characters and typed up detailed notes from my research. And early on I plotted out where all the main characters were each hour on the night of the murder.

By this time I knew who the murderer was (or so I thought) and had a pretty good idea of where the story was headed. I sat down to write in earnest. But things happen. About halfway through the book, I changed my mind about the murderer. It required going back to make sure I had left enough clues to make the ending believable. That’s what I love about fiction. You’re free to alter the past anytime you like. Makes you feel like God tinkering with the universe.

As I mentioned at the start, I am a constant rewriter. Each time I sit down to write, I go back at least to the start of the last chapter, read through it and make changes where something doesn’t quite fit. Now and then I’ll start from the beginning and do a quick edit up to the point where I left off. Sometimes I may change a line back to what I had on the first try.

When I get to the end of the book, what might be called a first draft is really anything but. I take this opportunity to go back through the manuscript looking for places I can make the writing more colorful, more dramatic, more scintillating (okay, so I don't scintillate all that much). I also delete those too-cute phrases that I got carried away with in their creation. I try to smooth out the rough spots Chris Roerden cites in her book Don’t Murder Your Mystery.

By the way, the book described above is Designed to Kill, the second of my Greg McKenzie mysteries. Like all my books, it's available on Amazon (see link below) in paperback and for the Kindle. You can read opening chapters at my website:


Books on Amazon

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dark Night in Race Relations

With the election of President Obama, race relations is a topic much in the news, a lot of it on the negative side. If you weren't around 40-plus years ago, you may not be fully aware of the great amount of progress we've made in less than half a century. Back in January of 1963, I started a slick paper monthly called Nashville Magazine. I wrote an editorial feature in the back of the book titled "Loose Ends." Reprinted below is what I wrote in the June 1963 issue. Nashville is a much different place today. (NOTE: Negro, which is the Spanish word for "black," was the accepted term for African Americans in 1963.)

AN OLD NEWSPAPER REPORTER is like an old firehorse—ring a bell and he’s off and running. I heard the bell and sniffed the smoke tonight, and I stalked the story to its end. As I write this, I have just come from what has doubtlessly been the most turbulent evening of recent Negro student demonstrations protesting segregation in downtown Nashville eating places. The situation swirled out of hand at one point and could easily have ended in tragedy, though fortunately it did not.
By the time you read this, the details will have long been written and rewritten in the press, but I will be a good while forgetting the stark picture of exploding tempers at Fifth Avenue and Union Street. As the marching Negro youths squared off before a group of pursuing white boys, someone smashed against a window of the old Loveman’s building, and a large, jagged piece of glass suddenly sailed across Union Street to crash onto the opposite sidewalk. The Negroes broke ranks, swarmed into the street around a bus, and for a few moments serious violence seemed inevitable. But the Negro leaders herded their group back into marching ranks and soon continued the chanting trek to police headquarters.
Rocks pelted demonstrators, police and newsmen in front of the Metropolitan Safety Building and again later at the Negroes’ rallying point, First Baptist Church on Eighth Avenue North. Luckily, only one Negro boy was injured, and he not seriously.
As I followed the events of the evening, strolling along with the crowds, listening to comments of both whites and Negroes, I gained several disturbing impressions. First, the “student non-violent movement” is inappropriately named. Casting a group of high-spirited youths into an emotionally charged atmosphere where close contacts are inescapable is hardly a move calculated to produce “non-violence.” I watched the Negroes jostle white patrons of the B&W Cafeteria in attempts to squeeze inside the doors.
The violence that took place, however, can be laid mainly to young white toughs— teenagers and some not far out of their teens. Without their provocations, the Negroes would have doubtlessly marched and sung in reasonably good order.
But my most distressing observation concerned the magnitude of the entire affair. It produced a bold, two-line streamer in one of The Nashville Banner’s few evening extra editions in recent years, and it sent hundreds of words and scores of photographs around the world via facilities of the wire services. Nashville, which had been peacefully progressing in race relations since the violence that marked the initial steps in school desegregation six years ago, had been dealt another black eye in the face of national and international opinion. And yet who was involved? Here’s who:
• A group of Negro college and high school students, no more than 150 at the outside.
• An unorganized cluster of white youths spoiling for a fight, certainly no more than 150 in all.
That was it—barely seven-hundredths of one per cent of the population of Metropolitan Nashville. It was a striking demonstration of how the acts of a few can markedly affect the reputation of an entire area. I am sure the Negro students who took part in the march (many of whom were not Nashvillians) had no concern for what damage their actions might do to the city. They were fighting for a deeply-felt principle, for the right to go where they pleased, to hold their heads high and to be accepted as worthy as the next man. The misguided whites who hurled rocks and curses demonstrated an intelligence sufficiently meager to rule out any prospect that they might have realized the disgrace their actions would bring to their city.
And so the problem falls back upon us, upon we who do care about what happens to Nashville, we who do care about our city’s reputation and the blemishes upon it that show to the world. It will not be sufficient merely for the mayor to appoint a bi-racial committee to probe for areas of agreement between whites and Negroes of intelligence and good will. The solution, to my way of thinking, must lie in a full realization that Nashvillians of all colors and creeds must learn to live together side-by-side, to respect one another as individuals—not as members of this or that group, and to work toward the common goal of building a happier, healthier, more prosperous community. If this sounds trite, so be it. "Freedom” is a rather well- worn expression, but has lost none of its luster for all its use.
I came away from the demonstrations tonight aware that both sides in the controversy must disabuse themselves of some past notions. The whites, for instance, must realize there is no such thing as the Negro’s ill-defined "place.” And the Negroes, for their part, must learn to accept the fact that first-class citizenship demands first-rate civic responsibility, which includes a concerted effort to maintain law and order rather than bend it to one’s purposes.
So there you have it, the story of an evening which made Nashville struggle with her conscience. Not the factual, objective account of a long-time newsman, but a thoughtfully considered, editorialized appraisal of one who saw his city shamed and wondered why.
© 1963 m. c. publications, inc.