Friday, July 31, 2009
And don't forget to check out Do Some Damage, the new group blog focusing on crime fiction of which I'm a part. It debuts tomorrow.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Do Some Damage is a group of seven crime writers, each with a different voice and something to say. From grizzled vets to grizzly rooks, they pull back the curtain on the way the industry works. Whether beating deadlines or beating characters, each week they share their thoughts on reading, writing, plot, voice and all the sordid junk that goes through a writer’s brain.
Count me in as a 'grizzly rook' since I don't, as yet, have a published book. We all have a scheduled day, as you can see here:
Monday - Steve Weddle
Tuesday - Jay Stringer
Wednesday - John McFetridge
Thursday - Dave White
Friday - Russel D. McLean
Saturday - Scott D. Parker
Sunday - Mike Knowles
We're going to have a couple of days of introductory material this weekend and the regular columns start on Monday, 3 August. Thus, my first regular column will be next Saturday, 8 August.
I have to tell I'm quite excited about this new venture. I read other group blogs regularly (Murderati, Women of Mystery, and others) and I've always liked the idea of a regular column. I did that last year with this blog where I posted certain types of posts on certain days. Now, I have a place for a weekly column. I'm jazzed. I have a few ideas for the first few columns but I'll leave myself open to change them as circumstances allow. It should be fun.
Come check us out this Saturday, put Do Some Damage (http://dosomedamage.blogspot.com/) on your blog reader of choice (I use Google Reader), and join us in an ongoing conversation about the ins, the outs, the triumphs, and the heartaches of crime fiction.
Here's a hint at probably (note the word "probably") my first posting topic: I've been undergoing an analysis of my writing life in recent days. I've been in a valley, steep walls blocking me in. I've made some decisions in my writing life that should allow me to crawl up those walls and peer over the edge. What I intend to see is sunlight dawning. I'll let you know.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Yeah, it wasn’t that good. Too bad, really. It started off with a scene that would have likely find a home on the cover of an early 1970s Pink Floyd album. Gregory Quist, the paragon of virtue, is riding along when he happens upon a strange sight: a dead man, sitting in a boat, in the middle of dry ground, nary a sign of water anywhere. He investigates and is soon shot at. Okay, that’s a good start to a western--or any story, really. In the scramble to evade the unseen shooter and return fire, Quist finds a Comanche Scalp, decorated with beads and mounted on some animal skin. He tucks it away and out of sight as the sheriff of Corinth City and a group of men happen upon Quist, put a gun on him for killing the shooter, and take him back to town.
Here, as in Mascarada Pass Quist’s reputation precedes him. The sheriff, nicknamed “Smokey,” all but falls over his own feet in the awesome wonder of Quist’s brains. Quist agrees to look into the business of the dead man as long as it doesn’t interfere with his railroad detectifying. What commences here is a hundred or so pages of talk, talk, and more talk. You can’t have gunfights on every page. I know that. But at least throw me a bone in the form of *some* action. Dull. And the threads of clues was minimal. I didn't catch'em if they were there.
Then MacDonald breaks one of the fundamental rules of mystery fiction: give the reader a heads up that A Big Reveal will happen at the end of the book. When Quist dropped his big bombshell, I was like “No way!” I didn’t see that coming at all. You’ve got to at least give the reader something. Anything. Of all the things I grew to dislike with this book, this cardinal sin of writers is tops.
Let’s also consider the cover blurb on 1973 printing: “This time Quist is arrested as a murderer and a comanche scalp proves to be more than a clue.” Arrest? Really? The “arrest” constitutes the minutes it took the sheriff to put a gun on Quist until he figured out who Quist really was. That ain’t an arrest proper. I’ll admit that I started and stopped this book three times before forcing myself to finish it. I had forgotten that Quist was “arrested” and kept waiting for the actual arrest. Only at the end did I realize “Oh, they meant that fake arrest.” Gotcha. Whatever.
So, I’m one for two in reading Gregory Quist novels and two for three in reading westerns (my second western was Guns Along the Brazos by Day Keene; yes, that Day Keene). I have about eight more Quist books on the shelf. Ever since I first read Mascarada Pass, MacDonald’s books, and Quist stories in particular, have been high on my To Find List. In fact, I keep a list of all Quist books in my wallet in case I happen upon a few at a used book store. I even found one in Whitney, TX, last week while on vacation. Already had it. I can only hope that the other Quist books will be better than The Comanche Scalp. If not, I’ll just have to remove that list from my wallet and stop the search.
I think I might also initiate the 100-page rule first used by the folks at Bookgasm: if the book don’t excite by page 100, put it down and move on. There’s just too many other books to read than to spend time on a clunker. My only goal as a writer: don’t write a clunker. The Comanche Scalp is a clunker. Just move on.
For more books of forgottenness, head on over to Patti Abbott's blog.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Texas Park Ranger Renee Richards was holding up a thin gauzy piece of see-through nothingness that was supposed to be lingerie when her cellphone sang out the latest Kenny Chesney tune. One by one, Renee leading the way, all five women at the bridal shower stopped cackling as the inevitable nature of the call dawned on them.I've got the entire story plotted. I intend for it to be a short, fun, light, and, perhaps, eerie tale of a park ranger in Texas and how she solves the puzzle of the escaped convict's whereabouts.
The manhunt had reached the state park.
As far as reading is concerned, I finished William Colt MacDonald's The Comanche Scalp last week. It's a Gregory Quist story, the inspiration for my western published at Beat to a Pulp, and I'm glad it wasn't the first one I read as I wouldn't have read anymore. So, no excerpt from there. However, I did read Volume 1 of Dynamite Comics' rebooted Lone Ranger trade paperback. Now that is a fantastic story. I'll blog about it, soon. Very entertaining and highly recommended.
For more Dos Oración el martes, Women of Mystery is the place to be today.
Monday, July 20, 2009
One of the coolest things we repeated was visiting Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. I have to tell you: feeding wild animals by hand never, ever gets old. Yeah, there's a certain "Madagascar" aspect to it (that is, you can make up your own dialogue that the animals speak at night when the dumb humans leave) but it's still cool. We went on Wednesday which is the cheapest day of the week for tickets. The good: cheap tickets. The bad: lots of people. It took us about three to three-and-a-half hours to get through the entire park. That does include a stop at the hilltop visitors center/gift shop/human feed store. Still, the view is grand. Yeah, it was hot but it's summer. It's supposed to be hot.
Fossil Rim is just a few miles away from Dinosaur Valley State Park near Glen Rose, TX. Let me say this: seeing dinosaur tracks, in person and out in the wild is tres cool. But, once you've seen them, well, you've seen them. Of all the things we repeated, this was the one that wasn't as fun as last time. Still, it's friggin' dinosaur tracks!
Waco's Cameron Park Zoo is a very nice zoo. This from someone who lives in Houston and loves our zoo and has been to San Diego's Wild Animal Park. Cameron Park's Zoo is smaller, to be sure, but it's almost the perfect size. You can see everything, on pathways that are mostly shaded (for the summers), and not get too tired. The cages are built in such a way that the animals are Right There, be it tigers or swimming grizzly bears. I mean Right There. Plus, you can feed the turtles and Big catfish in the ponds surrounding the monkey exhibits.
The Mayborn Museum of Natural History is another excellent thing to see in Waco. On a tip from a fellow parent, we went back there mainly to see the Leonardo Da Vinci's Machines in Motion exhibit (no pictures at the link; too bad). A group of Da Vinci enthusiasts have built scale models of some of Leo's ingenious inventions. It'll blow you away just realizing that the man only used his brain to come up with all these inventions. The rest of the museum is, like the zoo, just the right size for a morning or afternoon trip. Without a doubt, the coolest exhibits at the Mayborn is the mammoths. At the entrance, there's a full-size skull and tusks of a mammoth. I never realized how friggin HUGE they were. Later, there's a recreation of the mammoth fossil site discovered just outside Waco. In the museum, you walk on a plexiglass floor, literally walking 'over' the fossils. Here's a picture of it. The Mayborn Museum is easily a place I'd return to for a day trip.
Even though I'm a freak for Dr. Pepper, we didn't visit the Dr. Pepper Museum. Too bad. I'd have liked to get some more swag. I'd have liked to pick up a bottle of DP BBQ sauce.
This time out, we decided to stay not at hotels but bed and breakfast places. Just outside of Hillsboro, we stayed a night at the Windmill Bed and Breakfast. We stayed in the Country Garden Suite, an upstairs, three-room suite we had all to ourselves. The smaller bedroom is situated at the apex of the roof so the ceiling is like a tent. Over the interior ceiling, there is fabric, giving the entire room a tent-like feel. The master bedroom has a skylight facing east. Not only do you get to fall asleep to the stars, you get to wake up with the soft light of dawn. Serene place and wonderful hospitality. Oh, and the breakfast was fantastic.
For the other nights, we stayed at White Rock Creek Bed and Breakfast, just outside Waco. If the Windmill B&B was the epitome of rustic living, White Rock Creek is the opposite. It's brand-new and the rooms have all been built by the owners, Dana and Reetha Strickland. We stayed in the Plantation Suite and it was more than enough for us. The B&B is far enough away from Waco (and in amidst a small, private neighborhood) that you can forget a metropolitan center is mere minutes away. Our hosts were very gracious. Our only regret is that we didn't get to chill and take in the atmosphere.
Needless to say, we'll be returning to both B&B's in the future.
The Loot: Whenever I travel, we like to go to antique stores. I like those but I also like used bookstores. I hit pay dirt on this trip. At Brazos Street Market in Whitney, TX, I made three discoveries. One, another A. A. Fair/Erle Stanley Gardner book, Gold Comes in Bricks. The A. A. Fair books are on my constant search list and I keep a list of books I have/need in my wallet. Check. Only later did I realize that the first few pages were missing. Shucks! When I got back to Houston, I contacted two trusted sources to see if either of them had the book. Almost at the same time, both said yes and both sent me scans of the missing pages. Thanks guys!
I found a Gregory Quist western (by William Colt MacDonald) but it was one I already had. (BTW, this Friday's Forgotten Book will be a MacDonald/Quist entry.)
Lastly, I happened in a stall that had a bunch of romance books. I can tell, just by a glance, if a stack of books contains anything I'd be interested in. I gave a glance at the romance stack...and then stopped. There, amid the bodice rippers was a Longarm book. Hey, it's a western. I gave the title a look: Longarm and the Voodoo Queen. Something in the back of my head triggered. I picked it up and thought to myself "I've heard of this one, out of all of them. I wonder if this is one of the ones James Reasoner wrote?" For $1.50, I could take the chance. At the very least, I'd have my first Longarm to read. Lo and behold, it *is* one that Reasoner wrote. Viola!
Later in the week, at a used bookstore in Waco, I found Owls Don't Blink, also by A. A. Fair/ESG. Cha-ching!
That's about it for the wrap-up. Had a good time, enjoyed my native state, found some books, and 'discovered' three story ideas. Already written half of the first one. I'll post a preview tomorrow for Two Sentence Tuesday.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler once wrote this:
Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.
I always took that quote to partially explain the move, by mystery and crime fiction, into the twentieth century. And, by extension, brought it to the American city. Sure, there is the famous foggy London of Sherlock Holmes and there is death there, and danger. But what Hammett,
By the time Ed McBain began writing fiction, this tradition was decades old. McBain scanned the landscape, saw what was what, judged the speed of the moving traffic, and merged right in, going zero to sixty in seconds. And he never looked back, even when he changed lanes. Everyone else had to swerve to get out of the way of this fast-moving car whose driver knew exactly what he wanted and where he wanted to go.
Originally published in 1958 under the title I’m Cannon—For Hire, I read the republished version from Hard Case Crime entitled The Gutter and the Grave. A quick check at Thrilling Detective (thanks again!) reveals that McBain liked the new title. The new title is quite apt. The first sentence of the story finds Matt Cordell basically in the gutter. The last sentence finds Cordell…well, I don’t want to ruin the ending.
McBain’s prose is, like Hammett’s, tough, ornery, and punchy. I use punchy because there are a few fights in the books, both in flashback and in the book’s present day. And the beating Cordell takes is brutal. It’s brutal by today’s standards. I can’t imagine the reading public’s reaction back in ’58.
I listened to the audiobook version. The good folks at BBC Audiobook
Just don’t blame me if it starts an addiction. I warned you.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
The woman who sat across the coffee table from me took a cigarette out of her metal cigarette case and placed it between her luscious, pouty lips. She replaced the case in an interior pocket of her red cape at the same time she ‘flicked’ her thumb. A small, still flame emerged from the tip of her thumb. She brought the flame to the end of her cigarette and lit it. She inhale deeply, eyes closed. Absently, she shook her thumb as if she were extinguishing a match. She opened her eyes and looked at me. As she spoke, the smoke trickled out of her mouth.Don't know where that came from but I chuckled as I wrote it a few years ago.
"People accept me a little better if I just shake my thumb out rather than if I just turn off the flame."
Don't have a twofer from a book as I won't know what book I'll be reading in four days (I'm writing this on Friday).
For more twofer fun, head on over to Women of Mystery.
I expect to get some writing done on my vacation so look for something new next week.
Monday, July 13, 2009
Back in April 2008, I enjoyed my fourth Bruce Springsteen concert. It was the Magic tour and it was magnificent. During the encore, Bruce introduced a guy I had never heard of: Alejandro Escovedo. Yeah, I'm a Texan but somehow, Escovedo's name had escaped me. They played "Always a Friend" from Escovedo's forthcoming CD, Real Animal. The song was good and, hey, if Bruce likes it, I'll at least give it a listen.
Come June 2008, the CD was released and, via, iTunes, I gave it a listen. Let me put it this way: I listened to the 30-second previews of all these songs...and bought the album. This CD was my first introduction to Escovedo's work and I don't think it'll be the last. Tony Visconti, producer of some of David Bowie's best material as well as T.Rex, produced Escovedo's CD and many of Visconti's influences show up.
Sonically "Golden Bear" seems like an outtake from Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" complete with drip-drop sound effects. Being unused to Escovedo's vocal stylings, "Chelsea Hotel '78" evokes early Elvis Costello who sang that he didn't want to go to Chelsea. The very next track, ""Sister Lost Soul," suddenly hearkens back to 1960s guitar-driven balladry. No sooner did we imagine dancing with a girl to "Sister Lost Soul" than Escovedo fast-forwards to the late 70s punk movement with "Smoke," whose guitar frenzy drives the song.
I did some research about Escovedo after I purchased the CD. One of his favorite musical accompaniments is a string quartet. Ironically, the first Elvis Costello CD I ever purchases was his foray into classical music, The Juliet Letters, with the Brodsky Quartet. That interest, in turn, spurned my interest in string quartets of which The Turtle Island Quartet's tribute to John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, is but my latest love. All this is to say that Escovedo's "Hollywood Hills," a song with his string quartet, is one of the best tracks on Real Animal. For someone like me, who cherishes the eclectic in music, this CD is wonderful.
But the music is only half the story. Escovedo's lyrics provide this CD with its emotional foundation. Even knowing nothing about the man, I can listen to this CD and learn a lot about the graying rocker who joined Springsteen on stage in Houston. This is a work of autobiography via the music of America. It is a history of America for the past 30+ years as seen by a troubadour who constantly tours and has a unique vision to what this nation has become. At times mournful, at times jubilant, at times angry, this collection of songs is one of the best I've heard in a long time.
I think for long-time fans of Escovedo, this CD is a love letter to the times, events, concerts--the promise of youth crashing headlong with the broken reality of adulthood--of the past 30 years. You might even make the case that it's a thank-you letter as well.
But for folks like me, being introduced to Escovedo in 2008, this acts as an introduction. It is Escovedo saying to newcomers: "This is who I am. This is where I've been. This is my sound. I hope you like what you hear. If you do, join me. I've still got more roads to travel."
Count me in. Just give me a map.
Dave Marsh, a longtime Springsteen fan and journalist, has an excellent article via the Alejandrdo Escovedo website.
I've lived with this CD for over a year now. It's my favorite "surprise" CD of 2008. It's still excellent, maturing and mellowing with age. I've had my 8-GB iPod since January 2008 and this CD has never left it since I bought it. I return to it again and again.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
- Sunday - Read the latest story from Beat to a Pulp. I don't know what it's going to be but has David Cranmer and Elaine Ash ever steered us wrong? By the time I return, I'll have two stories to read. Lucky me.
- Monday (at this blog) - Music review of Alejandro Escovedo's 2008 CD "Real Animals"
- Monday (at SF Safari) - Comic review of "Wednesday's Comics," the new tabloid broadsheet comic from DC Comics. This is one of the best things to come down the pike in a long time.
- Tuesday (right here) - Two Sentence Tuesday: Superhero Edition
- Wednesday (at SF Safari) - Comic review of "Joker" by Brian Azzarello
- Thursday (right here) - Book review: The Gutter and the Grave by Ed McBain
- Friday (at SF Safari) - Forgotten Books: (You'll have to tune in to find out. Only Patti Abbott will know before Friday.)
Friday, July 10, 2009
I'm going to be gone for a few days vacationing in Central Texas visiting, among other things, Dinosaur Valley State Park and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center. I suspect a lot of y'all are like me in that I actually plan which books I'll be taking on any vacations. I have this interesting (read: strange?) penchant to read books that are about/set in the places I visit. Thus, last year, when I went to California, I took Robert Bloch's Spiderweb/Shooting Star as it was set in California. This year, it's westerns (mostly).
- The Comanche Scalp - William Colt MacDonald
- Trail of the Apache - Elmore Leonard (I have the new complete set of short stories but don't want to lug around that huge brick of a book)
- The Lone Ranger (graphic novel) - I'm very interested to see a modern take on this most classic of western heroes.
- Night Over the Solomons - Louis L'amour (not a western but a western writer)
Monday, July 6, 2009
For my few sentences, I've plucked a few from my crime novel featuring Anne Chambers, my police detective from Houston. Here, she's in a pickle.
Something inside me changed the day I killed my sister. Holding her bleeding body, watching the lucidity melt away from her eyes, I cried. I vomited. I had to be sedated. In the days after, I came to terms with my actions, my guilt, my rage. I knew who was to blame. I made a vow: I would never miss again.For more Two Sentence fun, Women of Mystery is the place to be today.
These thoughts raced through my mind as my hand flexed around the butt of my gun, steadying my aim. The barrel of the Glock centered on the man’s forehead, the sight a fuzzy black rectangle between his eyes.
I had him cold.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
But which one? David McCullough has given us two fantastic Revolutionary War books, the masterful biography, John Adams, and 1776. Joseph Ellis provides numerous biographies and studies of the Founding Fathers, none so good as Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Then there is Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, an examination of the creation of the Declaration 233 summers ago and how it was--and is--the definitive statement of the American mind.
For all these good historical works, I decided to offer a book of primary sources. The sub-title tells the tale: The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, edited by Lester J. Cappon. Beginning in 1777, the conversation between these members of the Founding Generation continues, with a large gap, all the way until the year of their deaths, 1826.
The early letters are fascinating reading. You can see how each man conducted his life and service to the young republic both on this continent and in Europe. Jefferson and Adams had a genuine friendship in those early days, asking for and giving advice on any number of problems of government. Benjamin Franklin makes an appearance as does John Jay, our first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Even if you didn’t know a lot about these two men, you could tell a lot by looking over the table of contents. In the 1770s and 1780s, Cappon fills nearly 250 pages of this book with letters. You hit 1790, however, and things go south. As the new government under the Constitution took hold, the split between Jefferson and Adams grew larger and larger. The two men wrote only nineteen letters in the years 1790-1796 when they were serving in the Washington Administration. They ran against each other in the Election of 1796, with Adams winning and Jefferson becoming Vice President (this was before the 12th Amendment). They ran again opposite each other in 1800 and Jefferson won, with Adams coming in third behind Aaron Burr.
Here’s where the giant rift occurs. Adams was so bitter against Jefferson (and vice versa) that they ceased communicating. In fact, they never saw each other again. In 1804, Abigail wrote to President Jefferson upon hearing of his daughter’s death. Late the same year, Abigail “close[d] this correspondence” wishing the Virginian well with the remainder of his Administration.
Eight more years passed and, with the help of Benjamin Rush (also a Declaration signer), the Sage of Monticello and the Statesman of Quincy, Massachusetts, restarted a correspondence that lasted until each man died. Here’s where the meat of this friendship, and book, is. Fully, half of the current volume is dedicated to this era of their lives. They talked about everything: the years of the Revolution, the Federalist Era, both their administrations, and the current Madison Administration. Each man didn’t back down from his own belief but each acknowledged the other’s theories. You also get two founders commenting on the actions of the younger Americans and the meaning of the Declaration, the Revolution, and the American experiment.
Tomorrow also is the anniversary of their deaths, 183 years ago. They both died on July 4, 1826, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson left lasting legacies, none more important than their friendship. They weren’t demigods; they were real people who made real choices, some of which cost them years of friendship. Yes, their relationship teetered and broke for a time, but it eventually healed and both men were better for it. With The Adams-Jefferson Letters, you get a front row seat to some verbal and intellectual fireworks the likes of which our country rarely sees.
I’ll leave you today with the words of John Adams to Abigail upon the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776 (they signed it on the 4th).
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.