Saturday, December 11, 2021

Seasons' Readings

I love Christmas anthologies. I have my small collection. They run the gamut from SF (Christmas Stars) to classic (Dickens Christmas tales; Christmas Classics) to mystery (Crime for Christmas) to scary (Christmas Ghosts; can't find a link; it's the Hartwell/Cramer one) and Sherlock Holmes (Holmes for the Holidays). I've even got my comics covered with A DC Universe Christmas and Lee Bermejo's Batman: Noel

This year, I've added some cozy Christmas tales like Louise R. Innes Death at Holly Lodge, Holiday Murder by Leslie Meier, and another helping of the Andy Carpenter series by David Rosenfelt.

But when it comes to a book you can read for year, I think there is a top dog: The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. Released in 2013, this 650-page book has something for everybody.

Agatha Christie opens and closes the book, and in between these bookends, all your favorites are here: Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Ellery Queen, Donald Westlake, Isaac Asimov, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, and more.

The stories are broken out by themes such as A Modern Little Christmas, A Puzzling Little Christmas, A Pulpy Little Christmas, and A Traditional Little Christmas. If the stories don't get you, the wonderful cover painting, evoking something from the golden age, certainly will.

A collection this large cannot possibly be finished in one season. I don’t even try. Instead, I dip in for the last eight years, reading a tale here and there. 

I always enjoy making new discoveries, even if the discovery is something older.

Have y’all read through this book? If so, what are your favorite stories?

And what are some of y'all's favorite Christmas stories?

Saturday, December 4, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021 - Post-Game: What’s Next?

NaNoWriMo 2021 is now in the books. How did you do? Did you get to 50,000 words? Did those 50,000 words correspond to the end of your novel? Did you fall short? Don’t worry. I’ve done all those things and more.

This year, I hit a new threshold: I got to 70,063 words in the thirty days of November. That came out to 40.2 hours. Irritatingly, those 70,000 words are not the end of the story, so I kept going. But I allowed myself a new daily goal for December: 1,000 words per day. It’s not quite the benchmark of 1,667 but it’s manageable. It’s helpful, too. I ran into a story wall on Thursday and I needed to brainstorm. It ate up the new words, but I cleared the pathway for the rest of the book (and might’ve even discovered a penultimate scene).

Like I said last week, whatever you did, please celebrate your accomplishment. I know that the physical part of writing is literally sitting in a chair and moving your fingers over the keyboard, but it can take a lot out of you. So no matter if you got to 50K or didn’t, celebrate.

What’s Next?

Well, as I wrote last week, if you want to be a writer, you have to keep writing. Find a new monthly challenge and get a story written. Write a short story per month in 2022. Just keep writing.

But what if you want to publish this NaNoWriMo 2021 book? Author J. Todd Scott on Twitter mentioned this week that his first book was written as part of NaNoWriMo.

What about the book you just completed? Well, do you want to publish it? If so, you can do what I did and publish it an an indie author. Yes, it means you do everything, but you also control everything. You rise or fall based on what you do. It can be daunting, but also rewarding.

First thing, get it edited. Ideally, you’d hire a professional editor, preferably one that doesn’t know you for a completely unbiased review of your book. When you get those changes back, make the changes. You don’t have to make them all. I mean if the editor is telling you the sub-plot needs a complete overhaul, consider why the editor said that, and then make your informed decision. There’s a reason the editor made the comment, but it doesn’t mean the editor is 100% correct. When you’ve made those change, re-read your book and then spot the things you missed.

Get a cover. Unless you know graphic design, hire someone. I used 99Designs to get some of my covers created.

Write a book description. Create your metadata. Determine the price point. Determine your marketing strategy. Format your file. (For this, the company Draft2Digital is recommended because they’ll basically do all the formatting you need for any of the digital marketplaces.) Upload the file to the world.

Then celebrate your accomplishment by throwing yourself a party.

And then? Well, do it all again.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021 - Week 4 Encouragement: Congratulations, Honest Assessment, and the Future

Well, as of yesterday, NaNoWriMo 2021 has only four more days. As nice as it was to start the month and our novels on a Monday, we actually have until this coming Tuesday to reach the 50,000-word mark.

I reached that milestone last Sunday, about 36 minutes into my 76-minute writing session (yeah, I kept track of the time and the exact word count). As of yesterday, I’m up to 61,667 words and I still have a bit to go. Not sure how much, but I’m going to keep going until I get to The End. I kept track of the total minutes written so far and they add up to 35.5 hours. It’s moments like this when I superimpose a month’s worth of writing in spurts of 60-75 minutes over a typical day job of 40 hours a week and start to wonder what it would really be like to have a day job in which I wrote fiction for 8 hours a day. I know that it would not be a one-to-one comparison, but I still think about it. Maybe one day.

So, how are you doing? Did you get to 50,000 words? Did those 50,000 words correspond to the end of your novel or do you still have to keep writing to get to The End? Did you fall short? Don’t worry. I’ve done all those things and more.

Depending on your answers, you should do two crucial things.

First, if you finished, CELEBRATE! You have just written a 50,000-word novel. Celebrate. Tell people about it. Post about it on Facebook. Tweet your accomplishments. Open a bottle of champagne. Seriously on that last part, do it. Ever since I completed book 2, I have sprung for a bottle of bubbly to celebrate. It is a monumental thing if you have written a novel, especially if it’s your first.

Second, if you did not finish, do not beat yourself up or chastise yourself. Do not do those things. They do you no good and, in all honesty, they hamper your next writing effort. Believe me. I know this one all too well. It wasn’t until January 2013 when I again looked at the past year of not writing and finally turned myself around. I didn’t chastise myself like I had on previous New Year’s Days. Instead, I analyzed what had kept me from writing. Once those things were identified, I was able to skirt around them, avoid them, and I became a much more productive writer.

Now what?

Well, you’ve got to ask yourself a question. Did you participate in NaNoWriMo 2021 just to say you have written a novel, or did you do it because you want to keep writing stories? If it’s the former, good for you. Print it out, bind it if you want, display it proudly, and mark it off your bucket list. Mission Accomplished.

But if you found you enjoyed the process and kept doing it, you must keep writing. Seriously. Maybe NaNoWriMo 2021 took a lot out of you. That’s okay. Take a break for sure. Revel in your success. But make a plan--today--that you’ll start your next book on a certain day. My suggestion: New Year’s Day.

Now that you know you can write a novel, do it again. What better way to start a new year than with a new novel. I’ve done it the past few years. It’s a great way to get past the inevitable doldrums I often get in January. It’s like the hangover for all the holidays we celebrate the last 62 days of a year. Make a plan to start a book, and then write that next book. I’ll leave it up to you whether or not you decide to make January 2022 into a NaNoWriMo, but make a plan.

Ideally, you’ll finish your next book by 31 January 2022. Then, do it again. The best way to make it as a writer is to keep writing regularly. The ‘regularly’ is the key part. Writing is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to keep it in shape. And here’s the cool part: the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Even if you don’t do a true NaNoWriMo of 1,667 words a day, shoot for 1,000. That’s the goal of veteran writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch. In two months, you can have your next book written. Or a novella in 31 days.

Just keep writing. Make it a habit. If you do, you’ll discover the joy of writing, the ease of writing, and it’ll likely make you happy.

Right now, revel in your celebration: NaNoWriMo 2021 is almost over. Congratulations. Now, don’t wait another eleven months to write your next book

Saturday, November 20, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021 - Week 3 Encouragement: Let the Book Breathe and Drive to the Final Week

The third full week of November also counts as the third full week of NaNoWriMo 2021. Still having fun yet? I know I am. I am well ahead of the daily pace of 1,667 words per day. As of yesterday, a daily 1,667 words gets you to 31,673. As of now, I’m only 3,100 words shy of 50,000, a threshold I should reach Saturday (if I have a good writing day) or Sunday for sure.

So I’m pretty jazzed about my progress, and I attribute it to a mantra I apply to NaNoWriMo and every other story I write: let the book breath and be what it wants.

What do I mean by that?

I’ve mentioned before that I set out to write a murder/mystery will elements of romance. Well, as it turns out, my 2021 NaNoWriMo book is more family drama than murder/mystery. Don’t worry. The murder is here, but I opted to write this story in which the corpse does not show up in chapter one. I wanted to set the stage first, to introduce the characters first, give the reader a sense of them all before something bad happens.

And I think I’ve accomplished that. I’m the first reader even though I’m the writer, and here’s a telling comment about my enthusiasm about this story: I haven’t read anything else all month. The story I want to read is the one I’m writing. Getting up at 5am on weekday to write is not a chore. I almost literally jump out of bed, go through a few calisthenics, fill a coffee cup, and start writing. I can’t wait to get back to the story.

I’m using Google Docs and it tends to wig out around the 10,000-word mark. As such, I create a new file every 10,000 words. I’ve let some folks read the first part and the response has been quite positive. It’s a good thing when you, the writer, enjoy a story you are writing. It’s great when someone else likes what you’ve actively working on.

As we turn the corner to the last full week of November (the month ends on a Tuesday) and some of us have days off where we can possibly spend more time writing, keep this thought in mind: it’s more important for you to finish the book than reach 50,000 in November.

Here’s why. By now, you will likely have already established a pattern, a routine for writing. Whatever it is, keep doing it until the book is finished.

If you can conceivably complete the book by the end of November, do it. But, if you don’t think you can make that deadline...but do think you can complete the book a few days after 30 November, then make the adjustment. Because, when you get right down to it, the reason you started NaNoWriMo in the first place was to complete a book. The 50,000-word mark was only a trick, a hack, to get many writers started. Your book may only be 45,000. If so, then congrats! You’ve written a book. Your book may actually not be done until you get to 95,000 or more. Your book is your book. Do your adjustments as you see fit.

But this last full week of NaNoWriMo 2021 is the final major push. I’ve done it before. I’m doing it now. Millions of others have done it.

And you can, too.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021 - Week 2 Encouragement: Don’t Sweat a Sub-Par Writing Day

As of yesterday, all the writers doing NaNoWriMo 2021 should have reached the 20,000-word mark. This threshold is based on a daily word count of 1,667 words per day. I’m happy to say that I now sit at 31,777 words.

There are two things at play with that number. One, I’m having a blast writing this novel, a traditional murder/mystery, a genre new to me. The words almost always fly from my brain, through the fingers, and onto the screen with joyous abandon.

Additionally, this is more of a character-driven story than I’ve ever written before. For my thrillers or westerns, there’s almost always a bad guy with a gun shooting at my heroes and they have to react. Not so with this book. It’s contemporary, with people talking about real issues and soon to be solving a crime. It’s odd for me, but I’m sincerely digging it. My initial readers are as well. My wife—a very harsh critic, who reads way more books than I do, and typically does not to read some of my more over-the-top stories—surprised me with her verdict on Part I of the story. It buoyed my day yesterday, especially since I’m going down a new path.

Every day until Wednesday, 9 November, I wrote more than 2,000 words in a day. But Wednesday morning, the words didn’t come in a gusher like the other ones have done. I ended up with only 1,880 words that day, above the baseline of a typical NaNoWriMo day, but less than my personal average. I thought about circling back sometime later in the day to bang out and additional 200 words, but opted not to. I wanted to remind myself, when I look at my spreadsheet with the daily tally, that some days will see fewer words than other days. It’s okay and it’s natural. The same thing happened yesterday, when I reached only 1,900 words.

The exception was Thursday. It was Veteran’s Day and I had the day off. What I ended up doing was working on the book all morning. I kept my typical day-job schedule of getting up from my chair every hour and exercising. Basically, I treated the fiction-writing job as the actual day job. It is what I’d love to do. I closed the laptop at noon to go shopping with the wife having booked 5,268 words.

Lessons for the week

It’s okay not to reach a pace you set for yourself. It’s even okay not to reach the 1,667-word mark everyday as long as you have the end goal in mind.

If you have some extra time this month—like I did on Thursday—take advantage of the bonus time and keep writing and add to the book’s total. Not only will you advance your novel, but you’ll be able to reach a point when you can take off a day from writing, like Thanksgiving. Time management is crucial to finishing a book, and be mindful of all the time you have available to write.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021 - End of Week 1 Encouragement: Get Some Sleep

How’s the book coming along?

Today is Day 6 of NaNoWriMo (although for me, it’s still Day 5). If you’ve kept up the daily 1,667 words pace, Day 5 will have you at 8,335 words total.

I’m happy to report that, as of Day 5, I have reached 11,220 words. That's pretty remarkable considering I'm writing in a combined genre brand new to me. I’m actually 2,885 words ahead of schedule, which is fine by me. Remember we have a holiday here in the US on the last Thursday the month. Ideally, I want to be able not to write, although I probably will squeeze in some minutes and words.

The week went pretty well for me this week, writing-wise. I woke at 5am each workday. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I work from home, so I had a nice 85-minute session each of those days.

Tuesday and Thursday was a different story. I go into the office and arrive at 7am. To do that, I have to stop writing at 5:55am. It’s a shorter session, but I bring my Chromebook and finish out the day during my lunch hour.

But I immediately noticed something on Tuesday: I cannot stay up late on Monday. I did, quite by accident, and I really felt it on Tuesday. Wednesday night was different as I went to bed early and made up the sleep time. By now, Friday afternoon, I can feel the lack of sleep. So looking forward to the end of daylight savings time this week. The extra hour of sleep arrives at the perfect time.

So I have two pieces of encouragement for you writers who are on this NaNoWriMo journey

Don’t get too bogged down in the daily weeds. Maintain the overall goal: 50,000. Some days, you’ll blow past the 1,667 mark. Others you may fall short. You can make it up. Don’t lose sight of the end goal: a completed story. In the end, it won’t matter if you didn’t reach your daily goal for a third of the days and exceeded it on the rest. All that matters is a 50,000-word completed novel.

And keep yourself healthy and maintain your sleep schedule. You can’t write if you’re sick or tired.

Until next week, keep writing!

Saturday, October 30, 2021

NaNoWriMo 2021: Yes, You Can Write a Novel in a Month

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? I am, and I can’t wait until Monday.

For those of y’all who don’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a fun event where writers are challenged to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November. I’ve done it multiple times, sometimes succeeding and other times failing.

What I enjoy about it is the virtual camaraderie. On any given day that I’m writing a book, I know that there are thousands (millions?) of other authors also writing. But it’s a little different when you’re doing NaNoWriMo. We’re all in this same boat together. We have to manage our writing time, our day jobs, our lives, and just when we plan to get our words in on Thanksgiving Day.

Throughout this month, I will be updating my progress and offering helpful tips and encouragement to keep going. Because every time you write “The End” on a novel is special, but it’s just a tad more special when you do it during NaNoWriMo.


I’ve spent the better part of the past two weeks preparing. This will be my first murder/mystery that might lean cozy. As I’ve never written a murder/mystery, I took time to create characters (not named at first) and situations they will have to deal with. Who will be the victim? Who will be the killer? Who will discover the crucial clues?

It was this past Thursday when I knew I was ready to start. I mapped out the first few scenes because I wanted to hit the ground running come Monday at 5am (my writing time). During that little session, my imagination began veering and including little tidbits. I’m a hybrid pantser/plotter. I have just enough framework to give my imagination room to breathe, but breathing with focus. That my imagination was already chomping at the bit, I got even more excited about 1 November.

Typing Names

For the longest time—up until yesterday, in fact—I had no names for my characters. They were just Mom, Son #1, Son #1’s Wife, Girl, Guy, etc. I knew that wasn’t gonna fly come Monday, so I named my characters in a first-for-me manner: I typed them to see how they’d feel and to see if my typing speed and fingers misspelled them often. It’s all well and good to name a character Chrysanthemum Bannington, but can you imagine typing that over and over again? Sure, there’s autocorrect but I prefer to type the names.

So I took some names for a test drive and started filling in my list. I also paid attention to the first letter of those first names. I only repeat one letter one time: B. Every other character has a name that starts with a unique letter. Easier for me the writer and it’ll be easier for future readers to keep everyone straight.

Track Your Progress

The nuts and bolts of NaNoWriMo breaks down to 1,667 words per day. If you do that, you’ll hit your fifty thousand by 30 November.

Over the years, I’ve developed a spreadsheet I use to see where I am. Here’s a screenshot of the first couple of weeks.

You’ll see that I track the obvious stuff: date, the 1,667/day pace, Idea is the pace of 1,667/day, Actual is what I wrote that day, Total is obvious, Diff is how far under or over I am on the 1,667/day pace. I also like to track time spent doing the writing so all those other columns do that.

The “Diff” column is very helpful. Not only does it give you a daily reminder of where you are, but it also enables you to build in a buffer. Remember what I mentioned about Thanksgiving Day? Well, if you are, say, 1,000 words ahead, you can get by with fewer words on any given day.

But let me give what is perhaps the best piece of advice: do not skip a day. If you do, you will get behind, and there’s nothing more demoralizing that running behind.

There is still an even better piece of advice: Have Fun! If you do, it’ll be nothing to reach “The End” in a month.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

What’s It Like Co-Authoring a Book?

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my cousin and he asked about any upcoming books I’ve written. I mentioned “Ghost Town Gambit,” the short story I had in the Six Gun Justice podcast anthology as well as Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express, the novel I co-wrote with David Cranmer that teams up our two western heroes, David’s Cash Laramie and my own Calvin Carter. My cousin was intrigued about the book, but more interested in how David and I wrote a book together.

To be honest, it was quite seamless.

The Beginning

Way back in January 2010, David sent me an email about a Cash Laramie story he was working on that drew some of its inspiration from the real-world west of the 1890s but also some steampunk elements. (I’m keeping the nature of the steampunk thing close the vest. You’ll just have to read the story to find out what it is.)

Knowing I had a fondness for steampunk, he suggested we team up our characters for this adventure. Soon thereafter, he sent about 3,000 words of the story. It included a historical note on when the story took place and the opening setup.

It quickly became apparent that his characters would need to get on the hijacked Sundown Express while Carter would already be on it when the outlaws took over the train. From that point forward, I took David’s text and inserted Carter into it, writing Carter’s scenes from scratch and layering in some text on the Cash side of things.

That’s pretty much how it went for a good stretch of 2010 and into 2011. We’d email back and forth, asking and answering questions, and tweaking the story as we went along. With Beat to a Pulp the publisher of record, David kept the main versions of the story while I maintained my copies as backup.

Recruiting Outside Help

The story just fell off our radar for about a decade or so. Every now and then, we’d bring it up, but little new work was done. In the intervening years, I had written more Calvin Carter stories and three novels. His style of story changed from a darker, more grittier version you see in his first short story to a more light-hearted, Maverick-style fun character in the novels.

Then, out of the blue, David emails me in August 2020 asking my opinion about reviving the story and completing it. I jumped at the chance, but let him know about Carter’s style change. I hadn’t thought of Sundown Express in years—although I had Carter reference it in one of the novels—but I remembered him being pretty tough. I would certainly have to re-read the story from scratch.

An invaluable stroke of good fortune was David asking Nik Morton to read the story and offer suggestions. Nik is a fantastic author, and his Write a Western in 30 Days book is a wonderful primer for writing your own western, even if it takes you longer than a month.

Nik had a read and then David sent me the updated file. I had already made a crucial decision: I would not go back and re-read what I had last written in 2011 or so, letting the 2020 draft serve as the new starting point.

I picked up the draft and read the story, with a notepad on the table and Word’s tracked changes turned on. Nik’s edits were good, but what was great for me was a couple of extra scenes featuring Carter I didn’t remember writing. I still have never gone back and re-read the old versions, but I was thrilled that Nik seemed to get Carter’s style. While David’s had multiple authors write about Cash and other characters he created—most recently The Drifter Detective featuring tales of Jack Laramie, Cash’s grandson—this was the first time another author wrote about a character I created.

The Homestretch

I worked on the draft rather slowly last fall, finally turning over my update in early January. From then, David and I went back and forth a time or two. During that time, David created the cover you see. I really like the painted effect he has on it, especially on the back cover of the paperback.

By way of marketing, David suggested we do an in-print “interview” where he and I go back and forth. I also suggested we try to get interviewed together for a podcast. I reached out to Paul Bishop and Richard Prosch of the Six Gun Justice podcast and they agreed. While the interview features just me, I do promote the collaboration, offering more insights than this.

Finally, a short twenty days ago, Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express was published for all the world to read.

I’m not sure if co-authoring a book is this seamless for other writers, but it was for David and I. We’re really proud of the finished story and hope you enjoy it.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Now Available: Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express featuring Calvin Carter

Exciting news! The first Calvin Carter team-up has arrived.

With the publication of Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express, Carter steps into a wider western universe, and he does it courtesy of one of my oldest writing friends.

David Cranmer and I emerged on the scene at roughly the same time, around 2008-2009 or so. We would see each other’s comments on the same blogs and we eventually started communicating back and forth. His first major character was Cash Laramie, the Outlaw Marshal, who starred in a series of short stories. Mine was former actor turned railroad detective, Calvin Carter. In fact, Carter’s first adventure was published on David’s Beat to a Pulp webzine.

We’ve discussed teaming up our two characters and, after a decade in development, the end result is finally available.

And it’s thrilling.

I am immensely proud of this work not only for the story itself but also because it’s the first time I’ve published a story with a co-author.

You can find the print or ebook version at Amazon.

So, without any further words from me, I present the description and the Prologue (things folks on my mailing list (sign up at my author website) received over two weeks ago--hint, hint).

Book Description:

Cash Laramie, The Outlaw Marshal, faces his wildest adventure yet when the Sundown Express, billed as the fastest train in the west, is seized by a ruthless gang.

The desperadoes run the train back and forth on the same stretch of open ground, eliminating any chance for lawmen to board and retake the locomotive. They deliver their demands with a corpse: Give us $100,000 before dusk or we will kill more passengers every hour until the ransom is met.

Cash has faced miscreants before and knows he can beat these guys, but how can he get on the Express hurtling down the tracks at seventy miles per hour?

Aboard the train, things are grim. Famed actress Lillie Langtry and the other captives sit frightened, wondering if they’ll be next. But not disguised railroad detective Calvin Carter. He reckons the train’s speed thwarts any chance for a boarding party to save the day, so the former actor makes sure he’s in the marauders’ spotlight, even if it means his final curtain call.

With a rescue plan that feels like a suicide mission, Cash and fellow marshal Gideon Miles must board the speeding train and take down the gang before any more innocent lives are lost.







Special Delivery




Ashdale, Wyoming: Mid-morning


The sound arrived first. The distinctive rumble of an iron horse roaring over steel rails, carried on the wind to the ears of the people gathered at the Ashdale Station. Sheriff Roy Tanner frowned. Something was wrong. He knew it, and, based on the faces of the others lingering on the platform, they knew it, too.

A train was coming, but it was coming from the wrong direction.

Like many of the citizens of the town, Sheriff Tanner had turned out to watch the inaugural run of the trailblazing-in-design train dubbed the Sundown Express, capable of a speed topping seventy miles an hour. The crowd had stuck around, braving the sweltering August heat, to prattle on over the sight of the mighty locomotive as it sped through their small community, destined for Sioux Falls. Tanner had even taken pity on Edwin Curtis, a swarthy prisoner whose penchant for robbing trains earned him a trial date as soon as the judge returned to Ashdale. Handcuffed together, wrist to wrist, Tanner could tell Curtis also sensed something.

“I thought the paper said the track was gonna be cleared for the Express,” Curtis said.

“That’s right,” the sheriff replied. The lawman reached into a trouser pocket, removed a bandana, and began wiping the sweat from his forehead and neck.

The sound grew louder. From a distance, through the shimmering heat waves rising from the flat land, a dark shape moved.

A handful of people stepped forward to the edge of the platform, curious. Without warning, Curtis stepped forward, too, craning his neck over the heads of the onlookers and yanking on Tanner’s arm, but the lawman didn’t much care. He wanted to see as well. He recognized the distinctive outline of a train approaching. The plume of smoke rose from the stack and caromed into the wind.

Tanner glanced over his shoulder at the ticket clerk. The scrawny, short man frowned and squinted his eyes behind a pair of spectacles, absently scratching his head as he checked the schedule from his seat inside the tiny ticket booth.

“Neville,” Tanner called to the clerk, “what train is this?”

“I don’t know. There can’t be another train due from the east until the Express crosses into Dakota Territory. That’ll be hours from now.”

Curtis hmphed. “Schedule or not, that train’s almost here. And it ain’t slowing down.” He gestured with his chin. “It’s the Express again.”

Tanner gawked at the outlaw. “How do you know?”

“The speed. I ain’t never heard anything move that fast.”

“There ain’t a turnaround for at least a hundred miles,” the sheriff scoffed. “Only way for it to be the Express was if it was going backwards.”

Neville let out a panicked laugh, masking a deepening alarm. “But why would it be coming back here, going in reverse no less?”

Moments later, the caboose rocketed in, its gold-and-red paint confirming Curtis’s assertion, followed quickly by the passenger cars with “Sundown Express” emblazoned on the sides. Unlike its first pass, the train didn’t slow down this time, and, from the open doors of a boxcar, a bundle was tossed through the air. Tanner didn’t need but a glance to recognize the shape as a bound and gagged man.

Startled bystanders bounded across the platform boards in chaos, rushing out of harm’s way. When the body hit the planks, it rolled several times before smashing into the wooden ticket booth and dislodging the shocked clerk from his seat.

As the train steamed onward to Cheyenne, a stunned silence briefly fell in its wake, only to be broken when a few folks began murmuring about what they had just witnessed. Tanner, hardened by the Great Unpleasantness, stood speechless until the moaning of the victim roused him from his stupor.

The discarded man, lying on his back, raised his bloodied head a fraction then lowered it, fixed gray eyes staring upon oblivion.

Needing no prompt, the paling clerk righted himself and backed away from the corpse in an ungainly scramble.

Sheriff Tanner unlocked the handcuff from his wrist and reattached it to a porter’s cart handle. “Stay put,” he told his prisoner.

“I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Curtis said. He stood rooted in place and gazed west at the rapidly disappearing Sundown Express, something akin to respect showing on his face.

Tanner ran to the wrecked ticket stand and lowered himself to one knee beside the portly man dressed in a brown and tan chalk-stripe suit. There was a wide patch of blood on the victim’s vest, a gut shot, which didn’t bode well. Neither did the taut leather cord tied around his throat. Tanner pressed two fingers to the side of the man’s neck.

“Is he, is he dead?” Neville asked as he steadied himself on what remained of the ticket booth.

The lawman nodded solemnly. He pulled at the leather cord, revealing an envelope tucked inside the man’s vest. It read simply: “For Senator Madison.”

“Is that a message?” Neville said.

“No,” Curtis said, his lips curling over his teeth into a wide grin. “It’s a ransom.”

Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Challenging Season 1 of Tin Star

It’s probably just me.

The wife and I finished up season 1 of Tin Star, the BBC show, created by Rowan Joffé. All three seasons are now available on Amazon Prime.

Tim Roth stars as James Worth, a former London police detective with some shady ways of doing things, especially when he’s [shocker] he’s drunk. When inebriated, James reverted to his more violent Mr. Hyde-type self, Jack, a personality he used while working under cover.

As the show starts, James is assuming his new job as the Chief of Police of Little Big Bear, a small town in Canada. In tow are his wife, teenaged daughter, and Petey, his five-year-old son. They don’t seem too happy to be moving, but with a mysterious past, it’s a good idea to get away.

Complicating things in the small town are the local deputies. Denise is a First Nation officer trying to navigate her responsibilities to her job, the local populace, and the increasing erratic behavior of the new chief. Deputy Ryan is having none of it and often calls out James for his behavior.

But that’s not all. North Stream Oil is in the area, aiming to take as much resources as possible while simultaneously doing whatever it takes to exercise its control over the town, including the police force. Louis, the head of security, seems always to know what’s going on and which screws to twist to protect the company.

Christina Hendricks plays Elizabeth, a PR specialist, who, over the course of this first season, slowly uncovers some of the company’s more unsavory history.

Then there are the trio of bad dudes who have followed the Worth family all the way from Britain. It is one of them who, in the first episode, pulls the trigger on the fleeing family and sets into motion most of the first season’s events.

The Character Challenges

Let’s start at the top. James Worth is an extremely difficult person to root for. Now, Tim Roth is excellent in his portrayal of the erratic James, but the actions he takes as the ten episodes play out are hard to understand at time. The more decisions he makes, the more I look over to my wife and ask why? One great (?) thing and Roth’s James Worth is his decisive decision making. If he makes up his mind to do something—like find the people who pulled the trigger in episode one—he’s a bulldog. His choices are basically crystal clear, even if you don’t agree with them. They build up over the season, so much so that by the end, you are left wondering will he or won’t he.

A hard man to like. But there are few in this show that garner genuine empathy. The two local deputies I like, and Ryan—who always got the short end of the stick most of the time—became someone with whom I could see myself.

But for all the irritating things these characters do, the actors portraying these character are all working at the top of their game. Late in the season, there’s an extended flashback scene, and what the young actor is called on to do is a heavy lift, but he does so well.

Christopher Heyerdahl as the head of security is super creepy and enigmatic (as the true reasons he does what he does is never truly revealed). Granted, it’s all to protect the company, but as Hendricks’s Elizabeth asks, why does a multi-billion dollar company care what a small town cop says.

Then there’s James’s daughter, Anna. The path her character takes is interesting. Not likable, mind you, but interesting. And it all leads up to the final seconds of the season and the instant cut to credits.

When those credits started rolling on Thursday night, I asked my wife why she made me watch this show. She sort of smiled and said I could have stopped at any time.

True, I didn’t, because the story is compelling enough that I wanted to know what happened next, but it’s so irritating that I’m following and wondering about characters the likes of which I wouldn’t want to invite to my house.

Will I watch season two? Probably. Will I enjoy it? To be determined.

Have you seen Tin Star?

Monday, September 27, 2021

Chicago 18 at 35

For any fan, there is always the first, that one special album, and Chicago 18 is the one for me.


My Journey to Chicago 18


I was introduced to Chicago by my friend, Chris, in the summer of 1985 when he loaned me a cassette copy of Chicago IX with the memorable phrase “You'll probably know half the songs and like the rest.” Well, I knew none of the tunes, but fell in love with the band on first listen.


What came next was obvious: I started collecting Chicago albums. Chicago 17 was the obvious next choice as it was ending its year-long run on the charts. Chicago 16, featuring its famous ballads, soon followed as did Chicago II. It was with that latter, 1970-era album that I discovered why the new album was named “17” and learned the band had quite a number of styles to its name.


But this was 1985. I was smack dab in the middle of high school and I didn't get all the political stuff featured on those early albums. I loved the music. Well, most of it. At the time, I didn't take too kindly to songs like “Free Form Guitar” or “Liberation” by this guy, Terry Kath, who was no longer in the band. In fact, without the internet, I can't even remember how I learned his fate, but I knew the fate of Peter Cetera, the seeming front man for this new band I loved.


He was leaving Chicago.


What the heck? I had just joined Chicago's fandom and the lead guy's leaving? What would that mean for the future of the band? Would there even be a next album, presumably titled “18”? Without social media or the internet, my high school band group, all of whom loved Chicago, would just have to wait.


The New Single (which was an old song)


Flash forward to August 1986. My love of Chicago had done nothing but grown. I can't remember all the albums I owned by that point, but by scouring used record stores, I had expanded to include III. I even put the poster on my wall, the one of the band sitting in the military cemetery.


I had purchased the single (either the actual 45 or the cassette version) of “25 or 6 to 4,” a remake of a classic tune. During a break from summer band rehearsal, Chris, our friend Richard, and I piled into my 1973 Dodge Dart and I slipped in the song to the cassette deck. Out came the first new Chicago song for any of us since 1984 (Chris already had Chicago 17 and none of us had yet purchased the We are the World album with “Good for Nothing” on it). More importantly for me, this was the very first new song I had heard by this new-to-me band.


I remember us digging the tune quite a bit, but there was still a slight hesitancy. As horn players ourselves, we wondered if the famous Chicago horns would be featured more like the old days or relegated to the background like on the two most recent records. Well, all we had to do was play the flip side. “One More Day” blared through the speakers and, almost as one, we three shouted “Now that's Chicago!”


Buying That First New Chicago Album


Wikipedia tells me that the official release date for Chicago 18 is 29 September 1986 (a Monday), but I can assure you I bought it on a bright and sunny Saturday, 27 September. How can I remember it so clearly? Well, life events seared this date and this album into my own personal memory.


By 1986, I had gone something like three years with weekend trips across Houston to visit my grandpa, have breakfast with him, mow his lawn, have some lunch, and have him overpay me for my efforts. Isn't that what grandparents are supposed to do? After lunch, I headed over to the Sound Warehouse near his house and there it was, Chicago 18, on cassette.


Now, my fifty-two-year-old brain is trying to sift through memories. I own the 1986-era CD version but I no longer own the cassette. I’m pretty sure I bought the cassette that September day thirty-five years ago, so we’ll just go with that. But later, when I bought the CD that came in the longbox, I cut up the cardboard and used it to decorate my room and, later, dorm room walls.


The Music


With only two songs on the initial single, that meant I had eight brand-new songs to hear. I had pretty much internalized both the new “25 or 6 to 4” and “One More Day” by 27 September so I had an inkling of what to expect. Right out of the gate, the new guy gets to shine.


“Niagara Falls” opens the album with that triplet rhythm. The sound is soaked in Peak 80s synth, something I loved at the time. Probably at the behest of producer David Foster, Jason Scheff sounded more like Peter Cetera than he, Scheff, probably wanted to, but that was the gig in 1986. Danny Serephine’s drums are also largely programmed as was many of the percussion in the mid-80s. Complimenting Scheff’s initial vocal is veteran Bill Champlin, then on his third Chicago album.


In light of my commentary on the sequencing of Chicago XIV, it’s interesting on listening to Chicago 18 all the way through for the first time in a long time that Champlin doesn’t have a lead vocal until track 7, and then only two on the entire album. But by 1986, all the main hits Chicago had in that decade featured the high tenor of Cetera, with “Hard Habit To Break” being the only exception, so it makes sense. It also points to the next album where Champlin would finally get the spotlight on him.


“Forever” is Robert Lamm’s first song of the album. Much like nearly every Lamm-penned tune over the band’s fifty-four-year history, Lamm’s soaring vocals are always complimented by the Chicago horns. It also features not only the first extended horn break of the album, but a fantastic tenor sax solo by Walt Paraziader.


“If She Would Have Been Faithful” comes in a track 3, the usual first single spot for many an 80s album. A power ballad the likes of which Foster and Chicago are renown for, Scheff and Champlin shine on their vocal delivery. The guitar work—especially that short solo before the bridge—is stellar, the horns, and the overall orchestral vibe make this a standout. I always loved that little stinger towards the end before they start repeating the chorus, and Scheff’s high vocals on “missed out on you” are great,” but one of the best things on Chicago 18 is how this song ends and the next begins.


With no silence between tracks, “25 or 6 to 4” begins on the downbeat right after the last note from “If She Would Have Been Faithful” concludes. I enjoy this reimagining of the then sixteen-year-old song. The brass additions are fun, but that metal-like guitar solo is fantastic.


When it comes to arranged songs by Chicago, “Will You Still Love Me?” is arguably one of the best. There is an ethereal quality to Scheff’s vocals that would work well had this song been played by an orchestra. Champlin again compliments with his deeper baritone. One of my favorite ballads the band has ever done.


Lamm opens Side 2 with “Over and Over,” another song with Lamm singing long, lofty notes over the rhythm. Again, Champlin serves as a sideman here, throwing his vocals judiciously, making this one of two (?) songs—“Only You” being the other—where Champlin and Lamm co-sing.


Finally, with “It’s Alright,” Champlin gets to sing lead. It’s a fun song with a group chorus that is primed and ready for in-concert audience sing-a-long.


Horn players James Pankow (trombone), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), and Parazaider probably became irritated as they were sidelined in the 1980s in favor of the hornless or horn-lite songs, so they threw on “Free Flight,” as a short interlude to remind listeners about the thing that make Chicago unique on the rock landscape. Yet it leads directly into another ballad, the first Scheff-penned song for the band. “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is a good tune that features the horns, Scheff’s excellent bass playing on the upper frets, all coated in that Foster-mandated synth gloss.


Speaking of 80s-era synth sounds, “I Believe” is drenched with it. Champin’s second lead vocal also serves as the first true duet with Scheff. Taking nothing away from the Cetera/Champlin or Cetera/Kath, but the vocals of Champlin/Scheff seem to meld together a bit more seamlessly. Now, one might argue that this similarity lends itself to a listener wondering when one guy stops singing and the other guy starts (see “Bethlehem” from the second Christmas album), but I have always enjoyed how well these two vocalists sing together.


Speaking of singing together, Chicago 18 boasts one of the few triple-vocals in the entire discography. “One More Day” not only has Lamm, Champlin, and Scheff trading off singing, but it’s got a great horn break. It also brings back some of that social consciousness so prominent in the early days. Just like that afternoon in August 1986 when my friends and I heard this tune for the first time, this is classic Chicago circa 1986.


It took years for me to learn this, but there was one more song recorded for Chicago 18 but never released. In fact, I heard it first on Lamm’s 1995 solo album Life is Good in My Neighborhood. “When Will the World Be Like Lovers?” is another triple-vocal tune, co-written by Lamm, with lyrics lamenting the state of the world. A kick-ass short guitar solo leads to an outro laced with horns and a lyric callback to the song “Beginnings”. I loved this tune as soon as I heard it and wished it would have landed on the official album. Back then, however, when you had three formats available, the LP still dictated how long an album could be. Not sure there was space enough for an eleventh song or if Foster thought this song was too similar to “One More Day,” but WWTWBLL went unreleased. You can find it online.


The Verdict and What Chicago 18 Means to Me


As the years have passed, my infatuation with the sound of music from the 1980s has waned. I’m talking the synth-fueled pop tunes of that decade versus the hair metal or heavier songs. I don’t dislike those kinds of songs, but I also never seek them out either. Over time, my favorite Chicago album of the 1980s has become Chicago 19, largely because the band had parted from David Foster and his style and sound of producing. It gave the guys in the band, especially Scheff, space to breathe and try something a bit different, and that difference mattered to me. Sure there are ballads on 19, but they just sound a bit edgier than those from 16-18. The horns are higher in the mix on 19, and Champlin simply shines. That album also features my favorite 80s-era song, “You’re Not Alone,” a hornless rocker the irony of which is not lost on me.


Chicago 18 has fallen out of my Top 10 favorite Chicago albums. Even in 1986, I still had new albums to discover in their back catalog. I honestly can’t remember the last album from the older discography I finally bought, but I think it was either XI or XIV. As you can imagine (or even remember in your own journey of discovery of Chicago), with each new/old album you hear, it jockeys for position in the Top 10. Eventually, I enjoyed more albums to a greater degree than Chicago 18 and it never recovered. The truth of that fact is that, in preparing for this piece, I listened to the album all the way through for the first time in forever.


But I still love a core set of tunes from Chicago 18 and I have eight of the eleven (I include WWTWBLL on my iTunes) songs on my phone’s playlist (NF, NGSUN, and IB don’t make the cut). Side 1 is all but perfect. Heck, every album from 16-19 has a great Side 1. Just imagine if those four sides were packaged as a double album.


Circling back to my personal history with Chicago 18, you might remember that I know for certain I bought this album thirty-five years ago today. Not sure how Sound Warehouse put the album out early (if Wikipedia is to be trusted) but they did.


September 27 is my mom’s birthday and it’s always good to remember your mom’s birthday. But that September weekend in 1986 was also homecoming. My first girlfriend and I had been dating well over a year by that point. As a senior, it was my last homecoming game as a student. I had my eyes set on attending the University of Texas at Austin and joining the Longhorn Band (done and done) and becoming a lawyer (not done, much to my happiness). How awesome was it to have homecoming, Saturday morning with your grandpa, your mom’s birthday, and the new Chicago album all released on the same weekend?


Well, it was great, until Sunday morning. That was when my girlfriend’s mom informed her the family was moving from Houston to Pittsburgh in a week. Thankfully, the mom had kept that news from her daughter and me so that homecoming could be celebrated without that dark cloud hanging over everything. But after the news broke and our hearts were ripped out of our chests, songs like “Forever” and “Will You Still Love Me” took on a greater meaning.


I can listen to these tunes now and not think about that time. Thirty-five years of additional life memories will do that for you. But it also marks the double-edged significance this album holds for me. In fact, in a recent 2021 interview, I experienced something similar. Trombonist James Pankow dropped the news that the band used the pandemic lockdown to get in the studio and record new songs for a brand-new Chicago album. The elation that erupted through me—complete with a yell of triumph heard throughout the house—instantly grew somber as he went on in the next sentence to state that’ll it likely be the band’s last album. It’s understandable for a band that’s nearly fifty-five years old featuring founding members in their seventies, but the news still stings.


Yet the music of Chicago 38 will live on, just as the music of Chicago 18 has lived on these past thirty-five years. Happy birthday mom, and happy anniversary to my first-ever new Chicago album.