The 100 year-old German grenade

Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

Imagine the following scenario: During WWI, factory workers in Germany assemble a Granatenwerfer grenade for use against troops of the Allied Powers. 

A century later, that same grenade, still unused and undetonated, turns up in a river in Grand Rapids, Michigan–one century, two continents, and an ocean away.

Oh, and a man pulls it from the river with a magnet!

If a novelist included such a plot device in a story, readers would call it contrived. But this is exactly what happened in real life, as the above story details.  

Exactly how did a 100 year-old German grenade from WWI end up in a river in Michigan?

I don’t think that anyone will ever know the full answer to that. But it must be a good story. 

Dysfunctional families and Thanksgiving

Yesterday I called one of my former work colleagues to wish him a Happy Thanksgiving in advance. I asked him what he planned to do for the holiday. He’s married with children, after all, and folks who are married with children are supposed to have festive family holidays.

Not so much, in his case. None of his relatives live in the same area of the country that he does. His wife’s parents are dead. She has three sisters, but none of them are speaking to his wife, for various reasons.

What about his children? I asked.

They’re away at college, he told me, and doing things with their friends.

Oh.

Another married friend of mine is spending Thanksgiving not with either set of parents (all four of which are still alive), but with friends in his adopted city of Pittsburgh. To the best of his knowledge, his young adult children will be present, though (according to him) they’ll spend most of the dinner exchanging text messages with friends.

Was Thanksgiving always like this? Not according to my memory…Or maybe I just imagined that.

All of us, I think, have an image of the blissfuly happy Thanksgiving get-together, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. That is an alluring ideal, and (let’s be clear here) an admirable one. No one is going to convince me that idyllic family life isn’t a worthwhile goal.

But my experience and observation leads me to believe that it’s an ideal that less than half of us manage to attain anymore—if we ever did.

My family life was relatively happy, as such things go. But there were relatives with drinking problems (I’m part Irish Catholic, after all), and heated disagreements over politics—decades before the Trump era. I remember riding home from Thanksgiving in the back seat of my dad’s station wagon, both of my parents angry about something that an aunt or a cousin had said during the extended family meal.

If this holiday finds you in an ideal (or close to ideal) family setting, count your blessings. If that isn’t the case, try not to despair too much.

You’re not alone, after all.

“Granny, get your gun.”

Florence Teeters, a 104 year-old woman in Wisconsin, is a newly licensed hunter. She’s just bagged her first buck.

I live in Southern Ohio, where deer hunting is a way of life in November for many people.

Hunting animals for food (or anything else) isn’t my thing. But I see no reason to be self-righteous about this: I regularly eat animals who live much worse lives in the industrial settings of Tyson and Cargill. Ms. Teeters’s deer, at least, lived wild and free until its final moments.

The deer’s natural predator, the wolf, is no more in most of the United States. Deer are everywhere in Southern Ohio nowadays, and hunters help trim the herd.

Deer sausage, I might add, is quite tasty when properly prepared.

Should you outline that novel or not? 9 considerations

Should you plan out your novel before you actually write it, in words that you want other people to eventually read?

That’s a good question.

Most writers agonize at some point about the choice between outlining a novel in advance versus discovery writing it. (Note: I refuse to use the term “pantsing”, as it’s a little too cutesy for my tastes.)

To begin with the conclusion: Yes, and no….and maybe.

I am not going to mandate a method here. I am going to lay out some considerations that you should keep in mind when making this decision for yourself.

Therefore, this will be a somewhat free-ranging discussion, rather than a linear argument leading to the absolute resolution that you must do it this way.

An emotional issue

When this issue is discussed in various online writing forums, there is often a lot of emotion and drama involved. (Imagine that, on the Internet!)

This is because most writers are extremely conflicted themselves. Art, after all, is a combination of ideas that just pop into the brain for no apparent reason, and decisions that one must consciously make. 

For a number of years in my youth I took guitar lessons. I found out that I wasn’t cut out to be a musician. But having studied music, I can tell you this: When you see Iron Maiden or Metallica jamming onstage, there is an entire system of order underlying all that. Not only are there rules, there is mathematical precision.

At the same time, there is also a large degree of inspiration, of purely individual choices. This is why Iron Maiden doesn’t sound like Air Supply.

And so it is with writing. You have to balance chaos with order. Most writers are constantly uneasy about where the line between the two should be drawn. Many of us tend to swing back and forth between outlining and discovery writing, depending on our moods, and how the last project went.

Hence the emotions that surround the debate.

1.) There are bestselling authors in both camps.

Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, and Michael Connelly are discovery writers. John Grisham, James Patterson, and Ken Follett are meticulous outliners. The late Robert Ludlum’s outlines were often small books in their own right.

The proof here being: Either method can result in a quality product—quality defined as “pleases many readers and makes enough money to fill an ocean liner.”

2.) You can discovery write mystery and thriller fiction, too.

I once read an online essay (I forget where) alleging that Stephen King only discovery writes because most of his stories involve small numbers of protagonists battling supernatural forces. The argument here seems to be that he doesn’t have many balls in the air, and he can change the operating rules at will.

That might be true of some of his novels: The Shining, Pet Sematary, It. In 2014 and 2015, however, King published the much acclaimed Bill Hodges Trilogy. I read the first of these books, Mr. Mercedes.

Mr. Mercedes, at least, is basically a hard-boiled detective novel (and it’s a pretty good one, too.) The book contains no supernatural elements to speak of.

Michael Connelly, another discovery writer, is the author of the popular Harry Bosch detective novels. (I’ve read every one of these ever published.) Connelly writes almost exclusively about the world of forensics, police procedure, and criminal activity.

And he doesn’t use an outline. Connelly told an interviewer in 2014: “I don’t map out anything. I put nothing on paper but the books themselves. I don’t outline.”

On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) wrote what might be called literary horror. His stories are heavily weighted with mood and description, but the plots are often kind of thin.

This suggests that H.P. Lovecraft was a discovery writer. Wrong. Lovecraft indicated in several pieces of correspondence that he was an outliner.

3.) There are only two nonnegotiable factors: story structure, and a system for keeping track.

Whether you discovery write or outline, you have to have a knowledge of the elements of story: rising incident, lock-in, climax, etc.

Knowledge of story structure can be acquired by osmosis. You’ve spent your life watching films, television dramas, and reading stories, after all. But it’s probably worthwhile to read at least a few books on the subject, too.

There are many good books on story structure, but the best might be Robert McKee’s Story. McKee wrote this book for screenwriters, but its content can be easily applied to novel and short story writing.

No matter how you write, you also need a system for keeping track of what’s already happened in your story. Who’s been killed off? Who was involved in that heinous crime that occurred in Chapter 10?

Many beginning writers forget this. Then they find themselves 50,000 words into a discovery written story, and chronically unsure of whether the next plot point will make sense in relation to previous ones.

A simple solution is to write a brief summary of each chapter after you’ve written it. You can do this in Excel, Word, or on a legal pad.

(I personally prefer Scrivener. The use of Scrivener is beyond the scope of this essay; but Scrivener’s index card system facilitates organized discovery writing.)

The idea here is that you’re creating an outline, but it’s a retroactive outline, a record of what you’ve already written, versus a plan of what you should write.

4.) Outlining in advance may lead to repetitive stories that feel “thin”.

I’m a huge fan of John Grisham, a noted outliner. But I can’t help noticing that many of Grisham’s stories repeat the same character types and plot devices.

Grisham’s stories often involve a secret cache of ill-gotten money, often in a secret bank account in the Caymans. Many of his stories feature an idealistic-but-reluctant attorney. There is frequently a big, shadowy corporate, governmental, or organized criminal faction directing things behind the scenes. More than one Grisham novel has ended with a mad dash for the money.

James Patterson, on the other hand, writes novels that are technically competent but emotionally thin—at least to me. Trashing James Patterson is a favorite avocation of lesser-selling novelists. (Even Stephen King has taken potshots at James Patterson.) I won’t go there. But I seldom find myself emotionally engrossed in a James Patterson novel. And Patterson outlines everything.

(Note: The comparatively mechanical style of James Patterson novels may have something to do with the fact that most James Patterson novels are written between Patterson and a cowriter. (This explains his uber-prolific output.))

5.) Outlining in advance may lead to procrastination.

This seems counterintuitive at first glance. An outline should result in highly efficient, prolific output, right? Because with an outline, the writer always knows what she’s going to write next.

Not necessarily. Some writers find that after they’ve thoroughly outlined a story, that story is “done” so far as they’re concerned, and they’re ready to move on to something new. The actual writing of the outlined story becomes a chore.

The idea here is that discovery writing preserves enthusiasm—a key factor in any form of artistic output. Or, as Jonathan Franzen stated:

“You have to wing it. If you don’t then it seems like it’s written from an outline. And the idea is to start to set yourself some impossible kind of place to get to, then it becomes an adventure…And I have almost a cult belief that if it’s fun for the writer, and kind of an adventure for the writer, some of that will rub off and feel that way to the reader.”  – Jonathan Franzen

6.) Discovery writing relies on bursts of inspiration

This is the counterpoint to #4 above. We can sometimes come up with good ideas (about anything) through a process of directed brainstorming. More often, though, good ideas seem to arrive upon waking up in the morning, while in the shower, or while standing in line at the grocery.

In other words, the creative process is often random and nonlinear.

If you plan to write a 90,000-word novel from start to finish, without any advance planning, you may find yourself staring at the screen of your laptop during some of your writing sessions.

On the other hand, an outline for a story can be easily assembled over time, in a completely nonlinear manner. You can write down the inciting incident and the climax (if those happen to spring to your mind first), and then list out the other scenes as they occur to you.

Then, when the whole outline has been assembled, you can start writing. At that point, it really is just a matter of execution.

Greg Iles (a discovery writer) once described his writing process for a television interviewer. He stated that he spends most of the year “incubating” his story in his mind. Then he sits down and writes the whole thing in one burst, over the span of just a few weeks.

Lee Child (another discovery writer) writes the Jack Reacher novels the same way. This is how Michael Connelly also works.

Child and Connelly are both trad-pubbed authors. They put out one book per year. If each of their novels is 100,000 words long, that works out to about 275 words per day (a typical piece of office email correspondence). This isn’t exactly a blistering pace; but it’s based on the book release practices and business models of the traditional publishing industry.

Discovery writing, then, with its inevitable fits and starts, is less problematic when you have an entire year to crank out a single book, and when you’re only working on one book at a time.

Most indie authors aim for a more ambitious production schedule. Three or four books per year is common. Some indie authors publish one or more books per month.

That would be tough to achieve through pure discovery writing, and without having multiple books going at once.

A process of outlining and preplanning facilitates nonlinear work, and the management of multiple WIPs (works-in-process) at once. You don’t have to work in 275-word bursts of inspiration.

Is it possible to be prolific, year after year, as a discovery writer? Sure it is. But I’m going to suggest that it might be trickier.

Oh, a final observation about Jonathan Franzen: He publishes a novel an average of once every six years.

7.) Discovery writing sometimes leads to meandering stories.

Back to Stephen King. Almost all of the novels that Stephen King (a discovery writer) wrote early in his career were tightly plotted. Some of those original King novels were long, but there was little fat in them.

Then (I mark It (1986) as the turning point), Stephen King’s style abruptly changed. His novels became much, much longer, and the stories meandered all over the place.

Read The Shining (1977) or Cujo (1981). Then read Duma Key (2008), Under the Dome (2009) or 11/22/63 (2011). You’ll see the difference. I love the tight structure and economical plots of Stephen King’s earlier works. His later novels…not so much. (It used to be possible to adapt a Stephen King novel into 2-hour movie; now, a Stephen King adaptation requires a 12-hour miniseries.)

The tendency of the discovery writer to meander seems to grow more acute as the author becomes a brand name, and, one would assume, less subject to the oversight of editors. Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami starts each book with “no plan”. Murakami is known for his oddball plots and surrealism. Nevertheless, there is a clearly structured storyline in some of his early works, like Norwegian Wood (1987).

Fast-forward to 2013, and IQ84. This 1,184-page novel of magical realism is all over the place. I tried to read IQ84. I gave up. Even some longtime Murakami fanatics whom I know were put off by the novel.

I realize that the preceding paragraphs contain an aspect of subjectivity. I like tightly structured thriller-type novels, and that bias is clear here. I don’t like 1,000-page literary novels that go all over the place. That’s clear, too.

Not everyone shares my preferences, of course. You might think that 11/22/63 is Stephen King’s greatest novel, and that Haruki Murakami hit his stride with IQ84.

I’m not tell you which kind of story to like—or to write. I am telling you that discovery writing tends to lead to a.) longer books, and b.) lots of subplots and segues.

8.) You don’t have to do it one way or the other.

In fact, I’m going to suggest that you shouldn’t do it entirely one way or the other.

In the beginning, especially, you should try both methods, to see how each one feels—and the results that each method produces for you. Where writing is concerned, the acronym YMMV, “your mileage may vary” definitely applies.

You might come up with a hybrid method. It may be helpful to think of this as a continuum rather than a binary choice. Perhaps you’ll want to plot out the major moments in your story, and then discovery-write your way between these points. That’s perfectly valid.

Other writers brainstorm scene ideas, and then structure the scenes they’ve thought up into a coherent story, inevitably adding and discarding some of the brainstorm work along the way. (Read Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream, for his explanation of “dreamstorming”.

9.) And finally, reevaluate your process at regular intervals.

Your writing process is bound to evolve over time. You may also discover that a method of writing that didn’t work for you two years ago suddenly works for you today.

This is because you’re a different writer than you were two years ago. In the intervening period, you’ve (hopefully) done a great deal of reading and writing.

The important thing is to remember that your writing process must strike a balance between chaos (inspiration) and order (story structure).

In other words, too much woo-woo, and you’ll never get past the dreaming stage. Too much meticulous planning, and…you may spend three years planning a story that you could have easily written in three months.

Winter in Ohio…in November

It was barely a month ago that I was complaining about the blistering heat in October.

Well, now November is here, and suddenly we’ve got January weather in Southern Ohio. Tonight the mercury will dip all the way down to 13 degrees Fahrenheit in Cincinnati.

This is part of a larger cold front. Most of the eastern half of the United States is experiencing unseasonably frigid temperatures both today and tomorrow.

The good news: the weather is supposed to moderate later in the week!

‘The Pacific’: HBO

I’m watching The Pacific on HBO. This series is a significant investment in time, but well worth it. 

There haven’t been nearly enough films and novels about the Pacific war. World War II movies and fiction tend to gravitate to the war in Europe.

Perhaps that’s to be expected. The war in Europe took place in the middle of Western Civilization, in countries that everyone is familiar with: France, Germany, Russia, etc.

And, of course: Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Probably half the documentaries on the History Channel are about the Third Reich. 

Much of the war in the Pacific (the part that we were involved in, anyway), was fought on thinly populated, remote islands. While the ideology of the Third Reich is well known to anyone with even basic historical literacy, few Americans grasp the essentials of the Japanese Empire, and its major players. 

Those are among the reasons why the war in the Pacific has been such a challenge to storytellers, and–as a result–often neglected by them. But this HBO series does a great job of bringing “the other World War II” to life.

How songs connect us to memory

I was never a huge fan of Richard Marx. (I never actively disliked his music, either. I just wasn’t a raving fan.) 

But boy, the summer of 1987 was his moment. That summer, I spent a lot of time in my car, listening to FM radio, and this Richard Marx song was on the radio endlessly

When I hear it now, I’m instantly transported back to that time and place. That hot, fun summer. I was nineteen years old.

Songs often ground us to particular moments in our past–sometimes even songs that we didn’t necessarily love at the time, but nevertheless heard a lot.  

The Internet, Jonathan Franzen, and distractions

About a year ago, literary novelist Jonathan Franzen shared his “10 rules for novelists”. Number 8 was:

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

Jonathan Franzen

I’m not sure I would be this absolutist about the matter. But as someone old enough to have reached adulthood before the Internet was “a thing”, I can appreciate just how distracting cyberspace can be.

It was bad enough in the beginning. But then came social media (I’ll spare you my usual rant), and those damned smartphones. 

As for Jonathan Franzen: The guy gets a bad rap, and I’m not sure why. Yes, he is quirky and eccentric. Yes, he is fashionably progressive and eye-rollingly politically correct in his politics. But no more so than many other people in the arts.

I’ve read two of his novels: The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010). I thought both books were pretty good. 

Fall of the Berlin Wall + 30 years

The Berlin Wall fell thirty years ago today, on November 9, 1989. (Several more years would pass before it would be systematically demolished.)

I won’t recount the entire history of the Wall’s fall here. (You can find that in various places throughout the Internet.) But I will provide a personal perspective.

I was twenty-one years old in November 1989, and a college student. Like most people at the time, I viewed the fall of the Wall with intense optimism.

And there was a lot to be optimistic about in late 1989: The USSR still existed, but a progressive-minded reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, was at the helm. And he was allowing the Berlin Wall, that symbol of Cold War Soviet tyranny, to come down.

US domestic politics were relatively calm. Not everyone loved George H.W. Bush, of course. But few saw his administration as seriously divisive. This was an era when you could simply ignore US domestic politics, if you wanted to. There wasn’t a lot of drama.

There were problems in the Muslim Middle East. (Aren’t there always?) But the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait was still just a gleam in Saddam Hussein’s eye. No one in the West had yet heard of Osama Bin Laden.

We believed, at that time, that the world was on the verge of a peaceful new era of free markets, international harmony, and peace.

Some scholar–Francis Fukuyama, I believe it was–described this moment as “the end of history”, meaning: the end of traditional historical conflicts.

But it didn’t work out that way, did it? Russia did not develop into another Sweden (as many predicted at the time), but became a paranoid, bellicose, neo-czarist state, in some ways worse than the USSR. The Muslim Middle East continued its long descent into fratricidal chaos. China became more aggressive.

And the West–well, let’s just say that both North America and Western Europe looked much better in 1989 than they do today.

Proof that things don’t always work out as you expect. The evidence can deceive you. Sometimes the future is better than you anticipate, but sometimes it’s far worse, too.

Perfect autobiographical memory

Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), or hyperthymesia, is a rare condition in which an individual remembers every single day of his or her life in precise detail.

Less than a hundred people in the world are believed to have perfect hyperthymesia. One of them is actress Marilu Henner. In 2012 she published a book about her memory (with tips for how to improve yours) called Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future. 

(I’ve read it, by the way—it’s a worthwhile book if you’re interested in this topic.)

The Consultant: FREE on Amazon Kindle November 5th & 6th

A novel of an ordinary American trapped in North Korea.

Amazon description:

**The most oppressive regime on earth has taken you prisoner. And they have a mission for you!**

Barry Lawson is an American marketing consultant traveling on business to Osaka, Japan. After striking up a conversation with a woman in a bar, he agrees to accompany her back to her apartment.

But the mystery woman is not who she seems. Days later, Barry wakes up in a cell in North Korea.

He discovers that the North Korean government has abducted him for a specific purpose. The North Koreans don’t plan to ransom him. They want him to work for them.

But Barry is determined to escape—whatever the cost.

His allies are a Japanese abductee, and a beautiful American woman who understands the North Koreans, and speaks their language.

With a U.S.-North Korean summit fast approaching, a coup plot shakes the very foundation of the Pyongyang regime. Barry chooses this moment to make a desperate dash for freedom. But he and his fellow escapees risk death at every turn.

‘The Consultant’ is a thriller ripped from real-life headlines, with unforgettable characters and nonstop action!

Get it for FREE on Amazon Kindle, two days only (November 5 & 6)

Read it for FREE in Kindle Unlimited any time!

New to Kindle Unlimited? Check out the FREE trial.

Catherine the Great: the HBO miniseries

I’ve been watching the Catherine the Great television miniseries on HBO.  A few observations, in no particular order:

This is based on a period of history that many American viewers won’t know much about. You will get far more out of this miniseries if you have a familiarity with Russian history. No–you don’t need a PhD. But if you don’t know who Catherine the Great actually was, and her historical significance, you might want to skip this one. The HBO miniseries is primarily entertainment, but it assumes a certain degree of background knowledge.

-Not every minute is exciting. There are plenty of gunfights, riots, and decapitations, as befits any historical depiction of czarist Russia. But there are also many explorations of Catherine the Great’s relationships with men–both political and sexual. (In her case, the two often overlapped.)

-Helen Mirren is amazing. She is 74 years old, and she handles those ballroom dancing scenes like a woman half her age. Quite impressive. I hope I do so well when I’m in my seventies.

The power of audiobooks

As a tool to increase your reading time. In one of his Author Level Up videos, Michael La Ronn discusses how audiobooks can be used to increase your aggregate reading time, when time is at a premium.

Although the video is targeted at authors, the ideas therein could apply to anyone. 

I agree with Mr. La Ronn’s comments about audiobooks, obviously. 

I would add another tip to his list, however: reading while you’re on your stationary bike.

As I’ve noted in this space before, I use my daily cardio ride to catch up on my reading. In my case, that’s about 40 extra minutes of reading each day. 

“Why I hate Goodreads”

No, not me, but this guy: a YouTuber who goes by the moniker “the Bald Book Geek.”

(And no, the Bald Book Geek and I are not related, just because we’re both bald and pale!)

There’s a lot to unpack in the video.

He complains that Goodreads, a US site, is US-centric. Well, most websites based in France tend to be Franco-centric, most Chinese sites are Sino-centric, and so on. But okay, I get it…Yankee imperialism, and all that. 

I agree with him about a few things: The website is YA-centric, and there is a tendency toward a mob mindset. (The Bald Book Geek mentions the mindless mob attacks on The Black Witch of a few years ago.)

On the other side, there have indeed been cases of authors harassing reviewers who  pan books. 

In short, Goodreads is a social media site, and it is therefore prone to all the normal problems associated with social media. (As many of you will know, I am no fan of social media in general. Don’t even get me started about Twitter….)

I wouldn’t say that I hate Goodreads, but I don’t exactly love it, either. And perhaps that’s for the best. The general consensus is that authors aren’t really welcome there, which is fine with me.

Goodreads is a site for readers, and review culture. That vibe would obviously change if authors were constantly posting “buy my book!” messages, and sparring with reviewers who failed to leave 4- and 5-star reviews. 

Halloween 2019: report

The weather didn’t cooperate for Halloween in my part of the world (Cincinnati).

After a mostly dry, balmy October, a cold front brought a downpour to the area last night through this morning.

Then around noon today, the rain stopped and the temperatures started falling.

I mean falling…

By the time the trick-or-treat hour of 6 p.m. arrived, it was below forty degrees, and the wind was gusting. Far from ideal trick-or-treat weather.

There were trick-or-treaters, but far fewer than the usual number. As a result, I now have a stockpile of Reese Cups.

I don’t eat candy; but I’m sure I’ll find someone willing to take the surplus off my hands. Reese Cups are delicious…as I seem to remember.

Camrys are fragile things

This is what happens when a Toyota Camry strikes a pole in a parking lot at low speed.

The concrete-reinforced pole sustained no damage, I should note.

No, I wasn’t driving the vehicle. A relative of mine was driving it.

This is just a friendly reminder to be careful when you’re behind the wheel. Driving is serious business, and it doesn’t take much to do damage to things–or people–when cars are involved.

Black Tuesday

On October 29, 1929, –90 years ago today–the world changed.

This was the Crash. Investors on the NYSE lost $14 billion ($206 billion in 2019 dollars.) Over the next four days, total losses would balloon to $30 billion.  You do the rest of the math…

Black Tuesday ended the Roaring Twenties–the Jazz Age of F. Scott Fitzgerald–and brought on the Great Depression.

I don’t remember Black Tuesday or the Great Depression, of course. Those who can are now a dwindling number.

But I do remember some of those who lived through it.  I heard about the Great Depression secondhand.

My grandparents often talked about life during the Great Depression years.  As my grandfather explained it, “You didn’t really consider yourself poor, because everyone around you was poor. Your cousins were poor. Your neighbors were poor.”

My grandmother maintained what the family jokingly referred to as “Depression mindset” through the end of her days. She was very frugal, and very much a hoarder…You know–the kind of person who reuses every glass jar, and buys tea bags in bulk because they’re cheaper that way.

Depression mindset is completely alien to those of us who were born in a time and place of greater abundance.

Reuse a glass jar? Heck, we think our iPhones are “old” after we’ve been using them for two years.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing…well, I’ll leave that one up to the reader.

Blood Flats: FREE Oct 29 through Nov 3

Blood Flats is the story of Lee McCabe, a recently discharged U.S. Marine who fights for justice in the badlands of Kentucky. He must battle local hoodlums, mafiosos from Chicago, and corrupt lawmen…

Blood Flats opens with a bang, as Lee McCabe hears a mysterious sound…

Chapter 1

On the morning that he became a fugitive from justice, Lee McCabe awoke with two persistent sensations in his consciousness. The first was the sound that Apache helicopters make when they land in the desert, and how the dust swirls beneath them as they raise up little tornados of sand. The second was the smell of a woman’s strawberry shampoo.

As he struggled awake—alone in the small bedroom of his rented trailer—Lee realized that the sound was not that of an Apache helicopter but the rumbling of an approaching motor vehicle. Sounds carried a long way this far from town, especially on a Saturday morning. 

He resisted the notion that the approaching car or truck might be something to worry about. He was still overly cautious, he knew. What else could he expect after two years of living in a war zone? 

The clock on the nightstand beside the bed read 5:32 a.m. In recent months, Lee McCabe had learned to appreciate the small luxuries. It was a luxury to sleep until 5:30 a.m., even on a Saturday. It was a luxury not to have to arise even earlier, to step outside your barracks into the glaring, sand-blown heat of a hostile land, where any man, woman, or child might be bent on killing you.  

And it was a luxury to have the regular company of women again. The smell of the strawberry shampoo was on the tee shirt that he had worn to bed. It mingled with the perfume of the woman he had danced with the previous night at the Steeplechase Saloon. 

She had been young—and in Lee’s estimation—frivolous and carefree. At first it had seemed that she wanted to do nothing but laugh and talk. But after a while she somehow perceived that Lee was still reclaiming that world in which light conversation and laughter were possible.  She did not push him beyond his means. She took his hand and led him to the center of the room, where they slow-danced, her head on his chest, her hair on his cheek and his shoulder. 

He had taken in the scent of her wild strawberry shampoo then, and now its lingering presence brought back the feel of her firm young body pressed up against his. Before they had parted, she slipped him a matchbook cover that contained her phone number. The recollection made him smile. Perhaps he would call her. Yes, he definitely would.  

Lee McCabe was twenty-three years old and he had returned from Iraq to Perryston, Kentucky, less than three months ago. 

Early sunlight filtered through the curtains of the single window in the bedroom. The few pieces of furniture that surrounded him were scuffed and dented. The furniture was older than he was. But why would he care? The furniture was neither green nor camouflage, like practically everything that they gave you in the Marine Corps.

Once again his attention was drawn to the sound of the lone motor vehicle; and he tried to estimate its distance. A mile? A half mile?…

Get Blood Flats for FREE on Amazon Kindle (Oct 29th through November 2nd only!

Technology and the voluntary loss of privacy

This is bigger than Katie Hill…

A certain politician from California has been in the hot seat of late because of embarrassing revelations of a highly personal nature. 

Katie Hill, a freshman representative from California, has recently seen her private life aired on the Internet, from The Daily Mail to Twitter… 

And what a colorful private life it is, apparently. Say what you will about Representative Hill and her politics, but she isn’t boring and she isn’t a prude. 

This naturally raises a lot of questions: Should a politician’s sex life be an issue, so long as they aren’t breaking any laws or violating anyone’s rights? Can a politician who leads an unconventional sex life govern effectively?

Politics tends to attract horndogs of both sexes, irrespective of ideology: Consider the examples of Bill Clinton, JFK, and Donald Trump.

Further back in history, consider Catherine the Great and King David. 

That isn’t the angle I want to consider, though. 

I grew up in the 1980s. Back then, unless you were a famous person, most of what you said and did simply wasn’t documented.

Photographs existed, obviously. But individual photos had to be developed, usually at a Fotomat. And since they also had to be printed out on paper, there was a cost associated with them. 

“Instant cameras”, with self-developing film, enjoyed a period of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. But the film was expensive, and the photo quality wasn’t very good. 

Because of such negative cost and convenience factors, people tended to take photos only when it was an “event”: a birthday celebration, a school play, a family portrait, etc. I won’t go so far as to say that having your photo taken was a big deal in the 1980s, but yes…it was kind of a big deal. It didn’t happen every day, for the average person. 

As a result, most of what you said and did died in the moment. There wasn’t this minute-by-minute record of your life that we have now. 

Those technologically primitive times had their benefits. Suppose that you said something dumb, or you did something that pushed a few boundaries. Unless it was really over the top, it was quickly forgotten. 

Which is, I would suggest, the way it should be.

Katie Hill certainly didn’t want her private photos published on the Internet. Her reasonable expectations of privacy were violated. Let’s be unequivocal about that. 

But the vast majority of the photos which came to light were clearly posed. This strongly implies that she consented to them being taken. 

This, in itself, represents a major lapse in judgment. Why, pray tell, would anyone consent to a naked photo of oneself, smoking from a bong, with an iron cross tattoo plainly visible near one’s pubic region?

We’ve bought into the notion that every moment of our lives needs to be Instagrammed, Facebooked, and selfied. Perhaps this is mass vanity, or perhaps this has just become a habit. Either way, it’s what we’re all doing. 

And this isn’t just the Millennials and the GenZers. I have friends in their forties and fifties who seemingly can’t go out to dinner without taking a half-dozen photos of themselves and uploading them to Facebook. 

Look at us, and what a happy couple we are, having a fancy meal out on the town!

More of our lives needs to remain private. But our private lives especially need to remain private. 

How do you define “private”? Here’s a rule of thumb: Don’t consent to any photo of yourself that you wouldn’t want posted on the homepage of The Daily Mail. Because as Katie Hill now knows, that may very well happen. 

‘I Know George Washington’: one more free day!

If you’d like to read my new five-story collection, I Know George Washington, you have one more day to grab it for FREE. After that, the price will return to the normal $2.99 (unless you’re in Kindle Unlimited, that is).

The FREE promo is scheduled through Oct 26, but I don’t know exactly when Amazon will pull the switch. So if you want it, I advise grabbing it today.

Five dark tales of crime, supernatural horror, and suspense…

In Tennessee, a father and his adolescent daughter must battle two evil men who harbor sinister intentions toward one of them.

In Zacatecas, Mexico, a recent college graduate takes a job as a private English language tutor for a wealthy family. But the entire household is hiding a horrible secret.

In Virginia, a young stockbroker’s colleagues insist that George Washington, the First President of the United States, is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

In rural Ohio, curiosity compels two travelers to stop at an abandoned schoolhouse with an evil history, and a reputation for ghostly activity.

In western Pennsylvania, a junior high student learns that his beloved teacher is not what he purports to be.

A collection of five unique stories, each of which contains an unexpected twist.

Get it FREE on Amazon through October 26!

Cardio and the writer

I’m an admitted cardio addict. I usually spend about an hour on my exercise bike each day, in addition to my thrice weekly weightlifting sessions. 

Why? First of all, because I used to be a fat guy. But that’s another story for another time.

Cardio is important for writers. Yes, that’s right, you heard me: Cardio is important for writers.

Nature’s mood drug

Most writers suffer from anxiety and depression. (I am prone to both.) 

Exercise is nature’s mood drug. Forget the crap that the pharmaceutical companies are peddling. You don’t need prozac, Ritalin, and all that crap from Big Pharma. 

And you certainly don’t need cannabis. Don’t get me started on the current (and utterly idiotic) cannabis craze.

Exercise floods your body with serotonin. It’s free! No prescription required! Completely legal in all fifty states! 

And while exercise is addicting, it’s a good form of addiction.

Reading and brainstorming

Time spent on the exercise bike is also a great time to catch up reading. I read whenever I’m on my bike, or on the Stairmaster at the gym.

But what about actually writing? Or preparing to write?

When the weather in southern Ohio is pleasant (and it often isn’t pleasant), I sometimes go for walks. 

I find walking to be conducive to brainstorming. If an aspect of a story is puzzling me, I can usually work it out during a walk. 

I’m not alone in this regard, by the way—Charles Dickens famously walked as many as twenty miles a day. He plotted his stories in his head during these long peregrinations.

Dickens also suffered from insomnia. It wasn’t uncommon for him to go walking at two o’clock in the morning.

If you’re a writer, then exercise should be a regular part of your routine. Especially cardio. And Charles Dickens, no less, would agree with me.