About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

Listening to Your Inner Voice

(Image Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

I am still working away — in fits and starts — on The Lake Effect, my genre-bending novel. I became stuck a couple of weeks ago on what is a common problem for writers. There was something about the narrative that I didn’t like. It had to do with the backstory. I had been dropping parts of it like breadcrumbs throughout the narrative and it kind of worked. I decided, however, was that I have no business putting something out there that “kind of” works if I want someone to spend their time and lucre on it.  I wasn’t quite sure how to fix it or even if it could be fixed without some major surgery.

I was at about the same time conducting an unofficial Taylor Sheridan film festival for myself. Sheridan’s name may not be familiar to you but his fingerprints show up here and there as an actor (he had a recurring role for a couple of seasons in Sons of Anarchy) and as a screenwriter (the films Sicario and Hell or High Water, and a television drama series named Yellowstone). Sheridan’s main strength as a screenwriter is in his dialogue and character development. I wasn’t looking for hints when I started binging his work. I was just watching all of it because I like it. I kept coming back, however, to a movie he scripted named Wind River. 

Wind River is a contemporary western set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The plot is simple enough. Cory Lambert is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracker tasked during a bitterly cold winter with tracking down a predator which is slaughtering Reservation livestock. While doing so he comes upon the bruised and frozen body of a young Native woman named Natalie Hanson. She is ill-dressed for the weather — barefoot, in thin clothing — and miles from any building. An autopsy concludes that Hanson died of exposure but also sustained head trauma and sexual violence.  FBI Special Agent Jane Banner is assigned to investigate the case, which ultimately cannot conclusively be found to be a homicide. Banner is a fish-out-of-water — she is a Florida native and assigned to the Las Vegas FBI office — but her lack of preparedness for Wyoming’s winter weather and relative inexperience in investigative matters is more than made up for by her drive to make sure that the right thing is done on Natalie’s behalf. 

The film does a good job of simply but effectively presenting the clusterfig that federal and tribal jurisdictional differences create as Banner decides to pursue the case, even if she is probably on shaky legal ground in doing so. She persuades Lambert to help her, given his knowledge of the area. Their investigation moves in a straight line but seems to reach a dead end. The audience meanwhile knows nothing more than Lambert and Banner do. About three-fourths of the way into Wind River, however, the present segues smoothly into the past, and the audience learns what occurred over the course of a very intense few minutes that led to Natalie’s tragic end. The story then reverts to the present and a few seconds later all hell breaks loose, again and again. My description does not do justice to what occurs, but on the off-chance that you borrow the video from the library (it also pops on and off the streaming services from time to time), I don’t want to even come close to spoiling the plot for you. 

I watched the movie four times over a period of an equal number of days before it hit me that the solution to my dilemma was in front of me. Rather than drop flashback breadcrumbs throughout the story, I gathered them into a small loaf, coated that with a bit of garlic butter, and served it up warm, steaming, and all at once about two-thirds of the way into my own narration. It worked wonderfully. Thank you, Mr. Sheridan. 

I am sure that my primary reason for watching Wind River over and over was that I like it. I do the same thing with Hell or High Water, which I previously mentioned here. I have concluded, however, that it is entirely possible that my subconscious was trying to steer me toward a possible solution to my writing problem. It just took me a bit of time to pick up the visual and verbal cues. It figures. I have always been a slow study. 

How about you? Has an outside source — one that you were drawn to by chance or whimsy — given you an unexpected solution to a difficult problem, or at least a different way of looking at/approaching something? If so, please share your episode with those of us here assembled. Thanks as always for visiting.




In the Neighborhood

S., my granddaughter, recently hosted her friend A. at my home for a sleepover.   The following day I drove A. back to her residence on the far east side of Columbus. It was a journey that we have made before. My usual route to A.’s house, a direct shot off of a freeway ramp, has been heavily impeded by construction. I accordingly took a different way through an older area of town with which I was only vaguely familiar. The girls were in the back seat chattering away as I navigated down residential streets in a part of the city that is a destination mostly for the people who live there. 

I made a wrong turn but was unconcerned. I was just off of the route as opposed to hopelessly lost. I made a turn in the right direction onto a street I had never heard of named Bexvie Avenue. Bexvie isn’t a long street. It is just a few blocks long, beginning on one street and ending on another. Since I am big on situational awareness I noted a cluster of neighborhood bars giving way to imaginatively named Apostolic and Baptist churches, all of it collectively comprising bricks within the residential mortar of a neighborhood that was new almost a century ago and which, like many of us, gamely carries on despite exhibiting its careworn age.

We were almost to the end of Bexvie when we suddenly came upon a large space on the north side of the street about the size of a city block, partitioned by a combination of fences and short walls and which included within a number of small buildings and, most remarkably, an exotic structure. A. reacted first, as she is wont to do. “What is THAT?!” she said. I eased the car to a stop and looked at it for a moment. “That appears to be a Buddist temple,” I said. 

That indeed is what it is. Its proper name of the structure is “Watlao Buddhamamakaram,” which designates it is a Laotian temple. The temple takes pride of place within the partitioned area, which appears to be set up as an araama. The small buildings clustered about the property serve as residences for the monks who tend to the property with obvious care. The temple itself would not look more out of place in the area than a beached ocean liner, but it so dominates the immediate area that I kept expecting Kwai Chang Caine to pop up from behind the gate and wave. 

I later dived down an internet research rabbit hole of (“I got you now, you wascawwy wabbit!” “On the contrary, I’ve got you!”) and as always knowledge begets more questions. In this case, documents indicate that the property went through a number of owners before being purchased in the late 1980s by a Laotian immigrant who eventually transferred the title to the Buddhist society responsible for running the temple. The araama has existed there since at least 2009 with little or no fanfare. I am sure that there is an interesting story as to how this religious community took root on a cross street deep within an urban enclave. While the Laotian community is relatively small in Columbus — about five hundred families — there is no official or unofficial Laotian neighborhood here. The residents of the city from Southeast Asia tend to cluster in the northwest side or the University area, far from this imposing outpost which serves as the religious, cultural, and social gathering place for the Laotian community. Columbus has a few Buddhist temples but most are located on busy thoroughfares that are conveniently accessible. This temple to say the least is an anomaly. 

I have been fooling around with an idea concerning what occurs in the months after a mysterious infectious disease appears and then disappears. The Watlao Buddhamamakaram quickly and boldly shouldered its way into the narrative. What occurs in my own fictitious narrative is that the community living there, which keeps itself to itself, is decimated by the disease, until several months later. Then it isn’t. I am having more fun with this project than I should, which is a good thing.  I also started thinking about a “what if” scenario in which we all woke up one morning to find that all of the vacant lots in the area were suddenly and without explanation no longer vacant but instead occupied by the totally unexpected. What if indeed? 

Have you stumbled across anything off of your regular beaten path in your city/town/village/mountaintop that you didn’t know about before and that might be worthy of remark? It can be anything from a place of worship or a pet cemetery to a place of unusual or illicit business, or anything in between. Share. Please. And thank you, TKZers, old, new, and in between, for visiting once again. 

(All photos from www.columbusunderground.com. All rights reserved.)


The End of the Story…

I took my 1999 Honda Accord into my mechanic last week for its regular oil change and inspection. The body showed its age but the car still rode nicely, even beneath the weight of its 333,500+ miles. 

One of three things can happen when one takes a car made in the last century and with high mileage in for an oil change and a look under the hood.  The first is that the mechanic can come into the waiting room and say to you, “You’re all set.” The second is that he can come up to you with a clipboard in hand and say, “You need your (fill in the blank) replaced, but hey, we can do that right now if you like!” The third is that he can stick his head into the waiting room and say, “You need to see this.” “This” is never good. Rest assured that he is not going to tell you that he found a winning Super Lotto slip taped to the engine block.

Number Three happened to me. I was solemnly ushered into the workshop as an organ dirge started playing in my head.  My car was up on a lift and appeared okay until the mechanic started pointing at certain areas with a pen and demonstrating that particular areas were loose.  I am not mechanically inclined but I could see that the undercarriage had some major rust in a couple of strategic places where the thigh bone connected to the knee bone, and the knee bone connected to the leg bone, and…you get the idea. My car was breaking apart. I received a long and patient explanation to the effect that repairing it would cost much more than the car was worth, what with the age of and the miles on the car. In answer to my question of how long it would last in its present state, the mechanic shook his head and said, “Possibly five years, if you don’t hit a pothole, but more likely five miles. Or five blocks.” His summation — “You need a new car” — was one that required no further explanation. 

Some retroactive anxiety reared its head.  I had been driving my granddaughter and her friend all over the city during the Labor Day weekend in a car that was ready to come apart. The realization of what might have happened sealed the deal. I did some extensive research over a couple of days and leased something called a Honda Fit Hatchback. It has all sorts of bells and whistles that I am getting used to — I can now answer my phone using the steering wheel and rudely hang up on people, just like Ray Donovan  — but it is not much of an adjustment. 

I am a little upset. I try not to get too attached to the things of this world.  Cars specifically have never been important to me other than as a means of getting reliably from Point A to Point B. I am surprised by my emotional attachment in this case, however. I had a lot of physical and psychic DNA in that Accord. I used it to drive my children thousands of miles, to schools, parties, vacation destinations, movies, friends’ houses, shopping, concerts, and doctor visits. My granddaughter has been a passenger in it on an average of once a week since she was born almost fourteen years ago. I did some business traveling as well with it, going to and through thirty-seven states and having some adventures along the way, including a Pulp Fiction experience in Arizona and an encounter with tribal police in New Mexico which could have gone badly if not for my charming courtesy and winning smile.  I witnessed the most horrific traffic accident I have ever seen outside of a small town in North Texas. I drove to author conventions in Chicago, Indianapolis, New York, Nashville, Madison, Cleveland, and Phoenix,  made well over a two dozen trips to New Orleans and southern Louisiana, and somehow acquired a bunch of dear friends in the process. My Accord was always part of the story. Now it is gone. I donated it to a charity and watched as it boogied on down the road and across the rainbow bridge without me. 


The Honda Fit has a transmission which is called  “continuously variable,” a term that accurately describes my mood right now. It will in all probability be my last car, given my age and the manner in which my older friends seem to decline precipitously once they hit the downside of seventy. That’s part of a story that will be written at a future time by someone else. 

And on that note…

…have at it, chillun! Please tell us a car story, or your favorite book involving a car,.whether as part of a book written by someone else (you by all means can mention Christine or Drive), written by you, or a personal experience. Thank you and good day. 

All photos by Al Thumbs Photography

The soundtrack for today’s submission:

Rapture — Blondie 

Marquee Moon — Television

Y’All Think She’d Be Good 2 Me — C. C. Adcock

This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) — Talking Heads 

Spare Me a Little of Your Love — Fleetwood Mac

Looking for A Kiss — New York Dolls

What a Party — Fats Domino

Soul Kitchen — X

It’s All Over — Willie Nile

Sorry You Asked — Dwight Yoakam

Time Has Come Today — Chambers Brothers

The Kids Are Alright — The Who

Bitches Brew (album) — Miles Davis


The Cujo Method

It has happened to me. It almost certainly has happened to you.

You are writing your latest masterpiece. You’re speeding right along. Your brain is spitting the words into your fingers and your fingers are tapping them onto the screen or onto the paper or whatever is working for you and then all of the lights on your creative dashboard go on signalling that your alternator has given up the ghost.  Your metaphorical foot is mashing the pedal to the metal  but your entire creative vehicle is losing power and coasting to a stop. What do you do?

The answer is easy. You quit writing. You get up from wherever you do your writing and decide to channel your energies elsewhere for the rest of your life.  You grow a garden, clean your house, buy and manage properties, or engage in a different task. Let someone else bang their head against their wall in the slim hope that their stories will show up somewhere and sometime. Thanks! I’m done.

 Actually, that’s not what you do. 

What I just wrote is an example of a little writing trick which I picked up and modified from the novel Cujo by Stephen King. There is a noteworthy vignette that occurs in the final quarter of that book and which involves Cujo,  a large and otherwise sweet St. Bernard dog who contracts rabies, and one of the story’s primary characters. King works the scene for all that it is worth. He rachets up the suspense to eleven and then inserts a bunch of short sentences that resolve the scene and the novel quickly and happily. He follows that with a single sentence which yanks the rug out from under the reader, stating that what he said happened did not happen at all. The story rolls horrifically on from there. The reader intuitively knows all along that King is wolfing, since there are sixty or seventy more pages to go when he supposedly ends the book, but it is a surprise followed by a surprise and sets the reader up for more.

I call this “the Cujo method” and I have been using it frequently while slowly writing a genre-straddling love story with the working title of The Lake Effect. I have not just been swerving out of my creative lane while doing this. Rather, I have drifted across four eastbound lanes, gone over the rumble strip and the highway shoulder, careened through a guard rail, and dropped off of an overpass posterior over teakettle before ultimately landing on a northbound train which will crash unless I can answer an unanswerable riddle (that’s a reference to another King novel).

It was not always thus.  I wrote the first three and final six chapters of The Lake Effect months ago, and they’re not bad at all. I surprised myself. The middle of the book, however —  no surprise here — has been a stiff-legged march through several quicksand mires. I have managed to pull myself out each time by utilizing the Cujo method.

Here is an example of what I have been doing. One of the pivotal events of The Lake Effect involves a U.S. Army paratrooper who during World War II is involved in the Allied invasion of northern France on June 6, 1945. He jumps without incident but finds when he lands that he has drifted somewhat off-course. He finds himself in a graveyard where he gets the first few hints that he is not where he is supposed to be. His landing also attracts some unwanted attention. The local authorities come looking for him as a result. The owner of a farm adjoining the graveyard is a widow who is still dealing with the unexpected death of her husband. She happens to find the paratrooper before he finds her. They each think that the other is someone else. The authorities, meanwhile, come ever closer. 

I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I already knew what was going to happen after several more pages, but I had to jump fence or two to get there. I couldn’t think of a good way to do it. So I utilized the Cujo method and wrote: 

She yanked her grandfather’s rifle off of the wall and shot the soldier dead even as he pleaded for his life. The End. 

He pulled his Colt .45 pistol out and grimaced as he shot her while her back was turned. He stood over her body and waited for his pursuers to enter the farmhouse, determined to take as many of them as he could before he followed them into hell. The End.

She hid him from the troops in a second, unfinished root cellar that her husband had dug but not completed by the time of his death. Afterward,  the two of them surrendered to the passion that had been tugging at them, resulting in a tender moment which became another and then another and  yet another. They lived on the farm for the rest of their lives, in conjugal if not lawfully wedded bliss. The End. 

That of course is not ultimately what happened. What did happen is that I got the concrete out from between my ears and was able to move forward. I  of course removed the whimsy once it had served its purpose and I got rolling again. The preceding three paragraphs will never see the light of day (whoops…wait a minute…). The best part is that while I was typing these alternative premature endings I thought of a plausible way to keep things going that wouldn’t make a reader, agent or editor go “Hmmm.” It took a bit of work to get that just right but at least I had a “that” to get right, which was more than I had when I stepped in the story quicksand.  I think it may have had more to do with the act of continuing to slog forward. Erle Stanley Gardner, who was one of the twentieth century’s most popular and most prolific authors, would work the keys on his manual typewriter under his fingers bled, bandage them up, and go for more. That, I think, is how the job ultimately is done. For whatever reason, my method works for me. Maybe it will for you. Something will. You just need to find it. Good luck!

For anyone interested…I listened to the following while writing this: 

Hey Ya — Surfer Blood

American Specialties (full album) — Parquet Courts

Heartbreaker — Dionne Warwick

Stayin’ Alive — Bee Gees

Mr. Dyingly Sad — The Critters

Cry to Me — Solomon Burke

Blood and Roses — The Smithereens

Hold On — Alabama Shakes

The Lost Septet (Live) (full album) — Miles Davis

Backsliding Fearlessly — Mott the Hoople

Under Pressure — Queen, David Bowie

Money Talks — AC/DC

Enjoy. Thanks for being here and for letting me be a part of your day.

Media, whether working of not, is courtesy of giphy.com


Fun with Phones

Good morning! Author Lisa Black is joining us today. Lisa is a latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida.  Every Kind of Wicked, the sixth installment in her series featuring forensic scientist Maggie Gardiner and homicide detective Jack Renner, involves the duo tracking down a nest of scammers and will be available beginning August 25. Today Lisa is going to discuss — what else? — scamming! Lisa, the floor is yours. Joe Hartlaub

We all get them, every day. You answer with ‘hello’ and there’s that telltale dead air before either a recording starts or someone comes on to tell you that your computer is sending out error messages/your grandson is in jail/you owe the IRS back taxes and the marshals are on their way to your house/we can sell you pain meds or medical equipment over the phone via our doctors on staff or you need an extended car repair warranty.

Most of you are smart and immediately hang up. I dial ‘1’ to speak to a customer service representative.

If I’m in a hurry, I wait until they say ‘hi this is Shteve from Credit Card Services/Microsoft/DirecTV, how are you today?” and then I say in firm, bright tones, “You are a thief and a liar and should be ashamed of yourself.” For the record, those are the harshest words I have ever uttered to someone I wasn’t married to. But I figure if it can be the one straw that breaks the shell of one call center worker who still has some shred of conscience, then I’ve done the world, and maybe that person, a service.

If I’m feeling more empathetic that day, I might say, “I know it’s hard to get a good job where you are, but that doesn’t make it okay to steal money from vulnerable people.”

Where they are could be anywhere in the world (and they will never tell you) due to the ability to spoof numbers and local area codes. In 2006 American and Canadian expats were arrested while running a call center in Costa Rica. In 2018 Floridian Adrian Abramovich was fined $120 million for robocalling, funneling victims to a call center in Mexico for travel discounts from Hilton and Marriott—except those companies knew nothing of it. India seems to lead the world in phone scams specifically (whereas mid-Africa works in social media friending scams and Russia/Ukraine/China simply hacks what they want) and probably for a simple reason: they speak English. The language is a required school subject in Pakistan and Bangladesh and the second most common language in India. In actually the only pleasant conversation I’ve ever had with a scam caller, I asked one how he felt about the disputed region of Kashmir. After a moment’s thought he said they ought to be granted independence. I thanked him for sharing, but still wasn’t going to give him my credit-card number. He said “okay” and hung up.

But if I have plenty of time and I’m sitting in front of a computer, then I Google ‘fake credit card numbers.I feed those to the ‘customer service representative’ until they either give up and disconnect, or turn nasty. Be warned, bare-knuckled obscenity is not a taboo in call center culture. Male and female alike will use language that would make shock jocks blush. That was made clear to me the time I kept some IRS scammers on the line for 45 minutes while I worked at my desk, pretending to drive to the bank that minute to withdraw $7,000 and then proceed to a Walgreens to convert it to iTunes cards. The sudden affinity the U.S. government has shown for iTunes and ApplePay cards is never explained…but at any rate, I had to insist that Walgreens didn’t have $7000 iTunes cards. Communications broke down, and I got an earful.

Sometimes—very rarely—they might call back to deliver a few more choice insults. Usually they won’t. Time is money and they aren’t going to waste a second of it on someone who’s not going to pay off.

What can be done? First of all, and I speak from personal experience, you can get free NoMoRoBo on your landline and inexpensive apps for your cells, which will weed out most of the automated calls. I have Robokiller on my cell. It responds with prerecorded schticks meant to provide hilarious recordings of spam callers getting punked…but in my experience, the spam callers never fall for it. I don’t know if they can electronically detect the app, or if they’ve just heard the responses enough to recognize them from the first word.

Prosecuting the call centers is a more complicated matter. Since the numbers are spoofed, reporting them to the Do Not Call List does not help. Authorities have had better success tracking some of the $10 billion Americans lost to scam phone callers just last year. They don’t publicize their methods but in recent years, arrests have skyrocketed. Indian cyber crime detectives, working with the U.S. and other countries, arrested over two hundred people in one area of their country for running call centers which raked in over $50K a day, mostly from Americans and Canadians. In another case, 24 people in the U.S. are currently sitting in jail for running an IRS scam in which they would launder the money an Indian call center wrung out, one prepaid gift card or wire transfer at a time. So there is hope.

But in the meantime, of course, never give your credit card number (or any other number) to someone who called you. Don’t friend the Ukrainian supermodel or silver fox military contractor looking for love. And never click on the link.

But if you have the time to waste their time, by all means, waste away.

If you’d like to read some true cases:








“To-may-to” or “To-mah-to”?

Photo by Tincho Franco from unsplash.com

A brain worm has occupied my cerebrum over the past couple of months. Its conception resulted from the death of a dear friend who was more than a decade older than I. His wife called to inform me of his passing and then proceeded to give me too much information as to what had occurred. They had apparently engaged in a bit of strenuous activity during the night and in the morning my friend failed to wake up. She felt that she was somewhat at fault. I assured her (while struggling to keep the smile out of my voice) that, even if she had been the cause of his departure, I was sure her late husband would have preferred that sendoff to, say, a fiery car crash (which is the comparison Richard Pryor made when his father passed under similar circumstances). 

My friend’s wife then asked me for some advice about his obituary. Her issue was whether she should say that my friend passed “suddenly” or “unexpectedly.” She was worried that someone might think that he had committed suicide and wanted to be sure she used the right word. My off-the-cuff response was that she should avoid using either and just list his date of birth as “sunrise” and his date of passing as “sunset.” She liked that and told me that her husband used to tell her that I always knew just what to say. 

I actually dodged a bullet. I was unsure about the answer to her question. I subsequently started to obsess over what the difference may or may not be when one uses either “suddenly” or “unexpectedly,” particularly when describing the occasion of a death. They seem to be used interchangeably, particularly when the individual being memorialized has voluntarily gone ahead, as it were. 

I’ve done a couple of deep research dives into the topic and found opinions to be all over the place. The two words appear to mean the same thing at times, though not always. My favorite passage in an English language novel, that being the conversation between Bill and Mike in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, illustrates this. Mike, in response to a question from Bill, tells Bill that he went bankrupt “gradually, and then suddenly.” If Mike had used the word “unexpectedly” instead of “suddenly” it would have been wrong since if one starts to go bankrupt, the completion of the process is not unexpected, though it can happen suddenly. It’s different, however, in many other cases generally — an earthquake or tornado, to name but two — and in obituaries involving someone who takes their own life. It seems as if either adverb could appropriately be used.

I’ll apologize for being morbid, but when you are reading an obituary and see that someone died “unexpectedly” or “suddenly” do you assume that they passed of their own volition? Is one word more appropriate than the other in those cases?  Or do they usually mean the same thing? Is it a case of “to-may-to” vs. “to-mah-to”? You don’t have to justify your answer though I am sure the reasons one way or the other would certainly be interesting. 

Thank you. Be well, happy, and good to yourself. Remember the oxygen mask rule: put yours on first and then assist others. 

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz from unsplash.com

But wait! There’s more. I will be absent on Saturday, August 8, as I am relinquishing this space to the always quietly gracious Joe Moore, who will reflect on TKZ’s very special anniversary which happens to land on that date. I will also be gone on Saturday, August 22, when Lisa Black, one my favorite authors and people (as we all know, that isn’t always the same thing!), will be discussing a topic which provides the driving force behind Every Kind of Wicked, which is Book Six in her Gardiner and Renner series and which drops on August 25.  I’ll be back on September 5 and happy to see you.




My granddaughter S. went missing for a very short time several years ago. 

It happened on a Thursday during the first week of June. S. was a student at a wonderful public elementary school in the Clintonville neighborhood of Columbus. A picnic for the students, teachers, and parents was — and still is — annually held on the school playground during the closing hours of the last day of class. My son J. — her father — took an extended lunch hour from his job and dutifully presented at the time appointed. He was somewhat puzzled when he did not see S. among the students cavorting around the swings. J. approached S.’s teacher and inquired as to her whereabouts. The teacher asked another teacher, who asked another, who asked the school secretary, who asked the principal. Within the course of a few minutes, a hue and cry quietly started up, one that was on the verge of quickly rounding the corner to full-blown hysteria. J., having learned at his father’s knee how to react to an emergency, fought down the tide of his own rising panic and quickly called his neighbor to ask if S. was in sight. The neighbor advised that yes, S.  was on J’s front porch, bearing the look of someone who finds themselves in a situation resulting from an action that wasn’t entirely thought through prior to its execution.  

It was learned a bit later that S., being a somewhat willful child at that time, had concluded that she had experienced enough school for the year and decided to skip the picnic. She didn’t think to tell anyone about her decision, and with the skill of a Ms. Pac-Man circumvented the carefully maintained school security labyrinth which was in place to keep such a thing from occurring. She then walked the few blocks from her school to her home in order to jumpstart her summer vacation by a couple of hours.   

J. told the teachers that S. was at home. Those assembled collectively breathed a sigh of relief. As J. left the school to deal with the wayward S. he heard the name “Kelly Prosser” mentioned as the instructors talked among themselves. He wondered who she was. 

Kelly Ann Prosser in 1982 had been an eight-year-old student at a much-acclaimed alternative school in the same neighborhood as my granddaughter’s. The school year was barely three weeks old when Kelly disappeared while walking home. Her body was found two days later in a cornfield located in a quiet community contiguous to Columbus. She had been beaten, raped, and murdered. 

Several individuals were questioned by Columbus police detectives but no one was ever charged with Kelly Ann’s murder. J., who was four years old at the time, probably wondered why his parents held him and his younger siblings just a little more tightly and watched them just a bit more closely for the next, oh, thirty-eight years or so (and counting). For the teachers at Kelly Ann’s school, and virtually every school in the area., there was an additional nightmare a-borning. Whoever visited the horrors of Kelly Ann’s final hours upon her was, as far as anyone knew, still out there watching and waiting for another opportunity. While the safety of their students was uppermost in the minds of the teachers and administrators, I suspect that no one wanted to bear the burden of having another such act repeated on or after their watch. 

That fear carried over across the decades. The Columbus Police Department, for its part, never gave up on Kelly’s case. Decades passed. Forensic tools were created, improved, and sharpened. The Columbus Police  Cold Case Unit, announced on June 26, 2020, that the case had been closed. A DNA sample obtained from material originally gathered at the crime scene conclusively linked her attack and death to one Harold Warren Jarrell. He was no stranger to the criminal justice system. Jarrell had been arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated for abducting a little girl in 1977 from another Columbus neighborhood. He was released from prison after five years and had been walking among the innocent and unknowing for but a short time before Kelly Ann’s path crossed his. Jarrell for whatever reason was not considered a suspect in her murder at the time, and at some subsequent point left Columbus, drifting across the country with stops in Florida and Las Vegas among other places, more often than not attracting the attention of law enforcement before moving on rather quickly and without notice. He met his end at some point — how, where, and why is not immediately clear — and thus cannot face justice for Kelly Ann’s murder and the grief that ripples through time across the lives of her family members to this day. Investigations being conducted in other jurisdictions indicate that Jarrell’s horrible misdeeds continued. One can only hope that his end was slow and excruciating, one where any calls for help which he might have made were unanswered at least and mocked at best. 

It is people such as Jarrell who cause me to prefer the company of dogs and cats to people. That said, the tenaciousness of the personnel of the Columbus Police Cold Case Unit — with a mighty and timely assist from a forensic genealogical service named AdvancedDNA —  restores, at least partially, my faith in humanity.

I am well aware that in the majority of cases of sexual molestation and abuse the victim and the aggressor are known to each other. There is still a sizable group of opportunistic predators who randomly prey upon the innocent. There are tools available to combat them. Most if not all county sheriff departments now provide a sexual offenders’ database on their websites. There is also a smartphone app for iPhones named Offender Locator which I cannot vouch for, but I can for Truthfinder, an Android app that provides sobering information about sex offenders living and working within a given area.  You may want to consult this should you or a family member decide to move to a new neighborhood or take things a step further with that new acquaintance who might seem just a tad too friendly with your child. The writers and authors among you may also — and I am not making light of the problem by suggesting this, not at all — use this app as a means of obtaining inspiration for the truly wretched characters in your latest work in progress. The woods, as they say, are full of them. The lambs walk in sunlight and the wolves wait in darkness for one or more to stray into shadow. 

Be safe. Be well. Be alert. 


The Empty House

Photo by Rudy Rodouin from unsplash.com

Some of you — okay, both of you — have told me in the past that you like my stories about houses. Here comes another. It also happens to illustrate (as I have once or twice here) that Facebook isn’t always so bad after all.

I misspent my formative years in Akron, Ohio.  I was driving with a young woman one afternoon in 1971 when she pointed out a nice ranch-style house on a corner. “No one has ever lived there,” she said. I stopped the car for a few seconds and checked the place out. It displayed a well-maintained exterior with a nicely manicured lawn. That said, there were no curtains hung in the window and it gave off that psychic wheeze of non-occupancy that some houses do when they sit empty for a while. “What’s the story?” I asked.

The story as told to me was that the house had been built by a husband for his wife to her specifications. He had gone over the plans with her regularly and frequently brought her to the building site, making changes that she requested. When the house was finished she decided that she did not like it and refused to move in. He refused to sell it. They accordingly stayed in the home they were living in and never moved into the new one. The husband continued to maintain both homes. 

I would occasionally drive past that house to see if anyone had moved in. No one had. Time passed.  I moved from Akron in 1978 and rarely returned. Life went on. I would intermittently think of that house and that story but only in passing, such as when telling the tale to someone else as a bit of whimsy.

Fast forward. The world, as Roland the Gunslinger would say, moved ahead. My fifty-year high school class reunion resulted in a return trip to the city which had been known as the “Rubber Capital of the World” (due to the manufacture of tires, as opposed to what you were thinking!) but was now known as “Crakron” as the result of the illicit drug trade which had taken root. I began woolgathering and thought of all the times that I had driven past that empty house. I remembered what it looked like and the general area where it was but couldn’t remember the streets that formed the intersection where it rested. I mentioned the story to a few friends of mine who had lived in the area but no one knew what I was talking about. One friend even patiently drove me around the area for a couple of hours in an attempt to locate the house but to no avail. 

 I started wondering about the house again last weekend after watching You Should Have Left — a contemporary haunted house movie — and did what anyone does these days when they have a question. I went on Facebook. I went to a page devoted to Akron’s history and posted the story about the house. I also asked if anyone had heard the story and knew where the house was located. 

It only took a few minutes for me to receive several responses. There were some variations but the consensus was that the story I had been told wasn’t quite accurate. A man had purchased the house with the intent that he and his betrothed would live there after their wedding. She, as the story went, literally left him standing at the altar. He was devastated and retained ownership but not occupancy of the house until his own death, apparently hoping that the love of his life would return. She did not. Someone else purchased the house subsequent to his death, tore it down, and built a new one on the lot. 

I did an online search to find the name of the original owner but the available records on the website didn’t go back far enough.  Finding that information may well involve another trip to Akron and a physical document dive in a government office but I want to hunt down the name of the heartbroken owner and then pay him a visit at his last resting place. I’m going to tell him that whoever jilted him did him a  solid. Better to have one major hurt than experience a thousand smaller ones every day. 

There is a story everywhere. You just have to find it. There is also a country song for everything. There are two that apply to the story of the jilted groom from Akron. One is by George Jones and the other is by Trace Adkins. 

If you would like to share an unusual or eccentric story about your home town, we would be interested in reading about it. It can be an urban legend or one that is lesser-known, even if it is known only to you. Either way, please share it with us. Thank you.



The Long Rain…


The Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area where I reside averages forty inches of precipitation per year. Seattle, which has the reputation of being rainy all of the time, averages thirty-eight inches annually. I am given to understand that Seattle receives a steady, gentle rain (and a bit of snow in the winter) throughout the year, with precipitation occurring a bit more frequently than every other day. It rains every few days in Columbus over a period of about six months — April through October —  and then we of course get some snow during the rest of the year. 

We sometimes get some spells of heavy, flood-warning rain. We had several days of those a couple of weeks ago.  I didn’t have any damage, outside or inside. It was still a bit emotionally wearing, in a seasonal affective disorder way. It is easy to wonder by the second or third straight day of rain whether the sun will ever be seen again.

It is on such days that I think of Ray Bradbury, or, to be more precise, two of his stories. The first of these was originally titled “Death by Rain” and appeared in the pulp magazine Planet Stories in an issue published on September 23, 1950, almost one year to the day before I was born.

Forgive me for exhibiting a moment of looseness of association. I actually had the opportunity to buy that magazine for a dollar in 1962 at a used bookstore. I instead used the dollar to buy several brand new comic books, including one titled The Amazing Spider-Man #1, which I still own. My logic at the time was that I already had “Death by Rain,” retitled as “The Long Rain,” in the Bradbury short story collection The Illustrated Man. The original cover price of Planet Stories was twenty cents, and the merchant was selling it for a whole dollar. It seemed like a bad deal to me. I was right. I can buy that issue of Planet Stories for under thirty dollars on e-bay while that Spider-Man comic is worth considerably more than that. 

To digress from the digression,  I have read “The Long Rain” dozens of times. It presents a future in which a rocket ship crashlands on Venus in the early days of Venusian colonization by Earth. The astronauts on board who survive are beset by constant rainstorms which, in the 1940s, were thought to occur to occur on Venus. The astronauts attempt to reach one of the sun domes — shelters constructed during earlier visits to Venus — in a last-ditch survival effort. Hilarity does not ensue. Tragedy does. The ending is enigmatic, even more so upon each rereading. Folks still argue about it. I think of that story whenever the rain never seems to stop and the sun becomes a memory stay thankful for having my own sun dome, as well as the (almost) certain knowledge that the rain will eventually pass. 

The second Bradbury story that comes to mind during the central Ohio version of monsoon season is titled “All Summer in a Day.” It isn’t as well known as “The Long Rain” but is a bit more poignant and ultimately maybe the better tale of the two. “All Summer in a Day” published in the March 1954 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which, unlike Planet Stories, is still around. Bradbury is mentioned on the cover but does not get top billing, interestingly enough. His contribution to that issue is a classic nonetheless. “All Summer in a Day” is also set on  Venus. The Venus of this story is somewhat similarly inhospitable to the Venus of “The Long Rain” but has been sufficiently colonized to have children residing there who were born planetside and elementary schools built for them to attend. One of the school children is a girl named Margot who moved from Earth to Venus five years prior to the story’s present. Margot is the only one in her class who has seen the sun. The reason for this is that (in the story) the sun is only visible on Venus for one hour every seven years, The event is coming up, and it’s a big deal, particularly for Margot, who misses seeing that which she had previously taken for granted. The problem is that some of Margot’s classmates are unhappy with her, and as a result they…well, you will have to read the story to find out, but I will tell you that it is for me one of the saddest stories I have ever read (I’m getting a little misty-eyed just writing about it, but don’t tell anybo… Oops).  “All Summer in a Day” has been collected in a number of Bradbury’s anthologies, including the U.S. Edition of A Medicine for Melancholy. Bradbury, as the result of stories such as “All Summer in a Day”  and the chilling “The Small Assassin,” acquired the reputation of hating children. Maybe he did. I don’t share that opinion, but after reading “All Summer in a Day” you will understand why he was painted with that brush, and why I think of it after several days of central Ohio gloom.

I doubt Bradbury thought at the time he wrote the stories I’ve been discussing that either of them would be remembered decades later. He lived long enough to see that happen, and to see them taught, studied, and even adapted to other media. That’s pretty good for a couple of stories that were purchased by editors at the rate of a couple of pennies per word and published in what were referred to as “pulp” magazines. The lesson here is that you might have a story or five that accumulated some rejection slips. Check your hard drive or your file drawer and read a few of them, pick up a couple, shine them up, and send them out again. It is possible that the churl who rejected them initially now sleeps with the fishes and that a pair of fresh editorial eyes will look more favorably upon them. Sixty years from now someone may be discussing your story as a result. I assure you that stranger and more unlikely things have happened. You might even be still alive to see it.

Back to the rain… I am not alone in feeling this way, at least about “The Long Rain.” Our own blogger emeritus Joe Moore reported having a similar reaction to that story in this space way back in 2012. What about you? Do you have a favorite story that deals with weather that has been written either by you or someone else? And sure. It can take place on any world, including this one. 

Enjoy your weekend. May it be sunny. 



Knowing When to Be Quiet

Photo by designecologist on unspalsh.com

I am writing this on Thursday, May 28, after writing and rejecting two posts over the past week. You might or might not see them at some point in the future. One is about a couple of stories by Ray Bradbury that use climate in very different ways. The other is about the application to writing of the subject matter of what was once a regularly published newspaper cartoon whose author’s name has entered our lexicon.

You are not seeing either one of them now because I couldn’t hit the bullseye with either post. Both of them in my opinion had some great turns of phrase, were entertaining in places, and utilized multi-media presentations. They were ultimately, however, bowls of air that looked nice but were leaking badly, perhaps fatally so. If I wasn’t happy with them I didn’t think that you would be either.

The common denominator was me. I decided that at the core of each post I was being too clever and talking too much about things which really weren’t all that interesting to anyone outside of my own life at the moment. There wasn’t a fix, either. Pulling anything out caused the entire post in each case to collapse under its own weight. 

The major problem that a writer has — this writer anyway — is filling that white space with black letters. Resolving that problem isn’t enough.  Miles Davis used to say that in jazz knowing what not to play was as important as knowing what to play. The same is true in writing, whether it’s a post for your blog or your character’s interior dialog in your breakthrough novel or something in between. Sometimes it works. At other times you have to be quiet, walk away, and start somewhere else entirely. 

That’s what I am doing. Have a great weekend.

But wait, there’s more. Please permit me, in lieu of our regularly scheduled programming, to introduce to you a handy little tool called a “title case converter.” There are only a few rules to remember when properly capitalizing the words in a title but this is a quick and dirty way to check yourself to make sure that you have it right. Enjoy!