About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

The Time it Takes

During a recent book talk, a lady raised her hand. “How long does it take to write a novel?”

Oh boy! I got to use my high school freshman teacher’s taunting question right back at her. “How long is a piece of string?”

She frowned, as did almost everyone in the audience. And like Miss Adams, I had to explain. “My piece of string isn’t the same as yours, or hers, or his. They’re all different.”

“What does that have to do with my question?”

“My first novel took years. I wrote it whenever I had a few minutes, and I’d be willing to bet that most authors will have a similar story. Few of us were able to sit down and hammer out our first book out without stopping.

“Then I finished the novel and lost it in an electronic hiccup. Starting over, it only took three or four years after that to write it from memory. Then I carried it around, polishing here, tweaking there, telling everyone I’d written a novel and basking in the glory of having finished it.

“The truth is, I was still tweaking it even after finding an agent. While she shopped it around, I polished it some more, because I’d read that you have to make the stinkin’ thing shine.”

Nods all around.

“So if you’re asking how long that particular manuscript was under construction, I’ll have to say about ten years.”

Her eyes widened and I nodded knowingly, because I came through the other side.

But here’s the fun part for the rest of you to ponder. After it was accepted for publication, I kinda lounged around, being an author in my mind. About ten days after it hit the shelves, my editor reached out. “You got great reviews! When do I get to see pages for the next one?”


“Your next book comes out in about a year. We already have it on the schedule.”

Wait, what? They have another book scheduled and I haven’t even started it yet? What the hell!!!???

I didn’t have a ghost of an idea for another book and my publisher wanted a finished manuscript to follow the first novel. Stunned, we hung up and I sat at my desk and looked around. What am I gonna do? I’m already a failure.

Then I remembered a novella I’d worked on through the years. Would that work?

I dug the pages from our file cabinet and read them. Yep, I could change the name here, add a character here, throw in the two now-eleven-year-old kids Top and Pepper. Cool! I have a jump on the next book! I can change the location and set the whole thing in my fictional town of Chisum, which I’d modeled on Paris, Texas.

I looked at the word count. I looked at the calendar. I looked out the window and examined my fingernails. Then I went to work.

Burrows, that piece of string, came in at 90,000 words and was finished in six months.

The woman at the book signing was giving me the Hairy Eyeball as I rambled on. “In my case, once I finished the second, I got into a rhythm. I shot for five pages a day, which seems like a lot, but by then I’d retired from a long career in education and was dedicating all my time to writing.

“Some folks’ piece of string is only a page a day. Others might be a thousand words, and I’ve heard of authors who hit their personally established word count and stop in mid-sentence so as not to burn their candle too fast.”

I learned, and now with several different series in the queue, I’ve gotten faster.

One novel birthed in a dream wrapped in six weeks.

I just finished a traditional western that took three months.

I’m working on another traditional western that I believe will wrap in eight weeks. I’ve been averaging four to five thousand words a day on that WIP, on these days I can invest the time. Other days come in at two thousand words. I’ve cracked 30,000 words on that one, and in my mind, I’m almost on the downhill side.

So how long does it take to write a novel?

I don’t know.

Looking online at “master” classes, or dozens of articles, you’ll see different lengths of string. One self-publishing site states with authority that you need eight months to write 80,000 words.

Another says your first draft should only take three months.

The truth is, your piece of string is different. Screw what everyone else says. It’s your work, and your own pace.

J.K. Rowling took six years to write the first Harry Potter.

It took Stephen King “several years” to finish Carrie, and then he worked on The Stand for two years.

Don’t let arbitrary deadlines or timelines to drive your work. Write when you can, as much as is comfortable and still keep the juices flowing. But make no mistake, speed, or the lack thereof, isn’t important. It’s the quality of work that makes a novel readable, and successful.

Write on!


The Weight

It’s signing season again for me with the release of Hard Country, my first novel in the Tucker Snow series. For an author, this is the time to emerge from the writing cave and look real people in the eye. For some, it’s frightening. For an old classroom teacher and public speaker like me, it’s an opportunity to interact with fans, and I love it.

At my last signing in Northeast Texas, I was approached by a woman somewhere in (I estimate) in her thirties. Her brown hair was cut short, and she had a studious look about her. “Can I talk to you when you’re finished?”

“Sure.” I scribbled my signature on her book and she took a nearby seat to watch as a long line of fans worked their way down the table. A friend who is a retired librarian helped with the books, opening them to the proper page and making sure folks wrote their name on a note so I wouldn’t misspell them.

My events are relaxed, and I spend a lot of time with those who want to talk as I’m signing, so that patient lady sat there for half an hour. Finally it was just her, Librarian, and myself. The room quieted and she pulled her chair closer.

Putting the cap on my pen, I didn’t ask her name, and she didn’t offer it. I leaned back, expecting to hear about her novel under construction. “I bet you’re a writer.”

She looked sheepish and adjusted the dark-rimmed glasses on her nose. “Trying. I’m not published, but I’m in a writing group and I read a lot.” She held up my book. “I’ve been looking forward to your new series. I love world building.”

“How far are you in your manuscript?”

“About thirty thousand words.” She grinned. “Good words, too, all lined up in the right order and everything, but I’ve hit a roadblock.”

“What is it?” I hoped she wouldn’t say she had writers block.

“Well, I’m in a writing group which has helped me a lot. We meet once a month and share what we’ve written. They’ve made some good points and I’ve listened to their suggestions, but I have re-written pages for so long that I’m kind of lost.”

“Write your book.”

She looked startled. “I am.”

“No.” This is where I’ll make some folks upset, but it’s something, I’ve seen over and over. “You’re in a loop, and listening to others instead of plowing ahead with your manuscript. I get that writers groups are beneficial. It’s a great support system. It’s great to talk with others who understand, too, and to get feedback for a while. Keep going every month and maintain that interest that keeps the fires burning, but get your book written and don’t stop until you type, The End.”

“But they’ve had good ideas.”

“I’m sure they have. How many are published?”

“None. They’re good writers.”

“I’m sure they are. Write your book.”

Librarian gave me the eye and I backed off.

The lady leaned forward. “There’s another thing. It’s the big block I was talking about and I’m really worried.”

“What’s that? Writer’s block?”

“No,” She looked uncomfortable. “It’s come up…”

“In your writers group.”

“Yes.” She tilted her head and looked at me like a puppy trying to make sense of the English language. “See, my book is set in the southern Oklahoma territories over a hundred years ago and my protagonist is someone related to me that I heard about when I was little. She was Choctaw. I have other characters that are like me.”

I knew where she was going, but made her say it. “And that is?”

“My group says I’ll get in trouble for cultural appropriation, but it’s historical fiction based on what my grandmother told me, and the research I’ve done.”

“Was she Indian?”


“Is it about your grandmother and what she told your? Someone you knew?”


“Write your book.”

“But I might get in trouble, writing characters who don’t look like me.”

“You won’t until you write your book.”


“I assume you have a large cast of characters, so write about them all. This is a diverse world, and use that to be accurate. Tell a story that’s faithful to the time and write the truth. Use all the honesty you can and don’t worry about what others might say. Concern yourself with what you’re saying in this world you’re building.”

She looked so relieved I thought she was going to cry. “So it’s okay to have characters that aren’t like me.”

“In my opinion, yes. Do your research. You’re using different historical characters who were there, and you’re including them to heighten the richness of the story, so just write your book.”

“You keep saying that. So don’t be afraid.”

“Write the truth.”

“I think I can get back to work now.”

“Go put words on paper and don’t worry about what others might say. We’re artists and our fiction comes from all those around us. Concentrate on what you’re saying and you’ll be just fine. Carry the weight of writing, not the burden of what a very few others might say against your dream.”

She used both hands to shake mine. “Thank you.”

I wasn’t through. “If you have something to say, say it.”

She nodded, and left.

The Librarian gave me a funny look when the lady was gone. “You were kinda harsh there, bud.”

“The truth is sometimes harsh, but she’ll never get it written until she gets back to work.”

That goes for everyone else, too.


The Classics

I was a voracious reader as a kid, and read well beyond my grade level. When other kids were reading the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Half-Magic, and Pirates Promise, I picked up To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Sawyer, and believe it or not, The Dirty Dozen.

Because of my reading habits, I’d already blasted through such novels as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, Farenheit 451, and Death of a Salesman well before some of those were assigned in English class. One I couldn’t stand was The Great Gatsby, and still didn’t like it upon re-reading the novel last year.

Not too long ago I started thinking of those classics I’d read as a kid and decided it was time to revisit those novels. Now that I’m pushing 70, I wanted to see how those novels apply these days after a lifetime of experiences, and it was fascinating.

I started with Steinbeck, and the first novel I ever read by this Nobel Prize winning author was Travels With Charley, and that was somewhere around age fourteen. It sparked an interest in U.S. travel that has continued to this day. Then I went back and read Of Mice and Men and by the time I was in high school, The Grapes of Wrath, all before my senior year.

The Bride and I were in Palm Springs a couple of months ago and I ran across that title in an antique store. See, there’s that travel thing and I coughed up five dollars for the well-thumbed paperback reprint circa 1969. Book deadlines left it in my travel bag until last week.

I just finished it yesterday, and was surprised how well it held up. Those who know me understand my fascination with the Dust Bowl, so much that my novel last year entitled The Texas Job was set in the Great Depression. Maybe it’s because of the stories I heard from my family members who survived on scratch farms during that time.

To me, Grapes of Wrath is haunting and somewhat of a minor horror novel, based on what the Joad family endured on their way out to the promised land that proved to be something entirely different. I’d forgotten Steinbeck’s writing style that I feel might have sparked my own, though I don’t always write in third person. He switches back from third, to social commentary in alternating chapters that is unique to this author.

He wrote of the people I grew up with, and his dialogue and descriptions are as comfortable as an old shoe. He used words like “strowed,” and “pone,” and “flour and lard,” and phrases like, “the men squatted on their hams,” and “we got to make miles,” and “she looked down at her hands tight-locked in her lap.” It felt like I was hearing the old folks talking again.

I’d also forgotten that his book was banned after its release back in 1939, because critics said it promoted organized labor, extramarital sex, and violence. Still, to this day, it continues to be a source of controversy for some of those reasons listed above. Reading it today, this novel about as harsh as watching an episode of Law and Order.

Next in line for me is Of Mice and Men, then on to either On The Road, or Lord of the Flies, all read over fifty years ago.

Which classics do you need to re-read, and which ones impacted you?



Farewell, and Amen

Sometimes we don’t have to use all the words we know. You can convey entire stories full of feeling with just a few sentences. Today’s blog post:

Our little Shih Tzu, Willie, now sleeps in the garden. As I work, the house is silent, save for the ticking of the clock.

In The Country

I’m up against a looming deadline and am living on coffee and burritos, so today’s post is a cheat because it originally appeared on the online version of Stand Magazine in a different form.

My works are always set in small-town Texas. Though I live near the DFW metroplex, I’m no fan of cities, and only a couple of chapters in a twelve-year career as a novelist have occurred in those canyons of concrete and steel.

Maybe that’s because my roots run deep in rural Northeast Texas, and it all stems from deep ancestral family anchors and my maternal grandfather who was a farmer and constable in Lamar County from the 1940s through the mid-1980s. I mine these stories and memories from long ago, because he made a statement when I was ten that I’ve never forgotten.

We were in his old farm truck, heading toward one of the two general stores in Chicota to pick up a loaf of Ideal bread, and Dr Peppers. In warm weather, he drove with his left elbow hanging out the open window. Always in faded blue overalls, light blue shirt washed so often it was soft as a baby’s bottom, and wearing his ever-present LBJ hat, he threw a glance at an unpainted farmhouse sagging under the weight of past years.

“Another one of my old uncles lived there when I was a kid. It won’t be standing much longer. He was in the pen once, but got out and married and then that ol’ gal up and run off on him and he just withered away.”

He considered his statement for a moment. “You know, son, small towns are like ponds. Up on the surface there’s not much to see, but underneath, there’s a world of life and death going on.”

Those two sentences stuck, and have been the basis for much of my mystery and thriller writing career.

Back in the 1960s where my Red River series is set, there were few secrets in our community. Throw in the fact that we were all related in some way, news traveled fast over party lines. It just occurred to me that I had nearly a hundred relatives living close to both sets of grandparents in a two-mile square, including third and fourth cousins with a couple of double-cousins thrown in for good measure.

In the country there’s always someone watching out the window, and despite today’s social media platforms, the ol’ grapevine still exists and the uninformed are surprised to find that folks living in rural areas have very little privacy in a general sense.

Small town folks know all about each other, and what they’ve done, good or bad, just as my running buddy John Gilstrap postulated in a post earlier this month.

For example, when I was a kid here was one instance when a strange Cadillac pulled up to a relative’s farmhouse looking for directions (decades before GPS) and soon the community buzzed that “someone” was visiting the Widow Davis.

It took a while for that bit of excitement to run its course, and Widow Davis in her late eighties was tickled pink to find out people were talking about her interest in something other than watching the daily stories (soap operas) on the one channel she received on her portable black and white television.

I guess the main reason I still visit these small towns in print, or in person, is because it reminds me of a simpler time. In fact, I based a novel on a 1960s mafia hitman from Las Vegas who wanted to escape his criminal life and start anew with his new girlfriend in the fictional Northeast Texas community of Center Springs.

But you can’t hide in a small town, and especially a smaller rural community. People know the minute you get there, and the ensuing plot of that novel rests firmly upon that misconception.

After another novel came out, one of my oldest aunts called me from her assisted living quarters, mad as an old wet hen. She launched into me the moment I answered. “Reavis Zane, I have a crow to pick with you!”

Where I come from, you’re in serious trouble when an older female relative begins a conversation with your first and middle names. I immediately felt like an adolescent boy again. “Aunt Irene, I’m sorry I haven’t called you in a while…”

“It’s not that. I’m talking about that new book of yours that I just read. Young man, you shouldn’t be telling family secrets!”

“I haven’t…”

“You did! You wrote about Leroy and Lizzie running off together and leaving their husband and wife.”

“No, I made that whole thing up. Those are fictional characters and… wait, what? I didn’t know that. Uncle Leroy and Aunt Lizzie were married to someone else before? Who were they married to?”

She grew quiet on the other end of the line and then snapped at me. “Well, those are family secrets and I’m not gonna talk about that!”

And she hung up on me.

Thinking back, a large number of successful authors set their plots in small towns and pastoral communities. Maybe that’s what I look for, a sense of quiet desperation, limited numbers of characters, and the skeletons that seem to accumulate in all our closets.

So if you move to a small town to escape the busy city and some crime real or imagined, visualize a pool, which is where livestock gets water in Northeast Texas, (it’s a pond in East Texas, and a tank in central and west parts of the Lone Star State). Whatever you call it, remember the surface is peaceful and calm as dragonflies circle and birds flit over.

But underneath, where you can’t see, there’s a world of life and death going on, and you’ll likely be shocked at what you find under there.

That Love/Hate Relationship

I have a love/hate relationship with copy editors. They don’t know that.

We need them. Lordy how I need them, because no matter how many times the Bride and I read a manuscript, we miss something, and this current work in progress is no different. I thought I’d turned in clean pages, and once again a detail-oriented individual found errors that I’d missed.

One thing I hated as a high school student was to see all those red marks on an assignment. I’d worked so hard to provide what my English teachers required, remembering all the rules of grammar, and the vocabulary necessary to tell a good story.

But when they were returned, passed back down over disinterested shoulders to my seat against the wall, those corrections and questions sent a flush of anger through my body and it was all I could do not to rush up to her desk and point out everything she’d highlighted that was wrong…

…in my opinion.

Today I still feel that same flush at the notes on the right hand side of the screen, but choke it down because they’re usually right.

Usually, I said.

A few years ago a side note in the page proofs raised my ire. The editor questioned the spelling of a pistol carried by one of my characters. The note read, There is no hyphen in a Taurus Ultra-Lite.

In my mind, I called up this individual. “But you’re wrong! There is a hyphen.”

“No there isn’t. I looked it up online.”

“Well, you looked it up wrong, because the pistol I have here in my hand has a Taurus Ultra-Lite stamped into the frame.”

“You have a pistol!!!???”

It really didn’t go down exactly that way, but I do own a Taurus Ultra-Lite (a terrible revolver in my opinion and I wish I hadn’t bought it), and those words and that hyphen really are stamped into the frame, justifying my use of that weapon.

Another copy editor once pointed out to me that my use of “booger-bear” was wrong in a Red River manuscript. Now, I grew up in fear of booger-bears in the night, and often pictured them as a child-chomping monster resembling the Creature From the Black Lagoon, but with longer teeth and claws and red eyes that glowed in the darkness.


When I read that side note, I laughed out loud.

“According to the Urban Dictionary, a booger-bear is a woman of loose morals.”

A river of comments rushed through my brain, but I resisted. However, I wanted to write back, “Never use the Urban Dictionary to confirm anything I include about rural America.”

These days I include a note to the copy editor which reads:

“Please do not edit the spelling or use of words in my dialogue, nor should you edit for proper grammar inside quotation marks. This dialogue is regional, and therefore written the way us Texans use those words and phrases.”


I also do not care about the current grammatical rules that insist on creating these odd-looking names such as Cross’s, Williams’s, or any other possessive. I’m old, and the AP Press Style book says the correct way to write the possessive case of Reavis is Reavis’, not Reavis’s. Reavis’ work will always read as such.

Please do not attempt to correct guns or calibers. If you don’t know that a .410 shotgun is a caliber, then stay out of this discussion.

That really isn’t one of my notes, but I’d like it to be, along with the following:

No, there is not town in Texas called Nashville. I know it’s in Tennessee, and I’ve been there in a fruitless search for real country music. I made it up because I write fiction. If I intend to use a real name, all I have to do is grab one out of the air, because I can’t seem to make up a town name that hasn’t already been used. I wanted to use Hogansville as an example, but when I checked, there really is a Hogansville, TX.

But I don’t hammer them, because these fine editors are simply doing their job to keep me honest, and to ensure that when my book hits the shelves it will contain as few mistakes as possible. Copy editors are essential and they give that final polish to a book.

Don’t be too hard on them.

On another note: Sourcebooks and Goodreads are giving away 25 copies of Hard Country, my first novel in the contemporary Tucker Snow series that will release August 1, 2023. The contest runs from July 8-27th. Follow the link below to enter, and good luck!

Oh, and feel free to pre-order your copy from your favorite online dealer.


Just One Book

Back in the early 1980s, I taught school under my good friend Curtis, who was then an Assistant Principal. Like me, he absorbed books by the dozens, and we spent hours discussing authors, books, and writing.

He knew I had dreams of getting published some day, and often encouraged me to finish a manuscript. Just one manuscript. “Finish the stinkin’ thing!”

We all know how that goes, but I started and abandoned a dozen ideas hammered out on an IBM Selectric typewriter. One manuscript even grew to seventy-five pages, and when I look back at it today (it’s still in the bottom drawer of my desk), I know why it died.

Years passed, and one day I got a newspaper column published and eventually self-syndicated those writings while his own career advanced.

He took a position as high school principal in one district, then assistant superintendent in another, and finally became superintendent of a small East Texas town before eventually coming back to Garland, Texas, the tenth largest district in the state.

I remained in Garland and had moved up as the assistant director of Communications and Public Relations. I was the guy on the front lines when things went wrong, and was the spokesperson for the district.

After I found myself again working under Curtis, we picked up where we left off and continued our talks about books and writing.

More than one lunch flew by as those conversations became more intense and in my case, somehow desperate. “I just want to get a book published. Just one.”

“You will.”

“It hasn’t happened yet. Look at us, were getting older by the minute and you’re getting gray headed.”

“Have you looked in a mirror lately?”

“Once, but there was some old guy there. Look, I think I’m missing out. Some day you and I’ll be in rocking chairs on the front porch, still talking about the works of other people. Then we’ll be gone and those books will still be on the shelves, maybe for generations. That’s what I want. A book on a shelf to tell a story, and to let people know I was here.”

“Don’t give up, then.”

“I never said I was giving up.”

“Sounds like it.”

“Shut up and pay the bill, boss.”

“You shut up and write.”

So I did. In 2011, my first novel was published, and in the ensuing years, there are more than a dozen on those shelves, with many more already written (waiting their turn to hit the shelves in the coming months and years), and right this minute, others contracted by two different publishers.

We’re both retired now and get together every couple of months. Curtis and I met for breakfast the other day and he grinned across the table, holding my book bearing the newest title which I signed to him. “Just one book, huh?”

“Yeah, and I made it.”

He sipped his coffee amid the smells of frying bacon and onions. He eyed me. “Now what?”


“I know that look.”

I took a swallow from my mug. “I’ve been offered to ghost write a couple of novels.”

His eyebrow arched and he pushed his empty plate to the side. “You want to publish under another guy’s name?”

“No. I want the money that comes from publishing under another guy’s name.”

I outlined the deal and an unusual offer that would bring in even more than simple contract work.

He shook his head. “But your name wouldn’t be anywhere in those pages.”


“You have a distinctive writing style. People will figure it out.”

“Maybe, but that’s not the point.”

“Aren’t you already writing under your real name for them?”

“Sure, but this is extra and those kinds of books just roll off without taking up too much time. I can write them, and still produce my Red River series, along with the new Cap Whitlatch westerns.”

“How many books a year is that?”

I sighed. “Three. Maybe four.”

“And how many standalone novels are you hammering out.”


“You can’t do it. You don’t have the time.”

“We’ll find out.”

He grinned down into his coffee. “And I remember when your dream was a single book on a shelf. Now you have a second career. I guess you need to get after that keyboard.”

So I’ve agreed to ghost write. I know half a dozen authors who’ve done the same thing. One is so prolific I was stunned by the number, and laughed aloud when he told me the names he wrote under. It’s been a great living for him, and he doesn’t care that his name is on just a few of them.

I look at the shelf to my left and my books under Reavis Z. Wortham take up most of the space. I have my wish, with many more to come.

But there’s the carrot out there that will swell my bank account.

Is that why we write?


Or is something else?


That Character Who Took Over

Imagination. That’s what writers possess, something invisible and hard to explain to those who don’t have such a gift. Authors have an ability to create worlds, settings, conversation, and even feelings that others can share. Readers find a way to bond with those “people” we’ve created and look forward to the next book, and the next.

I find it interesting that authors can create strong fictional entities who can carry the story, but can be quickly supplanted by a minor character intended to perform some short purpose to push the plot forward, and then depart.

But sometimes this minor supporting character starts to swell up and threaten to take over a book, or series.

Now as I continue with this thought, I suspect I might have written something similar for KillZone, but I’m on a damn tight deadline here (because I got my dates mixed up again and this thing is pouring out) at eleven in the evening, and I don’t have time to look older posts. Bear with me though, because there’s a different thrust this time and it came to mind while the Bride and I were on the road this afternoon.

By my third novel, The Right Side of Wrong, I’d built a small rural world in Northeast Texas back in 1966. The Parker family took center stage with Ned and Becky Parker who are in their golden years, Cody Parker and his (then) girlfriend Norma Faye, who represented the twenty-something crowd, and the near twin twelve-year-old cousins Top (the innocent young boy) and Pepper (a young lady who cusses like a sailor and instigates a number of issues throughout the series).

They were all well received, and reviewers were positive about the characters and series.

Somewhere in the early stages of The Right Side of Wrong (and remember I don’t outline), an old man named Tom Bell showed up out of nowhere. I wondered who he was as my fingers raced across the keyboard. My subconscious had already inserted him into the plot somehow and I was following a dim trail of discovery.

As the story progressed, Tom Bell bought a small house in need of repair, and set about rebuilding it not far from where Top lived with his constable grandfather Ned, and Miss Becky. I allowed my imagination to soar and soon Top spent more and more time with Tom Bell, who showed interest in the youngster and they became friends.

We soon learned that Tom Bell was a retired Texas Ranger seeking peace and solitude after a lifetime of fighting crime. When the plot finally reached the third act, the world around the Parker family went to hell and Tom Bell stepped in to help arrest a few bad guys, and ultimately follow Ned and Sheriff’s Deputy John Washington down across the Rio Grande to rescue Cody Parker from a Mexican prison.

Spoiler alert!

They got Cody out all right, but in the ensuing fight, Tom Bell is shot to pieces as he provides cover for the others to get back into Texas. After an over-the-top ending, the remainder of my ensemble cast lived happily ever after, at least until the next book came out.

There. I was finished with Tom, and had enjoyed this character who came from nowhere and performed his duties with honor and a strong sense of purpose.

Then came signings, and a barrage of questions from readers and hosts alike about why he’d been killed off. I explained those reasons, and for the next couple of years, the verbal assaults continued.

One lady at a signing took me to task over Tom Bell, and said she looked forward to the day that I drowned young Pepper in the Red River, but to bring the old Ranger back!

“All right! I will.”

I checked back and realized I hadn’t killed him off at the end of the novel, but left him for dead, so three years later he returned with a flourish in Gold Dust and the response was overwhelming. Tom grew in successive books, and last year I liked him so much I wrote a prequel to the Red River series entitled The Texas Job, with Tom Bell as the main character.

Set in the early 1930s, we saw him as a young man, and learned what made this guy such a good Texas Ranger. All the ingredients that created this fictional character gave readers insight into his past, and the person they wanted to read about.

I’m getting more requests right now to write the second book in a new series featuring this mythical Ranger. In fact, the novel was so well-received that The Texas Job is a finalist for the Will Rogers Medallion Award and I’ve received a slew of comments and emails about that book, the period in time we fondly call The Great Depression, and Mr. Bell.

So here’s my question to you all out there in BookLand. What is that makes some well-written and strong protagonists take a back seat to one who suddenly steps into the open and beams light? How did we do that?

Is it description?



Do they do the things we wish we could?

Did we somehow create our own super hero? And why is he or she more interesting that those characters we started with?

Side note, my daughters say that I’ve written Tom Bell as myself, ten years in the future.

I just wish I was that tough and charismatic.

So whadda ya think? I sure don’t know, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Them Flies

“A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another. It may provide clarity or identify hidden similarities between two different ideas.”

Way back in college, I had to take a speech class. Never figuring I’d need it since I was pursuing a degree in architecture, I staggered in and out of each class without much caring what my grade would be. In fact, I took a D and was glad to get it, but one interesting assignment was to write and present a persuasive speech.

As I recall, the idea caused much consternation among some of the other students, but I didn’t care, because all I wanted to do was complete the assignment and get out of there.

One of my fellow students wrote a gut-wrenching plea to end war, because he’d just lost his brother in Viet Nam. But he didn’t write about war, he wrote a metaphor about something entirely different that we absorbed in wonder. We knew what he was talking about, but the idea hit us from a different angle.

My professor ended the day by saying, “When writing, there are times we need to make people think, instead of slamming them with the facts as we, the author, see them. A writer or speaker is charged with making people think, and to elicit an emotional response.”

Way back when I was first published, I’d use what my old man called “three-dollar-words,” designed to force readers to a thesaurus. What a stupid idea. It wasn’t my job to expand my reader’s vocabulary. It was to inform, but mostly to entertain.

However, there were times I couldn’t write what I wanted, so I found an alternate way to make a point through the use of a metaphor…

There’s a wonderful children’s book titled, A Fly Went By, by Michael McClintock and edited by the one and only Dr. Seuss. I read the story to both of my girls when they were very young. Now my grandchildren love the rhyming story that focuses on misplaced perception and unknown fears that continues to build throughout the story until the source of all that fear is rooted out.

In a nutshell, a small boy is relaxing in a rowboat one find day, loving the outdoors and watching clouds pass overhead when a fearful fly buzzes past. It’s being chased by a frog, who is in turn being chased by a cat, who is chased by a dog, who is followed by a pig. By the end of the little book, an entire frightened menagerie passes, all trailed by a man who is frightened by a sheep who starts the whole thing by getting its hoof tangled in a bucket.

This cumulative tale is great for a variety of reasons, one of which is that we too often get caught up in whatever the Fear of the Day might be. In this book, the kids learn that instead of taking other people’s word for how bad something is, they should investigate and make informed decisions before the Boogy Man turns out to be their own fears.

It’s odd that I like the story, because it starts with a fly and I hate flies with an absurd passion. I have flyswatters in every room of the house, just in case one sneaks in and threatens my peaceful world. In the pantry, three more swatters wait for a killing.

A Bug-A-Salt gun on a shelf in the pantry. It’s a bright yellow plastic pump-action shotgun that blasts flies with table salt. We’ve salted a number of them, and plan to buy even more to eliminate the pests.

We do our best to keep the filthy insects out, with closed doors and screens, but as in many things in life, it isn’t if one gets in, but when.

For some reason they’re attracted to a great glass brick wall in our shower, and to keep from being defenseless there, I have a slightly rusted swatter within reach.

Sometimes you can’t enjoy the outdoors because of invasive flies. The first time we had a cookout here at the new house was on a late spring day, one perfect for eating out. We cooked burgers on the grill, and I noticed more than a few flies around the patties protected by plastic wrap.

There are always flies around, and we should be attentive at all times lest they contaminate our food with their filthy feet and repulsive mouthparts called the labellum and pseudotrachea.


As our delicious burgers patties sizzled, those nasty insects brought their kinfolk, until by the time we gathered the family and settled around the patio table to enjoy lunch, we were engulfed in a swam. Hundreds landed on everything so fast the kids couldn’t eat.

Waving them off was impossible, and with shrieks, gesticulations, and lots of adult curses (properly curbed for little ears), we gathered everything and retreated to the kitchen, only to be followed by bombing patrols that continued inside until we armed ourselves and launched a counter attack.

One flew into the Redhead’s mouth, (my oldest daughter) and a string of words that would have impressed a merchant seaman emerged. She spat it out and stomped the soft, tiny corpse until it was nothing but a stain.

As we all know, flies are sourced from some of the most revolting environments we can imagine. They come from the filth that attracts and breeds them, and bring their contamination to the rest of us who do everything we can to protect ourselves, and enjoy a maintained, well-ordered existance.

I’m convinced our neighbors who have seven big dogs were a significant source of the infestation, and I wondered if those good, well-intentioned folks ever cleaned up their own back yard. You shouldn’t foul your own nest, and that goes for letting feces remain in your yard for long periods of time, even though a soaking rain can melt it into the ground where it allegedly becomes beneficial fertilizer.

We keep our yard clean, despite deposits from Willie the Wonder-dog (read Shih Tzu here), and I patrol the yard with whatever utensils are necessary to keep our property clean and safe in all way.

We’re required to protect our houses from pests, and prevention works when done properly, but there are times we have to stop them before they get in. I have a pest control man who comes by a couple of times a year. His theory is, “keep them out of the house, before you have to kill ‘em inside.”

Some sympathetic individuals surely like flies and feel sorry for them in some bizarre way, but that’s not how my mind works.

I despise flies, but love A Fly Went By, and I bet you will, too. Read it to your little ones and enjoy this metaphor.

Show, Don’t Tell

There’s a Deadline Beast lurking in the near future, so this post will be brief, for me.

You’ve heard or read this before, but even writing today’s post revealed some laziness on my part and I cleaned up several pages of my work in progress.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

“In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.  C.S. Lewis

The late E. L. Doctorow, author of twelve historical fiction novels said, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

And then there’s King Stephen who is always delicate as a chainsaw. “Your readers, without even realizing it, will love you for it, because it engages them, it draws them into the story. If you show, you don’t need to tell. If she kicks him in the balls, the reader gets that she’s angry. You don’t need to say it.”

In my personal writing experience, this is one of the hardest things to learn, second only to finding your writing “voice.”

The following is from my newest work in progress, a traditional western.

One of the newer glassy-eyed inmates with a wispy mustache passed us at the same time his stomach growled, looking for a place out of the searing sun and somewhere safe to eat. Swift attacks to steal our twice-a-day allotment usually spilled more than they gained. Escobedo had only been in Purgatorio for a week, and in those few days the slender man lost half of his rations.

He sat only a dozen feet from us norte americanos and wolfed down his meal. The two fresh cuts over one eyebrow and the opposite cheekbone was proof of another hard night.

Andelacio Morales rose from where he squatted with a clot of other prisoners near the long row of outside cells and swaggered across the bare yard. Even me and the boys steered clear of him when we could, but from the look in Morales’ eye, that was about to change.

Morales’ worn-out shoes crunched on the yard’s gravel and sand packed hard by decades of footsteps. The prisoner in for life towered over Escobedo who kept his eyes lowered to the tin plate between his knees. The young man’s head ducked and what little spirit was left in the newest inmate evaporated.

As I said, this piece isn’t yet finished, but this example avoids weak telling words and phrases like “I heard,” (Morale’s crunching footsteps) “He felt,” and “was afraid” (Escobedo’s fear demonstrated in the last sentence). Telling words, and phrases pushes the reader out of the story. Don’t tell us that your characters are happy, sad, scared, giddy (I especially hate that word), hot, hungry, or mad.

You want readers to be in the scene, and not on the outside looking in. Your writing should pull readers into the world you’ve created so they can use their senses based on their own memories and experiences.


Tell: The sound of gunfire reached his ears.

Show: The hard, flat reports of gunfire came as almost physical blows.


Tell: The wildflowers were pretty.

Show: The prairie was a carpet of color, nodding and swaying in the wind.


Tell: He smelled bacon when he walked into the café.

Show: The aroma of frying bacon wrapped him in comfortable memories of vacations and café breakfasts.


Tell: She heard the sound of birds in the trees.

Show: Birds flittered in the branches, and a mockingbird went through her repertoire of songs.


Tell: Bill was divorced.

Show: Bill’s fingers absently went to the pale skin on the fourth ring of his left hand, feeling was as strange as his empty bed.


“You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.” —Richard Price

Show, don’t tell, allows the reader to experience the story through actions, words, subtext, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through your explanations and descriptions. If your character is afraid, let them feel his pounding heart, or the sharp pain in her stomach. A shortness of breath is terror, and the urge to flee is natural.

Pick out a couple of pages in your own WIP and clean them up as I get out of here. Don’t tell readers something is terrifying, like an impending deadline. Show them.