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

A World Filled With Ideas

I often have the opportunity present talks and workshops here in Texas, and recently a lady raised her hand when I asked for questions or comments. “So where do you get your ideas for these novels you’ve written?”

“They’re all around us. I draw from the news, recollections, personal experiences, stories I’ve heard, and people who are great story tellers.”

“I never see anything I could put in a book, even if I could write.”

I laughed and told her about the Florida experience below.

The story in a nutshell.

I flew to St. Petersburg a few years ago and while driving to Sarasota in my rent car, heard two angry men exchange words. Only a mile later, I came across a beached sailboat full of drunks who were arguing with other inebriated individuals who’d been enjoying a quiet day on the sand.

I took what I saw and added some imagination…and the following paragraphs are the result of that question.

After flying down to St. Petersburg for a writers conference a few years ago, I rented a cherry red convertible and joined hundreds of cars headed south to Sarasota along Highway 41. That gulf coast ribbon of highway was stiff with vehicles, forcing us to proceed at school zone speed.

Except for the bumper to bumper cars and trucks, it would have been a peaceful drive down the old highway. The flow of traffic passing colorful old buildings, neat little vintage 1950s trailer parks, and palm-ridden mid-century motels kept me locked into place from one red light to the next.

At still another red light under a bright blue sky, I was startled when an angry, red-faced guy with a head bald as a cue ball pointed his finger in my direction and shouted over his female companion and through her open window. “Hey, you dread-headed fool! Get off your phone and pay attention to the damned highway. You’re all over the lanes!”

Startled by his verbal attack I had to study on what he said. I hadn’t been on my phone, so I knew he wasn’t shouting at me. Oh, and I don’t have dreads anyway.

A voice from my right yelled through his own open window. “Shut the hell up!”

I turned right to see a man with long dreads responding with vigor.

“The Bible says the word fool is the worst insult you can use, fool! And besides, it’s a free country! You and your mama need to mind y’own dayum business.”

Incensed, the woman beside Bald Guy immediately became enraged. “I’m not his mama, I’m his wife!”

Thinking I was kinda right there with Dreads’ unfortunate observation, my eyebrows raised when Bald Guy yanked the handle of his car and roared from the vehicle like an attack dog. “This free country you’re talking about gives me the right to come over there and knock your #@&%ing head off!”

The light changed and I drove off from between the combatants, leaving them to their philosophical, observational, and constitutional discussions.

The road forked half a mile later and I took the two-lane hugging the beach lined with palm trees. It wasn’t five minutes before I came up on a sailboat full of tanked partygoers heeled over in the shallow water directly in front of a beach packed with young sunbathers.

Traffic slowed even more, as drivers tried to watch what was happening. The pace was so slow that an ambitious turtle could have passed us without breaking a sweat, giving me the opportunity to absorb the scene in its entirety.

An equally sloshed and obviously visually impaired young man sitting on the sand with his girlfriend pointed and shouted. “Get that damned boat out of here!”

The mast stuck out over the beach, and the vessel’s annoyed occupants milled around the deck on a thirty degree slant. Again, a red light brought me to a stop in the middle of two armies so mad they could spit at each other.

“Can’t you see I’m trying for God’s sake!” A guy on the tilted deck braced his feet on the rail. “Whatta ya’ want me to do, get out and drag the sonofabitch back into deep water?”

A young woman barely covered by three Dorito-size triangles of thin blue material stood on her towel as if afraid of getting sand on her feet. “I don’t care how the hell you do it! Just get it out of here, you’re ruining our view!”

One of the many young men on the sailboat tilted a liquor bottle to his lips and swallowed before verbalizing his own opinion of the situation. “The view ain’t half bad from here.”

“I’ll ruin your ass!” A young man in colorful jams charged the listing sailboat.

The boat’s passenger with the view chucked an unopened can of beer at his attacker but missed and hit a previously uninvolved guy sitting on the sand.

In response, the offended beachgoer picked up the beer, and for some confounding reason, opened it before firing it back at the boat like a rocket. It struck the cockpit coaming right beside a young female passenger, spraying her tiny bathing suit with foam.

The return fire angered one of her other companions who then heaved another full beer at the beachgoers. By the time the light turned green, the air was filled with a barrage of glittering cans arcing in the sun.

The last thing I saw as the light changed was a young man on the beach, throwing handfuls of ice at the shipwrecked crew that was returning the frozen salvo with empty liquor bottles.

A landlubber woman shrieked. “No glass on the beach for chrissakes!”

And the battle faded into my rearview mirror as I resumed my pleasant drive to Sarasota.

Where do plots, characters, and ideas come from?

They’re all around us. Authors simply need to grab one and ask themselves…what if, and expand on that two-word question.

 

World Builders

Authors are world builders. We use a gift not many people possess to spin fictional tales about people who live in our heads. Some find that creating characters can be difficult, others concentrate on their characteristics, while many can reach out into the air and pull entire towns and places together without effort.

I find that my fully developed characters walk on stage when I need them. They take over, dropping bits and pieces of their backstories as the story develops and I watch them come alive as my fingers fly over the keys. I’m lucky that way.

Writers sometimes say they have issues creating characters, but I’ve never heard a writer say they have problems with locations. I know several who write about the cities or towns where they lived or grew up. They use existing locations, because they know them. If it’s a historical novel, they might spend considerable time researching a certain setting through whatever means works for them.

As I’ve written before, sometimes you have to actually visit a location during the research process, and there are authors who travel the world to better understand the environment, and the people who live there.

I use real settings in Northeast Texas, West Texas, East Texas and the Panhandle, and more recently Eastern Oklahoma and Hot Springs, Arkansas, but I handle those places differently in print. I change the names of those communities and towns.

But why, if they’re real places? You can use Google maps to find streets, highways, and even buildings. Keep it simple, stupid, and use what’s there.

There’s a reason for that. There are readers who delight in pointing out errors in a novel and I think they receive great satisfaction in writing to stay…

“I enjoyed your book, but 1st Street NW in Paris, Texas, is one way. You wrote that it’s a two way, and sir, that’s wrong!”

Or…

“There’s aren’t any houses at the corner of West Lincoln and Highland Street in Marfa, Texas. They start halfway down the block. You should visit the places you write about.”

I get the occasional email pointing out elusive typos, or in their opinion, cars didn’t have push button shifters in the 1940s. Well, yes they did, I know, because I drove a 1948 DeSoto for a year in high school and it had Fluid-drive in addition to manual shifting.

NOTE: A 1948 DeSoto was not the car that impressed girls in 1970. Come to think of it, the four-door 1959 Galaxie 500 I drove for the next three years wasn’t either.

To alleviate those issues with reality, I simply change the name of existing towns and mold them into what I want, or need. In my Red River series, Paris, Texas, became Chisum. That name came from John Chisum, a central player in the New Mexico Lincoln County War (which made famous Billy the Kid and his Regulators). He’s buried in Paris and it seemed fitting.

I partially grew up in the community of Chicota, and changed it back to the original name of Center Springs. I also merged two towns in the Big Bend Region of the Lone Star state. Alpine and Marfa became Ballard (named after my college roommate), and I’ve created other towns from whole cloth.

Now I can run my streets any way I want. If I need the courthouse to be six stories high, I can do it, and no one has any reason to call me on it. This idea works for me in other ways, too. I was looking at Google maps one day and noticed the Red River twisted out of its banks several years ago. A sliver of Oklahoma wound up on the Texas side.

But it still belongs to Oklahoma and there was considerable litigation about that issue. That orphan piece of land is north of a rancher’s property, and there still aren’t any official roads in and out of there, other than the cattleman’s two tracks made by his own truck.

It was thin I began to wonder…what if?

What if there no one claimed the fallow land?

What if bad buys decided to “homestead” it, pay the Texas landowner for a two-track right of way and build a honky tonk?

What if they sold drugs and had gambling in addition to selling beer and liquor?

What if someone was murdered in this no man’s land?

In Laying Bones, (Book 8 in the Red River series), I addressed all those questions and more, built a fictional honky tonk world on that sliver of land, and explored what could happen.

The plot came from an offhand mention during a funeral about five years ago. Back in 1964, a distant cousin, R.B. Armstrong got drunk in an Oklahoma club one night, drove back across the river into Texas and overturned his car into Sanders Creek and drowned in only a few inches of water. He was my Old Man’s running buddy, and Dad wondered about R.B.’s death until the day he died in 2010.

I was talking to my first cousin, Roger, at the aforementioned funeral and we got to talking about the Old Man, R.B., and the rest of those old men who were part of the Greatest Generation. I told Roger Dad brought up R.B.’s drowning only he died, saying it sure was a shame.

Roger gave me a strange look and shook his head. His daddy was a Lamar County deputy sheriff at that time and Roger knew more than I did. “Rev, R.B. didn’t drown that night. He didn’t have any water in his lungs. He was murdered and they suspect a couple of guys drove him out there and pushed the car off into the creek. That story you know was made up to save the family more grief than they could handle at the time.”

I was stunned. What if that were true?

Our discussion bubbled along in my subconscious until I found that spit of land on Google Maps a few months later. Click. The light bulb went on and I had a novel because we’re world builders.

Use that wonderful imagination of yours, explore alternatives, and no one can call you out on it.

Oh, by the way, 1st Street NW in Chisum is a two way, in my world.

 

 

Leathery Wings and Petrichor

The Earthling, which released wayyyy back in 1980, is one of the greatest, but most underrated movies I’ve ever seen. Three quarters of the way through the film, Patrick Foley, (William Holden) is in conversation with a traumatized six-year-old Shawn Daley (Ricky Schroeder), and delivers one of the most inspiring observations in movie history.

Dying of cancer in the Australian wilderness, Foley is trying to teach the youngster enough skills to survive in the Blue Mountains before he passes away. Recently orphaned and traumatized, Shawn is self-absorbed and spends too much time complaining, according to Foley.

Desperate, Foley finally breaks and attempts to jolt the child into understanding. “You’re not only a whining kid that wastes his time; you’re also deaf and half blind. Sure you can hear me now. But do you listen to that water? Can you hear those birds back there? Can you hear the insects – the wind and the trees creakin’ and rubbin’? You’re deaf to those frogs down there and the sun pingin’ off of these rocks. You’re deaf to your own heartbeat and me comin’ up behind you. My God, boy, there’s a whole symphony goin’ on here and you can’t hear a thing.”

And then later, he distills it down even further for Shawn, and gave me a line I used with my girls when they were growing up. “You hear, but you don’t listen.”

In writing novels, we should know who the characters are, and what drives them, and what they’re wearing (and I hope you didn’t spend two paragraphs of an info dump telling us more than we want know about their clothes).

That can be achieved by a line or two as the story progresses.

The symphony Foley is talking about, are the senses we take for granted, especially sounds and smells that are often difficult for some to integrate into the manuscript. However, writers don’t need to tell readers how something sounds. Showing is much better.

“The sound of thunder reached his ears.”

Or, “She room smelled musky.”

We don’t need to say, “Thunder outside of the musky room and the spider’s prickly legs tickled the hairs on his arm, creeped Herschel out.”

At this writing, I’m alone in our Northeast Texas cabin with the windows open to catch the fresh breeze flowing through the screens like an invisible river. Closed up for nearly three years, the dusty interior was stale and thick when we first bought the place, but now it’s fresh as line-dried sheets.

The soft spring breeze will soon be replaced by furious winds whipped up from a line of thunderstorms roaring down on the cabin from the west. I’m looking forward to the hail that’s sure to rattle on the tin roof sparking childhood memories of similar storms and rainy days playing in the hay barn.

It’s a rustic place that reminds me of those old-school cabins up in the Adirondacks. The rough cedar exterior of the 2,000 square foot retreat fits perfectly in the hardwoods that make up the entire 48.5-acre parcel. A pool wraps around three sides of the house and waves slap against the shore. Here in East Texas we call them pools, farther out in Deep East Texas they’re ponds or stock ponds, and out west, they’re called tanks.

The interior is honey-colored cedar, some commercially milled, but the rest hand-cut in a home sawmill, sanded smooth by a welder-turned-carpenter, and coated with a sealer that brings out the rich, warm colors only cedar can provide.

Thunder rumbles close enough to rattle the glass in an antique bookcase in the other room, creating an evening just like those movie makers use to dispatch promiscuous teenagers, but there are no serial killers or ax murderers creeping up to the front porch, as far as I know.

Besides, this isn’t a place full of partygoers (though I’ve been told the cabin once reeked of spilled beer and whiskey after a number of rambunctious parties thrown by the former owner), and there isn’t one young lady running around in her underwear. I’m sure, because I checked before coming in for the night.

The breeze occasionally brings another burst of air perfumed by the distinctive gin-and pencil-shavings fragrance of evergreen branchlets rubbing together in the wind.

A bat flutters past on dry, leathery wings that might creep some folks out, but I love the little guys who suck up mosquitos like vacuum cleaners. Unseen tree frogs of all sizes lend three-note voices to the symphony outside. Some chatter with a high pitch, like maddened amphibians laughing at the deeper croaking of heavy bullfrogs, who add bottom to the chorus.

Crickets under the window add their own backbeat as an owl hoots in the distance and a whippoorwill repeats a distinctively sad call over and over again, asking who whipped poor Will. Will’s name ends on a high note, reminiscent of a construction worker’s wolf whistle.

Pucker up and whistle that last note and you’ll understand what I mean.

But that’s not all. The night is never silent, even without the oncoming storm, nor are the woods. Wild hogs grunt and fight less than hundred yards away. At one point, a smaller, indignant pig squeals long and loud, and goes silent.

We’re not in the wilderness. High overhead, the hiss of a distant, passing jet seems out of place, as much as car tires sizzling down the oil road before hitting a hole. The whole vehicle rattles like it’s coming apart before passing.

The house pops as it cools, and the only other noise is the tapping on my fingers on the keyboard. Ice rattles in the glass after a sip of chilly Bombay Sapphire and tonic, the cool liquid refreshing as the evening.

Now, there it is. The screen is dusty and the damp wind across my makeshift desk brings the scent of petrichor, the familiar odor the odor of rain falling on dry ground.

Offer these senses in your work, letting the reader become part of the story, instead of hitting them between the eyes with “he heard,” or “she smelled,” or “they saw.” Spin your story in a way that the reader is there with your characters, using the recollections of their own senses.

That’s what Patrick Foley was talking about, that symphony around us that I’ve hopefully shown without telling. Add in an ax murderer and some teenagers in their underwear, and you have a thrilling scene.

 

 

Up Front Money

Not long ago, (but before the lockdown) I was invited to speak at a library down in Mason, just west of San Antonio. That little south Texas town was where Fred Gipson lived, one of my favorite authors who wrote Old Yeller and Savage Sam.

They put me up in a quaint old hotel down there in the hill country, overlooking the town square that wasn’t much more than an intersection of two lane roads. It was one of those little perks I enjoy as an author. I spoke that night and signed my latest novel, then retired to the balcony and sipped a gin and tonic under the stars, thinking about an elderly woman who came to me after the talk, asking if I could help her with a problem.

I’d signed my last book and was getting ready to leave when she took a chair beside me. “You’re a famous author.” She spoke with a German accent, which isn’t unusual in that part of the Lone Star State. The German-Texan culture began here in 1831, five years before the Alamo fell, and significantly increased after the close of the Civil War. It’s estimated that over 40,000 emigrants moved to Texas by the close of the nineteenth century.

“No ma’am. I’m far from famous, just a pretty good writer who entertains people.”

“Well, you surely have an agent.”

“I do. She’s my second agent. I fired the first.”

“Oh, you’ve already fired one.” She pressed her pearls and looked around at her husband who stood slightly behind her as silent as a bodyguard. “Why, I can’t get anyone to even look at my work, and I already have a book out.”

“Well, congratulations. That’s an accomplishment. What’s it about?”

“My time in Germany during the war. I was sent to the camps and am the only survivor in our family.”

My throat caught and I studied the tall, slender woman with unruly white hair. Her wrinkled husband with equally white hair nodded, as if to confirm her statement.

“I’m sure it’s a powerful novel. Is it written as fiction, or non-fiction?”

“Oh, it’s nonfiction. It’s the story of my survival. It’s done well here in town. I think I’ve sold almost a hundred and fifty copies.” She nodded to punctuate the statement, pleased with her success.

“So you got it published without an agent.”

“Yes. It’s self-published, and that’s my problem. I need an agent to tell me what to do with all these books.”

I didn’t know where was she was going, but I had an idea. “Well, you’re kinda doing this backwards. You might have a hard time finding someone to represent works that are already out there.”

“Can you help me then?”

“I might offer some advice, but I’m far from an expert in this field.”

“I just need someone to tell me what to do with all these books that keep arriving.”

Alarm bells went off. “I’m not sure what you’re asking.”

“Books arrive each month and I have to pay for them. My garage is almost full.”

“Did you sign a contract saying you’re required to buy a certain amount each month?” I couldn’t believe anyone would agree to such a deal, and hoped I misunderstood what she was telling me.

“Yes. They keep coming in, and I’m running out of money.”

She explained it was a company that charged her to print the books, then required her to buy a specific number each month. Living on a limited income, she spent a fortune on the first run and after exhausting her list of friends and family, she tried to sell them from her trunk.

Bookstores in that part of Texas are about as rare as hen’s teeth, but she managed to get a few on the shelves of an antique store, and a couple of small independent bookstores within a fifty mile radius. However, she had more than she would, or could, ever sell.

There was no way to break the news to her in a gentle way. “Ma’am, I’m afraid you’ve been taken. I don’t know what you can do.”

Her face fell. She knew it, but had to hear those words from someone else. “You have no such contract?”

“No ma’am. I’m traditionally published.”

“You don’t use your own money to print the books?”

“No, it doesn’t work that way with a traditional publishing house. People pay me, not the other way around.”

“They won’t let me out of this contract. I’ve asked several times.”

“You might find a literary attorney to break the contract.”

“That will cost money.”

“Yes it will, but it’s the only solution I know.”

I suggested a Texas Writers Association that might be of some help, and gave her the names of two agents down here who were also authors. She thanked me, rose with an effort, and took her husband’s arm. He supported her as they made their slow way to the door and I had to swallow a lump before I could gather my things and leave.

That’s why I was drinking gin alone on the hotel balcony.

I have no experience with self-publishing, but can only offer this suggestion to those who are considering this non-traditional way of getting into print. Writers need someone to review legal documents with an eye toward minimizing their financial risks. Get yourself a good literary attorney to review any contract before signing your name. It might be expensive at the outset, but a bad publishing deal can hound you for years and ultimately impact your career as an author.

And because I’ve never self-published (though I have friends who are successful at it), I’d like to hear from those of you who took this route. You comments might help someone else. Please, and thank you.

I’m still haunted by that poor survivor who was taken by an unscrupulous publisher.

The Creep Factor

“Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole (2011)… Burrows 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)

I read that review back in 2012 and wondered, “What’s Publishers Weekly?”

I honestly didn’t know much about reviewers, or starred reviews, but I hadn’t written a horror novel, had I?

Burrows was simply the second book in my Red River series about precocious ten-year-old kids living in a Mayberry-like setting when a killer comes to town.

But horror?

Always a fan of that genre, I cut my teeth on H.P. Lovecraft, graduating from there to Stephen King, Karl Edward Wagner, Gary Brandner, Richard Matheson and I admit, I read a lot of John Saul and shame on me, V.C. Andrews, but I hadn’t set out to write a novel meant to scare, startle, shock, and even repulse my new readers. I just wanted to tell a creepy story and start it with something I’d written years earlier.

They say the key focus of a horror novel is to elicit a sense of dread through frightening images, themes, and situations.

I didn’t know that either, at the time.

But I did remember that Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

It was the unknown part I was shooting for somewhere around 2001 with an attempt to get Stephen King’s attention as part of an online short story contest after his book, On Writing, was released. Once I learned that he was looking for short stories, I sat down to write one.

Wait, what? I’d never written a short story.

Well, that wasn’t completely true. I’d attempted one back in the 1980s that was damned near a novella and it was almost published by a magazine that shut down only a month after they accepted my submission. Sigh.

Hey, just write shorter, I thought. And I did.

Five entries out of 1,000 submissions won the contest and their names were posted on Mr. King’s website, but my story, Drip, didn’t make the cut. Not wanting to waste the effort, I submitted Drip to several magazines. No one else wanted it either. I wonder if it was the title. Anyway, with a stack of rejection notices the size of a ham sandwich, I stuck it in a drawer until my editor called.

“Well, now that The Rock Hole is scheduled for release in a few months, when can we expect your next novel?”

“What!!!???”

“We need it pretty fast.” She gave me a deadline. “I can’t wait to see what you come up with. Toodles.”

I spoke into the dead line. “Neither can I.”

Somewhat desperate, I had an idea and dug that old short story out of my computer files to re-read what I’d written so long ago. It began with one word, drip, hence the title. The scene? Kendall Boden has a casual, one-sided conversation with a man with a bullet in his head, as blood slowly drips from the victim’s nose to puddle in his lap.

From there, someone discovers a headless body in the Red River, and the novel is off and running with Cody Parker’s nightmare premonition playing out in real life. A hoarder of the first order has filled the multi-story abandoned Cotton Exchange with tons of scavenged garbage and booby traps. Pursuing a lead, Cody and Deputy John Washington find themselves inside the fire trap, lost in a deadly maze of burrows and their own personal terrors.

Everything revolves around a suspect from the town’s past who needs to be caught before more headless bodies pile up, and they do.

So what was it that made some reviewers call this a horror novel, while I thought I was simply writing a second mystery?

Well, it scared the pee-waddlin’ out of folks for one thing. Trapped inside a shoulder-wide burrow?

Brrrr.

Some readers said they couldn’t finish it because it was too claustrophobic. That makes sense, we all have certain things that terrify us, and that includes spiders…

…that are in the novel, as well as rats and moldering corpses…

…yeah, they’re in there too, along with a lunatic who is the architect of it all, but even that crazy person isn’t as he seems.

Upon submission six months later, my agent told me that first chapter was the most frightening thing she’d ever read. Yeah, the unsellable short story, Drip, was Chapter One. Take that, Mr. King.

We’re all familiar with movies in this genre that startles us with people who suddenly jump out of nowhere, or shock us with a hand reaching from the darkness, or a human-like creature who looks at the audience with psychotic eyes from under lowered brows. I call them shock films.

But movies are different than horror novels.

Written or literary horror slowly feeds on audience’s deepest terrors, and not the abovementioned Shock Factor. It’s built upon those things which scare us as individuals, such as death, evil, the supernatural, or creatures that slither around out there in the darkness. It’s built upon the unknown.

How do you write horror? In my opinion you have to quit trying to say things that you think are scary.

Instead, create an atmosphere of dread. Show, don’t tell.

Horror isn’t splattered blood and guts. Oh, I guess that’s horrific if you really come across it. When I was a kid I followed my grandfather into a murder scene (he was a constable), and was witness to fresh blood still running down the walls and dripping from the ceiling in the living room of a small frame house out in the country. When he realized I was behind him, he knocked me back through the screen door with the flat of his hand and ordered me to stay outside.

Come to think of it, the sight of all that blood wasn’t horrific at all, but maybe it waited somewhere deep inside to reemerge in a more subtle way through my writing.

Again, horror is a carefully designed build of dread and suspense. To be successful, get inside the reader’s head and show them what scares them the most. Create a world where their deepest fears can be reality. Find something that’s common and benign, and dig deeper to reveal a surprise or twist that will haunt your reader long after they close the book.

Find something that’s festering inside them, and pick it out.

What’s more creepy than a huge old decaying building full of living, squirming creatures that live in absolute darkness and brush up against you, or crawl over your trapped body.

What about a troubled character with a pitiful, miserable past full of secrets that comes calling after years of treatment in psychiatric hospitals?

One reader told me Burrows scared him because he had a personal fear that tons of refuse could come down at any minute to crush him into paste. I’ve often wondered where that dread originated.

I thought I’d written an historical mystery thriller, but in the end, I hammered out a work that seriously creeped people out. Fans still tell me, “That was the scariest book I’ve read in years.”

“Why?”

They answer, “Because it could happen.”

Or, “Because I’m deathly afraid of rats.”

And often, “Because I’m claustrophobic. I had to read one chapter a night, then calm myself each time.”

I’ve heard, “I was shocked at the twist.”

And when they say, “Because there could be people like that living amongst us.”

I reply, “There are, and that’s horrifying because it’s real.”

What’s your creep factor?

 

 

 

Immersion

Back in August, my youngest daughter called. “Hey, Dad, I have something you need to do.” That usually means she needs something repaired at her house, or for us to watch the grand-critters for a while.

“Collin can’t do it?”

“No, I don’t mean work, though I wish you’d come over and tighten up the kids’ playset in the back yard, but this is for you. I saw on TV last night they’re making a movie in Ft. Worth and there’s an open call for extras. It’s a western with Sam Elliott in it and I think you need to see if you can get a part. With that big white mustache, they’ll have to make you a cowboy.”

I wasn’t sure whether to give her grief about referring to my age and white handlebars, or to thank her. I went online and found they were filming 1883, a TV series written by one of my favorite producers and directors, Taylor Sheridan. When I discovered he also wrote the screenplay, I wanted in.

I’ve written a screenplay myself, and found it was one of the hardest writing assignments I’ve ever undertaken. But the real reason I wanted to be on set was to see how the sausage is made. You see, I’m working on a manuscript in which two young men travel from Texas to Arizona in 1971, to meet Steve McQueen and be in a movie that ultimately became Junior Bonner.

I filled out all the requested info, sent in a photo of said mustache with the rest of me somewhat attached, and waited. Two days later the casting director sent an email saying they had two places for me as an extra, but the sad news I wasn’t selected to be a cowboy, which I really, really wanted. Instead they had a place for me as a city dude.

Bummer.

After a barrage of emails, Covid tests, and wardrobe fittings, I found myself in Ft. Worth one morning at 2:00 AM. They tested us yet again, put us on a bus and we arrived on set just as the sun rose on a hot September day. It was my first experience as an extra and moviemaking and I found it was fun at first, then boring…hot and boring.

Texas in early September is a sauna and that day the temperature reached 110 degrees…more inside the a three piece wool suit they had me wearing, not to mention the wool bowler. Now I know why those old folks looked so serious in photos from that time, they were miserable and melting under all those clothes.

But because I took the opportunity that arose at just the right time, I saw behind the scenes at how directors operated on a movie set. Terms I doubt I could find online will find themselves into my manuscript. The boredom, monotony, dirt, dust, and constant resetting of cast and cameras will hopefully give my readers a sense of really being there.

It was research, but on a different level from what I’ve done in the past. This interactive exploration allowed me to brush shoulders with Tim McGraw, say howdy to Sam Elliott (more of a nod, grin, and his comment, “Nice ‘stach,” to which I replied, “Right back atcha.”), and to watch Taylor Sheridan work.

For example, assistant directors and camera operators were there before daylight, setting up equipment, framing shots, and placing wagons, horses, barrels, thousands of props and hundreds of extras. When Sheridan arrived after tweaking that day’s script, he called “roll cameras,” “action,” and watched the scene unfold. Then he went about resetting a couple of cameras, calling for more dust and dirt in the air (more!!!???), re-blocking the scene while issuing orders to both cast and crew.

“Cut! Reset!”

“Original positions!”

“Too many wagons in the way. Reposition the cameras!”

That was our day that ended at 10:00 PM and everyone was back at two the next morning for the next day’s shoot.

Then the months passed until the first episode streamed and I wore the Bride out that night, stopping the program and pointing out where the other cameras were positioned, where I was, regaling her with anecdotes, and telling her that at the end of that street scene there was a sixty-foot blue screen to hide the modern buildings.

We waited for my big moment on screen and missed it. I rewound to the scene I knew I should be in, and we watched it again…and rewound again and again without result until my niece called and said she saw me! Now knowing where to look, I was successful and found I was on for one whole second. If you concentrate on that first scene when McGraw’s character rides into town on his wagon, you’ll find my head popping up over the mule’s rear end just before the scene cuts.

Figures.

But that wasn’t why I was there. It was research, and that’s what writers need to do. I wrote several weeks back about going on location to find out what a particular place looks, sounds, and smells like, instead of simply Googling information. But this is different.

It was hands-on like the time a few years ago when John Gilstrap and I trained with the Florida State SWAT team for several days, even riding along on an arrest warrant and later acting as the “bad guys” in live action shoots. It was invaluable and what I learned that week made its way into some of my novels.

I also learned that you will lose if you go up against any SWAT team.

It might not be possible for authors to immerse themselves in all the scenes or situations they write about, however you can take courses on wilderness survival, or sailing for example. Learn to fly, travel to those places in your manuscript, or ride along with police officers.

Time machines aren’t here yet, so I couldn’t go back to the year 1883, but I experienced a fictional version of what it was like to live in that time. Despite the artificial nature of my experience, I had no idea how dusty and gritty a real old west street could be. I dug dirt out of my ears for two days.

Though I have intimate knowledge of the odors exuded by horses, goats, and mules, I didn’t know what 700 sweaty people would smell like at the end of a two day shoot when our damp clothes couldn’t be washed.

Little details from that shoot will likely appear in a future novel. For example, did you know that oysters were common in those boom towns? Folks gulped them down by the dozens, and where did those shells go? Dumped out in the street where they turned rancid and drew flies. How did I learn that? Because the prop department did their research and brought in fresh oyster shells to rot in the sun and draw more flies to the set, thus adding to the realism they needed.

So if you have the opportunity to live in that region, or location, or to participate in activities that will add to the realism of your novel, grab onto it and hang on!

Pace Yourselves

I was watching a movie the other night that should have been great, but the pacing was so slow I hit the pause button. “This movie is making me want to drink.”

The Bride raised an eyebrow. “You have a gin and tonic in your hand right now.”

“I need another one to stay awake.”

“No, you need a break to get up, and while you’re there, pour me a glass of wine, please. Let’s finish this tomorrow.”

She was absolutely right, and we did. Despite two of my favorite actors, what should have been a good movie was damaged because so many useless scenes should have been left on the cutting room floor.

I know this blog is about writing, but someone wrote that script that became a movie. Now I know how hard it is to write a screenplay. I wrote one myself that’s under consideration (read “it’ll never be filmed” here), and it was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever undertaken. That’s because I distilled my first 350-page novel, The Rock Hole, down into 130 narrow pages. The industry standard has been 120 pages, but I simply couldn’t tighten it up any more without losing the essence of the novel. One thing I did though was to maintain the pace, which brings us to what is essential in a novel.

Let me repeat that, pacing, which is the process of discovery.

Pacing is the speed at which a story unfolds, the rhythm and flow. Consider a roller coaster. There are times the train moves slow, the rise to the crest of the ride, and then the fall of plot points and events which should be fast enough to keep us turning the pages until we  rise again in anticipation of the next drop and ultimately, the final rush into the climax.

In other words, it’s how fast your story unfolds to the reader.

Let’s jump back to movies for a moment and look at two films about the same subject that released within months of each other, Tombstone, directed by its star Kurt Russell, and Wyatt Earp, directed by its star Kevin Costner.

Both are about the Earp brothers and the ultimate shootout at the O.K. Corral, but their pacing is dramatically different. Tombstone moves fast. Even what might be considered a slow scene passes quickly because of either action or humor, or a combination of both.

In Costner’s three and a half our hour film, Wyatt Earp, we find a movie dedicated to history and character development. He emphasizes Wyatt’s younger years and tells us how he eventually became the man he was, and the drive that sent him to Tombstone…

…and in the movie of the same name that lasts two hours and fifteen minutes, Kurt Russell utilizes a rule all authors should learn, show, don’t tell. He doesn’t give us half an hour of slow moving angst and backstory, he picks up the action almost at the outset and takes us for a satisfying roller coaster ride.

An interesting point is that the original Tombstone screenplay was so long it could have been a limited miniseries, but Russell understands what viewers want in a theatrical release and left huge chunks of already-filmed dialogue and character development on the floor.

It’s the same thing John Wayne learned from his legendary mentor, John Ford.

Keep it moving.

Tombstone works because he shows us instead of telling us, and unfolds the story with efficiency and a measured tempo. He keeps it moving.

How about another example, this time between mysteries and thrillers? A mystery usually advances with slower steps. We don’t know who the bad guy or killer is, so we follow the clues as the protagonist unravels a tangled web of suspects or motives until the end where it is all revealed. It’s a detailed process that some revel in, while other readers aren’t that detail oriented.

Thrillers are like that aforementioned roller coaster ride. We usually know who the bad guy is near the outset of the story, but we hang on for the ride until the end and justice (hopefully) prevails.

In my opinion, there are a couple of musts that have to be included in a well-written novel and of course one is tempo. Each chapter must push the story forward (pacing again), but it must have enough elements to keep the reader engaged. If you lose a reader because the story moves to slow, you’ll likely lost them before the end.

And things have to move , maybe not at hyper speed, but enough keep a reader interested. One of my favorite methods of driving the story forward and keeping someone turning the page is the use of short chapters. I grew up reading chapters that took days to push through, and often lost my place when I had to put the book down, or because there was wayyyy too much included in that one chapter (read Costner’s Wyatt Earp here again).

I love short, quick chapters and use them to effect. Then, as the action speeds up in the third act, I’ll shorten them even more, sometimes to only a page. This leaves the reader’s heart pounding, breathless (we hope) and ready to move on to the next chapter to see what happens next.

Consider this, many people like to read a night in bed. Slow, ponderous chapters and pacing will keep their interest until the Sandman comes in and throws his grains around, but short chapters will make the reader flip ahead and think, “Hey, this next one’s short. I can read another.”

Then another.

Flip.

Short chapter.

How fast did you hit those three extremely short chapters above?

Now we have velocity and the reader stops checking the length of those chapters, caught up in the story’s drive and pushes ahead. “I can finish this before I go to sleep.”

Do you want your fans to mark their place, put that book on the nightstand and turn out the light, or create a fast-paced novel that drives them to stay up until one in the morning because they can’t put it down?

Here’s my answer. I’ll watch Tombstone every time it’s on, and to the end, because it’s engaging. I simply can’t watch much more of Wyatt Earp other than the shootout at the corral. Why? Because. It. Moves. Slow.

So pace yourselves.

 

First One Room, Then Another

This week I finished the first draft of my work in progress, Texas Gravel, when I typed The End. This is number fourteen, and I had the same feeling of satisfaction as when I completed my first novel over ten years ago. It took years to finish that one and have it ready for publication, but this one unfolded in a matter of months.

Now the real fun begins.

Writing is enjoyable, or I wouldn’t do it. World-building is fun and rewarding. There’s great satisfaction in creating and developing characters, exploring whatever it is that makes them tick, and bestowing upon them all the ingredients necessary to become real in our imaginations.

But my absolute favorite part of the process is editing. Some folks approach it with dread, and others simply endure it as just another part of the process. I look forward to starting with the first sentence and combing through several months’ worth of creativity for a variety of issues.

There are as many theories about how to edit as there are editors and authors. Some say “write in one room, edit in another.”

Well, I guess that’s a good idea, but for me, that’s impossible. I write wherever I light on any particular morning. It might be at my desk, surrounded by bookshelves that reach sixteen feet high. Other days it might be feet up in my recliner, propped up on the couch, on perched on a stool at the kitchen island. More recently, I wrote much of the second act on the kitchen island in our weekend place, while workers made enough racket to wake the dead.

One of my favorite places to work is lying on our bed with my laptop across my legs ala Mark Twain. There’s a great photo of him partially under the covers with a typewriter on his lap and if memory serves, he’s the first novelist to write a book on the Iron Maiden.

I edit the same way, and in those same locations, and then some. It might drive some folks nuts, but I’ll work on the laptop for a while, then move to the Mac in my office and perch there for a day or two, reminiscent when I had a real job in an office.

My first edits are part of the first draft. I’ve told you how each morning I read what came the day before, edit those pages, and then slide into the current day’s work. In essence, I edit every day as I go.

Then once finished, I dig into the first draft, rewriting and tightening sentences, and looking for errors in continuity. I have a bad habit of forgetting what kind of cars my characters drive, or any number of descriptions about what they do, like, or feel. This is also when I start to notice repetitive words and do a search. The first time it happened in The Rock Hole, I realized I’d used the word “porch” two hundred and twenty-seven times.

That’s 227.

It happens all the time. A host of other words including, windows, car, sedan, door (especially door), and a host of others make wayyyy too many appearances in my work. I won’t even search for the word, “that.” This gives me the opportunity to look for useless words such as “just” or “very” or those pesky adverbs I’ve discussed in the past. Editing on the screen gives me the chance to rewrite even more sentences and tighten them up. I even more entire paragraphs around, or pull a sentence from here and there, and plug them into different places to make the draft read better.

I’m pretty good at setting scenes, but this is when I add a lot more description and detail to locations, people, and their actions to put the reader in that place and time. At this point the manuscript grows, even though sentences and paragraphs melt away with alarming frequency.

By the original draft’s third act, I’m thinking and typing fast, pushing hard to get the framework concreted into place. Detail takes a back seat to the action at that point, and editing is the time to expand certain scenes that were cheated the first time. I look for the opportunity to use all of our senses, sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste. Many writers forget those descriptors and their work would likely improve if they added details to make it even more realistic.

This is where “He smelled woodsmoke” becomes “Smoke from a distant fire reminded him autumn was the time to burn leaves,” or “Burning leaves created a fog-like haze in the chilly autumn air.” The edits and possibilities are endless.

Here is where we can lift our vocabularies. We tend to use the same common words over and over, but now is the time to add excitement and richness with the use of the right word. Dialogue changes at this point, adding and subtracting, and getting into the character’s rhythm of speaking and acting.

Editing on the screen is fine, but I need to see it in true print form, as close to a real book as possible. It’s now the time to print the manuscript and read it again from start to finish. It’s stunning to see how many typos I’ve already missed, or sentences or paragraphs that are in the wrong place. Despite all the work I did in the first draft and the electronic edits, the printed manuscript is a riot of scratched out words, replaced words, corrected sentences, and margins full of hand-written notes and questions.

Finished, the pages then go to my personal editor, The Bride, who has a degree in journalism and worked several years as a newspaper reporter before she came back from the dark side. Her copy is marked with even more typos that I missed, and suggestions in the margins, and questions about a character’s actions or what they might or might not do in a particular situation.

Back at my desk with two different hard copies, I type in all those changes and the completed manuscript is polished and ready for my agent.

Maybe this peek behind the curtain in my writing world will help novice writers realize there’s no magical right or wrong way to edit. It’s about writing and rewriting as they attempt to complete that polished manuscript and find their place in the publishing world.

Do what works for you.

Priming the Pump

More than once when I was a kid, my Old Man loaded me up into our 1956 Ford pickup and headed for the river bottoms on what seemed to be the hottest days of the year. The short drive was miserable as the Northeast Texas the sun beat down so heavy you could feel it on your skin. That truck had no air conditioning, and the radio worked only after the tubes warmed up, usually just as we got where we were going.

Left arm hanging out the open window, he commented on the crops, the heat, and a mix of hot summer days, and frozen winter nights, while this kid in a Boy’s Regular haircut wanted nothing more than to go back and sit under the water cooler at the house.

He followed the same route down dirt roads under a cloudless sky between fields of cotton and corn, with no particular reason in mind other than to get out of the house. He drove slow, sometimes thinking about lord knows what. Other times memories poured out in a torrent of descriptions about how those bottoms looked when he and his family lived on a dirt-floored sharecropper’s cabin during the Great Depression.

By the time we reached the woods where we inevitably wound up, I was a listless lump half-hanging out the open passenger window. That was our destination all along, a massive red oak sitting at the corner of a cotton field where years earlier my grandaddy cooled and watered his team of mules on hot days just like those.

He killed the engine and metal popped as it cooled. He opened his door and the hinges popped. “Let’s get a drink of water.”

I knew the drill. “It’s too hot, and I don’t feel like it. Can we go back now?”

“You’ll feel like it when the water comes up.”

“Let’s just go.” I came up with a list of excuses not to get out in the heat and prime that old hand pump that had been there for decades. “I want to go back to the house and read. I want to get something to eat. I want to build with my Lego blocks. (Yeah, they had them back then.) I want to watch The Dating Game that comes on in a little while. I want to take a nap, Grandpa needs me to wet the straw on the water cooler, how about we go to the show….”

“Nope. Get out.”

It was useless to argue. We detrucked and waded through the heat and humidity to the iron pump perched on a black pipe sunk deep in the ground. He took the lid off a 55-gallon barrel of water only a couple of feet away and leaned it against the side. The shimmering surface reached nearly to the top and reflected blue sky shining through the leaves above.

“Good.” He tilted his straw hat back and nodded. “Looks like somebody filled the barrel the last time they were here.” It was the neighborly thing to do. “Go to pumping and I’ll dip.”

Sweat running down the sides of my face, I worked the handle up and down. He filled the dipper over and over and poured the contents it into the top to prime the pump. Half a minute later, water gurgled in the pipe and gushed from the spout and splashed on the leaves at my feet.

He rinsed the dipper, filled it from the fresh stream, and handed it to me. “You did the work. You get the first drink.”

Y’all, the water that came up from deep underground was sheer bliss. Gin-clear, cold and sweet, it was a tonic that changed my outlook on the day and it happened the same way every single time we went out there. Though I resisted the drive, heat, and work, the reward was something I recall today as absolute glory.

Why’d I tell you this story?

Because we sometimes find other things to keep us from writing. Life gets in the way. We have to push through and prime that writing pump. It doesn’t take much, just putting your fingers on the keyboard helps.

There are exercises to get started. One recommendation is to read what you wrote the day before (that’s the barrel of water analogy), and edit that. Simply getting back into the story is the way to reprime your mental pump. There are times when we just don’t feel like writing, but we have to keep at it.

If there isn’t a foundation to help launch that day’s work, type something. The lyrics to a song, what you might be thinking about (it doesn’t have to be a polished draft, this post started with a memory), or throw something out there, and once the creative pump’s primed, you’ll find the story flows like water.

We’re all in the woods when we start a story, or novel. The secret is finding a trail, and there are many winding through the forest. Follow it to see where it leads. It might take you somewhere you don’t expect. That’s good. Let your subconscious take you there.

Sometimes other trails intersect, and one looks better than the other. Take it and see where it goes. They might split, converge, lead uphill, but sooner or later, one will lead to a stream, or that hand pump in the woods, and a stream of words will follow for another session.

Until next time, stay primed and keep at it. There’ll be a payoff at the end.

Try It My Way

The thick, familiar odor frying bacon, onions, and the sounds of clanking utensils against cheap plates filled the small country café. I’d been lamenting a temporary stall in my writing career while we had our weekly appointment with eggs over easy.

Across the booth, my former boss and friend of over forty years, the Cap’n, raised an eyebrow and sipped from a steaming cup of coffee. “You hear yourself, right? You remember what you said back in the old days when we were taking those education courses?”

The Cap’n doesn’t have an eidetic memory, but he comes pretty close and I had to flip through several cases of dusty mental files to dredge up a nearly forgotten conversation between two young men in the teacher’s lounge. I finally found the memory and blew it off. “I said I wanted to get just one book published.”

“Right. It was back in ’81. You wanted to get just one book published and then you said you’d be finished. Let me see, ‘I just want one book on shelf and I’ll be through.’ That about what you said?”

I thought I had one book in me, and had never considered writing another. As a teacher working in the classroom during the day, taking Masters level courses in the evenings two days a week, and sitting behind an old IBM Selectric in a bedroom/office, I wanted to leave something behind that would outlast me.

“Well, that was a long time ago, but I never expected to get a series.”

“Yeah, and now you have a dozen books on that shelf and you’re bitching about how you’re not on the best seller list.”

“You realize you’ve already achieved what others dream about? You’re published.” He raised an eyebrow and held the nearly empty cup like a smoker with a cigarette. “Ever thought you’d be here, with two series going at the same time?”

“No.”

“My manuscript is still in the drawer and I piddle with it only every now and then. You did it your way, now shut up and keep writing and you’ll make it one of these days. Breakfast is on you by the way, big shot writer.”

That conversation somewhere around 1980 came after I’d already been struggling for years, trying to get at least something published. With a stack of rejection notices that reached from the floor to the top of the table I used as a desk, I needed to find a way to break in. Eight years later, I achieved that dream that most budding writers only talk about, but it didn’t come easy.

I was reading a book by the author who inspired my style, Robert C. Ruark, when an idea clicked. Ruark launched his writing career by getting published in a newspaper.

Hey, I can write a newspaper column.

And like Ruark, I used newspapers to establish a foundation by writing outdoor humor, a niche that, in my mind, needed to be filled.

Of course we all want to explode on the writing scene with a massive bestseller, and that occasionally happens, but the cold hard truth is that we need to build that solid foundation by finding our voice, and most often that comes from practice and a lot of work.

But you have to get that voice out there, and one way is my suggestion for beginning writers who come to me for advice. Here it is, but you might not like it.

Write for free.

Shrieks.

Recoiling dreamers!

Shuddering writers!

So let’s examine this suspicious piece of advice. How do you write for free?

Try small publications. My first column was published in The Paris News back in 1988, and they paid me. My work caught the attention of another paper about an hour away, and a year later I was writing for them, too. Then another, and before long, I was in 50+ papers in Texas and Oklahoma. They paid me, too, but that was then.

When the Internet became a Thing, papers dropped me like falling snowflakes as their income dwindled and readers turned to finding their news online. The first thing to go were the columnists. But that was an excellent place to cut my teeth.

There are still small town papers and independent publications that need content. They may not be able to pay, or pay much, say $5 a column, or they may only offer space for your work, but that space results in tear sheets that can be used to establish your writing reputation.

Online magazines and organizations need writers, and through I have no experience in that world, I’m sure there are online entities that are looking for good writing. Contact them and offer to write for free. It’s the perfect place to polish your craft, and is an excellent way to gain exposure.

“But I can do the same on my blog.”

Yes, mysterious, figment of my imagination. You can, and keep doing it that way, but one outlet these days isn’t enough. You need to expand that foundation and create a name for yourself. Write online, in local magazines and papers, in those small community publications that appear in your mailbox, and anywhere else you can find. Build name recognition, assemble a collection of tear sheets both physical and electronically, and use them to get noticed.

Get it? Reach into a new box of spaghetti and pull out one strand. Yep, there it is, one piece of dried noodle that you can boil and consume. Small. Unimpressive.

Now, shake the whole box into onto the table and watch them scatter like pick-up sticks. Look at all of them. That single stick might be difficult to see, but the contents of the entire box is right there, impossible to miss.

Get your name out there, and eventually, someone will offer a few bucks for your work.

Then build on that momentum. One…step…at…a…time.

Try it my way and someday maybe you’ll have that one book on a shelf, then you can start complaining about not being further along.

In the meantime, Happy New Year and good luck with your writing!