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

Lost in Your Own Work

Parking areas around open air shopping malls these days in our part of Northeast Texas are carefully constructed mazes with cul-de-sacs, small dead pockets with only two or three slots stuck into a grassy area, and long winding loops leading back to the main entrance and exits.

I firmly believe they are designed by intent to raise my blood pressure.

Adding to the fun of trying to find a space and wishing the slots were angled instead of perpendicular to the lanes are those pesky little speed bumps that aren’t much for my pickup, but can drag the oil pan off of low-slung vehicles.

Personally, I feel it would be easier to drive into a lot reminiscent of amusement park waiting lanes. I’m sure you’re all familiar with them. Walk up to the entrance, turn left and walk alllll the way to the end, reach the post, and slog alllll the way back and reverse direction ad nauseum until it’s your turn to get on and ride of 90 seconds.

It would be preferable to creeping up and down a parking lot until you find a slot and then having someone whip in ahead of you, resulting in red faces and manic fury.

Why am I talking about parking lots and queues on a writing blog? Well, pour another cup of coffee brothers and sisters, and let me explain how my mind works.

These traffic swirls, eddies, and seldom clot-free lots are reminiscent of the plots in my books. They start with a good, simple idea that should be straightforward from Point A to Point B.

Should be.

Those who follow these blogs know I don’t outline, so the story’s progression is always an adventure for everyone concerned. I begin with a general idea, and hope the plot advances properly until the supporting characters appear at the right time take their places and guide the story. The first act usually comes together as everyone behaves themselves and sets a hopefully simple course.

It never does.

For some reason, my subplots grow like dandelions and as in the case of the project I’m working on at this writing, and I find myself turning left and right to keep up. Right now, I have a protagonist in a traditional western chased by three different bands of antagonists I didn’t anticipate.

Act II is usually difficult for me. Now at 30,000+ words into the manuscript, the loose ends that have been waving around for the bulk of that work in progress are starting to come together, and by Act III and 60,000 words, it should a fun downhill slide to the end.

But this time everything slowed at 75,000 words.

That’s unusual for me. This part usually writes itself as fast as polished steel, so I wondered why.

My characters are doing what’s necessary. For some authors, a stall in the plot is indicative of problems with character motivation. Some writers learning the trade place their protagonists in a place they shouldn’t be, forcing their creations to do something against their personalities or characteristics.

If you’re stalled because of those issues, the best thing to do is simply highlight those pages and hit Delete.

Good lord, Rev! We worked hard on those pages, sometimes sitting for days in front of the computer and staring out the window for eight hours at a time, and you want to send them into an electronic abyss!!!???

Fine then, maybe you can’t put ‘em into a shallow grave yet. Highlight, cut, and paste them in a fresh new separate document for later review, or when you’ve had a couple of cocktails and find the courage to finally hit the Big D key.

But I’m not stalled for that reason.

So I stopped, re-read all 300+ pages and realized I’d drifted away from my protagonist’s main strength. He doesn’t run. When cornered, or angered, he attacks. I’d drifted away from the one thing that makes Cap Whitlatch who he is.

We pause here for a brief recollection that directly ties into my solution and came to light while I was talking to my brother about an event that occurred back in 1976.

Feel free to pour another cup of coffee as I tell you about that night when…

…driving home from a friend’s house at two in the morning, a muscle car full of angry young men took offense at something I still don’t understand. They pulled up beside me at a light and the two on my side opened their doors and charged me. One had a tire iron, and the other carried a hammer.

Greatly outnumbered and shocked by the unprovoked attack, I hit the gas on my old ’69 Galaxie 500. The big 390-cubic-inch engine roared and I ran the light in a cloud of white tire smoke. They followed and tried to run me off the road several times for the next five miles. With no weapons of my own (and that was the last time that happened) I had few choices. There was no police station nearby and though I’d just left the house of a friend who was an officer, it as well before the days of cell phones.

I couldn’t run to my apartment, because it would still be me against four. I had no friends who lived nearby to offer assistance, but I had one ace in the hole. My old man, a veteran of the Japanese theater in WWII, lived close and slept with his windows open, with a double-barrel twelve-gauge always by the bed.

Using evasive driving skills taught to me by the aforementioned police officer friend, and relying on sharp 22-year-old reflexes, I stomped the gas as if trying to make a run for it. Just as I expected, the driver responded and soon we were running parallel at 80-miles-an-hour.

Nerves jangling, I hit the brakes at the last minute and whipped a hard right into Dad’s neighborhood.

They overshot.

Fast acceleration on my part, another quick left and a power slide to the curb in front of the Old Man’s little frame house. Tires squalling, I was out of the car in a flash. “Dad!”

A light sleeper, his voice came through the dark screen. “What’s wrong, son?”

“I need help.”

The muscle car rounded the corner and slid to a stop behind my Ford. The driver popped open his door and emerged with a makeshift weapon in his hand I couldn’t identify in the dark. The other three were out and coming for me as well.

Scared, furious, and finally cornered, I saw red and charged. “The driver’s mine!”

At that time I weighed in at maybe 135 pounds, but it was mad talking, even though that old boy was half again my size and looked as if he lifted baby elephants for fun.

From the corner of my eye I saw the Old Man step onto the porch in his drawers, but the twin bores of that big shotgun pointing at the other three was enough to make ‘em all stop. Fists doubled, I was heading for the driver when he turned and shouted.

“Gun!”

They jumped into the car, reversed, and spun out of there.

Lowering the shotgun, the Old Man watched the taillights disappear. “What was that all about?”

I was suddenly weak. “I have no idea.”

We went inside, drank a pot of Mom’s coffee at the kitchen table and wondered why those guys wanted to harm me. I still don’t know to this day, but the story doesn’t end there.

My paternal grandfather was a rural constable upon whom I based Ned Parker in my Red River mysteries. The Old Man told him what had transpired before I saw Grandpa again, and when I did, the old lawman gave me a wry grin and some great country wisdom.

“It don’t do to run a dog up on his own porch, does it?”

Remembering what happened that night gave me the conclusion to this stalled work in progress. Cal Whitlatch is on the porch (read here a rough western town) and he’s no longer running. He’s turned to fight.

Now those three subplot threads are coming together and I once again have control of what’s happening. Instead of wandering through that maze, looking for…something…the story is now clear. With that, I’m on the downhill slide to a whiz bang ending.

So here are a couple of final points.

Don’t force your characters into a situation or place they shouldn’t be. They’ll either dig in their heels, or wander around lost and confused as you put ineffective and listless words on the page.

Don’t lose your initial thread. It’s okay for the plot to veer (in that parking lot), if you come back to the final trail at the end.

It’s all right to stop, reverse, and find your way again through that maze.

It’s okay to either move stalled works to a new page for later review, or to delete them and start over. It might hurt, but you’ll get over it.

Writing something outside of that stuttering project, like this post, can jumpstart your subconscious to find the plot trail again, too.

I hope I’ve led you out of that confusing and frustrating parking lot in this ridiculously long post.

 

When Fiction and Reality meet

When fiction and reality meet.

My first novel was out in 2011, and I felt pretty proud of myself. Yep, there it was, The Rock Hole, available on Amazon and online bookstores everywhere, in all formats. I was an author.

So in celebration, I wanted a little vacation from writing and picked up the top book on my TBR pile, leaned back in my recliner, and opened it to the first page.

“Call me Ishmael.”

My phone rang half a minute later. “Dang it!”

It was my editor. “Rev, did you see your review on Kirkus?”

“What’s Kirkus?”

Silence on the other end as she digested my question, likely wondering how she came to be working with someone so green. “It’s one of the premium book review magazines in the country.”

“Oh. Was it good?”

“They loved it! It’s a wonderful review and they’ve listed The Rock Hole as one of their Top Twelve Mysteries of 2011.”

“That’s nice.”

“Well, yeah.” She grew silent for a moment at my lack of enthusiasm. Truthfully, I didn’t know what any of that meant, and when I’m bumfuzzled, I tend to be quiet. “Now, let’s keep that momentum on the upswing. How’s your new novel going?”

“New one?”

“Sure! You have a pub date in a year.”

Uh, oh.

I’d never considered how fast they’d need the next book, so I told her it was coming along and hung up.

I needed another idea and fast. It came with the recollection of fifty pages I’d started years earlier. I spun it out to a police officer friend on the way to a ski destination in Colorado somewhere around 1984, and this is where we get into today’s topic, fiction vs. fact.

You see, I’d created the Red River series set in Paris, Texas and the existing rural community of Chicota. But I’d already heard about problems authors encountered when making minor mistakes or changes in real towns and geography. Readers delight in chastising authors when they read a one way street runs east, but in actuality, it goes west.

So I changed Paris to Chisolm, and Chicota to Center Springs. Now I can make up my own streets, buildings, and neighborhoods, overlapping my mental framework of those two places.

I did it for another reason, too. I wanted to set Burrows in a location that in reality was the old Speas Vinegar plant that used to sit beside the railroad tracks on the south side of Paris. But that building was too small for what I had in mind, so it became The Cotton Exchange, a massive multi-story building full of trash and with booby traps set by two psychotic hoarders.

That idea we’d discussed on the way to Colorado came from a story I’d read when I was a kid, about a pair of compulsive brothers who were hoarders in New York City and packed a four-story brownstone with tons of trash. One was killed when a booby trap crushed him in 1947, leaving his invalid brother to starve inside their vertical landfill. I loved the framework of the story, and it became the basis for Burrows that caught a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly.

Here’s the link to that fascinating story that gave me the idea.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collyer_brothers

Authors are world builders, but we don’t have to create everything from whole cloth. By simply fictionalizing real places, I can use them as a foundation to mine inspiration from reality, but not held to exact details.

You’d be surprised how many people at signings will ask about these places I’ve adapted, pleased with themselves that they’ve recognized the town or building. The good thing is not one individual tries to correct my descriptions.

I also include local history in my locations, even down to the weather. In Hawke’s Prey, the first book in the Sonny Hawke thrillers set in the Big Bend desert region of Texas, I wanted a massive snowstorm to build tension. Online research was unsatisfactory, because I needed detailed meteorological information to make it happen. I didn’t want to describe a massive snowstorm that couldn’t possibly happen there.

So I reached out to a local weatherman in the Dallas area, explained what I was doing. His co-meterologist is a fan of my books, and David Finfrock invited me into his house later that week.

When he greeted me at the door, he didn’t look like the well-dressed man I was used to seeing on TV, because he was in shorts and an aloha shirt instead of a coat and tie. No matter, though, we spent the afternoon going over paper weather maps left to him by local legendary DFW weatherman, the late Howard Taft.

It was exciting to work out how a once-in-a-century snowstorm could happen in that high desert region, but David explained the ingredients necessary for such an event. Weather was rolling in that day in the metroplex, and I enjoyed an unanticipated treat. He was watching his own channel on a huge flat panel TV in his den, and when his co-worker brought up the weather map to explain the coming storm, David hit the pause button and stood in front of the screen, detailing what could happen if certain factors came about.

Using those details I absorbed that rainy day in Dallas, my fictional storm paralyzed a fictional town of Ballard, Texas, (based on the real Alpine/Marfa area), providing a necessary plot twist that heightened the climax of the novel.

When the book came out, though, a few doubters told me it could never snow like that in Alpine, based solely on their own history in the area. But last year, those events I described came about, locking them down for several days under more than two feet of snow. More than one reader sent emails, texts, and links to me, saying they thought I was full of it until the weather proved them wrong.

That’s the power of good research.

And don’t worry about going down the occasional rabbit hole when you’re doing that kind of work. One such bunny tunnel led me to legends of a mysterious room under the local courthouse in Alpine. That’s all they were, legends, but supposition of what could be down there sparked an idea that became an integral part of Hawke’s Prey.

I’m now working on a traditional western set in the eastern Oklahoma Indian Territories back in the 1880s. Some of the towns there really existed, but I’ve created fictional towns in the real mountainous landscape, because I needed certain buildings and geographical backdrops to push the story forward.

I’m not writing history, here, but fiction based on history and authenticity.

Certain things such as low-water crossings on the Red River and ferries are part of the past in those areas, but I wanted my Red River and my towns. Once the characters made the crossing back into Texas, I utilized a real town as part of the plot, but I changed a few things in 1883.

Why that year? Because I wanted my character to carry the first pump shotgun and it was released in 1882. I’ve built novels on just such foundations, but they needed to be changed for the sake of the story.

Dream yourself up a dining room with a gorgeous table set for eight, complete with crystal wine glasses and flickering candles. Imagine the rest of the room now, dressed in your tastes as an author. These are the components that are yours alone, but underneath the pure white tablecloth is the bare reality to build upon…a plain table full of nicks, scars, and watermarks.

Happy writing.

(Not) Using the Middle Finger

So here I am typing with seven fingers, and one thumb for spacing.

I’m sure we all type differently. Some with only index fingers, while others might utilize more digits as they watch the keys. There’s the “hunt and peck” crowd, and then those of us who were taught to touch type without looking at the keyboard.

That’s where I fall in. I never look at my fingers or the letters, only the words that appear on the screen, at least until three weeks ago when my orthopedic physician diagnosed a partially torn ligament in my left middle finger. That injured digit is now strapped securely to its index neighbor, requiring me to watch my left hand hunt and peck.

Being longer than the rest, the middle finger hamstrings my index digit, which should be striking the letters b, f, g, r, and t. Mr. Middle often misses c, d, e and because I can’t find the home keys, there are many, many typos.

Thanks to my lucky stars I can delete and backspace with my right, which I do on nearly every other word. If I was using real paper and White-Out, I’d be buying both by the train load.

for example, rhis is whar it looks lik4 qhen I’m nor warchinfg my gands.

This current malady throws off my writing balance on the other hand, causing it to make mistakes. And to make things worse, I just today sliced the end of my right middle finger and that bandage is also causing problems.

Irritating ain’t no word for it, and I have a self-imposed book deadline by the end of this month.

To make things worse, I had to visit my regular doctor to get a reference to the ortho.

“So, what brings you in today” The masked physician’s assistant settled down in front of her laptop resting on the exam room’s counter. In days gone by, those counters held a variety of torture instruments utilized by doctors who actually came into the examination room.

“Like I told the lady on the phone when I made the appointment, and by the way, she asked a lot of questions, anyway, I tripped while the Bride and I were hiking in Sedona and she says I fell like a redwood. I think I fractured my left middle finger.”

I resisted the urge to hold it up to her, fearing she’d take the familiar gesture the wrong way.

She hammered her keyboard with all fingers. “Which one?”

And that question brings me to my biggest pet peeve, besides this injured digit. No one listens anymore, because everyone is on some kind of device when they should be paying attention. Whether it’s the local fast food drive-through, which invariably gets my order wrong, to the kids bagging groceries, to the doctor’s office and an exam I didn’t need.

Through six decades of work and play, I’ve jammed, fractured, dislocated, cut, and broken almost all my fingers, except for the one in question. I waited for over six weeks after this particular injury for the swelling to go down, but it remained puffy. By the time I called the doctor’s office, it was stiff and painful in the mornings and I couldn’t curl it any longer.

The truth was, I wanted a specialist, but my GP said he had to see me (read here, his nurse practitioner) before he would recommend anyone and the others I called directly required a reference.

So Nurse Calpurnia sat at her computer and typed while I related the events leading up to that moment. “So anyway, that’s what happened.” I waited while Nurse Calpurnia squinted at her screen, apparently typing her own novel with two fingers. “And now I’m typing with nine fingers.”

She paused and considered my statement. “You only have eight fingers and two thumbs.”

“Oh, we’re going there, huh? Okay, I type with everything except for my left thumb, which just hangs there for balance I guess, kinda like an outrigger, and strangely, it doesn’t get tired after an entire day of working on my novel.”

She addressed the screen, distracted. “So it’s just your middle finger.”

I wanted to hold it up at her, but she wouldn’t have seen it anyway. “Yes. I wish I’d jammed my left thumb instead.”

“Why?”

I was succinct in my presentation, so what did she miss? I had to blink at that question for a moment, something she didn’t notice, either, because she was still hammering away on her keyboard.

Maybe she wants to be a novelist, and takes some kind of mysterious keyboard shorthand to get all the details, and then while patients are talking, she can write two or three paragraphs on her manuscript. At the end of any given day, Nurse Calpurnia could be five or six pages further along toward finishing. I think that’s kinda brilliant.

She pulled me from my reverie. “So you’re healthy otherwise.”

“Well, my knee’s still a little sore, but I’m not here for that. I’ll come back later if it keeps hurting so we can go through this again when I need a knee specialist.”

She missed my sarcasm. “Let me see your finger.”

And once again, I resisted the urge to demonstrate a proper gesture. She studied the extremity for a moment. “Let me see your other hand for comparison.”

“It looks a lot like my left, but without the swollen finger.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Not really.”

“On a scale of one to ten?”

“One.” Instead of striking three letters, she typed for about five minutes, likely finishing a conversation between her characters.

“I can type really fast.” I decided to interrupt her train of thought. “Some days I’ve knocked out over 5,000 words, and once, I wrote 14,000. Now I’m down to 2,000 on a good day, because I taped this one to my index finger for support.” I paused to let that sink in, since she was still working on her book.

She finally straightened, cracked her knuckles, and frowned at me. “Why’d you wait six weeks before coming in?”

“I expected the swelling to go down.”

“But it hasn’t.”

“No.”

We nodded at each other and smiled, glad to have come to some sort of understanding.

“I need to take your blood pressure, pulse ox, and listen to your lungs.”

“They’re fine. I was in a month ago for a physical and all the pokes and listening and prods and blood work said I’m healthy.”

“Things can change.” She performed those duties as assigned and sat back down and attacked her keyboard long enough to finish a chapter. “Looks good.”

I wasn’t sure if she was talking about her book, or my exam results. “All except for my crooked finger.”

“It doesn’t look all that straight, does it?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Have you taken anything for it?”

“Gin.”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, aspirin, but I’m an author and we drink…some…because I think it’s a law or we’re contractually obligated, so a few gin and tonics to chase a handful of aspirin and I’m good until the next day.”

“Fine, well, it looks like I need to send you for an X-ray.”

“That’s why I’m here, so I can get in to see an orthopedic.”

“We don’t do that here.”

“I know. I’m going through the process that would have been quicker if the doctor’d just given me a referral.”

“He can’t do that until he sees you.”

“Will he be in?”

“Not for something like this. I just made you an appointment for an X-ray at the imaging center.”

“When did you do that? You haven’t touched the keyboard since you finished that last chapter.”

“It was rather long, wasn’t it?”

“Everyone wants to be an author.”

“We all have our goals.” She closed her laptop and left.

So here I am, fingers still strapped together and typing 4,000 words a day, but backspacing over half of them because they’re typos. I really wanted to finish this novel by the end of the month, but that’s not happening. I’m shooting for October 1, with 30,000 words to go, which equates to 60,000 strokes plus revisions…

…I’m gonna quit now. It’s too depressing.

Gird Thy Loins

This writing business was a significant learning curve for me, and I suspect, for others as well. Few authors stepped into it fully capable and informed on every aspect of our chosen careers. I’m fear you’ll see some letdowns as you gain experience, but be prepared.

There were great successes at the outset when I published my first newspaper column in 1988, but before that I suffered a list of minor and major disappointments that sometimes almost made me throw my hands in the air and give up.

I wish I hadn’t thrown away a box full of decades-old rejection slips and letters back around 2000, when I was at a low point in my sputtering career as a novelist. I was ready to chuck it all one day, soon after my newspaper column was on the brink of national syndication through King Features, who discovered that I was self-syndicated in more than 50 papers in Texas and Oklahoma. However, that new beast called the Internet sucked the life out of newspaper publishing, and the first thing managers did was drop columnists.

So from that high point, I went to three papers where the columns remain to this day.

Big Disappointment Number 1

Instead of being the “Outdoor Dave Barry,” as a King Features agent called me, I was almost back to square one when they called to say thanks, but no thanks now, and good luck. Feeling sorry for myself, I opened that box of rejection slips and read them one by one.

Many were from Readers Digest in the late 1960s Another was a single sentence typed in 1969 under Playboy letterhead to a 16 year-old kid, “Thank you for your submission, but it does not meet our needs at this time.” Encouraged that there was a coffee stain on one of the submissions (somebody read it, huzzah!), I continued pelting them with submissions through the next few years, there were many more from that magazine.

Other rejection slips came from outdoor periodicals, national magazines, large daily newspapers, and finally, book publishers. At first I considered those polite but milquetoast rejections as a form of encouragement (somebody was actually reading my efforts), but sitting in the hot attic on that low-point day, they mocked my attempts to be published.

When the columnist market collapsed and my papers dropped off at an alarming rate, I had to start writing how-to “hook and bullet” articles for outdoor magazines in order to keep my name out there. Those photo/copy packages paid well, but they took a tremendous amount of time and research to produce, so I looked around to find a bigger brick to throw.

It had been right there in front of me for years. I had to write a novel.

In the late 1970s, I hammered on a Smith Corona portable typewriter, then migrated to the new technology of a 1980s-era IBM Selectric nestled on a makeshift desk in the second tiny bedroom/library/office of my 900-square foot frame house. There I started half a dozen novels that fizzled out by page 40. They simply wouldn’t hold even my interest, let alone others.

One is still in a drawer. Titled Smoke and Ash, it’s an unreadable apocalyptic draft and I only keep it in a file to occasionally torture myself and remember how it was.

I experimented with humor, science fiction, and short stories. My frustration was that I constantly needed to go back and correct typos, or insert ideas and dialogue that came to me later.

My soul was freed when I bought a 286 computer. It didn’t take long, but I figured out how to write on a Sperrylink word program and the words flowed.

Big Disappointment Number 2

Then one day I began The Rock Hole and when it was finally finished years later, I hit the save key one final time, only to find that the dinosaur word program’s 5½ inch floppy disk wouldn’t hold so much information and overwrites. It malfunctioned and the entire work disappeared in a technological burp.

I had to re-write the entire manuscript from memory, but I like to think it was better than the original. With document saved this time on a Zip drive, I submitted that new manuscript to a number of publishers. Most said thanks, but no thanks, but a Texas university press was interested in the novel, and here’s where I screwed up.

Big Disappointment Number 3

Remember, I was green as grass, and hadn’t even spoke to more than two or three writers by then, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when the editor at that time communicated with me via old school letters at first, suggesting edits and offering encouragement. I did some more editing, sent it, and she asked for the manuscript.

I printed and mailed her the 140,000 word manuscript of what was then titled Center Springs, Texas, and waited. Yeah, I know it was way too long…now. The first hundred pages came back from a copy editor, with a list of problems. That individual picked the manuscript apart, much like a high school English teacher, and it looked as if she’d been in the process of turning into a werewolf at the same time she read it. The pages bled red ink, scalding comments, and I swear there were claw marks across some of them.

That individual wasn’t good at stroking writers. It seems she hated such repeated words as old, real, porch, and just, that I’d used over and over. I recall a number of suggestions and ways to tightened the work, and so I threw those pages on still another makeshift desk and gave up.

I gave up on an editor at that university press who was interested in publishing that work long before it was picked up in 2010 under a different name by Poisoned Pen Press. In essence, I didn’t know they were on the verge of accepting it for publication. I still slap my head in my sleep, when dreams arise and I see those communications from them in the trash.

Looking back, though, I guess it was a good thing I didn’t go with the university press, because that would have likely been a one-book deal. Instead, Poisoned Pen offered me a series that continues to this day.

Big Disappointment Number 4

That wasn’t the end of letdowns for me, though. Not by a long shot. A production company that had finished filming Winter’s Bone liked The Rock Hole, and called me direct to offer a movie deal!

However, my starter agent (which I fired not long after that offer) started playing games with the company and they quickly threw up their hands and backed away from the project.

But I had the Red River series with Poisoned Pen, and found an excellent agent who was experienced in the publishing world. Together, we worked on a second series that was picked up by Kensington. Frustrations faded to memories and I was a busy guy for a while, and still am, but I wanted to do something different.

Through friends who are bestselling authors, I heard about an up and coming eBook publisher that was looking for something different. They arranged for a face to face meeting at a conference in Colorado. I drove up, met the publisher, and we went out to dinner.

Big Disappointment Number…oh, what the hell.

The next day he agreed to publish something completely different for me, a weird western that he loved. We shook on it, with the promise from him to contact my agent and hammer out a contract.

Two days later, he crawfished on the deal with a lame excuse I won’t write here, and refused to take calls or emails. I was raised by people who survived the Great Depression, World War II, and fickle weather, and grew up with the absolute understanding that a handshake was a legal bond, a man’s word.

Apparently, he didn’t see it that way, and that series evaporated into the wind, but it didn’t stop me. Why? Because I refuse to give up and give in to setbacks.

Now, get back on that horse and ride.

If you continue on the path to being an author, you’re likely to ride that rollercoaster of highs and lows, it’s simply part of the business. But remember, never let ‘em show you’re wounded, and never, ever, give up.

Good luck and happy typing.

Influential Books and Films

I wonder, are writers born with the gift of lying…uh, natural storytelling on paper, or is it inspired by some event in our lives?

In my opinion, a lot of it has to do with our interest in reading and gathering a lifetime of stories. Anyone who’s heard me speak knows I grew up in rural Chicota, Texas, where the old men up at the store loafed on the porch and talked about the world while I drank RC Colas and listened in silence.

My maternal grandparent’s little frame farmhouse had two bedrooms. Back in my larval stages, I slept with my mother in the room with two beds. My grandmother slept in the other. Being country folks, we turned in with the chickens and after lights out, they talked quietly in the darkness while a soft breeze and the call of a whippoorwill flowed through the rusty screens.

And I absorbed every word from every one of those old folks.

I think all those stories planted a seed that morphed into the obsession to spin my own fictional tales. Choosing what to write about might have been hard for some budding authors, but not for me. I fell into mysteries before migrating to thrillers and now, westerns both traditional and contemporary.

Looking back, my life and ultimate genre choices came from books and movies. Stephen King can point to the comics and horror movies he read and watched as a youngster. I’d bet a dollar to a donut that John Grisham writes law thrillers because of his profession, though I imagine he always wanted to be an author. Louis L’Amour wrote his westerns because he loved cowboys, honor, and the west.

Mine came from different sources.

I guess I was pretty malleable back in 1963 when the Old Man took me to see a movie that significantly impacted my life. Y’all likely know the story that started with Earl Hamner Jr.’s novel and eventually became the successful television series, The Waltons. The original movie, though, was filmed in God’s Country, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and featured Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara.

In Spencer’s Mountain, Clay and Olivia Spencer are the fourth generation of a family living on Spencer’s Mountain in the Snake River Valley. Though a solid family man with high morals, Clay distains religion while Olivia raises their nine children in the church. They live with his parents, and he promised to build her a dream palace on the mountain to replace their small house.

Their goals are redefined when Clay Jr. is the first Spencer to ever graduate from high school at the top of his class. He wants to continue his education so he won’t have to work in the quarry like his father, but money is issue. Clay Jr.’s teacher, Miss Parker, and the newly arrived Preacher Goodman, do what they can to help him achieve his goal.

An engaging, yet simple movie, but here are my similarities. Dad promised to build mom their dream house, but due to financial difficulties, it never happened. I went to college to become an architect (they helped and I paid the rest), the Tetons are my favorite place to visit and I was once offered a principal’s position in nearby Jackson (which I turned down when I found they had the lowest income and the highest cost of living in the state). I was the first on Dad’s side of the family to graduate college. I live by Clay Sr.’s moral code, though up until I met the Bride I wasn’t much of a churchgoer. I was inspired to read and write by teachers who took an interest me. Clay and I love to fish, especially for trout, and like him, I don’t mind a drink or two…

So, did that movie become the foundation for my life, like the often-seen framing structure of the Spencer house? Did that story spark an interest in becoming an author? Houses and the land are always significant items in every book I write. Hummm….

Before we recline on the couch while a doctor lights a pipe and takes notes, let’s look at another significant movie in my life, Junior Bonner.

One of Director Sam Peckinpah’s lesser successful novels, this rodeo picture skewed me into an entirely different direction the year I graduated in 1972.

Junior Bonner is an almost over the hill rodeo rider. He first appears on the screen taping his injuries after an unsuccessful ride on an ornery bull named Sunshine. He returns to his home town to ride at the annual Fourth of July Prescott rodeo in Arizona to find his brother Curly, a disreputable real-estate developer, is bulldozing the family home in order to build a trailer park. Junior’s womanizing father Ace, and down-to-earth, long-suffering mother, Elvira, are estranged. Ace dreams of emigrating to Australia for once last chance at finding his fortune, but he’s broke.

Junior eventually floors his arrogant brother with a punch and bribes rodeo owner Buck Roan to again let him ride the bull that broke his ribs, promising him half the prize money. Buck thinks he must be crazy, but Junior actually manages to pull it off this time, going the full eight seconds.

Junior walks into a travel agent’s office and buys his father a one-way, first-class ticket to Australia, asking for it to be delivered with the line, “Tell ‘em Junior sent you.” The film’s final shot shows Junior leaving his hometown, his successful ride on Sunshine continuing to put off the inevitable end of his rodeo career.

After seeing that movie a couple of times, I launched a brief, unsuccessful rodeo career that ended when a doctor taped my own ribs after being thrown (familiar, huh?). “You need to find another job, kid. You’re not too good at this one.”

The  movie, Junior Bonner, also taught me pacing, style, dialogue, and action. There are tiny moments in that film that have made their way into my work. If you haven’t seen it, buy the blue ray and listen to the comments, especially about a scene involving a typewriter. It’s an education in filming, directing, and character motivation.

I think both of these films helped me see my work cinematically as it progresses through the evolution of a manuscript. Reviewers often comment that my novels have a cinematic quality, and the comes from watching well-crafted movies.

You won’t get that with today’s super hero pablum.

What I am good at is collecting ideas and writing, and I have the feeling those movies, experiences, teachers, mentors and friends have all guided me toward my success. Oh, and don’t forget those early books I read like The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark.

Now that book truly did change my life and sparked a dream to write novels.

The Two-Ton Albatross by William C. Anderson, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp (eventually filmed as Die Hard), Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry, and Recollection Creek by Fred Gipson, and dozens, if not hundreds more, established a solid path to writing.

So the question is to published and budding authors alike. Do you have a movie or book, or a combination of both, that sent you on this interesting and frustrating road?

Oh, and I have a follow up. Is there a movie, or book, that mirrors your life?

A Perspective on Writing

I turned my pickup left at the light coming from our neighborhood and accelerated onto the hot six-lane past a gravel truck, then a dump truck, then a pickup pulling landscaping equipment. Merging into the far right lane, I noticed several brand spanking new houses across a field that ten years ago was full of dove, but now contained nothing but rows and rows of houses marching toward the highway.

“Where’d those houses there come from? I don’t remember them being built.”

“Yes you do.” The War Department gave me one of her patented sighs, indicating that I’d once again taxed her in some way. “We talked about them the other day on the way to Greenville.”

“Oh, yeah.”

She was right. For the past year, I’d watched a variety of trucks cut a dirt path across the pasture and into what was once woods, only to emerge full of dirt, rocks, and unknown items covered with tarps. At the same time, other large trucks carrying equipment, sand, and concrete made even more inroads into the former woodland.

But I hadn’t noticed those houses so close to the road.

No one was in the lane ahead, so I gave the growing housing edition a second look. They’d drained a stock tank that held ducks in the wintertime and pushed down all the trees they could find with a bulldozer, not even giving them the dubious dignity of falling from chainsaws.

I squinted at the Tyvek-wrapped houses that would soon be hidden by brick walls, gates, and the most despicable trees every to disgrace a landscape, Bradford Pears. Then it hit me.

The new houses hadn’t registered because of my perspective. I hadn’t paid any attention to the last of the dead and dying trees still anchored at the edge of the road, and when I did, they framed the buildings and made them pop. It’s an old photography trick to catch the eye and make a photo more striking.

Perspective changes everything.

Webster defines perspective as the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance, including the appearance to the eye of objects in respect to their relative distance and positions.

It was my perspective that was off when I was looking at all that new construction, and I realized that’s true in everything, especially…

Well good Lord, the boy’s finally gotten to the point here, Ethyl! Hurry up with that popcorn and let’s see what he’s trying to say!

We all have a different way of looking at things, from opinions to politics, to real positioning of physical entities. It’s the same in writing. Perspective is how your characters view and deal with the events unfolding within a story, and you have control of all that.

Don’t get Point of View confused with Perspective. An author’s POV focuses on the type of narrator he or she wishes to emphasize. It concentrates on defining the narrator’s characteristics while perspective focuses on how the chosen narrator perceives and feels about what’s happening in the novel. There’s no need to belabor this point any longer, because my running buddy John Gilstrap covered this well in his last post, so give it a read.

And to add a personal note here, I hadn’t read John’s post until I’d finished this one. It seems that we’re on similar, but distinctly different paths this week.

Taking a note from personal experience growing up with an extremely annoying little brother, I often had to explain of what had just happened, while the Old Man stood there with his eyes flashing, before Little Brother told his side.

The story changed depending on which of us was telling it. And my version was always right. “He fell through the wall!”

“Did not! He knocked me through the wall, Dad!”

To me, it was a subtle but important different based on how we viewed the events leading up to that significant moment in our lives that day. Frankly, I was shocked that a small human could fly completely through two layers of sheetrock and into my parent’s bedroom without hitting the studs.

In the first book of my Sonny Hawke series, Hawke’s Preya, I switched perspectives between Ranger Hawke and the villain Marc Chavez, to show (show, don’t tell!) how each man thought he was right. From Chavez’s point of view, he was using a violent takeover of a small town trying to change the world to better for himself and others of like mind.

Ranger Hawke dealt with the bad guys according to the law and did what was necessary to save a class of high school students, including two of his own, from terrorists.

I tried something different in a later novel, alternating chapters mirroring the same events in a specific timeframe based on the perception of each particular character. One reader misunderstood what I was doing and complained that the chapters were repetitive, but I felt this real-time shift in perspective added richness to the story, and hope that individual was the only one confused.

Another thing to note is that readers often insert their own beliefs into your character perspectives, and you might hear from them, good or bad. I always find these emails and reviews fascinating and look forward to wondering exactly what they read and interpreted according to their own viewpoint(s).

One reader sent me an email lambasting my “beliefs” about firearms. That person called me an “Obama Groupie” and suggested that I was an anti-gun liberal. Less than a day later another email accused me of being a right wing Republican and said I was a gun-carrying, Bible-thumping warmonger.

It’s unavoidable, but let it roll off. If it happens to you, then your character’s perspective struck a nerve and as far as I’m concerned, you’re successful.

Write on!

 

The Dead Deer Crossing

I often utilize reality into works of fiction. I can honestly say that actual conversations can be so bizarre and funny that your agent or readers will sometimes say they can’t be real. The old saying, “you can’t make this up,” is true.

For example, back in 1982 my starter wife and I were in a popular Dallas steakhouse called The Shed with another couple. Partway through the meal, I watched four people take a table not far away. I assumed it was a set of parents and their children until I saw the teens holding hands. The young lady and her boyfriend sat facing me across the room and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Halfway through the meal, she and her beau had a spat, and she left for a few minutes. When she came back, the older woman said something and the brunette threw her head back and laughed. The evening ended for our dinner party and the four of us left, but the dark-haired girl never left my mind.

Years passed. Life happened. Divorces occurred.

The Bride and I were sitting in our back yard one cool evening about ten years ago, sipping Coppola’s Director’s Cut wine. The conversation wandered to our lives before we met, old Dallas, and long-gone restaurants. I mentioned The Shed, she told me it was her high school boyfriend’s parents’ favorite restaurant.

I recalled their rustic dining room. “Didn’t you love that all you could eat steak idea?”

She threw her head back and laughed. “I could pack it away back when I was eighteen or nineteen.”

Her huge laugh snapped me back to 1983, and that’s when it clicked after all our years of marriage. “Did you have a white fisherman’s sweater at one time?”

“I did. I loved that sweater. I wore it in high school and college…” She paused, giving me a long look over the top of her glass.

“You came in with your boyfriend while I was there. Y’all had a disagreement…”

Her eyes widened. “It was his parents’ favorite restaurant.”

“That was you.” I told her about what I saw that night. “I knew you were the one for me even then.”

The Bride allowed it was her. I’d been captivated my Shana Kay way back when she’d just graduated high school, eight years before we met.

I used that coincidence in a manuscript, but my agent said it was too unbelievable. “I’d take it out.”

Sigh.

Incidences and conversations like this are inspirations, and usually make their way into my work in some way or another. I think I’ve mentioned in passing that I’ve been a newspaper columnist since 1988, and in that time, I’ve written well over 2,000 columns and magazine articles. Most stemmed from real life, and as I’ve always said, there’s always a grain of truth in every column.

The following conversation among the strangers in the following story is absolutely true. I swear, because I lifted all of the unbelievable dialogue from a neighborhood chat/complain social media site, and can testify it’s still on my cell phone. All I had to do was change it enough to avoid plagiarism, (but then again, is it plagiarism if I’m really reporting what was said?) add a setting, personal characteristics, and descriptions to make it my fictional story.

Why did I post my newspaper column for June 26, 2022, on this blog? Because I’m firm a believer in teaching by example. Hope you enjoy this and maybe it’ll help in some way.

*

The Hunting Club membership (my old, graying friends who have hunted and fished together for over forty years) was gathered around the large round corner table in Doreen’s 24 HR Eat Gas Now Café when a gaggle of women pushed through the glass door.

It’s our local gathering place out on the highway, and we’d spent the morning sipping Doreen’s excellent coffee and talking about a big doe lying in the median. Someone hit her the night before and we wondered if she had a fawn when she died.

Woodrow rested his elbows on the Formica table and ran his forefinger through the handle of his thick white coffee mug. “It’s a surprise to see a doe hit this time of the year.”

“I wish it had been a rabbit.” I sighed and watched the women stop to survey the cafe. “Rabbits are like roaches around here these days.”

The ladies ignored us and took a table in the center of the café, putting them in close proximity to our big booth. Had it been a group of men, they’d have moved to the opposite end of the large eating area, as far as possible from where we sat.

One woman who looked like Maude on the Golden Girls spoke with a voice heard by cattle dogs a mile away. “I texted out a warning on the way over here. I just saw a dead deer on the side of the curb in the middle between Eldorado and Panther Creek.”

Woodrow grinned and scratched at his gray beard in thought. “Now I know where to hunt this season. That has to be the same doe we were just talking about, but it’s in the median, so there’s no danger to anyone unless folks are slowing down to look, or texting while they drive!” His voice rose in emphasis, but the newcomers appeared not to hear.

“That’s so sad.” It was a skinny gal with lots of eye makeup and a set of artificial lashes that reminded me of large, dead spiders. I assumed she was talking about the doe, and not Woodrow’s comment.

Jerry Wayne spoke in his usual loud voice, since he can’t hear it thunder these days and refuses to wear his hearing aids. He says he’s cutting down on caffeine, but the big guy still twitches like an outhouse fly. “It’s not so sad. It’s the nature of things. I was raised on venison in Mississippi. Wish I’d have seen that little doe right after it was hit. I could use some backstrap right now.”

As a group, the women frowned and leaned in.

Wrong Willie shook his head. “I’ve told you over and over again it ain’t right to eat roadkill.”

“Depends on how long it’s been on the ground.” Jerry Wayne leaned back to make his point, his version of “drop the mike.”

Maude waved Doreen over to order. “Poor animals. No wilderness to live in anymore. It’s because of all this construction around here. These animals are going to come out more and more. They should take them to a habitat somewhere, because it is very dangerous and sad to see them die this way.”

Constable Rick’s mouth opened and closed, as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t get enough air. He was either laughing, or in shock. Her astonishing comment clammed all of us up, and we listened as they took turns spilling inaccurate thoughts.

“If you call the game warden and tag it, they will give it to you. If you want the meat.”

Woodrow slapped his forehead. Doreen shot him a glare from behind the counter. She wiped her hands on a stained towel and gathered up a handful of empty mugs. I took a moment to look for the mole on her face that seems to move at random from one day to the next.

It must have migrated to the back of her neck that day.

A brunette lady with painted-on eyebrows frowned them together. “You have to bleed it out immediately for it to taste good. That one’s been dead too long, unfortunately. Sad.”

“I can’t stand deer hunters and I’ve been living here twenty-one years when it was wilderness and I’ve never seen anything but bobcats, coyotes, and greyhawks.” That run-on sentence came from a lady covered with tattoos.

Willie tore his eyes from her art and turned to me. “Wilderness? This has been farmland for over a hundred years.”

I shrugged. “Who knows. They’re on a roll, but there’s a million rabbits and squirrels they haven’t seemed to notice.”

“You know,” Maude took a cup from Doreen and smiled her thanks as our favorite waitress and business owner filled it from the fresh pot in her hand. “We need one of those Deer Crossing signs so these poor animals will know where to cross safely.”

Doreen glared in our direction, daring us to say anything. I looked around the table and saw Jerry Wayne, Willie, Woodrow, and Constable Rick all bite their lips at the same time.

The youngest of the female troupe frowned. “I didn’t know deers were prevalent in this area of Texas. It looks like we need wildlife overpasses.”

Willie slipped down in the booth, dissolved into hysterical giggles, and slapped the table. I hoped his red face wouldn’t explode.

A dishwater blonde shook her head at the enormity of it all. “I was surprised to see a deer in the residential neighborhood by the ponds. But to a deer, the ponds are connected to the wooded lakeshore that is their habitat encroached by human development and cars and roads. It’s arguable whether that backdrop of wilderness area is manicured by human development or if it belongs to wildlife or humans.”

Jerry Wayne raised a finger to make some point, but I shook my head. I wanted to hear more.

“Of course, they don’t have GPS to guide them back to the wilderness areas.” The blonde sighed. “Of course that poor deer was lost because how would it expect wooded lakeshore pond trails to dead-end in concrete roads and blocks of framed structures that we call houses?”

The boys, who were having a helluva time, nodded in encouragement, hoping to keep the conversation on track.

“It’s a puzzle for the deer to navigate their way back to the native wooded areas without running into human-erected structures.” Maude squared her shoulders and sent us a glare, likely preparing for battle. “They are stuck in the urban area not because they want to live here, but are lost in the maze, thinking crossing the street would get them back to the wild when they’re desperately trying to find a way out.”

I studied the boys’ faces. “I don’t even know what that means.”

She paused again. “You know, I have an idea. I suggest the city create a deer farm for them so they don’t have to run in the street. Then you’ll have time to stop even when a deer dashes out in front of you, and people need to slow down. It’s hard to hit a deer if you drive the speed limit.”

Wheezing in delight, the guys slapped the table, giggling like schoolgirls.

Doreen came over and spoke through her teeth. “Don’t! Y’all shouldn’t be eavesdropping anyway!”

“But we were here first. They’re the ones who sat within earshot.” Woodrow laid his head on the table. “Put the deer in farms!!!???”

Doreen’s demeanor cracked and she leaned in to whisper in a giggle. “Well, they’re move-ins, bless their hearts.”

Maude took a deep breath. “Well, at least we’re aware of the deer now. That makes me feel better, but you’re right. They need to move the deer crossing somewhere with less traffic.”

And we all fell out.

 

Those Little Incidents

Writing is fun, and that’s why we do it. Personal deadlines, self-imposed daily word counts, locking yourself alone in a room for hours at a time with your invisible friends, those hard deadlines that loom at the same time you have other things to do, and less than impressive paychecks aren’t roadblocks to most of us.

Staring at the flashing cursor on a blank screen seems to be a challenge to some, but I blow through page after page without a tingle of fear or apprehension. Then comes the day I hit Send and the manuscript is on the way to becoming a real book. That’s a huge satisfaction.

But then comes the fun and interesting part that I never expected as a novice writer. Those moments when memories are made.

Only a couple of weeks after I finished one of the Red River novels, my oldest aunt called from her assisted living apartment. “Reavis Zane!”

Dammit! I immediately became ten years old again when she used both names. “Howdy Aunt Billie. I’m sorry I haven’t been by to see you lately…”

“That don’t matter none. I called ‘cause I have a bone to pick with you, young man.”

I figuratively toed the carpet, chastised by one of those old gals who likely whacked my rear a time or two when I was a kid. Our family believed in that village theory of child raising to the point there were eyes everywhere.

I sighed and sat down at my desk. “Well, go to picking then.”

“I just read that book you wrote and I can’t believe you’re telling family secrets to the whole wide world.”

Uh, oh. I flicked through mountains of memory files, trying to figure out what she was talking about. Though a few of my characters are based on living people, I’m careful not to describe them in detail. Even family members in this litigious society can take you to task on such characterization.

Clearing my throat, I tried not to sound worried. “Well, Ned Parker’s based on Daddy Joe, and Top is me in a sense, but I don’t…”

“It’s not them. I’m talking about those two people who ran away with one. They’re Tommy and Gertrude as sure as shoot’n. I don’t see why you got to drag family into them stories.”

“Wait. What?” Tommy and Gertrude were family members who were banished from the family when I was little, but I never knew why. “You mean they…”

“Yessir. You know as well as I do that they were married to Bob and Elizabeth.”

Puzzle pieces clicked into place. Bob and Elizabeth were brother and sister, married to Tommy and Gertrude.

Her voice became stern. “So young man, you don’t need to be telling them secrets in any more books.”

“Uh, that’s news to me. Exactly what happened between them?”

“Well, my lands. I’m not gonna talk about that gossip!”

And she hung up on me without another word.

I was signing copies of still another book when I described a scene based on a real story my grandaddy told me. He was constable of Precinct 3 in Lamar County, Texas, that’s made up of several small rural communities. One day he got a call on his Motorola (son, they can outrun my car, but they can’t outrun my radio) that a suspicious individual was seen on a county road. When the highway patrol officer stopped, the teenager ran away into the woods.

The young trooper radioed back and organized a manhunt that was forming up when Grandad pulled up in his pickup. The trooper described the outlaw in great detail and my more experienced grandfather put a halt to the proceedings.

“You boys just settle down. I think I know who that is. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be right back.”

He drove off down a gravel road and turned down a dirt drive to a house back in the woods. A farmer’s wife came outside when she heard the car. “Hey, Ned. What brings you out here?”

“Is Leroy around somewhere?”

“He’s in the barn. He run again?”

“He did.”

Grandad called Leroy out, put him in the front seat of the truck, and returned to the building manhunt. He pulled up and called the trooper over. “Is this your suspect?”

He bent down and peeked through the window. “That’s him! You caught him already?”

“I knew who you were talking about. Leroy here runs from every lawman he sees, but he’s never done anything wrong. So y’all can go about your business and we’re gong to the store to get some ice cream.”

So there I was at the signing, enjoying the long line of fans holding my book with that story when a tall, gray-haired man handed me his copy. “I read this already, but I’d love to have your signature.”

“Honored. Just a signature, or would you like it personalized?”

“Personalized. Sign it, To Judge John Smith, That Young Trooper Who Had a Lot To Learn From An Old Constable.”

I glanced up to meet his eyes. “You’re that young highway patrol officer I wrote about.”

“Yep, your grandaddy taught me a lot back when I was full of piss and vinegar, and you wrote it exactly as it happened.”

“Uh, should I apologize, Judge?”

“Nah. It was the truth.”

No one told me what to expect after a book comes out, but I swear it’s always fun. Enjoy the experience, because only a small percentage of potential authors ever get published. It’s that carrot at the end of the stick, and it’s a helluva ride.

An Unplanned Lane

A few months ago, I bought a walk-behind DR brush cutter to clear several overgrown acres in the back half of our new weekend property in Lamar County, Texas. In our part of the world we usually use tractors with bush hogs dragging behind, but I didn’t want to lay out the capital for such a big rig, hence the DR.

This thing is a beast that chews up saplings three inches in diameter without even struggling to clear its throat. Chest-high Johnson grass and weeds? No problem. It shreds that kind of vegetation with satisfying, crunching sounds reminiscent of a sharp knife cutting through limp celery.

The front stretches out like the hood of a ’76 Ford Thunderbird and the monster cutter is driven by an engine big enough to power that same car. The belt drive will yank it from your hands in third gear, so the only thing one has to do is engage the blade thick as a Roman broadsword and follow…sometimes reluctantly when the terrain forces a veer off the operator’s intended path.

One such unplanned shift in direction took me through a thick patch of head-high thorny blackberry vines and oak saplings, resulting in long, bloody scratches down my arms. However, when I looked back, the new lane was clear as a walking path in a city park.

Hang on, Ethyl, I think this boy’s gonna start reminiscing!

The whole thing reminded me of a scene that locked into my mind about twenty years ago when the legendary Y.O. Ranch in South Texas hosted a weekend cattle drive for outdoor writers and one of their children. Our youngest daughter who was thirteen at the time, nickname Taz, is a natural on horses and she was excited to go.

It was a real three-day cattle drive across that huge 40,000-acre ranch, moving a hundred or more longhorns from one pasture to another. On the first day, cowboys taught the city slickers how to ride, and later that evening kids learned to cook over an open campfire. It was a breeze for Taz, who grew up camping with us and already knew how to ride.

We pushed the herd on the second morning under a gray, leaden sky weeping with rain. The herd’s trail boss made it clear that if “things got western,” kids and dads were to get the hell out of the way and let the real cowboys handle the herd.

Ten experienced cowhands circled the cattle and pushed them into a long string through the first pasture full of prairie savanna grasses, cedars, and ragged mesquite. Mounted kids and dads filled in the loose circle of riders, walking their horses in pace with the longhorns and cowboys who looked to be straight out of casting.

I was riding point with the trail boss and Taz was halfway back when something spooked the tough, rangy longhorns. The leaders instinctively wheeled and charged into a thicket of fifteen-foot-high mesquite trees lining a dry wash. The rest of the herd followed, ignoring the experienced cattlemen’s attempts to stop them.

In the Trail Boss’s terms, things got western.

He spurred his horse and took off to the right and around the end of that big patch of crooked trees, intending to cut the herd’s leaders off and turn them until the rest of the cowboys punched through the dense foliage to help. Reins in one hand and a 35mm camera in the other, I followed right behind him and watched that man sit his horse like he’d been born in a saddle. Not nearly as graceful in the saddle, I held my own and we beat the herd coming through the brush and reined up in a small clearing to experience a scene straight from the 1880s.

The running cattle sounded as if a steamfoller was crashing through the thicket. Branches and limbs popped and crackled, hooves thundered on the ground, and whoops reached our ears both from kids and cowboys.

Then here they came. The leaders exploded through the thicket in a blast of dust and flying leaves with broken limbs and dead branches caught on their horns. The real cowboys popped out on both sides of the herd, doing their best to keep the cattle from scattering to the winds. My breath caught at the sight of a scratched and bloody kid bent low over the saddle horn to avoid the limbs, holding her hat with one hand, and riding like hell.

She passed us and flashed me a grin full of excitement and fun.

The trail boss roared and pointed. “Who the hell belongs to that kid?”

I raised a hand, expecting a good old fashioned dressing down in a cowboy way.

Instead, he built his own grin. “That little gal can ride with me any day!”

They passed, and I looked through a newly cleared lane stomped flat by hooves and huge bodies to see the rest of the kids and their fathers picking their way through the undergrowth.

Under a similar gray sky yesterday in Northeast Texas, I turned after unintentionally following the DR brush cutter through a ten-foot-high thicket of saplings and blackberry vines and the new lane looked similar to the one pounded flat by that runaway herd

So what does all this have to do with writing?

Creating your characters, building a scene, and then setting those fictional people on course is like starting that cattle drive. We’d planned to follow a two-track pasture road that day, an outline if you wish, but the thing turned on a dime.

I hadn’t planned on that lane the other day, just like Trail Boss hadn’t planned on his longhorns cutting a new path through the mesquites, but I was glad for the experience and such satisfying results, both times

My way of writing is to set everything into motion and then follow the plot as it turns when it wants, but those of you who outline may shriek and throw up your hands at veering off your course and abandoning your outline. Planners must push their characters say and do certain things at specific points in a manuscript, but wait a second.

Try this little exercise just once. Let your mind wander through five or six new pages, allowing your characters’ fictional personalities to find their way. They might turn around a sapling (read minor character), a mature oak (one of your major characters), or an unseen obstacle such as a dip or dry wash (clues or an unanticipated incident) and cut a different, open path that you can look back on with satisfaction.

What could a few bloody, mental scratches hurt in the long run?

 

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.