Monday, February 17, 2020

What will the future hold?  

     It’s always tempting for a writer to extrapolate some current trend to explore where it might lead us. Horror wizard Stephen King did it to chilling effect in his 2006 novel Cell, for a good example, in which a mysterious pulse signal over the global cell phone network turns people into murderous monsters, a deft and often wry extrapolation built on our current global addiction to the devices—an addiction that is killing Americans at the rate of four or five thousand a year when we insist on using our ubiquitous phones while driving, even though we ought to know better. The story became a video on demand movie in 2016 starring John Cusak and Samuel L. Jackson.

     Plastics have been a boon in many ways, but they’re beginning to choke our oceans and harm sea life and bits of them have even lodged in most of our bodies. Plastics can be thoughtlessly discarded but they won’t go away. As our landfills bloat and our environment blooms with ugly and dangerous durable litter, what dark fate awaits our throw-away society? Recycling is only making an insignificant dent in the problem.

     Nations spend billions on armies and arms that could be far better spent eliminating plagues like cancer and heart disease and poverty and ignorance. Will our warrior instincts eventually turn to devour us in yet another global conflict that is far more devastating than ever?

     Will ignoring the human-caused warming of our only home in the vast universe and failing to take sufficient steps to halt and reverse it before it reaches an irreversible tipping point doom us to premature extinction?

     Will exploding world population outpace our ability to feed and care for and sufficiently educate the exponentially millions more humans being born every year on this finite planet with its dwindling resources, or will we finally take aggressive and effective measures that begin to control it? The city of Tokyo already has thirty-seven million inhabitants crammed together (including the entire metro area). Shanghai 25 million. Mexico City 21 million. Beijing 20 million. New York City with its 8.6 million is only 36th on the list of the planet’s most populous cities. India has one and a third billion people and that figure is rising at an alarming rate. Birth control in impoverished Africa is a rarity. China has another billion and a half people and in some of their cities they’re choking on their own smog, but they’ve at least managed to slow down the growth rate somewhat.

     Any of these subjects are worthy of imaginative treatment by futuristic writers.


Monday, February 10, 2020

Where did the great authors of the past write?

   My mother was a 1940s reporter for a western Massachusetts newspaper when newsrooms were raucous and chaotic, filled with the machine gun clatter of hulking upright mechanical typewriters, punctuated by shouts of editors and cries of writers for copy boys, and the background thunder of the massive press nearby. Always pressured by deadlines, and with only dial phones, cultivated contacts, libraries, and the newspaper’s own morgue for research resources, they somehow managed to put out a packed edition every day and sometimes even extra editions if breaking news demanded.

   Years after quitting that job Mom wrote articles and short stories for magazines at a small desk set up in a corner of my parents’ bedroom. She could bang out over a hundred words a minute, composing on her heavy upright Smith monster, and I remember hearing her rip pages out of the carriage and crumple them to start over or to rewrite a page. Only when she was surrounded by those crumpled sheets and random notes and opened books and magazines spread on the floor—a mini-chaos resembling her old reporting days—did she seem able to begin composing solid copy. I know she always longed for a better place to write, but it wasn’t to be.

   Not that long ago, a writer's only tool was a quill pen, and paper was scarce and costly. Can you imagine? And just a generation or so ago there were only typewriters with carbon paper and mimeographs for copies. No Internet. No computers. Again, can you imagine how much more work writing demanded then?

   But one thing has not changed all that much. Each writer has always had their own favored surroundings in which to work. It’s interesting to know where some of the most successful authors of decades past composed their enduring works. Their special writing spaces.

   Some, like my mother, apparently craved chaos. Ray Bradbury wrote amid an incredible profusion of art, photos, books, strewn stacks of papers. His space resembled a college dorm room. William F. Buckley’s space was even worse, like the home of a hoarder. Einstein’s office was also cluttered. One thing I liked about his space, though, was a large chalkboard on the wall behind him, which still seems like a great organizational idea for any writer; I’d have one if space permitted. Winston Churchill’s office was busy but ordered, as you might expect.

   Many wrote in their libraries, of course, often at roll top desks. Andrew Carnegie’s library was surprisingly modest but comfortable, with wood-paneled walls and a small fireplace. Frederick Douglas’s was large, ornate, high-ceilinged, with many loaded shelves and baroque furniture.

   Some preferred Spartan spaces. Ernest Hemingway’s room was full of light with a plain uncluttered table, a tiled floor, and a few simple bookshelves—as spare as his prose. Virginia Woolf’s was also austere, with a plain table and straight chair and unadorned walls. Frail Anne Frank needed only a tiny desk and wrote longhand in journals, a pencil held between her right index and middle finger, with her thumb affording a strong three-point grip, which is quite comfortable really. Raymond Carver also liked plain surroundings. Jackie Kennedy worked in simple elegant surroundings, often at a modest antique desk with a vase of flowers on it.

   E. B. White worked with a mechanical portable typewriter in an utterly barren rustic space, sitting on a hard pew-like bench at a table by a large swing-in window overlooking a body of water. Anne Morrow Lindbergh also had a plain rustic cabin with a simple desk near swing-out windows. George Bernard Shaw took this preference to an extreme with a detached rustic windowed shed only about ten feet square.

   Some spaces were strange. Roald Dahl worked in an overstuffed wing chair with a laptop desk, writing longhand in a journal. Dalton Trombo liked to sit naked in a warm bathtub with a side table nearby, writing longhand in a journal on a swing-in desktop. J. D. Salinger was known to write naked in nature, seated on an upended suitcase and typing on a mechanical portable on the tailgate of his station wagon, a pipe wreathing his head in aromatic smoke.

   A majority liked to write near windows or swing-out patio doors, both for a view and the light, and that’s the environment I’ve chosen. I sit at my computer beneath a skylight by sliding glass doors that lead out into my multi-windowed sunroom, with a wide view beyond of cypress and tupelo and pecan trees and the broad Neuse River. It’s always changing with the seasons and the time of day and the weather. I often use an angled music stand beside me to temporarily hold reference materials, notes, or a printed and marked-up novel draft I’m polishing.

   I can’t imagine writing anywhere else.


(Source: “100 Famous Authors and Their writing Spaces,” by Jared A. Brock.)

There's a description and easy buy button for the new stand-alone novel Killing Ground at 
A portion of proceeds will go toward protecting Africa's remaining elephants.

Monday, February 3, 2020

The state of reading today

    I’m continually surprised and dismayed by the number of people who do not read anything other than their personal text messages and a few shallow news snippets on their electronic devices. I’m afraid the percentage of non-readers is increasing. Many of our young people do not read and have no idea what they’re missing. I was recently watching a YouTube talk given by Stephen King and John Grisham who both said sales numbers have been declining, and Grisham said it’s frustrating to be a writer in a nation wherein so many aren’t reading.

    I think it’s curious, though, that many people who refuse to crack a novel or even a short story will go to a fictional movie in a heartbeat and take great enjoyment in it. Ironically, many of these movies were born as novels, nonfiction books, or short stories.

    As writers, what can we do to help reverse the readership decline?

    In my county we have a Literacy Council. Working on donations, they offer free confidential tutoring services to students and adults, and train new volunteer tutors through workshops. They’ve been improving lives one person at a time since 1986. If you have such an organization in your area, consider making an annual contribution.

    We can offer to speak to local school classes about the benefits and joys of reading and writing, and we can encourage our kids and grandkids to read. Years ago, I taught creative writing at a community college and it was fun. I keep in touch with some of the students, and one went on to become a paid writer and tabloid publisher.

    We can support our local libraries. We can read to groups of kids there—as my mother did in our tiny stone village library decades ago—revealing to them the wonders of their own imaginations.
    And we can carry on writing engaging fiction and nonfiction that those readers we do have, bless them, will continue to crave and share.


Monday, January 27, 2020

Irresponsible reporting

     Ted Bundy, Timothy McVeigh, Jim Jones, Anders Breivik, and Dylan Roof were all stone-cold killers, and thanks to extensive and unrelenting media coverage they’ve all become infamous, their places secured in dark history. We remember their names and even their faces.
     But what do we remember of their victims? Sadly, nothing at all. Not their names. Not their faces. Not their accomplishments. Not their unrealized aspirations.

     Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer took up a .22 rifle one day in 1979 and began shooting at an elementary school across the street from her home, killing two adults and wounding eight kids and a policeman. She had told friends to watch the news because she was “going to do something big to get on TV.” She’s still featured in several sites on the Net 41 years later.

     Nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz declared that he wanted to become a “school shooter” before he realized his twisted dream and shot 17 dead and injured 17 more in a bloody rampage at the Parkland school, though he fell short of his desired death goal of 20. A video he proudly made is still up on the USA Today website, along with news stories about him on other sites. We see many other similar instances of notoriety all over the news these days, and in too many cases, that’s exactly what those killers were seeking. We hear about new shootings with gruesome frequency, each shooter competing for their special chapter in the book of infamy from our obliging media.

     Partly because my mother was an ethically and morally responsible newspaper reporter for many years, I’ve long abhorred how the increasingly blatant irresponsible and shallow media use their considerable power to slant the news in favor of this agenda or that and to whip up violence of all kinds, both by harping endlessly on society’s divisions, discontents, and hatreds, and by lavishly giving criminals the very publicity they so desperately seek in order to gain lasting notoriety for themselves.

     There is a movement to stop this senseless, sensational “reportage.” It’s called No Notoriety. It seeks to, “Recognize that the prospect of infamy serves as a motivating factor to [some] individuals to kill.” It urges media to at least limit the name and likeness of a killer and to instead elevate the names and likenesses of the victims, to help people remember those who have fallen and to send the message that their lives were and are important. A fine example is New Zealand’s treatment of the Chistchurch mosques shooting. They refused to give any publicity to the shooter at all and instead celebrated the lives of the fallen.

     I think this movement is long, long overdue and is to be applauded.

     For specifics, please see the website:

    Please urge the media to take note of this movement—and to begin taking moral responsibility for the effects of their reportage.


Monday, January 20, 2020

Our Strange Visual Universe

    Last post, we thought about what a sound really is, requiring both a pressure transmitting source and a receiving ear assembly to satisfy the definition. Hearing is akin to reading, which requires both a written page and a person who can interpret those marks on the page. Writer and reader are inseparable, and each must trust the other in that symbiosis. Created scenes do not take place on the page but only in the imaginations of the partners. The page merely serves as a transmitter and preserver.

    Now let’s think about what sight really is and how it applies to our writing.

    We know from high school science there is a broad electromagnetic spectrum that includes a generous range of transmitted and reflected frequencies. We make extensive daily use of this phenomenon. From lowest frequencies to highest, there are radio waves (including TV, microwave, and radar), infrared radiation, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, and gamma rays. Sandwiched between infrared and ultraviolet there is a relatively narrow frequency band we call visible light. Within that band our retinas can receive frequency waves and our optic nerves can transmit them as electrochemical messages to our astonishing brains, which can instantly differentiate and interpret them as all the millions of things we “see” around us.

    It’s a wondrous evolved skill, although it exists not in surrounding nature at all but always and only within our brains and in the brains of many other species as well to varying degree. Eagles can see far better and farther than any human so they can spot prey from altitude. Bees can see in ultraviolet so they can find the flowers that make the best honey. Some creatures, including bats, hamsters, raccoons, and whales, can only see in shades of black and white because that’s all they need to survive and thrive.

     There is no color in the Universe. None at all. There are only different frequencies. A rainbow can always and only happen within our minds.

    If we could “see” the Universe as it really is, it would be a bewildering chaos of multiple transmitted and reflected electromagnetic frequencies. All the frequencies. We’d see the colors and things we normally do. But we’d also see cell towers and our smart phones bristling with waves. Transmissions beaming at lightspeed to and from passing jetliners. Radar waves bouncing off our vehicles and returning to highway patrol cars. Infrared waves emanating from vehicles and all the people around us and the dogs we’re walking. Gamma rays zooming in from far-off galaxies. Ultraviolet rays streaming from our own private star and attacking our exposed flesh. TV waves filling the air and being soaked up here and there by our rooftop antennas. Flowers in many more hues than we ever thought possible. It would be bizarre in the extreme. But it would be what’s really going on at this moment all around us—and even through our building walls and us.

    But thankfully, miraculously, evolution has endowed us with this brain skill we call sight. The ability to interpret just a skinny band of frequencies as colors and myriad shadings and shapes. We even have two eyes to provide critical three-dimensional sight so we can judge how far away things are, although an alien creature might never realize this from observing the daily mayhem on our highways.

    The scenes we writers create in our stories are largely visual, although we can and should also call on our other four senses to enhance realism.

    The more we visually study the world around us, the more we will perceive in it, and thus the more original and powerful our imagined scenes will become in the imaginations of our readers.

    As a delightful secondary benefit, we ourselves will increasingly experience the wonderful world of human-selected frequencies around us as never before.


Monday, January 13, 2020

The Impossible Question

    Surely, you’ve heard someone ask, “If a tree falls in the woods with nobody around, does it make a sound?”

    It’s an impossible question. One we’re not even allowed by logic to ask.

    Here’s why:

    If a tree falls in the woods, the impact it makes with the ground generates a pressure wave in the atmosphere, which—not unlike a ripple on the surface of a pond caused by a dropped pebble—expands in all directions at a speed of 767 mph. As it spreads it loses intensity until it eventually dissipates altogether. This happens whether anybody is around or not.

    If somebody does happen to be nearby, the pressure wave impinges on their eardrums and an impulse is transmitted through the inner ear connection to the brain, which has the ability not only to differentiate between thousands of other such impulses, but also, because of input from two spaced eardrums, determine the direction of the impulse origin and whether it is in motion or not. The variety of pressure waves we can instantly detect and analyze is amazing, everything from a passing ambulance siren to a country brook to complex music to a whispered endearment.

    In other words, and by definition, for a sound to occur, both a pressure generating source and a human receiver are necessary. One cannot exist without the other within this definition, and what we perceive as a sound takes place not in the woods or anywhere else in the world but rather always and only in our interpretive brains.

    The impossible sound-in-the-forest question is akin to asking, “If you leave an open book on a table in an empty room, is any reading going on?” Reading requires both a written or printed page and a viewer with the learned ability embedded in the brain to interpret those marks on the page. One cannot exist without the other within the definition of reading. Both page and viewer are required.

    And therein lies a crucial tip for us writers. We should always have our readers in mind and work considering their imaginations as well as using our own to its maximum potential in creating engaging stories. Neither readers nor writers can exist outside this necessary partnership.

    Next post we’ll think about another such symbiotic relationship as it applies to writing and reading.

p.s. Check out the recent interview author/editor Jaden Terrell kindly did on her CrimeReaders site:

Monday, January 6, 2020

The changing months

    Looking ahead to this new year, I began thinking about the months and how different each is. All their names were derived from early Roman culture.

    January was named for the two-faced god Janus, who could look into the past and the future simultaneously. February came from the Latin februa (to cleanse). The Februlia festival of purification and atonement lasted all month. March was devoted to the war god Mars. A time for renewing military campaigns that had been suspended over the winter. April came from the Latin aperio (to open or bud) for the plants coming alive again. May was named after the goddess Maia, in charge of plant growth. June was the Roman goddess Juno’s month. Her duties included sanctioning marriages and looking after women’s welfare. July honored dictator Julius Caesar, who with a little help developed the whole Julian calendar, which became the Gregorian calendar we still use. August was emperor Augustus Caesar’s turn for glory. September was from the Latin septem (seven), for the seventh month of the early Roman calendar. Likewise October, November, and December were simply named for their calendar order of eight, nine, and ten (octo, novem, and decem).

    All this worked fine throughout the Roman Empire and eventually in the whole northern hemisphere, but did not exactly fit the southern hemisphere, where they’re wintering while we’re summering, and while we’re budding they’re beginning to bundle up. But the whole world settled on the Roman system, nevertheless.

    It would be nice if we could agree on a few other things as well, since we’re all hitching a ride on this same big ball together.


Don't forget Killing Ground is out in e-book and print on Amazon. It's being well received. More info on my website: