Monday, December 28, 2015

Dancing With Squirrels

     Recently a squirrel fell down an unused chimney in my house and got trapped in the void surrounding the chimney.  We could hear him scratching the wallboard frantically near the flue cap in the living room.  I went up onto the roof and dangled a long rope down the slick ceramic flue, tied it off, and left it there for a whole night and day.

     That didn’t work.

     I thought he might find a way out through a hole in the floorboards or the ceiling within the void.  Gave it another day.


     So I made a squirrel trap from a cardboard box, with a taped-on screen window on top and a sliding trap door at the back.  I removed the caulking around the chimney flue cap, set the cap aside, baited the trap box with half a peanut butter sandwich, and taped the whole box over the flue opening.  Waited quietly nearby.

     When I heard the squirrel inside the box, I quickly slid the trap door down, and he let out a terrified squeak, but I had him.  I carried the trap outside and set it on the grass.  After a few minutes he streaked out, scampered up a tree trunk, and dashed all around through the branches.

     It felt good.

     Now the old guy next door will probably shoot him.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Big December doings

A great deal of aviation history has been wrought during the month of December.

12/17/1903  The Wright Flyer lifted into the cold wind at Kitty Hawk, NC, for 12 seconds, covering 121 feet.  The first powered flight in history.  Within the next 66 years, mankind would go from the sands of Kitty Hawk to the sands of the moon.

12/10/1911  Cal Rodgers flew the Wright EX from Long Island to Pasadena.

12/1/1935 The first airway traffic control tower was established in Newark, NJ.

12/17/1935  The first Douglas DC-3 took off in Santa Monica, CA.

12/1/1941  The Civil Air Patrol was established.

12/7/1941  The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor from the air.

12/20/1957  The first flight of the Boeing 707.

12/15-16/1965  A Gemini orbital rendezvous was flown by Wally Shirra and Tom Stafford.

12/21-27/1968  Apollo 8 orbited the moon with Borman, Lovell, and Anders.

12/7-19/1972  The Apollo 17 crew of Cernan, Evans, and Schmitt made the last lunar landing.

12/23/1986  Voyager flew nonstop around the world with no refueling.

12/15/2009  The Boeing 787 Dreamliner flew for the first time.

12/23/2014  Airbus delivered the first A350.

12/2015  Author Phil Bowie has available on Amazon in print and Kindle DEATHSMAN, the fourth novel in his John Hardin series, which contains thrilling aviation scenes.  People order it in large numbers through his website,

Have a happy holiday season and a bright new year.



Monday, December 14, 2015

’Tis company season

Normal weekly to-do list:

Take out trash if blocking back door.
Do laundry load if hamper overflowing.
Get frozen pizzas, bread, milk.
Hose off children.

Company coming to-do list:

Wallpaper guest bedroom.
Put guests’ pics on mantle.
Paint porch.
Wash, vacuum, polish, dust everything.
Clean all old cars, tree limbs, inflatables, toys off lawn.  Bush-hog, then mow.
Pave driveway.
Buy new car.
Get cat declawed.
Buy two turkeys, 200-pound pig, frozen rolls, 14 kinds veggies, hors-d’oeuvres, corked wine
    fresh mayo, ice cream, six pies, 3 doz. other items on sep. list.
Buy spare refrigerator.
Shop new wardrobes for everybody.
Hose off children.  Re-hose last minute.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Playing word games

     The perennial favorite is, of course, Scrabble, at which Naomi always beats me because she has sneakily researched exotic words like zax and xenophobe.  (Look them up; I had to.)

     There are a few new word games out you may want to try, or buy as holiday gifts for wordsmiths. Here are three:

Split Decision, wherein players are given cards containing a series of words, and you have to decide in which of two categories the word belongs.  It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, and can get hilarious.

InWords, for which each player begins a round by spinning a wheel to reveal an everyday word.  The player then works with team mates to come up with responses containing that word, to earn points.  If you’re like me, you could always use a few more points in this life.

Wordie Wars.  You have to be the first player to come up with a five-letter word from your collection. 

     No four-letter words permitted in any of these games if you lose.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Are you sitting still?

   You may think you are, but you’re not.  You never can be.

   As the earth turns, a person standing on the surface at the equator is zipping along at 1,100 miles per hour toward the east.  (Do the math: a point at the equator has 24 hours to get all the way around to the same place, so 25,000 miles, which is the circumference of the earth, divided by 24 hours = 1,100 mph)  Depending where you are on earth you could be moving at up to this speed.  This is the biggest reason why we launch rockets toward the east; they’re getting a nice free boost in that direction just sitting there on the launch pad.  (Naomi and I are headed for FL today, by the way, to witness a 3 December launch.)

   And the earth takes 365 days to complete one orbit around the sun, which is 94 million miles away from us.  (Do the math: our orbit circumference is 2 x pi x 94 million = 590,619,418.9 miles, divided by 365 days = 1,618,135 miles that the earth speeds along its orbit per day, or 67,422.3 mph on average.

   And the entire solar system, the sun and all its family of planets and moons, is racing around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy at 514,000 mph. (A speed at which you would circle the earth at the equator in just 2 minutes, 54 seconds.)

   And the entire Milky Way Galaxy, with its approximately 400 billion suns (including ours) all arrayed in a beautiful glittering spiral pattern, is flashing through space at an incredible 1.3 million mph.

   So the next time you tell your child to sit still, dammit, be advised that she or he simply cannot. Not by a long shot.

   And neither can you.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Who decrees these things?

For like some time now, people can’t seem to converse without like using the word like twelve times a sentence.  Who made this a rule of, like, etiquette?

And lexicographers have been like madly scrambling to keep up with the like hundreds of new words that have been like welded together from traditional separate pairings.  Like bookstore, bookshelf, backseat, businesswoman.  Which constitutional amendment like grants everybody this right?

So, like the latest bigthing is to begin like every single reply to a question with the word so.  Allofadamnsudden it’s like a worldwide social requirement.

So, like whothehell decrees these things?


Monday, November 16, 2015

On being productive

     Li Fang (925-996) wrote what was probably the first exhaustive--and I’m sure exhausting--encyclopedia composed of 3,500 volumes he claimed contained all the knowledge in the Song dynasty.  Barbara Cartland (1901-2000) wrote an astonishing 723 romance novels in her lifetime, selling uncounted millions of copies.  John Creasey (1908-1973) wrote 564 novels under 28 pseudonyms.  Robert Shields (1918-2007) wrote a 37.5-million-word diary chronicling every five minutes of his life from 1972 to 1997.  (How he would have loved Facebook and Twitter.)  Bear in mind these folks did all this mostly in longhand or at best with old-fashioned typewriters.

     Stephen King has so far written 54 novels that have sold 250 million copies all over the known universe, along with 200 short stories.  Heather Graham, a lovely and gracious lady I had the pleasure of enjoying breakfast with during a writers’ conference in Florida, has written 150 novels and novellas that have sold 75 million copies in 25 languages.  The James Patterson and Clive Cussler gangs of writers diligently keep the bookstores stocked with a constant supply of new titles.

     So how come I can only manage, on an occasional good day, to compose about 500 words?

     It’s embarrassing.


p.s. BTW, have you bought your copy of my new novel, DEATHSMAN?  (It’s available quite reasonably in print or e-book from Amazon.)
       Think Great Winter Read by the Fire.
       Think Excellent Christmas Gifts for Family and Friends.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Is this sportsmanship?

     During a 200-mile round trip yesterday in eastern North Carolina, Naomi and I saw six dead deer alongside the road.  Presumably six vehicles were damaged.  I hope nobody was injured.

     It’s deer hunting season again, so this is only to be expected.

     North Carolina is one of eleven states (mostly in the Southeast) where “hunting” with packs of deer hounds is still allowed.  It’s an old European tradition probably first practiced in America about 1650, but it’s controversial to say the least because of complaints from land owners, primarily.  By 1920, dog hunting had been banned in all the northeastern states.  Texas even banned it in 1990, and today in those states where it is still allowed the practice is under pressure, with some counties banning it altogether and others imposing restrictions.

     I’m a gun owner, but I strongly disagree with the practice for several reasons:

     First, how sporting is it, really, to station hunters on all four dirt roads bordering a rectangular section of woods (often seated comfortably in upholstered swivel chairs bolted into pickup beds) and then run a dog pack through the woods to flush the deer out into the gun sights?  In my opinion it’s not sporting at all, because the deer have little chance.

     Second, I’ve seen how the deer hounds are often treated throughout the rest of the year, confined to small outdoor dirt-floored pens, simply shot in the woods if they don’t perform well enough, tick-ridden, even abandoned.  They are disposable dogs.

     Third, the dogs frighten the deer so much they will run for miles from their normal habitat, a predictable number of them every year darting across highways where they are struck and killed or maimed by vehicles, which suffer expensive damage—not to mention putting the passengers at risk—which costs us all in higher insurance premiums. 

     In the state of Massachusetts, where I was raised, you may only hunt deer on foot using a relatively short-range shotgun (which is much less dangerous to the citizenry than a long-range high-powered rifle).  And you must employ the learned skills of the true hunter.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Want to write a novel?

     When I started writing novels, I thought, How hard can it be?  And I proceeded to write two over several months, one about Neuse River pollution by huge corporate hog-raising operations, and another about drug smuggling.  They sit out in my shed today, neither being salable.  (I tell people they’re so bad even the squirrels won’t nest in them.)

     But each of them taught me a lot. 

     Finally, I selected two best-selling novels I liked and took them apart.  That is, I read them again straight through.  Then I read them in detail, taking notes, trying to nail down how many characters and scenes there were, how the story moved, and so on.  I stripped the books down until I could begin to see the bare bones of them.  And that was an excellent exercise because I began to understand how it’s really done.  You don’t ever perceive this by just reading a lot of books, because the authors have skillfully fleshed out the bones and made it look easy, which it most assuredly is not. 

     You may want to try this exercise with a favorite book or two before setting out to write one of your own.


Monday, October 26, 2015


     Too many years ago, Larry Cotton, then a fellow employee at a large company, and I became friends.  He was a design engineer and I was a draftsman, so we were somewhat like-minded.  We began writing magazine articles together on the side.  For example, one of us spotted a news item that the U.S. Postal Service was considering selling ads on postage stamps, so we made up a series of wacky stamp ads, doing all the artwork ourselves, and sold it to Harper’s  magazine.  We designed and built some kids’ furniture for Popular Science,  employing his children as photo models.

     Our paths diverged when I left the company to start a business.  I continued writing sideline magazine articles on all kinds of subjects from a World Land Speed Record attempt, to sailing on the Great Salt Lake, to environmental issues, to marlin fishing on the Gulf Stream, and he wrote a popular column for an electronics magazine.

     When we both semi-retired a few years back, we got together again and we’ve been co-inventing things primarily for MAKE  magazine since.  Naomi suggested we come up with a scratching post, for example, that would deposit a treat every time a cat uses it, thus training the beast to claw the post rather than its owner’s shins.  Intrigued by laminar flow water, which is turbulence-free and exhibits startling behavior, we drove 600 miles one way to Orlando to see how the Disney wizards had used laminar flow to build a fountain, and then we designed our own.  We’ve invented and built a levitation device for a military sub-contractor, and recently made two complex pendulums for NC State U that will help teach chaos theory to students.

     Because we’re really quite different people, ideologically, politically, and philosophically, we tend to argue a lot as we’re working.

     But precisely because  we’re different, we approach a challenge from different viewpoints, which often results in a compromise that works quite well and that neither one of us would have thought up alone.

     There are examples of successful collaborations throughout business, medicine, law, and the arts.  In music there are Rogers and Hammerstein, Waylon and Jessi, The Beatles.  There are more examples in academia, where many textbooks are written by partners.

     Fiction writers have teamed up to good effect.  The prolific John Sanford, author of the popular Prey  series, has concocted tales with the imaginative help of his good golfing buddy David Cronk.  The even more prolific Stephen King and fellow noir scribe Peter Straub have written some pretty horrific stuff together.

     The fiction author P.J. Parrish is actually Kristy and Kelly, sisters who have won a bucketful of awards and continue to make the NY Times  list consistently.  Asked why they’ve been so successful, their answer was, “. . . the double insight you get into your characters . . . to say nothing of the double dose of energy and imagination . . . we each have special qualities that seem to blend effectively.”

     Just like Sherlock and Watson.  Or Penn and Teller.  Or Wilbur and Orville. 

     Or Larry and Phil.


Monday, October 5, 2015

How many have to die?
     An eighteen-year-old girl in my area was texting a friend while driving.  Whatever that message was, it was expensive.  It cost her everything—all her dreams and plans and ambitions, her friendships, her happiness, her whole bright future—when she ran into the back end of a log truck at lethal velocity.

     The world-wide addiction to cell phones is such that people simply will not stop texting and talking and surfing while simultaneously trying to control a two-ton vehicle at highway speeds.  These people would probably agree that trying to brush your teeth or trim your bangs or apply makeup or watch TV or clip your fingernails while driving would be absurd and suicidal.  Yet they think nothing of risking their own lives and, much worse, the lives of all those around them in order to conduct such conversations as:

     “Hi, where are you?”
     “On the beltway, headed home.  Traffic is an absolute frenzy.”
     “Tell me about it.  Some idiot just cut me off.  I’ll be home in half an hour, though.”
     “Okay.  You want me to stop for milk?”
     “No, I’ll do it.  See you there.  Love you, Snookums.”
     “Back at you, Sweet Cheeks.”

     For such conversations, people are dying gruesome deaths.

     The National Safety Council said 3,328 people died and 421,000 suffered injuries during 2012 alone in crashes related to distraction.  That’s nine deaths and 1,150 injuries per day.  AAA has since upped the current annual death toll to 5,000, or more than 13 daily deaths.  That’s two more deaths per day than the American military suffered on average throughout the entire Vietnam War. 

     Why don’t lawmakers seem at all concerned about these statistics? 

     The evidence is abundant and clear that cell phone use is killing and disabling drivers everywhere.  We don’t need any further studies to know we simply cannot devote sufficient safe attention to driving while engaged in cell phoning.

     The average time to answer a text is five seconds, in which time, at 55 miles per hour, a car travels the length of a football field, ample time and distance for all kinds of bloody mayhem to happen to drivers, passengers, and those around them.

     A number of states have taken timid steps to slow the slaughter. 

     Recently in California, where texting while driving, at least, is illegal, the cops have tried to crack down.  Drivers are often either astonished or angry when pulled over for what they consider to be only normal, innocent behavior.  But at least they’re not yet dead or maimed for life when they accept a ticket.

     When asked, 74 percent of drivers say that all hand-held cell phone use by drivers should be outlawed.
     Yet in surveys a majority of drivers admit to using their phones routinely.

     There’s a simple solution.  Cell phones have built-in GPS.  From now on by law they could all be configured from the factory so that when the phone senses any velocity greater than brisk walking speed, it will simply cease to work until velocity is reduced below the limit.  The 911 number would still operate for emergencies.  If you must talk or text, you’d have to pull over to do so—a minor inconvenience when weighed against so many thousands of lives.  Old phones would gradually phase out as they’re retired.

     Ask the parents and friends of the girl who crashed into that log truck if something like this might be a good idea.


Monday, August 17, 2015

Colorful words


     There are, of course, those common primary-color words, the red, green, and blue pixels of our TV screens, for example, which trick our brains into constructing beautiful full-color images.


     Then there are those vaguely-familiar, much more sophisticated words that are bandied about, I imagine, in clothing design studios, like taupe, fuchsia, and vermillion.


     And then there are some even more obscure color words that hardly anybody knows, such as:

     Smaragdine: emerald-colored

     Filemot: dead leaf-colored

     Porraceous: leek-colored

     Castaneous: chestnut-colored

     Ianthhine: violet

     Lateritious: brick-colored

     Melichrous: honey-colored

     Stramineous: straw-colored


     Some color words have evolved beyond their mere pigmentation.  Red, for example was born as the Latin ruber,  which inspired rubra  (red oak), which in turn inspired robor  (strength), leading to robust.  Rubric  was also a close cousin, which described the practice of marking instructions in liturgical texts in red. 


     (Incidentally, Colorado in Spanish means, simply, “the color red.”) 


     There are the emotional and ideological uses of color words, such as ”seeing red” or, “black-hearted” or “purple prose” or, these days, “going green.”


     And there are those of us who, encountering excess frustration or routine bureaucratic idiocy or intransigence, tend to resort to really  colorful language.



(Note: Some of the above facts were gleaned from Mental floss magazine.)




Monday, August 10, 2015

Worn-out words

     Mental floss  magazine recently listed ten ancient words that have gone the way of the unfortunate Dodo:

Jangleress:  female jangler, someone who chatters or tells stories
Bake-meat:  a pie
Corrumpable:  corruptible
Bear:  a pillow
Yolden:  submissive
Bedaff:  to make a fool of
Dulcarnon:  at wit’s end
Fouldre:  a lightning bolt
Englute:  to close with glue
Scorkle:  to scorch

     Which brings to mind a lot of words that were around when I was young but that haven’t survived into this century.  A few:

Ankle-biter:  child (could apply to my cat, Havoc)
Clanked:  rejected (it sounds  like rejected)
Cooties:  imaginary multi-legged infesters
Cranked:  excellent
Deuce:  1932 Ford (a model once often hot-rodded)
Doozy:  something or somebody unique or outstanding
Flat-top:  short square-edged haircut
Flip-top:  convertible
Floozy:  a street walker; a somewhat less-offensive term was floogie
Floy-floy:  a venereal disease, as in a top hit song of the year I was born called “Flat Foot
                   Floogie with the Floy-Floy”
Flim-flam:  a con game (think Congress)
Frail:  broke (think taxpayer)
Gringles:  worries (it sounds  like worries)
New-fangled:  something new but not necessarily good for us (like cell phones)
Raunchy:  gross
Scooch or slodge:  a friend
Slurg:  milkshake
Spaz:  klutz
Tubesteak:  hot dog
Yoot:  kid (clipped youth)
Zorros:  jitters

     What words will they be perplexing lexicographers with a century from now?


Monday, August 3, 2015

On words and phrases

     Words and phrases I’m thoroughly sick of include: Oh . . . My . . . God, like, committed, very, truly, world-class, politically correct and, most especially, awesome.

     All of these should be immediately struck out of the language by Congress.  America would be a better place.

     But if we’re going to insist on grossly overusing awesome, we should at least add a few useful derivatives of it.  Such as: awesomnify (verb: to endow oneself or someone else with awesomeness by employing makeup and/or designer-label attire, or, in exceptional cases, by the strategic display of minimal attire, as in: “That string bikini really awesomenifies her.”), and awesomenitude (to designate a certain degree of awesomeness, as in: “The candidate has only managed to acquire twenty-one percent awesomenitude in the polls.”), and awesomed, to describe someone who has just been exposed to the dazzling presence of a movie star, TV talking head, or famous author and has consequently fainted from an overload of awestruck.

     While we’re on the subject of oughta-be words, how about adding gruntled, because you can’t possibly be disgruntled until you’ve been happily gruntled, can you?  Likewise, we should add wrought in the emotional sense to the language, because you can’t become overwrought until you’re pretty darned wrought to start with. 

     We should also insert ology-ology into our dictionaries, to designate “the study of the myriad disciplines that end in –ology.” 

     We need whole fistfuls more words to catch up with the times, such as:  Amazonery, cellularity, cyberaddict, blogcrawler, tweetitis, textitude, E-bayed, Facebookery, and Googleite.         

     We’re supposed to use the term African-American for black folks these days in order to be politically correct. But when you think about it, the only people really entitled to use such a hyphenated designator are the Native-Americans whose reddish-skinned ancestors owned the whole damned place for thousands of years before British-Americans and French-Americans and Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, and German-Americans and Chinese-Americans and Russian-Americans and South-American-Americans and all those other brazen interlopers in all shades came here in droves from everywhere else on the planet to take over the most attractive countryside and start paving it.

     Maybe it’s time to begin calling ALL of us simply Americans and just delete those hyphenated designators and all the divisive baggage that comes with them.


Monday, July 27, 2015

SETI support

     There was an article in the Charlotte Observer  about a controversy concerning the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).  Should we keep on just passively listening to the universe for some signal from another intelligent life form, or should we actively beam our own signals hoping to get somebody’s attention out there?  Do we seek wisdom from those more advanced?  Do we risk alerting the vicious Klingons to our presence?  The debate is lively.

     Are we alone in the universe?   is certainly among the Top Ten Ultimate Questions.  Many think we cannot possibly be alone, based on sheer overwhelming statistical probability, and given the obvious universal similarities of the solar system formation processes, which inevitably create uncountable systems much like our own, wheeling around other stars.

     But what good would incoming radio signals have been to us over well more than 99 percent of humankind’s radio-receiver-less history on this planet?  Incoming messages would have also gone utterly unnoticed over the millions of years the dinosaurs ruled the earth before us.  So any of our signals that happen to reach other planets inhabited by similar primitive creatures will also go unnoticed.

     To either listen or transmit with any practicality, we’ll have to target planets that lie within reasonable reach of radio waves, which travel at light speed.  The vast majority of stars   are thousands, millions, and billions of light years distant. (A single light year is six trillion miles.)  Our earth will be long gone, or at least long-since uninhabitable by the time any signals we send can even reach most of those stars.  Our sun only has a life expectancy of some four billion more years, so systems lying any more than half that distance away (two billion light years) have no chance of receiving our signals and responding in time for anybody left on earth to hear them.  And our signals must reach an alien civilization at a moment in their likely equally lengthy history when they’ve developed the ability to not only receive but also to interpret those signals.  The odds are long.

     But the unarguable, dead-certain fact remains that if we don’t find a young habitable planet circling a young star that we can reach one day, even if each colonizing voyage spans generations*, then everything we’ve worked and suffered to achieve, all our myriad accomplishments—our books and paintings and philosophies and inventions and self-knowledge—will be utterly lost to the rest of the inhabited universe.  In that case it will be highly probable nobody out there will ever know we even existed.

     Viewed in that light, what more important effort could there be to help ensure the far future of mankind than a vigorous fledgling space program in all its aspects, including SETI?

     As writers, we can speak for and encourage that effort.

     Many decry the cost of venturing into space.

     I submit that the cost is a pittance compared with what we spend—and what we waste—in so many other areas.  The news recently mentioned, sort of in passing, that the Pentagon in its ponderous wisdom has apparently misplaced a half-billion dollars in advanced weaponry in, of all places, Yemen, that hotbed of terrorism.  To put that in perspective, a half-billion dollars in $100 bills would weigh five tons, a pretty good load for a common dump truck, but only another line item in the massive Federal budget.

     If we can afford that kind of cavalier (not to mention dangerous) waste, surly we can afford to fund a program that at least has the glimmer of a chance to elevate and perhaps even to ultimately perpetuate our species.

     But wait, even as I write this, there’s good news that the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has just donated $100 million to UC Berkeley to fund SETI for a decade, broadening the search over much more of the sky and over a wider swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, looking for life among the closest stars to us under a new breakthrough initiative that will be open to the public.  Any of us will be able to track the data via a screen saver called SETI@home.  SETI has more than six million followers already.

     Some ten percent of the suns in our own Milky Way galaxy are now thought to have earth-like planets, of similar size to our sphere and in an orbit where water is liquid, so the odds of finding other life out there are looking better than ever before.

     Famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking was on hand to take part in the generous funding announcement.  He said of the revitalized search, “We are life.  We are intelligent.  We must know.”


*I saw an excellent IMAX documentary about the almost impossibly long and dangerous annual migratory journey of the fragile monarch butterfly, which spans thousands of miles and three of their butterfly generations.  Maybe we’ll take a lesson from this tiny creature when we finally launch some courageous pioneers to the stars.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Handwriting implements

     Believe it or not, a guy named Brad Dowdy runs a popular podcast called The Pen Addict, which is all about pens.

     How, you ask, can there possibly be enough about pedestrian pens to plump out a podcast?

     Apparently there’s a great deal.

     For much of my long and rocky early writing career, I wrote rough drafts longhand using yellow Number 2 Ticonderoga pencils on yellow lined legal pads.  You could tell how stressful the writing was by how many indents I bit into the pencils.  As time went on I took magazine-article field notes on small shirt-pocket spiral flip pads and wrote more frequently with un-bitable ballpoints, but all too often the ballpoints leaked, skipped, or simply quit altogether, usually when I needed them most.  Computer composing has only been a fairly recently-learned skill for me.  And today I still have probably a hundred pens in all categories from useless to quite good.  I do treasure those good ones, at least when I haven’t misplaced them, which seems to be always.

     According to podcaster Dowdy there are basically three kinds of regular pens.  There’s the ubiquitous cheap oil-based ballpoint, the smoother liquid-based rollerball, and the smoother-still gel pen, which uses rich pigment in a gel suspension.  The popular Pilot G2 is a gel model that Dowdy sanctions.

     Dowdy also says everybody should own a relatively inexpensive yet good quality and readily available Uni-ball Jetstream, which delivers smooth, clean, smudge-free writing.  I imagine this would be a perfect model for those lefties who, because of their hand position, can’t help rubbing the heel of their hand over what they’ve just jotted.

     For signing checks and legal documents, Dowdy prefers a fountain pen, and one of his favorites is the Japanese Sakura Pigma Micron, available in hobby stores.  He also likes the Taiwanese TWSBI fountain pens.

     Governmental signing ceremonies carried over from the Royal Monarchs in England.  It has become something of a tradition for U.S. Presidents to sign legislation using multiple expensive pens, often engraved, as presents to important supporters.  JFK would sometimes sign each letter of his name with a different ceremonial gift pen.  LBJ used 75 such pens to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  George W. Bush used only one A.T. Cross pen at all ceremonies, but still gave out unused gift pens.  President Obama used 22 Cross pens to sign the $938 billion health care bill.  If you want to buy one similar to what the Chief used, that would be a Townsend model, for about $150 plus engraving.

     For those like me who miss those pencils from back when they used to have actual erasers on their other ends (today’s pencil erasers are little more than smudgers) there’s even a good erasable ink pen called the Pilot FriXion, which has a little nub on its top end.  It erases by generating heat as you nub-rub, thus making the heat-sensitive ink disappear.  If you leave a penned document in a hot car, the writing could vanish.  However, you need merely place the blank paper in a freezer and the writing will magically reappear.  I want to use this somehow in a story.

     I’ll keep on searching for a pen that puts out the best possible phrasing, stunning metaphors, engaging dialog, and clever plot twists.


Monday, July 13, 2015

TV as tutor

     For most of us, TV is largely a time-wasting soporific.

     I offer a simple test to prove this is true:
What did you watch last night, or over the past week, that you can remember with any meaningful or influential memories?

     Most folks are hard pressed to answer that question.

     Yet, for writers at least, the TV can serve as an excellent tutor.

     I’ve studied Sherlock (Cumberbatch version) and The Wire for fine plotting, Justified for lean and riveting Elmore-Leonard-style dialog, and a lot of older movies filmed back in the days before over-the-top special effects took the place of good scripting.  True Detective, The Mentalist, and Bluebloods are also among my favorites for their instructive characterization examples.

     And I’ve learned a heck of a lot, not just from the story lines but also from the cinematography, which can help with creating well-crafted and vivid word pictures.

     I keep a yellow legal pad on my end table to take notes, which I always then misplace, but the simple act of writing ideas down seems to thread them usefully into the gnarled tangle of synapses that passes for my brain.

     So, struggling writer or not, you may want to look a little deeper into the picture window of your own TV.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised what lessons are waiting in there for you.


Monday, July 6, 2015

Cultural Cousins

     Many years ago when I was a rookie freelance writer working on pure speculation, I discovered magazine article editors were much more receptive to a complete package—a well-written article plus a generous selection of good accompanying photos—and in my naiveté I thought How hard can taking pictures be?

     It turned out, of course, that becoming a competent photographer is every bit as involved and difficult as learning how to write well.  But, mostly through trying often and failing not quite so often, and taking hundreds of shots just to capture a dozen really good ones, I learned enough to start selling article packages regularly, even to some top magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Harper’s, and Yankee as my skills in both the visual and written arts improved.

     I was pleasantly surprised and impressed at just how well the two crafts dovetailed.  Learning how to compose technically-competent, interesting photos, for example, meant I had to start scrutinizing the world around me as never before.  The subtle play of different kinds of light on people and things.  Selecting that part of a scene that was most arresting.  Composing and cropping to enhance a desired effect.  This, in turn, soon began to influence my writing for the better.  I found I could create more vivid scenes with words to give my readers impactful imaginary pictures.  I was also finding that I enjoyed taking pictures as much as I did writing about people and places and events.

     Who is better at capturing a characterization?  A portrait painter, a sculptor, a photographer, a film maker, or a writer?  All are capable of presenting emotionally moving characters in their own ways.  You can easily think of excellent examples in all those disciplines.  The Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s Pietà, the arresting faces of Geographic shooter Steve McCurry.  Or any number of absorbing written or filmed biographies of the famous.  All those forms can do it quite well.

     Music, as in the backgrounding of any good movie, of course contributes emotionally.

     In fact, two or more of the disciplines are often combined to powerful effect.

     Over the years my enjoyment of and appreciation for just how exquisitely and inextricably woven all the artistic crafts can be has only deepened.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Long story short . . .

     Anybody who tells you, “Well, to make a long story short . . .” will invariably do just the opposite, talking on and on until your polite smile becomes a rictus and your eardrums are limp.

     It will make you appreciate those rare short speeches.

     In all my time of taking photos to accompany my magazine articles, I’ve seen few shots that could not be improved by cropping.

     And throughout a long lifetime of writing articles and fiction, I’ve produced little that could not be powered up and made more engaging by pruning.  Ruthless deletion of adverbs (those lazy ly-ended words that seem to sprout throughout our fields of exquisite exposition like weeds—tiredly, carefully, cutely, dejectedly, confusedly, serendipitously, expialidociously.  Banishing strings of mischievous adjectives that can so gang up on a poor simple noun they overwhelm it—“One dark, damp, humid, windy, hopeless, haunted, sleepless, nightmarish night, I . . . .”  Excising all unnecessary words and phrases and rearranging sentences to make them simpler.  And thus clearer.

     Nothing teaches you expertise in this area better than strict article or short story word limits.  When you have a 900-word story you want to enter in a 500-word-limit contest, or a 4,000-word magazine article your editor will reject if it’s not shrunk to 2,500 words, you might fume and curse, but you’ll find you can do it.  And later you’ll realize the writing is all the better for having undergone that life-saving surgery.

     From 1950 through 1997 Reader’s Digest Condensed Books came out with four to six hardcover volumes each year, each containing three to six abridged versions of current best-selling novels and nonfiction books.  Sold through direct mail, they were popular.  A 1992 volume, for example, contained Acts of Faith by Erich Segal, Hard Fall by Ridley Pearson, Bygones by LaVyrle Spencer, and The Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart, all packed together in something like a fourth the total space the original books had apparently needed.

     Those editors were skilled, able to carve thousands of words out of best-sellers while preserving the essences and emotions therein.  I’ll bet in every case an author would have sworn her or his book could not be cut so drastically without damage.  And I’ll bet in every case that author was pleasantly surprised at the condensed result.

     The one criticism of my debut suspense novel, GUNS, in an otherwise glowing review by Publishers Weekly, was long pages of information-dumping the reader did not need to know.  I’ve since hung my head and revised my more recent Kindle and Create Space versions.

     I have lots more to say on this subject, but this entry’s already too long.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Back blogging

     With several major distressing personal issues finally resolved, I’m happily picking up the thread of this blog again.

     Also been working on a new website, which will go live very soon.  Steve Groninga of Visual Reflections is the tech wizard handling the task, and quite admirably.  You’ll be able to continue reading this blog either here or on the new site.

     And, after having requested and received back all rights to my suspense trilogy (GUNS, DIAMONDBACK and KLLRS) from my traditional publisher, I’ve been busily redesigning covers, polishing up the texts yet one more time, and putting the books up on both Create Space as print versions and on Kindle as e-books.  Those of you who’ve tackled this process know it can be something of a challenge to accomplish well.

     And I’ll soon be adding a NEW novel titled DEATHSMAN to the suspense series in both print and e-book forms.

     I hope you’ll continue to check in here.


Monday, May 4, 2015


     I’ve been unable to post lately.  First, my nephew died suddenly and I had to drive 700 miles to New England to help my sister through her initial grief and the funeral process. 

     I was no sooner back home than I had a detached retina that required emergency surgery to save the eye.  Recovery has entailed looking straight down for fourteen days, which was only possible by renting a specially-designed chair that resembles a massage device or something from the Spanish Inquisition.  Sleeping required an accessory that kept my face horizontal throughout the nights and still allowed breathing space.  It was an ordeal, but of course well worth the discomfort.  I can now look up, but full recovery will require another month of light duty.  No stooping or bending or lawn mowing or chores.  Naomi has been an angel; I could not have made it without her.  

     Sight is returning gradually to the eye as an injected gas bubble slowly recedes and the vitreous fluid clears, so I’m wearing a black patch over the eye.  All I need now to complete the effect is a cutlass on my belt and a cursing parrot on my shoulder.

     I’ll resume posting each Monday soon.