Friday, December 19, 2014

BLADES, BULLETS, AND THE JAWBONE OF AN ASS-- By Marc Cameron




I’ve written essays here on man-tracking, the hard realities of a fight, prostitutes, horse shoeing, Texas Rangers, US Marshals, and, among other things, beaucoup about my beautiful bride—who will have been married to my ugly mug for thirty-one years this Saturday. I write Thrillers now, and it’s been a while since I’ve written a Western. But, so many of our books in both genres feature lawmen and gunmen that I try to give a word or two of insight from the perspective of my career in law enforcement, even if the posts are decidedly un-Western.    


Yesterday, while watching her boys hack away at each other with orange Hot Wheels tracks, my daughter-in-law lamented that virtually everything they pick up becomes a sword. Of course, at Papa’s house, they don’t have to look far for the real deal. All the dangerous stuff—guns and sharp, pointy blades—are locked away in the safe, but there are still plenty of bamboo, wood, and foam swords, not to mention the fencing foils and a practice saber or two. None of these were handy when one of the boys decided he was a vicious snow leopard—so the Hot Wheels track became a stand-in for the other one to fend off the attack.


Notice the foam sword in my belt
Lest anyone think that we’re raising little bellicose Spartans, my grandsons get a goodly amount of training in faith, music, literature, and service to others. In addition to weapons, when they come to Nana and Papa’s house, they see Friberg paintings of Washington’s prayer at Valley Forge and Royal Canadian Mounted Police constables wearing Stetsons and red serge tunics as they live up to their motto to “maintiens le droit”—maintain the right. These larger than life heroes are also the type of men and women I try to write about—tough, and maybe seemingly uncivilized compared to some who didn’t live through the same situations. 

The pen is mightier than the sword” is a good sentiment, but I, along with the characters in my books, tend to favor the Japanese notion of bunbu ichi—“pen and sword in accord.”

One of my favorite scenes from Kipling’s KIM is when the monk chastises the old Sikh soldier for carrying a blade—

It is not a good fancy,” said the lama. “What profit to kill men?”
“Very little - as I know; but if evil men were not now and then slain it would not be a good world for weaponless dreamers.”

Spirited philosophy talks and striving for a better world are worthwhile endeavors, but sometimes the way we wish things were clashes so starkly with the reality of the way things are, that it can hit us like a boot to the head. I call it the Mermaid and Unicorn Fart Axiom—Just because something sounds like it should be fanciful and sweet, doesn’t keep it from stinking. It’s depressing, but that’s the reality of life. Sometimes it sucks, no matter how much we prepare for it not to suck.

For instance—I love dogs. On any normal day, I wouldn’t consider harming a sweet little pooch, let alone shooting one dead. But I have. It wasn’t the poor dog’s fault that his meth-head owner sent him out the back door to rip out my groin. But it wasn’t my fault either and I responded like I’d been trained—protecting myself. It was harsh and it was quick and I hated that I had to do it. Thankfully, it all happened before social media took over our lives or I’m sure I would have received online death threats. Heck, after this confession, they'll probably come rolling in.

I’ve mentioned it before in these essays, but working on the back side of a badge has been a real boon to creating characters for my writing. It has also colored my outlook on the world in which I have to interact. Too much focus on the grimy side of reality—real and true though it may be—can be unhealthy if you’re not careful. It’s easy to start viewing everyone as a possible threat, or at the very least, a closet misfit. You don’t have to see more than one decapitated head in someone’s kitchen freezer to become convinced that society as a whole is pretty well doomed. Find a duffle bag full of Polaroids under a drug dealer’s bed—some of them including girls you went to school with—and you just can’t wash off the icky.

Homicide investigators like to say, “Everyone is a suspect but me…and sometimes I’m not so sure about me.”

Uncivilized as such work might be, the life and the outlook that go with it make it natural to live on the twitchy edge of impending conflict. And just like the tendency to view others as threats, it becomes a habit to view everything around you for use as a possible weapon.

We’re often asked as writers what inspires us to write the stories we do. Richard Prosch wrote an essay on this blog a couple of days ago describing an incident with his father that led him to imagine ONE AGAINST A GUN HORDE. I enjoy that kind of backstory.

I got this question on an authors’ panel in Long Beach a few weeks ago. Oddly enough, I could remember the exact moment I decided to write the story that became DAY ZERO, the next Jericho Quinn novel—which takes place on a commercial airliner.

After decades of traveling with my sidearm, I found myself retired and gunless on a flight between Alaska and Texas where I was to pick up my trusty motorcycle, Modestine. My worldview had softened some in the months since I’d hung up my badge, but it was still natural to look at the shifty guy who was trash-talking the flight attendant a few rows ahead of me and wonder what his problem was. Whether I have a gun or not, I will probably react as if I do until the day that I die. It’s ingrained. So, I decided I’d better arm myself, airplane our not, and began to look for things I could use as weapons if someone went all gonzo terrorist on us. Fiddling with an arm of my tray table, I listened to the flight attendant give her safety briefing. About the time she went through the part about how we could use our seat cushions as flotation, I noticed one of the pins that held the metal arm in place was loose. I figured it would be easy to snap the arm off if things got bad, leaving me with a metal club a little over a foot long. 

I began to imagine Jericho in the middle of a hellacious fight on board a hijacked airliner—one arm through the straps on the seat cushion he used as a shield, while he wielded the metal tray arm to great effect—like Samson wielding the jawbone of an ass against the Philistines. I realized I was turning more writer than lawman when I buried my nose in a notebook and began to write the scene—instead of keeping an eye on the troublemaker a couple of rows ahead of me.


I have to admit that I’m not quite as jaded as the above makes me sound. I may have leaned that way when I was younger, but maturity helps one see things with a little more hope—not a lot more hope, but a little anyway. I fully realize that there are a lot of good people in the world. I’ve ridden my motorcycle thousands of miles across the US and Canada and have yet to meet more than a handful of turds. But every time I think the world is really getting better, I stumble on the comments section at the bottom of some newsfeed. Then I imagine walking among the people who are capable of spewing such vitriol and hate. It brings back memories of the old days behind the badge—and makes me want to reach for a Hot Wheel track…or something a little stronger to defend myself.



Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He's published eleven novels, six of them Westerns.   
DAY ZERO, fifth in his USA Today Bestselling Jericho Quinn Thriller series, is the newest release from Kensington February of 2015. Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.
Visit him at:
www.marccameronbooks.com 

http://www.facebook.com/MarcCameronAuthor  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Show Me Your Badge, Ranger


By Kathleen Rice Adams

Texas Ranger, c. 1846 (Library of Congress collection)
Texas Ranger badges are a hot commodity in the collectibles market, but the caveat “buyer beware” applies in a big way. The vast majority of items marketed as genuine Texas Ranger badges are reproductions, facsimiles, or toys. Very few legitimate badges exist outside museums and family collections, and those that do hardly ever are sold. There’s a very good reason for that: Manufacturing, possessing, or selling Texas Ranger insignia, even fakes that are “deceptively similar” to the real thing, violates Texas law except in specific circumstances.

According to Byron A. Johnson, executive director of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum (the official historical center for the Texas Ranger law-enforcement agency), “Spurious badges and fraudulent representation or transactions connected with them date back to the 1950s and are increasing. We receive anywhere from 10 to 30 inquiries a month on badges, the majority connected with sales on eBay.”

If you had to, could you identify a legitimate Texas Ranger badge? Test your knowledge: Which of the alleged badges below are genuine? Pick one from each set. (All images are ©Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, Waco, Texas, and are used with permission. All Rights Reserved.)

Set 1


©TRHFM, Waco, TX
©TRHFM, Waco, TX

Answer: The right-hand badge, dated 1889, is the earliest authenticated Texas Ranger badge in the collection of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. Badges weren’t standard issue for Rangers until 1935, although from 1874 onward, individual Rangers sometimes commissioned badges from jewelers or gunsmiths, who made them from Mexican coins. Relatively few Rangers wore a badge out in the open. As for the item on the left? There’s no such thing as a “Texas Ranger Special Agent.”

Set 2

©TRHFM, Waco, TX
©TRHFM, Waco, TX

Answer: On the left is an official shield-type badge issued between 1938 and 1957. Ranger captains received gold badges; the shields issued to lower ranks were silver. The badge on the right is a fake, though similar authentic badges exist.

Set 3

©TRHFM, Waco, TX
©TRHFM, Waco, TX

Answer: The left-hand badge was the official badge of the Rangers from July 1957 to October 1962. Called the “blue bottle cap badge,” the solid, “modernized” design was universally reviled. The right-hand badge is a fake. According to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, “No genuine Texas Ranger badges are known to exist with ‘Frontier Battalion’ engraved on them.”

Set 4

©TRHFM, Waco, TX

©TRHFM, Waco, TX

Answer: The badge on the right, called the “wagon wheel badge,” has been the official Texas Ranger badge since October 1962. Each is made from a Mexican five-peso silver coin. The badge on the left is a “fantasy badge.” According to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, the most common designation on such badges is “Co. A.”

How did you do?

For more information about the Texas Rangers—including the history of the organization, biographical sketches of individual Rangers, and all kinds of information about badges and other insignia—visit the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum online at TexasRanger.org. The museum and its staff have my utmost gratitude for their assistance with this post. They do the Rangers proud.


And while we’re on the subject of Rangers... My short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” bows tomorrow as a 99-cent e-book on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

His partner’s grisly death destroyed Texas Ranger Quinn Barclay. Cashiered for drunkenness and refusal to follow orders, he sets out to fulfill his partner’s dying request, armed only with a saloon girl’s name.

Sister María Tomás thought she wanted to become a nun, but childhood dreams aren’t always meant to be. At last ready to relinquish the temporary vows she never should have made, she begs the only man she trusts to collect her from a mission in the middle of nowhere.

When the ex-Ranger’s quest collides with the ex-nun’s plea in a burned-out border town, unexpected love blooms among shared memories of the dead man who was a brother to them both.

Too bad he was also the only man who could have warned them about the carnage to come.

 

Descended from a long line of Texas ranchers, preachers, and teachers on one side and Kentucky horse thieves and moonshiners on the other, Kathleen Rice Adams had no choice but to become an outlaw. Maybe that’s why all of her protagonists wear black hats. Visit her at KathleenRiceAdams.com.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

STORYTELLING IN A FLASH by Tom Rizzo



“Do I have a story for you…” 

Chances are this is a phrase you’ll hear more than once during any given week. 


In fact, it’s a good bet that whenever two or more people are gathered in the same general vicinity someone is bound to reel out a story of a recent experience or retell someone else’s story from their own perspective.

Storytelling is the world’s greatest indoor and outdoor sport. Oral storytelling has been around, of course, since humans began grunting. Way back then, people used words, drawings, gestures, and facial expressions to entertain, educate, inform, and even inspire.

The best stories were told and retold--epic stories of ghosts and gods, legends and heroes, war and love. Travelers tucked these stories into their memory banks and carried them to other lands and cultures where they exchanged them for even more stories, which they brought home to share.

Good storytelling requires an attentive audience. 

 

Today, attention spans aren’t what they used to be, which is why the best oral stories tend to be brief and vivid so listeners can engage as many senses as possible. On the other hand, we’ve all been in situations when you'd like to implore the storyteller to “puh-leeeeze get to the point!”

Economy in storytelling is a special skill. Especially in writing. Choosing the right words to tell a story is a challenge most of us face, whether writing a short story or novel—although economy of words isn’t usually a priority consideration for someone trying to churn out a 40,000- to 80,000-word novel.

When I worked in broadcast news, I learned to write “fast and tight”—to tell a breaking story in as few words as possible, written in a way that provided listeners with the sense of a complete story. 

Today, thanks to social media channels, even the non-professional writers of society are learning to express themselves with brevity. 

 

Text messaging, Twitter, blog comments, chats, and other electronic communication formats demand a minimum number of words to get a point across.

Magazines get into the act, as well, in different ways. For example, the other day, while skimming a local city magazine, I saw a column labeled, “One-Sentence Stories.” The column featured six stories, these two among them: 

  • “A woman allegedly smacked his sister-in-law across the face with a dead catfish in a domestic disturbance in Lufkin.”

  • “Aggie legend Johnny Manziel was photographed in an Austin swimming pool, sprawled across an inflatable swan and guzzling from a champagne bottle.”

These and the other four sentences weren't really stories. I’d classify them as statements or, at the very least, story-starters. Valid stories usually contain action, conflict, and perhaps resolution. 

Telling a story in the fewest number of words possible is generally referred to as flash fiction

 

The most intriguing Flash Fiction challenge is the Six-Word Story. Books - yes, books - have been written about writing Six-Word Stories. Entire websites are devoted to the concept. The idea has inspired a literary movement proving that lots can be said in few words. 

The idea started, according to literary legend, when Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a short story in only six words. No doubt you’ve read the six-word story somewhere along the way:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Hemingway supposedly bet a table of other writers ten-dollars each that he could develop an entire story in six words. After the money was produced, he wrote the six words on a napkin, passed it around the table, and collected the money for winning the bet. Whether the story is true or not remains unanswered. Its accuracy has come under fire a number of times. 

Regardless of the reality, the idea of writing a six-word story represents the ultimate challenge in storytelling. 

 

Check out the website, Six-Word Memoirs  where contributors from all walks of life use six words to tell the story of their lives. The results are mixed, but many are quite creative.

And everyone, regardless of the quality, should be applauded for their effort to Say It In Six

Confining our creative efforts to six words forces us to be more selective in word choices. Sometimes, it’s as frustrating as it is challenging. But it’s a good way to focus and refine your thinking. Here are a few I attempted: 

  • Financial markets collapse. Penthouse to poverty.
  • She aimed. She shot. He bled. 
  • Santa Claus arrived, left no gifts.
  • Fugitive family rescued from sinking yacht.
  • No use crying over dreams unfulfilled.
  • The genie appeared. Granted no wishes.

Give it a go yourself. 




Consider this a participatory blog. In the Comments section below, leave your own six-word story. 

_____ 

Tom, author of the post-Civil War action-adventure Last Stand At Bitter Creek, is working on his second novel. Soon to be released are several works of nonfiction:

  • The StoryTellers, Interviews with Writers about the Art of Fiction
  • Tall Tales from the High Plains & Beyond (three volumes)
                  --Book One: The Unexplained and Other Stories
                  --Book Two: The Law Keepers
                  --Book Three: the Lawbreakers

_____








Sunday, December 14, 2014

One Against a Gun Horde


For a long time I wanted to write about one particular Saturday afternoon in the 1970s. Last year that idea became a story, "One Against a Gun Horde."


In those years I lived with my parents on a Nebraska acreage that sat on a hill, overlooking a creek valley grassland. About a mile to the southwest sat a small group of buildings we rented for livestock. Cattle grazed in the pasture. Hogs lived in the barns. A gravel road ran parallel with our homestead. Half a mile away, a right turn would take you half a mile to the other place.

So on this one sunny, summer Saturday, my dad and I were walking across our open yard, heading to the house for coffee, when we heard a gunshot. Then another. 

It was the middle of summer. Not hunting season. And the thunder echoing up through the cedars and cottonwoods from the other place didn't come from a BB gun or even a .22 rifle.

This was high powered stuff. 

We held up our hands to shield our eyes from the sun and searched the horizon.

The shooters weren’t hard to find. Their bright red pickup was a give away, parked in the ditch at the other place.

Taking off in a run, Dad said over his shoulder, "Get in the pickup.” I followed, feet dragging a little, while my heart picked up the pace. "Call the dog," he said

"Where are we going?" Like I didn't know. I got our German Shepherd into the box, and we jumped into our ancient blue Ford. 

Dad turned the key, but before throwing the pickup into gear, he said, "Sons a bitches are too close to the hogs and cattle to be shootin'." His face was red, he was breathing hard, holding his voice down to a low growl.

"We're going down there?!?!"

I thought he'd lost his mind.

He thought I'd lost mine for the question.

We were both partly right.

"Dad. They've got guns," I said. "They've got guns." Trying to be extra dramatic.

"Oh yeah," he said, flinging open his door. Seconds later he was back with a single barrel shotgun that was older than the truck. "Hold onto that," he said.

Spinning gravel, we set out to confront the weekend gunnies, whoever they were, with an ancient shotgun, one shell, and a barking German Shepherd.

Less than a minute later, braking sideways on the gravel road, Dad deliberately spraying rocks at the parked red pickup, I decided it could've been worse.

I only saw two guys.

Then I decided it could've been better.

Each of the bearded men were bigger than dad and me combined. Each held a rifle.

"Do you know 'em?" said Dad. "Because I sure as hell don't." As if I hung around with bearded rednecks who were at least twice my age.

I shook my head, but he was already out of the pickup, stomping toward them. I decided to leave the shotgun in the cab.

When I joined them, I got a surprise.

Dad sure as hell did know 'em. 

In fact, he'd gone to school with one of the men, and rode to Army basic training with the other.

Just like that, the anger was gone, all was forgiven, and it was old home week.

And like every kid left standing alone while a parent yuks it up with old friends, I immediately wanted to be someplace else.

So while I waited around and toed the dirt, I started to imagine how things might've been different. 

What it these guys hadn't been old pals? What if they'd tried something? How would my dad act? How would I act?

That's the premise of “One Against a Gun Horde,” that interplay between real life and fiction, and it served as an origin story of sorts. For a while now I've written about a character named John Coburn who some folks know as "The Peregrine" thanks to a series of dime adventure stories written about him "back east."

But who wrote those stories about Coburn? And why? Here's the answer, and the afternoon incident above is where it all started.



After growing up on a Nebraska farm, Richard Prosch worked as a professional writer, artist, and teacher in Wyoming, South Carolina, and Missouri. His western crime fiction captures the fleeting history and lonely frontier stories of his youth where characters aren’t always what they seem, and the windburned landscapes are filled with swift, deadly danger. Read more at www.RichardProsch.com