Sunday, July 23, 2017

THE WESTERN LANDSCAPE by VONN McKEE


Rugged mountain peaks cloaked in snow. A parched desert streaked in reds and yellows. The billowing swells of a tallgrass prairie. The landscape of the West is “scene one” in nearly every western movie you’ve ever watched, or described on the first few pages of every western novel you’ve ever read. It acts as an unnamed but vital character and provides a beautiful–or punishing–backdrop to the story being told.

Director John Ford frequently featured the stark Monument Valley scenery, beginning with Stagecoach (1939) to Cheyenne Autumn (1965).


Writers look to landforms to evoke deep emotions, as did William A. Quayle:

“Loneliness, thy other name, thy one true synonym, is prairie.” The Prairie and the Sea (1905)

To explorer and conservationist John Muir, it was more of a religious experience:
“Long, blue, spiky-edged shadows crept out across the snow-fields, while a rosy glow, at first scarce discernible, gradually deepened and suffused every mountain-top, flushing the glaciers and the harsh crags above them. This was the alpenglow, to me the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. At the touch of this divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness, and stood hushed like devout worshippers waiting to be blessed.” The Wild Muir: Twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures (2013)

Elmer Kelton recognized the magical connection between people and the ground the land they lived and died on. He wrote in The Day the Cowboys Quit, “Some people would never understand the hold this land could take on a man if he stayed rooted long enough in one spot to develop a communion with the grass-blanketed earth, to begin to feel and fall in with the rhythms of the changing seasons. There was a pulse in this land, like the pulse in a man, though most people never paused long enough to sense it.”

Annie Proulx also suggests that the power of landscape goes beyond the physical. Here is her definition from the essay, “Dangerous Ground.”

“Landscape is geography, archaeology, astrophysics, agronomy, agriculture, the violent character of the atmosphere, climate, black squirrels and wild oats, folded rock, bulldozers; it is jet trails and barbwire, government land, dry stream beds; it is politics, desert wildfire, introduced species, abandoned vehicles, roads, ghost towns, nuclear test grounds, swamps, a bakery shop, mine tailings, bridges, dead dogs.  Landscape is rural, urban, suburban, semirural, small town, village; it is outposts and bedroom communities; it is a remote ranch.”


No other writing genre is as tied to the land as is western literature. What an incredible and inspiring resource! 

All the best,

Vonn
 

“The land belongs to the future … that’s the way it seems to me. How many names on the county clerk’s plat will be there in fifty years? I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
- Willa Cather

Friday, July 21, 2017

U.S. Marshals Service and Nineteenth Century Violence


Troy D. Smith


Being a peace officer is, well, not always peaceful. It is a dangerous profession. Being in the federal marshals service has its own set of attendant dangers, as one of our regular contributors knows from experience. 

That particular profession was especially dangerous, though, in the late 19th century.

You can go to the Officers Down Memorial Page and read through a list, with some details attached, of every member of the U.S. Marshals Service to die in the line of duty since it was established in 1789. The list includes both Deputy U.S. Marshals and deputized posse members. The first to fall was Marshal Robert Forsyth, killed in Georgia in 1794 –he was shot through a door while attempting to serve papers. The most recent name on the list (as of this writing) is that of Deputy Commander Patrick Thomas Carothers, a 26-year veteran –he, too, was shot in Georgia while attempting to enter a home to serve a warrant. In all, the list contains 280 names (again, so far).




190 of those men died between 1870 and 1910. That is more than two-thirds.

It will come as no surprise to many of our readers and contributors that one-half of those 1870-1910 deaths, 95 to be specific, occurred in the area known initially as Indian Territory, later divided into Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory, and by the end of that era the state of Oklahoma. To do a little more math, that means that ONE-THIRD of all members of the Marshals Service to die in the line of duty did so in Oklahoma in the space of a few decades.

That’s because Oklahoma was, as they say, wide open. Or as a saying from the time put it, “There is no Sunday west of St. Louis, and no God west of Fort Smith.”

This was due to a very unique set of circumstances surrounding Oklahoma. The eastern half was the home (not by choice, for many of them) of the “Five Civilized Tribes”: Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, who had been removed to Oklahoma in the 1830s (and 1840s, for the resisting Seminoles), although a minority had acquiesced and come peacefully of their own accord before the Trail of Tears. The western half of Oklahoma was, at that time, home to the so-called “wild” tribes- Comanches, Kiowas, and etc.



The Five Tribes had written laws and their own police forces, called light horse, to enforce them (depending on the tribe, individual districts also had sheriffs). This was all well and good when dealing with Indian criminals and Indian victims, but a jurisdictional morass arose when non-Indians were involved. You see, the Indians had no jurisdiction over crimes that involved American citizens (non-Indians, in other words). At the same time, the Supreme Court had long since determined that, constitutionally, state and local governments had no jurisdiction over Indian country. In such cases (and this is still true), only the federal government has authority. At that time, this meant the U.S. Marshals Service, which eventually operated out of the court in Fort Smith, Arkansas (which was right on the border of Indian Territory). For many years, that court was presided over by Judge Isaac Parker, known widely as “The Hanging Judge.”



What this meant, in the 1870s and 1880s, was this: if you were an outlaw operating in Texas, Arkansas, or Missouri, you could “light out for the Nations” and have a very good chance of getting away and being able to continue your wayward career. The local Indian authorities could not touch you, and state or county lawmen could not follow you. The only people who could come after you were members of the U.S. Marshals Service. (Sometimes this situation was altered by Indian peace officers, such as the Cherokee Sam Sixkiller, also being deputized as Deputy U.S. Marshals. There were also quite a few black marshals, Bass Reeves being the most famous.)




Therefore, there were a lot of outlaws in the Nations, with a finite number of federal marshals to track them down. It’s no surprise, then, that so many marshals were killed in the attempt to do so. Look through that 280 name list, and you might be surprised how many lawmen were killed in Oklahoma after catching their man –by sleeping on the return trip to Fort Smith, and being killed with axes or big sticks or whatever the prisoners who managed to work their way loose were able to get their hands on.

The situation got worse in the 1890s, after the Dawes Act had allowed for the allotment of most tribes’ land and the opening of parts of Oklahoma for settlement. The Five Tribes were excluded from this at first, since they were technically already “civilized”, although an addition to the law in 1898 brought them under allotment as well. Starting at the end of the 1880s and growing exponentially by the year, the Five Tribes were surrounded by more and more settlers, making the jurisdictional issue ever more pronounced as more non-Indians in the region magnified the problem. These were the days of the Doolins and the Daltons, of Cherokee Bill, of the Starrs, of the famed “Three Guardsmen” (Chris Madsen, Heck Thomas, and Bill Tilghman) leading federal posses after outlaws, and of the efforts to capture Ned Christie (and other, lesser-known Cherokees such as Bill Pigeon).





So that explains the high mortality rate of officers in Oklahoma. But what about the rest of the country during that same period? Going back to that concept of mathematics, fully one-third of federal marshals ever killed in the line of duty fell from 1870-1910… outside of Oklahoma. So it was still a pretty violent time everywhere else, as well.

Not all of them were murdered. Thomas Foley was killed in Virginia in 1870 when a courtroom balcony collapsed and killed him and 61 other people. Clement McCausland died in Dakota Territory in 1872 while pursuing a fugitive, when he got lost in a blizzard. James Arnold died in 1891 while transporting a prisoner to a prison on an island off the coast of Washington (the state) –a sudden squall capsized their sailboat and he drowned.

Almost all, however, were murdered. As one would expect, a large number of those deaths occurred in the American West (not counting Oklahoma). We should probably count the two marshals killed in Alaska in separate incidents during the Klondike gold rush among those. Some names on the list who died in the West might jump out at the western reader: Bob Olinger, for example, killed in Lincoln County, NM, by Billy the Kid during a jailbreak.




Here’s the interesting part, though. Taking the 95 deaths in Oklahoma out of the mix, there were 30 marshals killed in the line of duty in the American West. There was a grand total of ONE killed in the North –stabbed while trying to arrest a deserter from a Russian ship in New Jersey.

And there were 56 killed in the South.

Most of these men died in Tennessee, Kentucky, northern Georgia, and North Carolina. And most of them were killed by moonshiners, either while serving warrants, transporting prisoners, or in ambush. (Two were killed by the Ku Klux Klan during the federal government's efforts to suppress that terrorist group in the early 1870s, one in Tennessee and one in Mississippi.)

Actually, several marshals who died in Oklahoma were killed while raiding stills or trying to arrest bootleggers (remember Rooster Cogburn’s testimony in True Grit?) The circumstances were slightly different, though. All sales of alcohol were forbidden in Indian Territory; in the South, it was not the sale or private distilling of alcohol that was the problem, it was the fact that no taxes were being collected on it.



Farmers making their own liquor was a longstanding tradition- in fact, at one time it had been more a general rural tradition than a specifically Southern Appalachian one. Turning your grain into alcohol made it easier to store and transport, and brought more money. The first federal tax on a specific item was on whiskey, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in the 1790s. That tradition had remained strong in the Mountain South.



After the end of the Civil War, presidents Grant and Hayes stressed the enforcement of tax laws on whiskey as a way to pay down the war debt. This led to what was known as the Moonshine Wars of the 1870s (and later, as well). Federal agents started sweeping through the mountains, forcing licensed still owners to pay taxes and shutting down unlicensed ones. Most of the Mountain South had been pro-Union during the war, but during and after Reconstruction there was a growth of ex-Confederate sensibility in the region, and in this case it was exacerbated by federal “outsiders” trying to control what had become a mountain tradition.

Which led to the surprising fact that –if you take Oklahoma, a unique case, out of the equation –if you were in the federal marshals service in the late 19th/early 20th century, you were statistically almost twice as likely to be shot by Southern moonshiners as by Western outlaws (in reality, of course, this would depend on where you were serving).

Oklahoma and the Mountain South had something else in common besides violence (and Cherokees). I’m speaking of public reaction to that violence.

As I mentioned earlier, at first the Five Civilized Tribes were exempt from allotment. To clarify, allotment, made government policy by the Dawes Act of 1887, meant that control over Native lands would be taken away from tribal governments and instead each Indian family would be given (allotted) a small farm. For most tribes, this resulted in a lot of land being left over, previously under control of the tribe. This “leftover” public land, controlled by the federal government, was opened to settlement.


As more settlers poured into Oklahoma, many of them eyed the prime lands still controlled by the Five Tribes. Those settlers, and the governments of neighboring states, immediately started proclaiming how unfair it was that all this land was under the control of “wild, uncivilized savages.” But wait, one might say, the Five Tribes were exempt from the new law because they were “civilized.” Many of them operated modern businesses and spoke perfect English. Well, many Americans started saying, if they’re so doggone civilized…. Why is it so wild there in the Nations? Why is there so much violence and lawlessness? And it was impossible to argue that there was no violence, because there definitely was. The true reason for it, of course, was the complicated legal situation in which the Five Tribes had been placed by the federal government, but no one (aside from the Indians) was saying that. Rather, the violence was being used as a justification for the government to come in and take over… and to redistribute the Indians’ resources to white Americans.

Meanwhile, in the Mountain South, northern investors and their southern partners started expanding industry after the Civil War. New railroads were built –the antebellum Southern railroad system had existed primarily to link cotton plantations to harbor cities so as to ship their product overseas –and that led to new businesses. In particular, lumber and coal mining started to boom post-Civil War. Before the war, most of the coal mining had taken place in northern Appalachia, in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Once new railroads extended into the southern mountains, coal mining became a viable operation.




However, a lot of southern mountain folk were hesitant –or downright unwilling –to sell or lease their land, or even the mineral and timber rights to it, to these new businesses. They were, in effect, “holding up progress” due to a strong affinity for their own land and traditions.

At the end of Reconstruction (which was officially over after the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877) there was a clarion call among progressives in the former Confederate states for a “New South” –one that was open to industry and business (other than just cotton), and was modernized. Southern mountaineers –who had always been presented as the ultimate frontier heroes (Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, even Andrew Jackson if you think about it) –were standing in the way of that, and the economic benefits (for some) that would come with it.




Therefore, just like newspapers in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri were doing with the Five Tribes, papers started focusing heavily on the violence of the Moonshine Wars as evidence that Southern mountain folk were backward, wild, and uncivilized. They especially latched onto the Hatfield and McCoy feud on the Kentucky-West Virginia border, with papers all around the country taking it up. 



In the 1880s, therefore, the national image of southern mountain folk changed from that of rugged, self-sufficient frontier heroes to what we now call the “hillbilly stereotype” –violent, ignorant, wild, savage, lazy, dishonest, and incompetent. That is a far cry from Davy Crockett.




“Hillbilly” became shorthand for a group of people that it was okay for everyone else to make fun of and look down on (which is still the case –watch reality TV at any random time.) But more to the point –just like those “wild” Cherokees –hillbillies were both violent and backward, mentally incapable of knowing what was in their own best interests, and of controlling their own resources. So, just like in Indian Territory, it was okay for government and private business interests to come in and make those decisions (especially concerning resources) for them. By the 1920s and 1930s, by the way, Appalachian violence and the need to suppress it had expanded to include striking coalminers (watch the movie Matewan.)


Ned Christie, the “Cherokee outlaw”, and moonshiners in Southern Appalachia were both resisting what they considered to be a foreign government, and the act of their resistance reinforced the idea that they needed to be more firmly controlled (I think it could be strongly argued that the Cherokees had a lot more justification than moonshiners who didn’t want to pay taxes –my point is not the justification, but the mindset.) In both cases, this led to control of their natural resources passing out of their own hands.


The federal marshals, of course, were just doing their jobs… a hard and thankless job, made more dangerous by the circumstances of their times.

(by the way, to have the last portion of this piece essentially set to music, listen to the song above: "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive." The song was played in each season finale of Justified, a TV series about a former coal-miner turned Deputy U.S. Marshal in Appalachian Kentucky.)


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Peacemaker Awards Submissions Now Open

Submissions for the 8th Annual WF Peacemaker Awards are now being accepted for works originally published in the year 2017.

Qualifications:

First time in print must be between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2017, no reprints or revisions.  Limit of 2 entries per category.

Books and short stories may be published in any country in the world (submissions must be in English) in print or electronic format. Electronic submissions must be made with Kindle/mobi or Word/text files. WF reserves the right to decline any submission for consideration of an Award.

Authors, agents, or publishers may submit a work for consideration of an Award.

At least three entrants in a category must be received during the submission period for an Award to be presented.

Novels and short stories must be set in the time period between 1830-1920 to be considered Westerns under WF guidelines. Time periods beyond the 1830-1920 traditional western focus may be included in submissions as long as the periods outside of the 1830-1920 span constitute no more than 50% of the story. At least 50% of the story MUST TAKE PLACE in the 1830-1920 period. NO EXCEPTIONS.

Nominees for the WF Peacemaker Award will be announced on 05/15/2018 and the winners will be announced on 06/15/2018.

The WF Peacemaker Award will be awarded in four categories:

Best Western Novel – Any novel published during the award year set in the appropriate time period (1830-1920), 30,000 words and higher. There are no format requirements. The novel may be a hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, or eBook.

Best Western YA/Children Fiction– Any fiction written for ages 1-17 published during the award year set in the appropriate time period (1830-1920). May be a hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, or eBook.

Best Western Short Fiction – Any short story, novelette, or novella published during the award year set in the appropriate time period (1830-1920), 500 words to 29,999 words. There are no format requirements. The short story may be published in any publication, print or electronic.

Best Western First Novel – Must meet the same requirements as Best Novel, and must be the author’s first published Western novel. If the author has published novels in any other genre they will not disqualify the author from the Best Western First Novel Award competition. Submissions for Best Western First Novel may also be submitted in the Best Novel category in the same year.

Procedures:

If sending print form, one copy of the work must be sent to each judge (3 per category), and the Awards Chair for a total of four, accompanied with the appropriate form.

Electronic versions should be emailed to the Awards Chair, James Reasoner with the appropriate submission form. The electronic submissions will be distributed to the judges by the Awards Chair. All entries must be postmarked or received via email by midnight, CST, January 15, 2018. Judges should not be contacted by any entrant concerning their entry during the consideration period. Doing so may result in disqualification of eligibility for the WF Peacemaker Award. Works submitted will not be returned after the awards have been announced. There is no fee to enter. There will be no exceptions made to the submission procedures, for any reason.

Links to forms to include are at the bottom of the list of judges. You will need 4 copies for each printed entry, one for each judge and one for the Awards Chair.


Awards Chair: James Reasoner
P.O. Box 931
Azle, TX 76098-0931
EMAIL james53@flash.net

The list of judges and the appropriate submission forms can be found on the Western Fictioneers website.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ranger Jim's Ramblings for July

I recently returned from a visit to Texas, Kansas City, and points in between. I stopped at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, as always, plus did a lot of exploring of the back country of Texas, particularly the Hill Country.

One place I stopped was Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, outside Fredericksburg. The is the spot where Texas Ranger Captain John Coffee Hays supposedly held off a whole horde of Comanches, single-handedly. However, over the past years, more and more historians have been questioning whether the fight took place as legend has it, or if the fight even took place at all.

I did notice this visit that the Ranger Museum removed the diorama of Hays atop Enchanted Rock, and there is no mention of  the fight at the state park. After making the rather strenuous climb, I agree with the historians who claim the fight, if it happened, did not take place at the summit of Enchanted Rock.

First, there is no cover at all, meaning Hays would have been exposed to Comanche arrows and bullets from all sides. He would have had the advantage of the high ground, but that's it. Unless the attacking Comanches were the world's dumbest Indians, and went after Hays one at a time like the bad guys in Walker, Texas Ranger always came at Walker, all they had to do was rush him. He would have been swarmed and overwhelmed in less than five minutes.

When I got back down, I spoke with some of the park rangers, they said the general consensus is that, since it is a fact there were Rangers and Comanches in the vicinity of Enchanted Rock at the time the event took place, there probably was indeed a fight, but it would have taken place at a lower level, or on one of the other nearby lower rocks. where there is cover. They also believe that Hays probably was not alone in the fight, except perhaps when it first started.

That's your piece of myth-busting for this month. See you in August.

Ranger Jim

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Sorry to miss you all this month, but I'm sitting with my three grandchildren and relearning the Civil War (Gettysburg) and Revolutionary War through their eyes.  The soldiers in the red shirt, the grey shirt, and bearing the colors are mine. See you next month with a one-room schoolhouse blog article.
Julie A Hanks, Ph.D.    aka   Jesse J Elliot



Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Story Behind the Story: Legend of Boots Prosch

By Richard Prosch


At six years old, there's not a lot of life experience to build stories around, so you rely on TV shows and comic books and stuff your mom and dad read to you when you were younger. That's the raw material you throw into the air when you go outside and make up your own adventures with whatever comes down. And, if you're lucky, there's a dog around, somebody like Boots Prosch, who adds that secret ingredient, that dash of real world experience, that will become so important later on when you sit down to write.  
He was Cavendish to my Lone Ranger, Joker to my Batman, roving Hyborian Age monster to my Conan.
He was twice my age with ten times my wisdom, a friend and first mentor. A border collie whose origins are lost to obscurity, Boots belonged to my grandma and grandpa and lived on their Nebraska farm all of his twelve years. Dad thought he was the son of a neighbor's dog, a big fellar called Shep. Somebody else said Boots showed up as a stray, a pup barely weaned tumbling in on the gully-washing waves of a spring thunderstorm. From the very beginning he inspired stories.
In my first memories, he was a working dog, a responsible farm hand. With Boots around, it was easy enough to buy into the trained antics of Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. Even Snoopy's imaginary escapades didn't seem quite so outlandish when compared with the equally improbable antics of Boots. Every morning he was left by himself to stand watch at an open yard gate while my grandpa fed silage to two dozen cattle. Doesn't sound so tough with the cattle more interested in breakfast than rushing the gate? Think again. Boots didn't watch for escaping beef. His job was keeping in three dozen feeder pigs that also shared the yard. And brother, he was good at it.
He could climb ladders. He would carry a thermos of coffee by the handle when Grandma took lunch to the field. He loved to play fetch. With rocks. 
He was a tough ol' guy.
But gentle too. I called him "Bootie," and he answered to it naturally enough. In after-school roughhouse, he taught me how to take a punch (a head-butt, really) and how to duck and weave. My afternoon dodgeball coach, Bootie eventually made me king of the third-grade playground.  Our contests of "Get That Dog" or "Bootie's a Kitty" were good-natured if seemingly fierce to friends or relatives who didn't know the score. 
He never bit to break the skin, but from a distance he mauled me. I never hurt him, but always came away with fistfuls of his shedding black and white coat. We played hard and fought fair, always clear there were boundaries we shouldn't cross: he wasn't allowed in the house. I wasn't allowed near his food dish when he was eating.
And he was a trusty sidekick. He loped along into the woods, trailed me through the corn fields, chased my bike on dirt roads. And all the while, I talked to him. Sharing hopes, worries, dreams. 
Making up stories.
Boots taught me the difference between the real character of a dog, and a dog as a character. Watch almost any family movie or flip through a young reader book and you'll see plenty of the latter. Dogs penned in as emotional fodder, put through their paces (or killed outright) by reprehensible hacks with too little understanding of real canine nature. Boots never saved my life. Neither did he die heroically. Or tragically. He never foiled a real life crime or tracked down a villain. Unlike his family friendly counterparts, he didn't molly coddle kittens. Bunnies and squirrels, he killed.
He was a real dog. 
As different from other dogs as people are different from each other. He was an individual with his own life.
Through his everyday actions, he taught friendship. And loyalty. And forgiveness. Watching him guard the cattle gate, I learned about responsibility. Watching him kill a squirrel, I learned about nature. We spent a few years together, but I've kept him with me always, and he shows up in the characters I write. He lives on as an old man who knows all the hidden truths in "Joe Dokes" and a crusty old saddle pard in HOLT COUNTY LAW. He's part of a ten year-old kid, Frog Carpenter, in the Jo Harper young reader novellas, and in "Branham's Due," he's a dog.
After Boots, there were other dogs. Each of them taught me something. Each of them had personality and quirks that show up in my writing. There was Tuffy, a German Shepherd feared by most of my friends, who only bit the people who asked for it first (and I can recall a half dozen of those, including myself). There's Fred Bogart, a basset hound who was the most self-willed of them all. And Moses McGee, another basset, as different from Fred as could be, who taught me real patience. They all show up, and will continue to show up, in the writing.
But it began with Boots, and I can't imagine writers who never had a similar companion. Thinking about it, maybe it's why the witches and wizards and magicians of folklore and fairy tales always have cats or birds or some sort of familiar. It's with just such a companion where the magic begins.
In my Holt County stories, Deputy Sheriff Whit Branham is friended by a dog named Leonard. This story, Leonard in Jail, was directly inspired by Boots Prosch. Read it here, and please let me know what you think.
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. In 2016, Richard roped the Spur Award for short fiction given by Western Writers of America. Read more at www.RichardProsch.com

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A PLACE TO START by Vonn McKee


Forgive me, dear readers, as I am traveling all week and have not had time to type a single page. I hope you enjoy this repeat blog post, which first appeared in August, 2014.  VM

The spark of a story presents itself at the strangest times. While I’m standing on the tattooed bride’s side of the crowd at a beach wedding. Sitting in my car at a railroad crossing watching rusty freight cars trundle by, wondering where they’ve been. On a cross-country flight, seeing the snowy peaks of the Rockies below. Wiping melted red popsicle from a child’s face.


That’s always the easy part for me…the spark. It sputters into a vague story line with one or two distinct though as-yet unnamed characters. Then comes that terrifying beast we writers must all face: the blank page. The pulsing cursor. The “where do I begin?” It’s easy to get uptight about the first line of a story, what with rampant warnings that we must grab the reader’s eye (or, more realistically, the publisher’s) from the get-go.
There are various schools of thought on book beginnings. Start in the middle of an action scene. “By the time Hamby heard the sing of Firemaker’s arrow, his lung had been pierced through.”

Lace your first sentence with mystery. “Every time I see a Bonneville, I remember the janitor’s daughter, Amy Lynn.” 

Start with a surprise. “Gertie Jones was dismayed to learn that no one –absolutely no one – would consider killing her husband for less than five hundred dollars.”

Graham Greene slyly began his book THE END OF THE AFFAIR with a line about beginnings of books. “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

And that, to me, is the secret. Don’t waste all day worrying whether the first line sparkles or grabs or propels. It’s like entering a revolving door. If you bolt through it, or freeze mid-step, or stop to clean every smudge from the glass, you’re dead. However, if you just take a few nice comfortable strides, then suddenly you’re inside. 




You can always come back and sharpen things up later. Maybe halfway through the book, a completely different opening will fall from the sky like a coconut on your head.

Still don’t believe it’s that easy? Here’s a when-all-else-fails trick I learned from an older writer. Just look around the room and pick an object. Now write your first line.

Let’s say it’s a pencil. 

“Jack had no choice but to write his fake suicide note using a paper towel and a two-inch pencil stub he found under a sofa cushion.”

How about a lamp shade? 

“There was a strange woman standing with my father, but her face was hidden behind the glittering shade of a Tiffany floor lamp.”

Think of your story, or your character. Then put your finger on some small detail that connects that character to every day life (or at least the particular day you're writing about). Once you have that object, you can apply all the devices of surprise, mystery, or action you want. 

The fact that you are mentioning an article familiar to the reader adds instant intimacy. We all know the frustration of writing with a pencil nub. And, as any seasoned mistress will tell you, lamp shades are terrific places to hide behind.

Hey, it’s a start. And starts lead to stories. And that’s what we’re all about.


All the best, 


Vonn