Monday, January 11, 2021

Dodge City by Tom Clavin

This review originally appeared at Macmillan's Criminal Element.

The Wyatt Earp myth is spent, taking its place alongside Bingham’s Washington crossing the Delaware and Paul Revere shouting “The British are coming!” Sure, there’s an element of truth to the timeworn renditions, but we’ve finally passed over a transom where the reality is now far more entertaining and gripping than the malarkey, in short, we’ve grown up. In the author’s note, Tom Clavin writes, “… most research sources revealed that legend and fact often overlapped and that the facts about the lives of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson before, during, and after Dodge City were usually at least as satisfying as the fictions.”

Earp’s myth, via Hollywood mainly, has seen a lot of mileage out of the honorable-above-reproach-lawman song, who even at his worse (see, for example, Wyatt’s vendetta ride) appears merited in all that he did—that the ends justified the means. Even as I write this, you can bet your Buntline Special that a screenwriter is putting the finishing touches on yet another stagnant showdown at the O.K. Let’s hope the producers rip up that script and read Tom Clavin’s clear-headed novel. And the beauty is that in a gifted historian writer’s hands (ala David McCullough and Joseph Ellis), the fact sheet can still have a cinematic thrust. Observe this meeting between Old West titans: 

When Bat stepped off the train, he had an ivory-handled six-gun on each hip and a double-barreled shotgun in his hands. Wyatt waited for him, along with Bassett, Frank McLain, Neil Brown, and several other men wearing pistols. Bat was curious as to the whereabouts of Doc Holliday, who he knew had joined Wyatt in Kansas City, but with the men already here—and this was just the reception committee; likely there were more in town—there was plenty of firepower.

Wyatt and Bat greeted each other. Though different men physically—Wyatt tall and slender, Bat of average height and stocky—their grins were the same, indicating pleasure to see each other, even though the reunion was to settle a matter that might risk their lives. Then they set off, natural leaders, the rest of the men flanking them, starting down the dusty streets of Dodge City, ready for one last showdown to preserve the peace.

Damn, but didn’t that put me right there in the lawless, tumbleweed-strewn town. Another perk to perusing these pages was gaining a fuller picture of Bat Masterson, as Mr. Clavin writes “[he] was no one’s Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, or Slim Pickens.” He was opinionated, willing to back up beliefs with force if pushed, and widely known as a man who could put away drink after drink, remaining happy-go-lucky.

Bat and Wyatt shared a bond in that they both came from clans of tight-knit brothers, and both lawmen lost a sibling in the line of duty. Bat witnessed his brother Ed, who was trying to disarm a drunken cowboy, get shot down. The assassination happened at such close range that Ed’s vest lit on fire as he stumbled across the street before collapsing.

Ed lived in a room above the saloon, and Bat and a couple of men brought him there, blood leaving a trail up the boot-worn steps. Soon after a doctor arrived, he informed Bat that there was nothing to be done for Ed. In an anguished whisper, Bat said, “This will just about kill Mother,” recalling all the times he had been told to watch out for his mild-mannered brother. “She’ll never forgive me for letting him get killed in this town.” Bat was already certain he would never forgive himself.
Bat sat beside his brother, holding Ed’s hand. During the next thirty minutes, what was left of the young marshal’s life ebbed away. Then, without regaining consciousness and thus unaware of his brother’s tears, Ed Masterson died.

Author Loren D. Estleman says, “Tom Clavin’s Dodge City is a lesson in historical reporting, exhaustively researched and enthusiastically written with all the page-turning drive of a modern thriller. He’s swept aside a century of cheesy myth to excavate the far more fascinating reality that lay beneath.”

Agreed. This reader enjoyed walking the streets of Dodge once again, and yet it felt like the first time.

David Cranmer is the editor of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and whose own body of work has appeared in such diverse publications as The Five-Two: Crime Poetry Weekly, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, LitReactor, Macmillan’s Criminal Element, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Under the pen name Edward A. Grainger he created the Cash Laramie western series. He's a dedicated Whovian who enjoys jazz and backgammon. He can be found in scenic upstate New York where he lives with his wife and daughter.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

500 Hundred Manuscripts - Interview with Charlie Steel

This time around Western Fictioneers is interviewing Charlie Steel. What an interesting perspective Charlie has given on writing, research, and how he became a writer. Read on. I'm sure you'll find something you can relate to as you take your writer's journey.

Charlie, when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

At age 8, when I started reading, I thought, "I can write too." I had broken into my father's library and quickly devoured Zane Grey, Max Brand, William MacLeod Raine, Jack London, Gene Stratton Porter, and James Oliver Curwood. Thank goodness for Webster's Dictionary ( I still mispronounce the words I learned on my own at that early age). Secondary to that, and ever since I can remember, I have always had stories in my head.

Did you choose the genre of Westerns or did it choose you?

I knew so much about the WEST, and it felt comfortable to write in that genre. (I hate the word genre, as a good story is a good story no matter time or place.)

What was the nudge that gave you faith that you could and wanted to be published?

In the early '60s, my first vignette was published in a college paper at age 17. It was well-received. Then I did two plays that earned both Pitt & Balcony Theatre and Michigan State University tens of thousands of dollars.

I didn't write a good query letter, didn't edit very well, and after a hundred or so rejections, I gave up submitting for some 40 years. But I kept on stockpiling hundreds of short stories, some plays, and enough material for over 80 books. In 2002, I met an editor who read some of my work and began to help me. I was published in 2003 and haven't stopped. I don't self publish, and I like smaller publishers; they are much kinder to a writer.

All of my 500 plus manuscripts from over 50 years of writing have to be edited and some rewritten. That takes 3 months to 2 years. Editing is horrible and my worst enemy. I will never submit a story to a publisher until it is as good as I and other professional editors can make it.

Do you think your life experiences influence or hinder your writing?

Yes, my experiences have definitely influenced my writing in many, many ways. To begin with, I was precocious as a kid, living in a very small town. I burned down a barn (accidentally) at age four and was the first four-year-old to be arrested for arson. The police eventually took me out of lockup and turned me over to Dad. My father levitated me and performed extreme discipline, yelling, "Four years old and already arrested and in jail." (Lucky I lived through that.) At age 19, I joined the Army, was lifted out by the government because of my test scores and personality traits. Then I trained and served behind the Iron Curtain monitoring Russian activity. After discharge, I went back to Berlin as a civilian with higher pay and performed the same functions for several more years. I then worked my way through eight universities, earning five degrees, including a Ph.D. Later I was hired as a Child Protection Worker in a high-risk city. In that capacity, facing drug-dealers and guns while trying to remove children, with or without police assistance, was in many ways more dangerous than being behind the Iron Curtain. It forced me to see the "belly of the beast" and nearly destroyed my health. I don't understand my proclivity for dangerous jobs, but I did them to the best of my ability.

Writers write based on what they know and have experienced. Going back to my childhood, I worked beginning at age six doing chores around the house. My parents were stern taskmasters, and I was responsible for helping keep the much-needed garden weeded and watered. Later, I worked for others. I was hired as a grocery store worker at age 10 to help purchase my own clothes. Among many other jobs were oil field worker, construction, foundry work, and salvage diver. (Nothing really out of the ordinary as all of us born in the '40s worked from childhood on. We had to; most of us were poor.)

I understand you have an upcoming release. Where did the idea spring from?

STRONG WOMEN OF THE WEST Anthology is my latest and will be released by Condor Publishing, Inc., in January 2021. I wrote this book as a tribute to my mother and all strong women wherever they may live. My mother was tough and did everything she could to keep me on the "straight and narrow," and sometimes not so gently. She would have won World War II if they had put her in charge. She declared war on dirt and on bad behavior in our houseshe won. I admire strong, intelligent women. To me, intelligence is a beautiful thing and lasts a lot longer than good looks, which, of course, is superficial and overrated. The idea of writing about strong women came naturally, and some of the stories in this work were written decades ago. Women make up half the population or more and should have been running this world ages ago. (Look what a mess men have made of it.)

I have to ask are you a plotter or a pantser?

All my life stories came into my headbeginning, middle, and end. The majority I never wrote down, and they are lost forever. But some 500 or more, long or short, were written as they came to me, nearly fully composed. (Of course, they all needed rewrites and further research.) My best books or short-stories are those I wrote non-stop within a few days as fast as I could type. But as stated before, the editing takes forever…

Do you follow a routine or write when the muse strikes?

I used to write every day. I am old, and now I take my time. Besides, I have those many manuscripts that are finished and need editing.

I also have many other stories that are not complete. It is a terrible thing not to finish a manuscript. I am currently attempting to work on some of them. In my conversations with other writers, I am not alone in this.

Which is your favorite to write, short stories, novellas, or full-length novels?

SHORT STORIES capture a world and define it, mesmerize, and end with a concise conclusion. The short story is my favorite because it makes the reader think, wonder, and fill in the unwritten details.

Is there a process where you find your next story, or does the idea just hit you?

It smacks me in the face…and pleads to be written down.

We all have something that makes us unique. Is there anything else you feel people would like to know or would be surprised to learn about you?

Reading saved my life when I was a child. I started school too early (four-years-old) and was in a fist-fight nearly every day throughout grade school. Books were my world, along with avid fishing and hunting. What fish and game I brought home, the family ate. There is no better meat than venison.

Do you write in other genres?

(Science Fiction, don't tell anyone. A book of short stories will come out someday.)

What are your favorite areas of research, and why are they important to you?

Any credible book, article, or interview helps a writer. Most research material available to a writer is endless. Details sometimes on a rarified subject are hard to find.

The Indian experience (my Indian friends do not like the term Native American) and their decimation, for example, has never really been told as to how gruesome it was. The deliberate elimination of Indians, tribe by tribe, from the East Coast to the West Coast is our shame and our holocaust. Historians didn't tell the truth (and often still don't) and did not document exact details, and they participated and exulted in the Indian's demise. We are fortunate that any tribe exists today. In this very present time, treaties and promises have not been kept. Indians still live isolated and in abject poverty; treaties are still broken, and land is still stolen. Wish I could write about it in more detail, but it is such a horrible history, beyond human understanding.

Research is essential; we try to get it right. All writers make mistakes, but hopefully, we do the best we can.

Thank you Charlie for the interview. Wishing you the best on the upcoming release.  For those who would like to know more about Charlie and his books, check out the following links.

Amazon Author Page - Charlie Steel

Charlie Steel - Website

Thursday, January 7, 2021

New Year's in the Old West

 People have been celebrating the beginning of the New Year for at least four thousand years (probably since we discovered what a “year” actually was). Most civilizations have similar customs: eating special foods, celebrating with a party, making resolutions, and setting off fireworks.


Your Old West characters wouldn’t have celebrated much differently than you do yourself. They’d have started celebrating on December 31 and probably kept going for some time after midnight. They may or may not have had fireworks – depending on where they lived and whether or not they had the cash for such frivolities. They’d probably have sung “Auld Lang Syne” though and may have followed the traditions of their ancestors.


If your parents were Spanish or Mexican, they’d have eaten one grape for every peal of the church bell at midnight. This was said to bring 12 sweet months ahead. If you came from Austria or Hungary, pork would be on the menu because pigs represented progress and prosperity. Beans, which resemble coins, were also representative of prosperity. Italians ate lentils and Americans living in the South enjoyed black-eyed peas. In the Netherlands and Greece, ring-shaped cakes and pastries symbolized that the year had come full circle, and in Sweden and Norway rice cakes were baked with an almond inside one cake. Whoever found the almond was said to be certain of good fortune all year.


If your family was English, you might leave your “dirty” money outside on the night of December 31 and take in the “clean” cash after midnight. In Scotland, they believed the first guest of the New Year was very important. They called this practice “first-footing” and felt that the perfect first visitor was a tall, dark male bearing a lump of coal, some shortbread, salt, a black bun, and a “wee dram” of whiskey. Swiss ancestors might teach that dropping a dollop of rich whipped cream on the doorstep will usher in riches for the New Year.


The practice of making a New Year’s resolution is believed to have started in ancient Babylon, where citizens paid off debts and returned borrowed tools as well. They believed that their resolutions impressed the gods and caused them to look favorably upon that person. After a wild New Year’s Eve party, most people would resolve to drink less and go to bed at a decent hour!


January 1 wasn’t even thought of as New Year’s Day until Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar in 46 BC. Before then, every culture celebrated on different days depending on which calendar they used. The Chinese set the date at the second new moon after the winter solstice. Egyptians, on the other hand, celebrated at the annual flooding of the Nile river, which coincided with the rising of the star Sirius. Julius Caesar decreed that the first day of the year would be January 1, honoring Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings. In medieval Europe, Christians changed the date to celebrate New Year’s on various other holy days, from December 25 to March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation). In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII reestablished January 1 as New Year’s Day.  


Your character could celebrate New Year’s any way you choose, picking from one or several cultural traditions. The important thing is to celebrate the beginning of a new cycle in their life. May your modern New Year be a healthy and prosperous one, with good fortune for you and your family.


J.E.S. Hays

Friday, January 1, 2021


I found this list on Pinterest. Though I don't make New Year's resolutions anymore, I thought this list was pretty inspiring and had some good things that we all might be able to use. I'm going to pick at least ONE to make life better in 2021. Not sure what, though. It has to be something that I can actually do (not like going to the gym three times a week or anything like that). I see one that calls to me--CLEAN OUT ATTIC. Now, it might take me all year to do it, but by golly, that's gonna be my "tough one" for this coming year. And maybe I'll pick something else, too, like LEARN SOMETHING NEW. It's been so long since I played the piano or the guitar, that might count as learning something new...all over again. LOL! What about you? See anything on this list that might be an inspiration?

Monday, December 28, 2020

Bob McKee- Did you know?

 Western Fictioneers is excited to share another author interview with one of our members. Today we are spending some time with Robert D. (Bob) McKee. 

Those of us who write sometimes know from the start that it's our calling, while others need a lightning bolt to hit them. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I would say the seed was first planted when I was fourteen or so. I had always been a reader, but it was about that time that I became an “avid reader.” I gulped down everything I could get my hands on. Then, at about sixteen, I came to realize that some of the people I was reading were better writers than some of the others. There really was a difference. From then on I honed my reading list. At some point, I told myself that “I think maybe I could do this,” but it was another twenty-six years before I seriously gave it a try.

Did you choose the genre you write in or did it choose you?

I guess I’m not sure what the answer to this question is. No matter what genre I’m writing, I’m writing mysteries. My published novels are Westerns, or, since mine are not traditional Westerns, the publisher refers to them as Frontier Fiction. They all take place in the West between 1880 and 1900. Even so, they are all, to one degree or another, mystery/suspense/thriller. I’m not sure I can write anything else, so I suppose it has chosen me.

Some say we tell the stories of our lives when we write. Do you think your life experiences influence or hinder your writing. 

In the sense of technique and style, my life experiences very much influence my writing. I spent thirty-seven years as a court reporter. During that time, I listened to and wrote the words of literally thousands of deponents and witnesses. The question-and-answer format of a courtroom is, most of the time, conversational. Because of that, I have listened very closely to millions of words of conversation, which has given my dialogue, I think, a more realistic and natural sound. At least it has given me the “ear” to recognize when my dialogue sounds stilted or forced and lets me know that the scene needs another trip or two through the word processor.

Where did you get the idea for your latest release?

My latest release is a very nice paperback edition—put out by Sundown Press—of my novel, Killing Blood, which first appeared a few years ago in hardback, published by Five Star Press. To the question of where did I get the idea, I don’t get an idea—not a big, novel-sized idea, anyway. I get the idea of a very basic protagonist, and I get the idea of a very basic place and the situation in which to put him. I then watch what he does and write it down. Eventually, after following him around for 70 to 80,000 words, I have a novel.

The eternal question, are you a plotter or a pantser?

I am not a plotter. For years I wanted to be. I thought you couldn’t write a novel unless you first outlined a plot or at least laid out a five-to-ten-page plotline or plotted in whatever way the particular book I was reading at the time on “how to write a novel” told me to do it. The only thing I learned from all that was that I couldn’t do it. And because I couldn’t do it, I was years later than I should have been in getting a book finished. At age forty, I decided it was time to start trying to write or give up on the idea. So, since I knew I couldn’t write a novel, I began with short stories. I didn’t need to outline the plot of a story; I could merely start writing and see what happened. After five years of that, my stories began to get published and even win a few prizes. I eventually had the thought of trying the same process with something longer, and it worked.

A writer does not need to know where his story is going when the story begins. If you do, great, but it’s not required. In fact, I believe allowing your characters to decide what happens next makes the writing more organic.

Do you have a writing routine you follow or do you write when the muse strikes?

For me, there is no muse who, with a lightning bolt, sends me an idea. That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “muse,” but my muse chooses to sit in the chair next to me, and she makes suggestions along the way.

If you had a choice, which is your favorite to write, short stories, novellas, or full-length novels?

This is not something I came up with. I heard it, and I don’t remember where or from whom, or if this is even the exact quote. But here goes:

A man asked the novelist why he writes novels, and he answered, ‘Because I’m not talented enough to write a short story.’

“The man then asked the short story writer why he wrote short stories, and he answered, ‘Because I’m not talented enough to write poetry.’

“The man then asked the poet, why he wrote poetry, and he answered, ‘Because I’m not talented enough to write haiku.’ ”

That doesn’t precisely answer the question, but I like the quote, so I threw it in.

Thank you for a fun interview. For those who would like to know more, you can visit Bob's website:  You can also find his books on Amazon: Killing Blood , Gypsy Rock - Large Print , Dakota Trails

Watch for more Western Fictioneer author interviews in January and the rest of 2021.

Friday, December 25, 2020


Christmas Rush by Jack Sorenson


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Colorado Holiday Traditions Through the Years

 Post by Doris McCraw writing as Angela Raines

So what do you do to celebrate the holidays? Of course, this year is a bit different, but all traditions morph over the years. 

On December 26, 1866, the Colorado Transcript -from Golden City ( Golden CO) had this memory they shared:

By 1876, the year Colorado became a state, the following was found in 'The Colorado Banner', Boulder, CO in the December 28th issue.

I could not pass up this short piece from the 'Crystal River Current' Crystal, CO. of December 4, 1886

And in 1896 'The West Side Citizen', Colfax, Villa Park, CO on December 25, reported a new tradition from an old in New York.

So as you can see by the examples, Holiday traditions are ever-changing. I admit I miss getting up on Christmas morning to see what 'Santa' had left under the tree, but the joy of spending time with family, friends, or at work, is what the season is about for me. Sharing my life and joys with those I care about, even if we are not in the same physical place. They are always in my heart.

Wishing everyone a blessed, joyous season for you and all those you love and care about. See you in 2021 for more stories, history, and just plain fun.

Doris Gardner-McCraw -

Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in

Colorado and Women's History

Angela Raines - author: Telling Stories Where Love & History Meet

Monday, December 21, 2020

El Paso, Marty Robbins, and Dec. 21, 1959 by Kaye Spencer #westernfictioneers #martyrobbins #countrymusic


Marty Robbins’ album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, was released in September 1959. El Paso, one of the songs on the album, was released as a single in October.

From there, the song’s popularity grew, and Marty was on his way to making country music history.

Back in the music industry days of c. 1959, recording labels rarely took chances on songs that were over three minutes long. There was a belief that disc jockeys wouldn’t play, and radio listeners wouldn’t tolerate, songs that ran longer.

El Paso was 4:40 long. Oops.

Marty’s recording label, Columbia, released El Paso as a 45 rpm single with more than a minute cut from of the song. This was Side A. Side B had the full, unedited version, but record labels generally regarded Side B as filler or extra value for your dollar and not as a potential hit song. Also, the side a 45 rpm the recording company wanted to get the most air time was marked as the ‘plug side’, and disc jockeys were expected to honor that.

But music-listening tastes are often misjudged by record companies, and there have been numerous Side B songs that became as, or more, popular than the Side A song.

***Diversion for the curious among us—random examples of famous Side B songs. Read more HERE

  • Ricky Nelson – Hello Mary Lou
  • Roy Orbison – Love Hurts
  • Queen – We Will Rock You
  • Beatles – I Saw Her Standing There
  • Rolling Stones – You Can’t Always Get What You Want
  • Monkees – I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone
  • CCR – Have You Ever Seen the Rain
  • Elvis – Hound Dog
  • KISS – Beth
  • Rod Stewart – Maggie May
  • Righteous Brothers – Unchained Melody
  • Hank Williams, Sr. – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
  • Johnny Cash – Get Rhythm
  • Don Gibson – I Can’t Stop Loving You
  • Chuck Berry – Memphis, Tennessee
  • Beach Boys – 409
  • Four Seasons – Silence is Golden
  • Buck Owens – Cryin’ Time

 Back to El Paso…

It didn’t take long before listeners demanded to hear the full-length version, which helped propel El Paso to the No. 1 position on the U.S. Chart and Country Songs Chart on December 21, 1959. (Go HERE to look up songs and dates)  

I recommend this short essay by Diane Diekman at the Library of Congress LOC about Marty Robbins and how he came to write El Paso.

El Paso entered Billboard’s Country Chart in early November and reached number one on December 21, 1959. The song achieved ‘crossover status’ when it reached No. 1 on the pop chart on Christmas Day. El Paso stayed at No. 1 for seven weeks, giving it the distinction of being the first No. 1 hit of 1960.

El Paso and Marty would receive the honor of being awarded the Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961.

So, today, on the 61st anniversary of El Paso reaching No. 1 on the music charts, we must raise a glass to Marty and his iconic song.


For those of you reading this on your phones, here is the YouTube link for the song El Paso.

Until next time,
Kaye Spencer

Find Kaye in cyberland here:



Friday, December 18, 2020

What's the Score? The Alamo (1960) by Dimitri Tiomkin

As far as John Wayne movies go, The Alamo (1960) ranks pretty far down the list—somewhere near The Cowboys, the other Wayne film where we see our hero meet his maker.

Still, I can’t deny The Alamo is a classic Western film, and it’s not because Wayne directed it. While the cast of Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey, Richard Boone, Joan O’Brien, and Chill Wills put in some stellar performances —for me it’s Dimitri Tiomkin who steals the show with the score.

I mentioned Tiomkin briefly before for his 1953 Academy Award won with Ned Washington for the original song from High Noon, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” sung by Tex Ritter.

For the Alamo, he again received an Oscar nomination (with Paul Francis Webster) for a song, “The Green Leaves of Summer,” sung by the Brothers Four. While it didn’t win the award, the score as a whole won a Golden Glob Award.

The “Ballad of the Alamo” performed by Marty Robbins is another well known song from the soundtrack, and it’s been voted one fo the Top 100 songs of all time by members of the Western Writers of American.

There’s more to like than just these popular tracks however. Tiomkin does a remarkable job capturing the brooding flavor of the Alamo’s story, introducing Mexican / old west flourishes at various intervals, and rising to rousing heights when the narrative demands it.

I like The Alamo soundtrack as much as any of the scores I’ve written about, and would easily put it in my top five. Give the embedded video and listen and see if you don’t think so too.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


I posted this several years ago, but it bears repeating in this hustle-and-bustle, disposable-goods world we've grown accustomed to. Let me share it with you again...

Several years ago, I had just sold my first short story to Adams Media's Rocking Chair Reader series. I was on Cloud 9! This story, SILVER MAGIC, was the 2nd story I sold to them and would appear in their first Christmas collection, Classic Christmas: True Stories of Holiday Cheer and Goodwill. I want to share it with you here. This story is true, and is one of the most poignant tales I could ever tell about my grandfather--he died when I was eleven. I never saw this side of him, and I don't think very many people did--that's what makes this Christmas story so special. I look forward to your comments!

SILVER MAGIC by Cheryl Pierson

Did you know that there is a proper way to hang tinsel on the Christmas tree?

Growing up in the small town of Seminole, Oklahoma, I was made aware of this from my earliest memories of Christmas. Being the youngest in our family, there was never a shortage of people always wanting to show me the right way to do—well, practically everything! When it came to hanging the metallic strands on the Christmas tree, my mother made it a holiday art form.

“The cardboard holder should be barely bent,” she said, “forming a kind of hook for the tinsel.” No more than three strands of the silver magic should be pulled from this hook at one time. And, we were cautioned, the strands should be draped over the boughs of the tree gently, so as to avoid damage to the fragile greenery.

Once the icicles had been carefully added to the already-lit-and-decorated tree, we would complete our “pine princess” with a can of spray snow. Never would we have considered hanging the icicles in blobs, as my mother called them, or tossing them haphazardly to land where they would on the upper, unreachable branches. Hanging them on the higher branches was my father’s job, since he was the tallest person I knew—as tall as Superman, for sure. He, too, could do anything—even put the serenely blinking golden star with the blonde angel on the very highest limb—without a ladder!

Once Christmas was over, I learned that there was also a right way to save the icicles before setting the tree out to the roadside for the garbage man. The cardboard holders were never thrown out. We kept them each year, tucked away with the rest of the re-useable Christmas decorations. Their shiny treasure lay untangled and protected within the corrugated Bekins Moving and Storage boxes that my mother had renamed “CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS” in bold letters with a black magic marker.
At the end of the Christmas season, I would help my sisters undress the tree and get it ready for its lonely curbside vigil. We would remove the glass balls, the plastic bells, and the homemade keepsake decorations we’d made in school. These were all gently placed in small boxes. The icicles came next, a chore we all detested.

We removed the silver tinsel and meticulously hung it back around the little cardboard hook. Those icicles were much heavier then, being made of real metal and not synthetic plastic. They were easier to handle and, if you were careful, didn’t snarl or tangle. It was a long, slow process—one that my young, impatient hands and mind dreaded.

For many years, I couldn’t understand why everyone—even my friends’ parents’—insisted on saving the tinsel from year to year. Then one night, in late December, while Mom and I gazed at the Christmas tree, I learned why.

As she began to tell the story of her first Christmas tree, her eyes looked back through time. She was a child in southeastern Oklahoma, during the dustbowl days of the Depression. She and her siblings had gotten the idea that they needed a Christmas tree. The trekked into the nearby woods, cut down an evergreen, and dragged it home. While my grandfather made a wooden stand for it, the rest of the family popped and strung corn for garland. The smaller children made decorations from paper and glue.

“What about a star?” one of the younger boys had asked.

My grandfather thought for a moment, then said, “I’ve got an old battery out there in the shed. I’ll cut one from that.”

The kids were tickled just to have the tree, but a star, too! It was almost too good to be true.

Grandfather went outside. He disappeared around the side of the old tool shed and didn’t return for a long time. Grandma glanced out the window a few times, wondering what was taking so long, but the children were occupied with stringing the popcorn and making paper chains. They were so excited that they hardly noticed when he came back inside.

Grandmother turned to him as he shut the door against the wintry blast of air. “What took you so long?” she asked. “I was beginning to get worried.”

Grandfather smiled apologetically, and held up the star he’d fashioned. “It took me awhile. I wanted it to be just right.” He slowly held up his other hand, and Grandmother clapped her hands over her mouth in wonder. Thin strands of silver magic cascaded in a shimmering waterfall from his loosely clenched fist. “It’s a kind of a gift, you know. For the kids.”

“I found some foil in the battery,” he explained. “It just didn’t seem right, not to have icicles.”

In our modern world of disposable commodities, can any of us imagine being so poor that we would recycle an old battery for the metal and foil, in order to hand-cut a shiny star and tinsel for our children’s Christmas tree?

A metal star and cut-foil tinsel—bits of Christmas joy, silver magic wrapped in a father’s love for his family.

This is a fantastic little anthology you might enjoy any time of year. If you'd like to read the wonderful stories in this collection, here's the link at Amazon. This is a true "bargain", but is only available from 3rd party sellers at this time as it is out of print.

AMAZON LINK: Have a wonderful Christmas and here's hoping 2021 will be a fantastic year for each and every one of us!

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Happy Christmas Card Day!

 December 9 is Christmas Card Day, in honor of the day we believe Sir Henry Cole of England marketed the first Christmas Card. Cole, a prominent educator and patron of the arts, had the misfortune of knowing too many people. During the holiday season of 1843, his friends were adding to his anxiety. An old custom in England – the Christmas and New Year’s letter – had seen a recent revival with the advent of the “Penny Post” where you could send a letter anywhere in the country for only a penny stamp (half the price of an ordinary letter). Suddenly, everybody was sending letters.


Sir Cole was an enthusiastic supporter of the postal system, but the stack of unanswered letters was starting to worry him. He traveled in elite Victorian circles and enjoyed the 1840s equivalent of A-List status. It would have been a social faux pas to ignore his mail and not respond, but he was having real trouble keeping up. He had to figure out a way to respond to all those letters.


Cole hit on an ingenious idea. He asked artist friend J.C. Horsley to design what Cole had imagined: a trio of images showing a happy family celebrating a holiday feast flanked by two images of people helping the poor. Cole then took Horsley’s illustrations to his printer and had a thousand copies made up. The first Christmas card was printed on a piece of stiff cardboard 5 & 1/8 by 3 & ¼ inches in size. At the top of each card was the salutation “TO _______” which allowed Cole to personalize each card. They also included the generic greeting “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.”


However, the cards weren’t without controversy. The image of the happy family enjoying their holiday dinner supposedly showed what looked like glasses of wine at the places of several small children. Since there was a big Temperance movement in England at the time, this was touted as supporting underage drinking.


Of course, the criticism wasn’t enough to keep Cole’s friends from recognizing a good time-saver when they saw one. Within a few years, several other prominent Victorians had copied Cole’s idea and were sending out their own cards. Early cards showed Nativity or snow scenes. In the late Victorian era, the British robin became popular. It took several decades for the Christmas card to really catch on with the masses, both in England and in America. But by 1870, the cost of sending a postcard or Christmas card in England dropped to half a penny, and the boom was on.


Louis Prang, a Prussian printer in Boston, is generally credited with creating the first American Christmas card in 1875. English cards had been sold in America since the 1840s but were very expensive and most people couldn’t afford them. Prang’s card was significantly different from the one Cole and Horsley created in that it didn’t even contain a holiday image. Instead, it showed a flower and the message “Merry Christmas.” “This artistic, subtle approach would categorize this first generation of American Christmas cards,” says John Hanc of Smithsonian Magazine. These cards typically showed animals or nature, scenes that could have taken place almost any time of the year. There were few nativity scenes or holiday celebrations.


In the late 1800s, appreciation of the quality and artistry of the cards grew – aided in part by competitions for the best images put on by the greeting card publishers. People soon began collecting the cards like they would stamps or butterflies. “The new crop each season were reviewed in newspapers, like books of films today.” In 1894, prominent magazine The Studio devoted an entire issue to the study of Christmas cards. British arts writer Gleeson White found the designs interesting but wasn’t impressed by the printed sentiments on the cards. “It’s obvious,” he wrote, “that for the sake of their literature no collection would be worth making.”


The very first known “personalized” Christmas card was sent by the famous Annie Oakley in 1891. She was in Glasgow, Scotland for the holiday and sent cards back home to friends and family with a photo of herself wearing a tartan. Annie supposedly designed the cards herself and worked with a local printer to produce them.


Your characters would have associated Christmas cards with these postcards. The modern book type card didn’t come into use until around 1915 with the incorporation of the Hall Brothers postcard printing company (they later changed the name to Hallmark). They soon adapted a new format for the cards: 4 x 6 inches, folded in half and inserted in an envelope. The Hall brothers discovered that people didn’t have enough room on a typical post card to say all they wanted, but they didn’t want to write a long letter either. A folded card was perfect.


And thus, the American Christmas Card was off and running. Holiday greetings have been on our minds since the 1800s, and your characters would have at least sent a letter to friends and family, if they couldn’t afford (or didn’t have access to) a postcard. It’s a nice touch to add to a story, especially if you’re looking for a good way to add family backstory.


J.E.S. Hays

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Mrs. Sundance (1974)

Etta Place holds a fascination in American folklore for good reasons: she was the girlfriend of the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh) and rode the outlaw trail with him and Butch Cassidy (Robert Parker) all the way to Bolivia where Sundance and Butch were killed in a shootout in 1908—but what of Etta Place? We don’t know, and may never find out, what became of her later life and death. So, the mystery is ripe for speculation with the most famous telling of Etta’s story being Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) featuring Katharine Ross in the part.

Mrs. Sundance, a 1974 TV movie starring Elizabeth Montgomery, is the first time an actor other than Ross played the part. Since I grew up on Ross as Etta Place and Montgomery as Samantha Stephens in Bewitched (1964-1972), I fully expected to be thrown off by the casting, but within the first few scenes, Ms. Montgomery swiftly erases those other associations, firmly establishing herself as this historical enigma.

Etta is a desperate woman on edge. She’s best described by a nosy member of the community where the outlaw is laying low, saying, 

I've been watching you since the first day you come. Every time a train stops, every time somebody just passes through - the fear in your eyes. Hiding out; never showing till they've gone. Why? Hiding from what? Who wants you?
Well, it turns out just about everybody, including Charles Siringo, played by veteran actor L.Q. Jones. Mr. Jones—known for Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), and a host of other classics—authenticates every scene like he’s hopped out from the real Old West. Siringo is charged with tracking the elusive Etta Place and bringing her to justice. He uses captured thief Jack Maddox (Robert Foxworth) as bait to lure in Place by gaining her confidence. Siringo is betting that she will lead him to the rest of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang so he can reap the bounties on their heads. He spreads word that Sundance is still alive and before long, she goes in search of her true love.

IMDb currently ranks the film at a middling 6.3 though I would elevate it a bit higher. Sure, the television budget and, at times, meandering script hinder it from becoming anything more than an afternoon joy ride. But sometimes that, and Elizabeth Montgomery, is more than enough.

David Cranmer is the editor of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and whose own body of work has appeared in such diverse publications as The Five-Two: Crime Poetry Weekly, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, LitReactor, Macmillan’s Criminal Element, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Under the pen name Edward A. Grainger he created the Cash Laramie western series. He's a dedicated Whovian who enjoys jazz and backgammon. He can be found in scenic upstate New York where he lives with his wife and daughter.