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


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, 


Monday, June 19, 2017

Rank Insignia of the Civil War and the Army of the West--Part 1--by Gordon Rottman

Most of us are basically familiar with US Army rank titles. We’ve heard the common rank names in passing in movies, television shows, and books. Many of us have at least a basic understanding on their order of seniority, lowest to highest: private, corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, major, colonel, and general. As writers we want to “get it right” using the correct terms and assigning soldiers’ ranks to their appropriate duty positions.
Soldiers do not progress through enlisted ranks and then up through officer ranks. With a very few exceptions enlisted men remain enlisted through their careers. Officers were commissioned by Congress and officially recognized as officers and gentlemen by act of Congress. Some chuckle at this archaic sounding phrase, but it is a fact. Military law allows an officer to be court-martialed for “ungentlemanly conduct,” while an enlisted man cannot. Virtually all Regular Army officers were graduates of the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York since 1802. They undertook four years of military science and engineering.
In the state militias, which provided most of the army’s fighting forces during the Civil War; officers were appointed by the state governors and recognized by Congress. (The state militias would become the National Guard in 1903.) Often the appointed regimental commander, a colonel, selected and appointed his officers. In many units, especially early in the war, company grade officers were elected by the members of the company. They knew these men as the companies were raised within towns and counties and the natural leaders were chosen. Militia officer’s basically learned their duties under the tutorage of Regular Army officers and experienced militia officers—“on the job training.”

Enlisted Ranks
Enlisted men were privates, corporals, and various sergeant grades. Privates could be addressed as “Trooper” in the cavalry, “Gunner” in the artillery, and “Solder” in general.
Privates wore no identifying insignia, only a bear sleeve. There was no private first class rank at the time—later identified by a single chevron.
Corporals and sergeants were designated “noncommissioned officers” or NCOs, or more informally, “noncoms.” NCOs received their authority to give orders from their commissioned officers who received their authority from Congress—thus, “noncommissioned officers.” In a way they could be compared to foremen. It is often said that NCOs ran the Army and made it work.
“Corporal” is derived from the medieval Italian capo corporale (head of a body), which was originally an officer’s assigned bodyguard. “Sergeant” is derived from the Anglo-French serjant—a servant, valet, court official, or soldier and the Latin servientem—servant, vassal, or soldier.
Corporals were addressed as “Corporals” and sometimes “corp” or “two-stripers.” Sergeants, regardless of their full title, were simply a “Sergeant” or informally as “Sarg” or “three-striper.” “First sergeants” though were often addressed as such. They could also be called the “first shirt, “top sergeant” or “top-kick”—for kicking butt—or simply “Top.”

1872 NCO rank chevrons. The Hospital Steward wore a gold edged green band bearing a gold Caduceus symbol (snakes entwined on a staff). They were rated as NCOs. The service strip worn above the left sleeve’s cuff represented five years’ Regular Army service. They were of the branch color and outlined in red for wartime service—“blood strip.” The chevrons, bars, and devices were in the branch color and the center backing (black here) was dark blue.

NCOs were identified by two and three V-shaped chevrons—“stripes”—for corporals and sergeants, respectively. Chevrons had long been used in heraldry as a coat of arms symbol of protection or authority. In US practice chevrons were worn point-down. (From 1905 they were and still are displayed point-up. The British use point-down chevrons.) They were worn centered on the upper sleeves of shirts, jackets, and coats. They were of the soldier’s branch color, but are often thought of as being yellow. This is because most soldiers depicted in Western movies are cavalrymen and yellow was their branch color—the “John Ford cavalry uniform” depicted in most Western and even Civil War movies. That uniform was only vaguely similar to what was actually worn. Infantry wore light blue—changed to white in 1885, cavalry wore yellow—became more orange in 1887, and artillery wore red. Those branch colors by the way resulted in artillerymen and cavalrymen being called “red-legs” and “yellow-legs,” respectively, owing to their trousers stripes. (I have never heard of infantrymen being called “blue-legs.”) Early on some militia units wore black banking. Confederate NCOs’ duties and insignia were similar to the Union’s to include the traditional branch colors.
There were several more senior sergeant grades, all with three chevrons and additional identify marks. One of the most prominent was the “First Sergeant,” they top ranking NCO in company, troops, and batteries (all company-sized unis commanded by captains). The “Top” was responsible for troop accountability, administration, the daily morning report, enforcing discipline, and preparing guard and fatigue rosters. The “Top” held the most feared and respected position in the company. “First shirts” were identified by a lozenge or “diamond” device in the chevron’s “V.”
Another position found at company level in the artillery and cavalry—but not the infantry—was the Battery/Company Quartermaster’s Sergeant. He was identified by a connecting single horizontal bar or tie atop the chevrons. He was responsible for the company wagon and all unit property including tents, mess gear, unit manuals, ordnance items, provisions, tools, and spare uniforms. He was the second most senior NCO in the battery/company. In cavalry and artillery regiments was the Regimental Quartermaster’s Sergeant with similar, but broader duties. Infantry regiments, lacking company QM sergeants, possessed a Quartermaster’s Sergeant (“Regimental” was not included in their title) with assistants responsible for line company QM responsibilities to relieve the companies of the logistics burden and concentrate on fighting. They bore three horizontal tie bars atop the chevron.
The Sergeant-Major was the senior NCO in the regiment, but did not have command authority and often had less service time and combat experience than other NCOs. They did not have the power of today’s sergeants major as a unit’s “senior advisor on enlisted affairs.” They were identified by three arcs above their chevrons. Their appointment was based on education, writing ability, and bookkeeping. Sergeant-Major John Laird of the 6th US Cavalry wrote in 1865:
“A Sergeant-Major is a man that does all the writing for the regiment and keeps all the Regimental Books and papers. He keeps a correct account of all the men and notes all the wounded and killed in his morning report which is sent to the headquarters of the army. Also it is his duty while laying in camp to mount guards every morning and make out all details for picket and fatigue duties. This keeps me pretty busy but I have a man to assist me to do the writing. I have a man to take care of my horse and saddle him up when I need it.”
The “Ordnance Sergeant” was identified by three chevrons and a five-pointed star. They were responsible for the care of arms, ammunition, and other military stores on a post. In the Confederate Army Ordnance Sergeants were also assigned to regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps. After the Civil War the US Army adopted this system.