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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Bright Lights, Big City, Black Orchids: Part Two

Okay, so I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of mysteries in my time. And I’ve also read a lot of ‘how to write a mystery’ manuals. It’s what we writers do, after all. We’re either writing, or reading about writing, or reading to see how other writers write, or of course reading for fun. Because, after all, the reason anyone wants to become a writer is because she loves reading so much, so thinks writing must be even more fun. 

And writing is fun. Writing is also hard work. And writing takes self-confidence. And practice. Lots of practice. It’s incredibly difficult to do anything well the first time you attempt it, after all. Sadly, as Mark Twain pointed out, ‘give a man a pencil and he thinks he’s a writer.’ I’ve been practicing my craft for a few years now, mostly in fantasy, science fiction, horror and pulp, but other than a couple of attempts at mystery short stories, I didn’t feel confident that I could come up with a clever plot.  

But I did feel confident that I could come up with interesting characters. And I would also need a setting that, hopefully, would feel fresh and new. Where, oh where, would my characters do their detecting? There are mysteries set in villages and cities, in ancient Egypt and in space, in the Middle Ages and in the 1930s…and every place and time period you can think of, with more coming out every day.  

So I looked around me. I live in a small town in South Carolina that used to be—before the textile industry vacated the premises and headed for other greener hills in other countries—the site of a cotton mill. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever thought much about cotton mills, ever said, perhaps while eating breakfast, “Wonder how those cotton balls in the medicine cabinet ever became the shirt I’m wearing?” Probably not, huh? But in this area of the state, there are—or there used to be—more cotton mills than almost any other industry. Back in the day, say from after the War of Northern Aggression to near the end of the 20th century, you couldn’t swing a cat—not that I have ever had any interest in rotating felines about the head—without hitting a cotton mill. They were so abundant that the owners gave up on conjuring clever names for them and settled on Mill #1, #2 and #3.  

But one of the many cool things about cotton mills is that the owners would build houses around the mills for the workers to live in, and not just houses but entire towns, with stores and churches and everything necessary for the employees, just so those employees would hang around to work and keep the mills running. Rent on these houses, and stuff bought in the company stores, would go in a ledger and often by the end of the week, the mill workers would not see a penny in wages, as those wages had already been spent on food and shelter and candy. Hence the song lyric: ‘I owe my soul to the company store.’  

As a kid, I had relatives who’d worked in the mills. My great aunt met all three of her husbands there, and my grandmother went to work in one at thirteen. Her brother, my Great-Uncle Guy, was a good baseball player, and Granny told me stories about how he was lured from mill to mill to play on the mill teams.  

Now if this doesn’t sound like a cozy village wherein a murder or two could quite profitably be set, then you’re not thinking ‘mystery’ is all I can say. So more next time on how the cotton mill village became the scene of my crime.
 
Cotton Mill Worker circa 1900

 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Bright Lights, Big City, Black Orchids--Part One

The usual apologies for not blogging lately. But...

Back in early May, I read about a contest for Rex Stout fans called the Black Orchid Novella Award. Being a Stout fan from way back—and yes, you can read that any way you like, and I’m sure you will—I decided to try my hand at a Stout-ish novella.

The brief was clear: a novella, under 17K words, original, unpublished, that conforms to the tradition of the Nero Wolfe series, as in: ‘no overt sex or violence; emphasizes the deductive skills of the sleuth; does not include characters from the original series’.

Easy-peasy, right? Sure. Nothing to it. Uh huh.
 
Do you KNOW how many mysteries have been written? Series, stand-alones, noir, cozy, hard-boiled, classic, historical, and so on? Mystery series have been set in medieval England—I’m talking to you, Brother Cadfael—late 19th century Egypt—I love me some Amelia Peabody—and every other time period you can imagine. And the classic sleuths have ranged from the Eddie Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Doyle’s Holmes, Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Allingham’s Campion, Marsh’s Alleyn, Chesterton’s Brown, Hammett’s N&N Charles….and that just covers a mere hundred years or so. Since the 1930s—when FER DE LANCE, the first Nero Wolfe, was published…well, whoa. The idea was staggering that I could add something new and original to a genre so vast. 

But nothing ventured and all that. Living as I do in the South, near a small town that started out as a cotton mill village, I thought a mystery set in a mill village might be a workable concept. After all, I’ve read—obviously—a lot of mysteries and I couldn’t recall any of them set there. Also, a mill village has always seemed to me much like the small English villages where Miss Marple roamed: everyone had his or her place and position in the hierarchy, from the lowliest mill workers, up through the supervisors, and the owner of the mill being something along the lines of the local lord.  

So, venue decided upon. But then I ran into another difficulty. A clever plot. Look at Christie; all her plots are twisty-turny-complex. Could I do something like that? 

I reread some Nero Wolfe’s—never a chore, as all Stout’s books are eminently re-readable—and some of my other favorite mystery writers, plus some new ones I’d never read, and I discovered an interesting point: popular mystery series aren’t about the plot, but the characters. I can’t always remember who done it in my favorites, but I’m always glad to spend time with folks like Wolfe and Archie and Nick and Nora and Albert and Roderick. 
 
Hmmm. I appeared to be onto something. More about that in part two....and I promise it'll be soon.
 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book review: A CURIOUS MAN: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It Or Not' Ripley



From a poor, inept, buck-toothed boy who loved to draw, to one of the highest paid cartoonists in history—and in 1936, one of the highest paid men in America—Leroy Ripley traveled a long way, in both miles and fortune, from his birth in the small town of Santa Rosa, CA.

Born in 1890 and called Roy by family and his few friends—he didn't add the Robert until later—Ripley never fit in as a child and dropped out of high school. At one of the many lucky turns that peppered his life, he got hired to draw 'a cartoon a day' for the San Francisco Press Democrat at eighteen, in the days when photos were too expensive. But it wasn't until he moved to New York and his cartoon 'Champs and Chumps' morphed into the soon-to-be world famous 'Believe It Or Not' that his fame skyrocketed.

Ripley traveled extensively, racking up visits to an impressive 200+ countries, and spent all his time looking for oddities, both human and otherwise. He drew and wrote about them, collected artifacts relating to them, and never got over his gee-whiz, small-town-boy fascination for them.

Author Neal Thompson's biography is a clear-eyed investigation of one of the most interesting men of the early 20th century. Ripley the man was as unusual as some of his finds. His fascination with the uncommon, the strange and the bizarre resonated in his own life. He lived for over fifteen years in a single-room apartment in the New York Racket Club—he once beat a nationally-ranked champion at the sport—even while his empire grew. Then, when he decided he really should unpack the crates of artifacts he'd been collecting on his travels, he bought his own island, complete with mansion, to showcase them. The Odditoriums followed next, plus radio shows and even television, and his catchphrase, 'Believe It…or Not' entered the language.

Well written and meticulously researched, THE CURIOUS MAN is a fascinating description of this odd and child-like man who had such an enormous influence on travel, reporting, comics and more. I highly recommend it.
 
A CURIOUS MAN: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It Or Not' Ripley
by Neal Thompson   Three Rivers Press. ISBN: 978-0-7704-3622-3


Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Novellas Are the New Black...or Are Sequels?

I like writing novellas. They're long enough to explore characterization and plot, without being so long that they bog down midway. Writing in the 17-40K range gives you room to move around, room to really get inside the minds of your characters. And a novella can be read in far less time than a 100K novel, with just as much pleasure, at least to me. Sure, you can feel a little short-changed, a bit of 'but what happens to them next?' when you invest in characters, but that's what sequels are for.

Ah, sequels. When I was a kid, I wasn't familiar with the glory of sequels. I read anything that fell into my hands, everything in the school library and that ultimate pleasure: books for birthdays and holidays. But when I left these characters, I left them. They were gone, and the only way I could visit with them again was to reread the book. Not something I ever balked at, certainly, but sometimes you just want to know more about 'em, right?

So, I read THE TIME TRADERS by wonderful, awesome, amazing Andre Norton. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Then I found GALACTIC DERELICT. Oh frabjous day, calloo, callay! The same characters were in both! Gordon Ashe and Ross Murdock were there, doing their time-travel stuff, only this time they were in space too! Sequels…the Universe's gift to rabid readers. I love sequels! And prequels! And 'stories set in the same universe'!

Bringing me back to novellas. The bloated word count in a lot of modern science fiction and fantasy ranges well over 100K. Back in the 50s and 60s, books in these genres came in at a leaner, meaner 50-60K. I like writing in that range myself. But I never knew I'd enjoy writing novellas as much as I do.

My friend, brilliant writer J. Kirsch, aka Jon, has recently begun a fabulous series of novellas which began with THE PRINCESS WHO WOULDN'T DIE. It's free for a while, so go get it and read it now. Go ahead: I'll wait.

Now that you're back and all full of Princess goodness, did you notice the length of Naji's story? Under 16K and still, you got a full, clear, exciting, great story. And Jon is working on a sequel too, so try to hold down your impatience. If you can, mwhahahaha…

I've got a steampunk novella coming out soon from Pulp Literature called BLACKTHORNE AND ROSE: AGENTS OF D.I.R.E. And, guess what? I'm working on a sequel.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Summer sale at Smashwords!

All my books, novellas and short stories are free at Smashwords for the month of July! Go, splurge, binge read--you won't even hate yourself in the morning!

Click here to go to my author page. Scroll down and see all my stuff. Did I mention FREE?

Go ahead....you know you want to!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

What's Your Favorite Heinlein?

I know. It's one of those either/or questions. Either you don't like Robert Anson Heinlein, or his work, or both, at which point you may as well stop reading now, or you like all his books and were vastly influenced by his work in an infinite number of ways. Guess which camp I fall into?
Right now, I'm reading volume two of William Patterson's brilliant biography of Heinlein. It's taking a while, as I have to go reread books he mentions, with a new outlook on what was happening when RAH wrote them.
My favorite Heinlein is generally the one I'm (re)reading at any given moment. I cut my teeth on his juveniles, and I'm especially fond of TUNNEL IN THE SKY and HAVE SPACE SUIT-WILL TRAVEL, though BETWEEN PLANETS is especially good as well because, really, who could not love that delicious Venusian dragon, Sir Isaac Newton? Who reappeared, by the way, in THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST. Huzzah!
Currently, I'm rereading THE PUPPET MASTERS for the gazillionth time. Not a juvenile by any means, though it came out during the 1950s when most of his boys' books were published. A dark invasion story, later ripped off reimagined by lots of other authors, but none of them have, to me, quite matched RAH's particular vision. The movie based on it—though, really, lots of other movies have been based on it in so many, many ways—which was released in 1994 and starred Donald Sutherland, eminently drool-worthy, Eric Thal and Julie Warner, was a pale reimagining of the book.
Quick aside: why has there never been a good movie based on a Heinlein work? No, not STARSHIP TROOPERS, though I loved its take-no-bug-prisoners attitude.
 In THE PUPPET MASTERS, the Earth is invaded by slugs from Titan—or were they?—who attach themselves to humans by some delightfully squishy means and totally control their actions, though the humans are aware and screaming silently for help inside. A stalwart secret agent, working for the Old Man and his super secret agency, gets involved in the slug fight, falls in love with another agent, and deals with daddy issues, all while fighting this nasty invasion. The USA gets swarmed, and we don't even want to mention those behind the Iron Curtain—or, as Sam-the-agent asks in the book 'How would we know?' when the discussion of whether they were invaded as well comes up.
To me, the book succeeds on so many levels. Danger, adventure, sex, violence, pain, joy, love, hate, fear. Read it yourself if you don't believe me. Every time I read it, I find new things to like about it.

 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Englishmen rule! So never stop dreaming....

When I had just turned twelve, I ran across an old book of my dad's called THE MASK OF FU MANCHU by Sax Rohmer. Apparently, my dad loved the book enough to, well, we'll say he liberated it from the public library, for the card was still in the back. At that time, I would read anything which fell into my hands—a habit which has continued to the present day, I'm happy to say. 

I can still remember how awesome the book was—adventure, excitement, danger, the mystery of Egypt, stalwart, brave and handsome Englishmen, brilliant criminals, a plot to steal ancient treasures—who wouldn't have loved it? The scenes where our heroes were staying at the Mena House Hotel, which sat on the Giza plateau in full view of the pyramids—THE the pyramids—made a special impression on me. I wanted to see it all. And more importantly, I wanted to write books full of adventure and danger and excitement—and handsome Englishmen.  

Flash forward thirty years. My lifelong love of all things Egyptian is fulfilled, at least partially, by sixteen days there. Ah, Luxor and the Temple of Karnak! Ah, the Valley of the Kings—I missed seeing Boris Karloff's Imhotep but he was probably just out of town. Ah, Abu Simbel, and a cruise down the Nile.  

And then, and then, the absolute culmination of a lifetime of dreams. I'm staying at…wait for it…the Mena House Hotel. Me. A country girl from South Carolina.  

But during the entire trip, I kept feeling that something was wrong, and I couldn't figure out what. I wanted to tell someone I was here, in the spot I'd dreamed of being for so long. But who? I'd told everyone I knew, believe me. Who, oh who else could possibly be missing the important information? 

Then it hit me. The one person I really, really, REALLY wanted to know where I was…was me. Twelve-year-old me. The little girl who had fallen in love with adventure and Egypt and the Mena House Hotel. Okay, yes, and handsome Englishmen. I wanted her to know, "We made it, kid. We got here. We grabbed for that dream and we caught it at last." 

Yes, there is a point to my rambling, and it has to do, not with travel to distant lands, but to writing. Writing is hard. Promotion is harder still, and rejection is just another word for intense agony. And some days, a writer would rather be doing almost anything else. That's when it's important to remember that kid in you who first read books, loved books and then got excited about the glorious, the amazing, the astonishing idea of actually writing books.  

That kid is still inside you, waiting for acknowledgement. Tell her. Tell her, "Yes, we did it. We're writers. And it's thanks to you and your dreams." 

And handsome Englishmen, of course.

 

(This post first appeared in a slightly different version at Writers on the Move)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

If you're ever able to attend an Artists U presentation, get thee there in a hurry!

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the ArtistsU/SC at Chapman Cultural Center in Spartanburg, SC. And let me tell you: it was awesomeness of the first water. There were all sorts of artists there at the conference: glass blowers, painters, sculptors, weavers, musicians, poets, writers. It was a conglomerate of phantasmagoria, a veritable treasure trove of aptitude. The entire room buzzed and glittered with talent, all so bright I considered keeping my sunglasses on.

Yes, I did have the passing wonderment of the typical insecure writer: just what the heck am I doing here? When did K.G. McAbee become an ARTIST? Doesn't she just write stories about zombies and monsters and the kick-assiest, smart-assiest women?

But one of the many things I learned at the conference was that all you other writers and artists are just as insecure and intimidated as I am. It's like a great big fancy club of the overwhelmed and apprehensive. How cool is that? Well, not cool exactly, but how reassuring and comfy.

Some of the things we discussed at the ArtistsU initiative:

1. Time management, as in making time for your art, whatever it may be.

2. Balancing your life, so that work/family/play/art all get their fair due.

3. That artists are workaholics. Wow! That was certainly eye-opening for me. I've always thought of myself as lazy, and I tend to beat myself up if I'm not producing massive amounts of words. Every. Single. Day. Seems that's not the most productive way to be. Who knew?

4. Strategic planning can help you reach your goals. Accomplish small steps, but don't be afraid to dream big.

5. Don't think you have to do everything. Find someone who likes to do—and is better at—what you hate to do.

And all sorts of other wonderful, useful, interesting ideas to try.

If you're interested in learning more, visit www.artistsu.org and click on Get the Book. You can download a free copy of MAKING YOUR LIFE AS AN ARTIST by the brilliant Andrew Simonet, which is an excellent compendium of all the information covered in the conference. Did I mention free? Go get it now!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Reginald Pantry: A Zombie Chronicle

Recently, my friend the brilliant writer and artist J.A. Johnson approached me with an impossible-to-resist offer: collaborate with him on a zombie novella.

And not just any novella, mind you! Nope, this was the opportunity to co-write a story based on an album by the indie rock band The Gifted Children. J.A. had already done the hard work: he'd roughed in a plot and, as all of us know, plots are not my strong point, me being a serious and dyed-in-the-wool-seat-of-my-pants writer. So going into a story with a plot already in place was certainly a plus.

And the musical tracks by The Gifted Children were eerie, creepy, strange; they'd been created, in fact, as a soundtrack for an imaginary zombie movie.

J.A. and I named our alternate chapters after the track titles. The end result, the complete package as it were, has a variety of interesting bonuses:

1. Links to the music, so the reader can hear what inspired us.
3. Deleted scenes.
5. An alternate ending.
7. Interviews with the band and the authors.
9. A 'from-music-to-words' page.
11. Alternate cover images.
13. Band and author pictures.
15. End credits, just as if it were indeed the zombie movie it was intended to be.

[Note: I like odd numbers; so sue me.]

So be on the lookout for the soon-to-be-released THE REGINALD PANTRY: A ZOMBIE CHRONICLE! In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here's a teaser trailer.

And here's the cover art, also by J.A. Johnson, who continues to amaze me with both his writing and artistic skills:





Sunday, March 16, 2014

Coming Soon: My First Attempt at a Regency romantic suspense!

You guys know me: I write horror and science fiction and pulp and fantasy and westerns and mysteries and suspense and comics. But I don't write romance. Not that I think there's anything wrong with romance, of course. I read more than my share of Victoria Holts and Mary Stewarts back in the day, not to mention getting plenty irritated with Marguerite Blakeney and how she treated Sir Percy. Honestly, was that woman too stupid to live or what?  

My brilliant co-writer, J. Kirsch, writes killer romance. And there are certainly romances in a lot of my work. Of course, generally there are swords involved, or rayguns, or monsters. Or all three. And zombies. And evil wizards. And more zombies. And occasionally, my characters end up in each other's arms. Granted, more often they end up in some reeking, hideous, ravenous creature's maw, but the thought's what counts. Right?  

So anyway, I decided I needed to stretch my wings, throw caution to the winds and see what else I could write. I'm a proud, card-carrying history geek, especially of all things English-history related. I love Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel, as you can tell from my mention of poor Sir Percy and that wife of his, and I've always thought the time period from the Napoleonic Wars on into the regency of George IV was fascinating. So why not try writing a romance set in the Regency, just to see if I could? 

So I did, and wonder of wonders, Rogue Phoenix Press is going to publish MISS MAYFAIR'S DILEMMA in May.  

Kitty Carlisle was my brilliant editor, who whipped the manuscript into shape for me. See my previous post to recognize just how awesome she is.  

Here's the cover, by the amazing Genene Valleau:
Here's a short blurb: 

Miss Patricia Mayfair is a wealthy, orphaned Regency bluestocking. While in London for the Season, Miss Mayfair spends more time buying books than ribbons, to the despair of her more conventional friend. Begrudgingly attending a dinner party, Miss Mayfair meets Lord Andrew Aragon, who fancies himself tired of London and the ton and never expects to fall instantly head-over-heels. But Lord Andrew is a notorious gambler, and Miss Mayfair has vowed she will never marry a man who indulges in such a vice. Can the leopard change his spots or the rake his habits? 

And here's an early review quote:  

MISS MAYFAIR'S DILEMMA is a Regency romance filled with likable characters, villains, love, and plenty of suspense. The characters are well developed, especially those of the greedy villains: Patricia's guardian and Lady Christabel. This is a very enjoyable read. Lovers of suspense as well as Regencies will find this a terrific tale. Besides, who can resist reading about a heroine addicted to books?  ~ Carol Durfee  

We all need to step outside our comfort zones occasionally. I like to think that my monsters and zombies and wizards and space ships are none the worse for having a Regency romantic suspense added to their ranks.  

And they'll soon have a Gothic suspense sister in the family as well…but more about that later.

 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Good Editor Is Worth Her Weight in Rubies

I tutor English and algebra at a community college, so I see a lot of essays. My not-so-funny joke to the students is that I take my red pen and bleed on their papers. The results are varying degrees of bloody, from the occasional needle-prick splotch to running oceans of gore. I circle misspellings and incorrect word usage and underline run-on sentences and fragments. I put unclear statements in brackets. Then I go over the paper with the student and point out why the red is there and suggest how to staunch the ruddy flow. 

Last week, we all suffered through the dread midterms. I saw lots of essays from lots of panicking students. And of course, since the Universe has a crafty sense of humor, also last week appeared in my email box the first edits on my upcoming book, A DOLEFUL KIND OF SINGING, a suspense-y, gothic-y, romance-y novel guest-starring Nessie, aka the Loch Ness Monster. The Universe, not satisfied with that little ill-timed outburst of humor, also decided it was time to have me deal with the final edits on my even-sooner upcoming book, MISS MAYFAIR'S DILEMMA, a Regency suspense-y, romance-y mystery novel. Both these books, by the way, are being released by Rogue Phoenix Press, an excellent small publisher with astonishingly good taste. I mean, they're publishing my books, right?  

So I spent all last week and last weekend and part of this week reading a large number of student papers and pointing out errors, all the while spending my free time reading my only-slightly-less-than-deathless prose and correcting all the errors which my genius editor pointed out to me.  

A good editor is worth her weight in rubies, and my editor, Kitty Carlisle, is worth her weight in rubies with a few extra tons of diamonds and emeralds thrown in for good measure. She had to suffer through both the aforementioned manuscripts. Yes, you read that correctly. Both. And yet she survived with her humor intact and, hopefully, few long-lasting related health issues. She ruthlessly slashed unnecessary commas with what must be a vorpal blade—really! I heard the snicker snack!—and then had the resilience left over to point out blurry plot points and suggest clean, crisp corrections that made sense. Her patience and pertinent comments have put me forever in her debt. Both books are far, far better for her input. If you're looking for a considerate, immensely competent and delightful-to-work-with editor for your latest opus, look no further than Kitty Carlisle.  

And FYI: she's not the Kitty Carlisle who was married to Moss Hart, because I asked.  

Nothing is more valuable than a trained, professional editor. All I can say is, I hope none of the students, whose papers I have so blithely bled upon, ever see one of my works with the original editing marks in place. I'd never be able to wield a red pen again.
 
Here are the covers for my books, both by the brilliant artist Genene Valleau. I'll let you know when they're available.
 

 

 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

It's READ AN EBOOK week, people!

Book Sale!
 
Smashwords has an awesome program, stretching from tonight at midnight through March 8. All my stuff at their site is either FREE or marked drastically down. Click on either picture to go straight to my Author Page. You can scroll down and see all my books on sale.
 
Book sale. The two most beautiful words in the English language.
Well, other than free books. And look: we've got both!
 

https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/KGailMcAbee

Friday, February 28, 2014

Tom Meets a Hero

Tom Johnson published some of my earliest work, in his series of pulp magazines, and we've been friends and occasional collaborators ever since. I first communicated with Tom by mail. You remember mail: you would write or type a letter, then fold it up and put it in an envelope, slap a stamp on it and drop it in a mail box. Days or weeks later, you'd get a reply. So 20th century! We did our collaboration on SHADOWHAWKE: FIRST FLIGHT by mail; I'd write a chapter, send it to him, he'd write the next one, send it back, and so on. 

I recently guest-blogged on Tom's The Pulp Den, and he's been kind enough to return the favor. Without more ado, here's a stirring story from yesteryear, of Tom and that great Western hero, Lash LaRue.  

  

I Meet a Hero
 

When we moved from Ohio Street some time in 1950, my dad bought a small mobile home (8 X 28 foot), which he set up behind a lumberyard on Broad Street between 6th and 7th Streets. This was a new world for me. I was half a block from the Boys Club, and across the street from the Wichita Falls Memorial Auditorium. The mobile home was small, and didn't have a bathroom, but it was probably as big as the little apartment we lived in on Ohio Street for three years. There was a storage room in the big house, which had a bathroom for our use, a step above an outhouse. We had to take baths in a washtub.


The Boys Club in Background

 I joined the Boys Club and it became a home-away-from-home for me. It had a library and a workshop where I learned to make things on machines, a gym with lots of activities, and the employees saw to it that we had things to do every day. On Saturdays, they provided a buss to take kids to the Tower theater for the Saturday Matinee, but I never went. Across the street from the Boys Club was an orphanage with a fenced-in playground. I felt sad for the children inside, for they would stand at the fence and watch us playing outside, and were unable to join us. A block and a half from me was 8th Street Park - those further up the road called it 9th Street Park. It covered the whole block and had slides, swings, and merry-go-rounds; in later years, it was given the official name of Bellevue Park, the swings and slides removed, and million-dollar architecture was added. Ugly.

 
 
 

 Me with Clinic in Background

The lumberyard had a wooden trailer parked in front with wood scraps for the neighborhood, and National Geographic magazines tossed inside, free for the kids. It was some benefactor's way of seeing that children had something educational to read. The free scraps of lumber were a novelty also. Try going to a lumberyard today and asking for free scraps! A medical clinic was across the alley

My little world had suddenly changed from sidewalks and winos, theaters and five & dimes, to parks, playgrounds, and the Boys Club. Here, too, I had many kids my own age to play with. I didn't miss Ohio Street, nor did I ever go back. I would visit Indiana Street once in a while, but for some reason I was afraid to venture back to where I had spent three years of my life.

The Memorial Auditorium was open during the weekdays, and I had the run of the place, often helping out the office workers when they needed someone to run an errand. It wasn't all concrete and parking lot at the time, either. There were large grassy areas on both sides of the building, and these became the local children's playground in summer and winter. We would ride our bikes down the hill in the summer, and slide cardboard boxes down it in the winter. No one said anything to us. I did catch a black widow and her babies in a glass jar once and showed it to the janiter, who quickly washed the spiders down a drain and warned me not to play with spiders. I still play with spiders and bugs today, however. My sisters and their boyfriends also set pallets on the grass and made out when they could get rid of me. Usually that cost their boyfriends a dime or quarter. I would still run home and tell my mother that they were kissing their boyfriends!

 


My Sister and Friend On Auditorium Lawn

 Something else about the Memorial Auditorium, they brought shows to town. I'm sure they charged for them, but I was always given a free pass. We only lived in the mobile home about a year, and when my dad couldn't make payments on it, we had to move. So the time would be around 1951 when one of my heroes came to town. I was given a pass for the show that night, and onstage was Lash LaRue and Al "Fuzzy" St. John, western stars I had watched at the picture shows downtown on many Saturdays. Lash would pop that 15-foot long bullwhip, and Fuzzy would roll a cigarette with one hand, then they would put on a mock fistfight for our entertainment. I sat in wonderment, as only an eleven-year-old boy could throughout the show. Then when it was all over, Lash and Fuzzy visited with the audience, and spoke with us. I even got a pat on the head from Lash LaRue!


Me Playing Cowboy

 However, there is sadness even in such glorious times as this. Much later, I learned that in 1951 the B Westerns were dying, and all of the western stars were making the rounds trying to promote interest in a dying entertainment industry. Their contracts were up in 1951 and '52, and the studios were not renewing them. Westerns were growing up, and TV was taking the place of the Saturday Matinees. Cowboy stars like Lash LaRue were drifting away, their careers finished.

About ten years after his last movie, the police found a man passed out in the gutter and threw him in the drunk tank to sleep it off. Someone at the station recognized him and notified the newspapers. The next day, the headlines read, "Cowboy movie star, Lash LaRue, arrested for public intoxication!" What could have been the final nail in his coffin actually revived his career to a small degree. TV networks heard about the arrest, and it wasn't long before Lash LaRue was making special appearances on network television. Conventions also started asking him to appear as Guest of Honor. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson hired him in a bit part for their television remake of "Stagecoach". He died in obscurity at age 80 in 1996.

They looked so much alike that Lash LaRue could have passed for Humphrey Bogart's twin. The likeness was often a curse for Lash, as people would often mistake him for Bogart. He enjoyed telling one story at conventions that went something like this: One day an actress he worked with asked him:

"Are you related to Humphrey Bogart?"

"I don't think so," he replied.

"Hmm," the actress continued. "Did your mother by chance meet Bogart before you were conceived?"

When I met Lash LaRue in 1951, he was a giant. Perhaps his only claim to fame, besides his resemblance to Bogart, was that of a B Western movie star. But for kids growing up in the 1940s and '50s, our heroes were bigger than life. They were the good guys that we needed. The fathers we didn't have. They brought justice to the West, and gave us someone to emulate when we grew up. And that wasn't a bad thing.

 BTW, I too also had the honor and pleasure of meeting and shaking Lash LaRue's hand; he retired to Gaffney, SC, and I met him in the early 80s—over 30 years after Tom's first meeting with a hero.

Here's the incomparable Lash LaRue:

 

 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Olympic Writing


Been watching the Winter Olympics? Nope, me neither. I don't know of many writers who are into sports, though of course there must be some. It seems mutually exclusive, at least to me, to have someone who is happy sitting in front of a screen or pad of paper, and who is also happy running around or falling or sliding on snow or skating on ice, always with the possibility of falling down. Hard.

I don't like to fall down, and falling down hard and breaking something is the absolute worst. I broke the radius and ulna—note the sciency knowledge of anatomy terms which one can pick up writing—in my right arm. I was writing the day after. My brilliant husband made me a sling suspended from the ceiling over my keyboard, out of a piece of wood and a rope. I could rest my cast in the sling, with my fingers dangling over the keyboard. Finished several short stories and a book while not being able to straighten my right arm.  

Show me an Olympian who can work in a cast. So there. Hah.   

There's a Mark Twain quote that goes something like: "A doctor or a lawyer or a teacher must spend years of study to deserve his title. But give a man a pencil and he thinks he's a writer."   

I'm sure all you writers out there know folks like this. "As soon as I have time, I'm going to write a book" is one of my favorites, as if 'having time' is all that's necessary. I've also heard "I've got a great idea for a story; you write it and we'll share the profits." Sound familiar?

A lot of soi-disant writers—see what two years of high school French can teach you?—seem to think that all it takes to be a writer is to sit down at a keyboard and start typing. Who needs grammar? Not me; grammar is so twentieth century. Spelling? Psstt! Spelling is for spell-checker. Clear, readable, concise, crystal clear prose? Nah, too much trouble. I'll just sit down and throw up a whole bunch of vaguely related words and voilá—see that French again?—I'm a writer.  

Not to dash a barrel of cold water in your face, Mr./Ms. Writer person, but really? Suck it up and acquire the basic tools of your craft. Grammar and punctuation and spelling and sentence structure are the bricks and mortar and trowel and straightedge of your trade. If you balk at learning them, just don't want to take the time and the trouble, then why should I take the trouble and the time of trying to decipher what the heck you're talking about? 

Olympic writing. Let's all go for the gold. [Insert tumultuous applause here, yay!!]

 

 

 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Three Captains and a Ranger—Classic TV at its Classiest.

Captain Z-Ro. Somewhere in a remote, uncharted region of the planet Earth stands the laboratory of CAPTAIN Z-RO. In this secret location, known only to a few in the outside world, CAPTAIN Z-RO and his associates experiment in TIME and SPACE ...to learn from the past ...plan for the future...

Okay, who would not love an intro like that? Who could turn the channel? And yes, I said turn, for Captain Z-Ro existed in the old days and on the old TVs. Imagine: you had to get up, walk to the TV, and manually turn the channel. Oh, the pain! And the sparkling black-and-white. Love it!

Captain Z-Ro had, in my humble opinion, the coolest mustache and beard combo. Ever. Check it out: Z is on the right, with his pesky kid sidekick Jet beside him. Z sent Jet into the past to correct incipient errors before they could reverberate down through time and change stuff. Like, really important stuff. But the helmet made it all worthwhile, don't you think?
 

 


Then we have Captain Video. Poor, missing Captain Video with his really cool title card:

 

 

 

Lots of renowned science fiction writers penned episodes of this tragically lost series, including Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Jack Vance and Arthur C. Clarke. One can't help but wonder which one of these greats came up with the absolutely coolest and most perfect villain's name in the history of scifi and all else of vast importance: Chauncey Everett.
 
Okay, maybe you had to be there.  

Very few episodes survive today because of some idiot who burned most of them back in the 1970s. Whoever committed such a heinous crime, I hope he is now paying for his dastardly crimes. Painfully.  

And then there's Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Clean-cut, square-jawed Rocky and his crew used either the Orbit Jet XV-2 or, later in the series, the suspiciously similar Silver Moon XV-3. We were often treated to a glimpse of the Orbit Jet/Silver Moon, looking like a V2 rocket—remember, this was only a few years after the end of WWII—setting down in what appeared to be a power station. Something very much like this, in fact:
 

 
Seriously futuristic, Rocky's spaceship had electronic viewscreens—most other early TV scifi made do with a plain old window or at most a porthole—elaborate control panels sans wheel or stick, powered doors that OPENED WHEN YOU APPROACHED, a cloaking device, subspace radio—hmm, sound familiar to anyone? Anyone?—and artificial gravity which was actually explained and occasionally used as a plot device.

Clearly, this was one 50s series that was decades ahead of its time. And Rocky himself was a babe:

 

 


And, though he didn't actually spend time in space, I also had a thing for Captain Midnight, also a babe:
 
Captain Midnight had a penchant for standing around with his hands on his hips, and he had a lovely booming voice. And he was a hero, of course.
 
Charming, upbeat, endlessly positive, everyone looking forward to an exciting future in space and time, heroes who always saved the day…

Is it any wonder I loved these series as a kid? And they obviously affect me still and even unto this day...

 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Let's Give Adverbs a Little Love for Valentine's Day

Pity the poor adverb, the least respected, most abused part of speech.

First of all, there’s the brawny verb, always doing something energetic, kind of the Hulk of grammar, smashing or running or jumping or, in some case, simply being. Run. Dance. Write. Laugh. Exterminate. You can almost hear his shirt tearing.

Then there are the nouns, the prima donnas of the parts of speech. "We’re the names of things," they whine. "Everything, but everything has a naaaame." Table. Chair. Computer. Pen, paper, ink…you can understand how nouns have swollen heads. They’re surrounded, submerged, all but drowning in things they represent.

And where there are nouns, there must be adjectives, the handmaidens, the servants, the toadies. We can't just have a table; oh, no. We have to have a large, wooden, shiny, heavy, sturdy, gleaming, antique table. It’s not just a pen; it’s a fine-point black-ink gel pen. The sky is blue, or gray or cloudy. The sun is a brilliant bright orange. Adjectives: the sycophants of grammar.

But as if nouns didn’t already have swollen heads about themselves, they also have to have an entire class of words to take their place. It’s almost as if the poor overworked nouns need to run off to the Hamptons for a long weekend once a month or more, so bring in the pronouns. While my sister is slathering on sunscreen, she is taking her place in a sentence. Even our old bright brilliant friend the sun may be off dancing with the moon, while it is subbing way up in the sky.

Prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, all little guys wandering around in sentences, but they get plenty of notice and pats on their little heads. Prepositions even get objects, and conjunctions are like chains or pivot points, joining up things. And don’t even get me started on interjections, those excitable little dudes who get exclamation points! Wow! Cool! Awesome!

Then, sneaking along behind, embarrassed to be seen, picking up crumbs at the grammar banquet with their little –ly tails dragging in the dust behind them, there’s the lowly adverb. Gone are the adverbial glory days—if they ever existed. Read what Mark Twain had to say about the poor little guys:

"I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. ... There are subtleties which I cannot master at all,--they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me,--and this adverb plague is one of them. ... Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won't." 

Even Stephen King said "The road to hell is paved with adverbs."  

Ouch! Well, yes, okay, it’s true. Adverbs can be a sign of weak writing, a cry for stronger verbs. But don’t they deserve a little respect instead of being ostracized and sent into the outer darkness? If someone is eating voraciously, isn’t that easier to say than ‘as if he hasn’t had a meal in days’ if only for word count alone? 

I confess it, loud and proud: I have any unholy passion for the red-headed step-child of grammar, the lowly adverb. So sue me.  

And don’t even get me started on the tragic semicolon, poor, misunderstood bastard child of a period and a comma…

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Doc and Monk and Ham and Rennie and Long Tom and Johnny.....and Lamont

Pulp. I love pulp. I remember when they began publishing the reprints of the Doc Savage novels. I read one and was hooked. Of course, I'd already known and loved H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, plus many many many of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers started out in pulp.

For many readers today, pulp means the golden age, the 20s, 30s, 40s, cheap but engrossing entertainment before TV and gaming and comics. The old heroes: Tarzan, Buck Rogers, The Spider, The Shadow, Doc and his Fabulous Five and all the rest.  

But there are new pulp heroes being created every day. And the brilliant dean of pulp historians, Tom Johnson, and his wife, the equally knowledgeable Ginger--friends of mine, I'm proud and happy to brag--have produced a new book on the new pulp heroes called, you guessed it: NEW PULP HEROES. It's only available from Tom himself under his imprint, Fading Shadows, and, if you're lucky, he might even autograph it. My own copy is in the mail as we speak, since I ordered it as soon as I found out about it.
 
So if you love pulp as much as I do, then do yourself a favor: Go ye forth and do likewise.

 Here's the cover and ordering information:

 NEW PULP HEROES now available in 280-page paperback from FADING SHADOWS, $12.00, plus $3.99 postage (US). Tom& Ginger Johnson compile 56 essays on new pulp characters, plus 2 essays on villains, plus much more data. Also included are new pulp fiction stories by grandma & grandpa Johnson: “The Mind Master” by Tom, and “The Origin of Mr. Minus” by Ginger. This will only be sold through FADING SHADOWS. This is very likely the first of several books that will chronicle the history of new pulp heroes, and their creators. Order from Tom Johnson, 204 W. Custer St., Seymour, TX or contact fadingshadows40@gmail.com   
 
 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2014 Untreed Reads Reading Challenge

Just got the below from one of my publishers, Untreed Reads. It sounds like an awesome deal to me...and if you'd like to check out some of my work there--for free!--I'd really appreciate it!
 
Here's the info:
 
 
Hello, everyone!
January is typically the month where people set all types of goals and challenges for themselves. One type of very popular challenge is to read a certain number of books over the course of the year.
We think reading is pretty essential to a happy life, and challenging yourself to read more over the course of a year will keep your brain as healthy as giving up chocolate cake or soft drinks. So we want to make it even easier to help you meet that goal.
We've setup The 2014 Untreed Reads Ebook Challenge to get everyone's brains all fired up. If you'd like to participate, all you need to do is the following:
1. Send your name and email address to 2014Challenge@untreedreads.com . If you're participating in another reading challenge on the Internet, be sure to let us know that too. We won't EVER share your info with anyone else, but we'll add you to our New Releases newsletter so you can see the great new books coming down the pike...plus get even more coupons!
2. Each month we'll send you a coupon good for a free download from our store (http://store.untreedreads.com). You can choose any title up to $5.99 and in any format you prefer: EPUB, PDF or Kindle.
3. Read the book and leave a review in our store and as many other places you can, such as Amazon and Goodreads. Please leave an honest review! You'll also need to include in your review that you received a free copy of the book in exchange for a review. The government requires that. Darn red tape!
Don't break your resolution to stop procrastinating! We're only accepting sign-ups through January 31st, so be sure to take advantage of this great opportunity!
 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Both Beauty and Beastliness are in the Eye of the Beholder

We all love fairy tales as kids, and some of us continue to love them forever. Good old Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were onto something when they started collected the dark and creepy stories from the past. But 'Beauty and the Beast' wasn't from the Grimm boys. This is a truly French story: gorgeous girl falls in love with frighteningly ugly creature, entirely against her better judgment, thus breaking a curse and turning him all pretty. Happy ending, yay!

But when Greta Garbo saw Jean Cocteau's 1946 movie version of the fairytale, La Belle et la Bête, and the star, Jean Marais, turned from delicious, desirable, delectable, deadly Beast to wimpy guy, she famously said: 'Give me back my beautiful beast.'

Right there with you, girl. The Beast, at least in that movie, won hands down for style, charisma and general awesomeness against his 'human' counterpart.

 When I wanted to write something fairy tale-ish, I decided to retell this story with a bit of a gender switch. I wanted to see how a young man, smart but a little naïve, would deal with a strong woman who hides her face from him at all times. The result turned into a tragic love story with magical interludes and lots and lots of books.

In my opinion, every story should have lots and lots of books. And then some more.

So if you love fairytales, I'd appreciate it if you'd give 'The Beauty in the Beast' a read and let me know how you liked it. It's free for a short time at Smashwords. And here's the cover:
 
 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review: THE DARDANELLES by Richard Freeman



I review books for Endeavour Press, which publishes a lot of history. I love history, and World War I aka The War to End All Wars, is one of my favorite time periods.

Recently, I read THE DARDANELLES by Richard Freeman; here's my review:

Gallipoli. The Dardanelles. In many ways, these names evoke one of the most disastrous events in an entirely new kind of disastrous war. But who was to blame for the tragedy of the Dardanelles campaign? In Richard Freeman's fascinating, detailed and downright horrifying book The Dardanelles: Brilliant Conception and Tragic Failure, it's clear that nearly everyone involved must share culpability.

Churchill was blamed for forcing the idea of invading the Dardanelles on a reluctant War Council, though in fact he didn't agree with Kitchener about the importance of the campaign.

Lord Kitchener, for all his popularity, was used to a far different sort of war.

Vice Admiral Carden, Commander of the Mediterranean Squadron, was ordered to bomb the Turkish forts to submission in order to clear the way for ground forces; the admiral was weak, elderly and sent vague reports about the Turkish resistance being 'reduced', though in fact little damage could be done from guns created to fight other ships and not forts situated high in the hills.

Sir Ian Hamilton, the general in charge of the ground forces, was sent out from London at a moment's notice, with no plans, out of date maps, no staff, and a supply system that was ludicrously inadequate. When he begged—again and again—for more troops and more ammunition, Kitchener and the War Council ignored his pleas, or else responded with too little, and far too late. And as the casualties mounted, horror grew back home.

Freeman's prose is clear and eloquent as he demonstrates again and again how badly things were managed…and how hideously British and ANZAC soldiers suffered due to this mismanagement.

A powerful, intense, almost day-by-day description of one of the most famous and bloody campaigns of The Great War. Highly recommended.    

~K.G. McAbee

Fritz Leiber: Father of Sword and Sorcery

I've loved Fritz Leiber's work—specifically his stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser—since, well, forever. Fafhrd was a huge, muscular bulky Northern barbarian draped in furs, with a massive sword he named Graywand. You'd think he'd be the practical, no-nonsense sort, but he tended to be a bit romantic. The Gray Mouser, on the other hand, was a small, sneaky former thief, who dressed in gray, obviously, and called his sword Scalpel and his knife Cat's Claw. The Mouser came across, indeed was, cynical and businesslike, but with a sneaky sentimentality that was endlessly endearing. In many ways, they reminded me of the immortal Monk and Ham—Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Blodgett Mayfair and Theodore Marley Brooks, to introduce them formally, though we Doc Savage fans have no need to be so formal. Both relationships seemed to be endless squabbling intersected by fights—but the love and respect between the characters was always there.

Both Fafhrd and the Mouser had been apprentices to wizards, and who could not love the wizards' names: Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, with eye stalks that kept sneaking out of his hood; Sheelba of the Eyeless Face, on the other hand, was, as his nom de sorcier clearly states, optically challenged.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are rogues, of course. Most of their time is spent wenching, drinking, wenching, brawling, wenching, gambling, wenching, stealing and I seem to recall a bit of wenching as well. Their swords and many other talents are for rent to the highest bidder, but they have a deep rooted humanity, and Fafhrd liked kittens. But their most constant and intense love was for pure, true adventure, back to back against the world.

 My kind of guys.

So when I first started writing, as we all do when we first begin, I wanted to write something Leiber-ish and Fafhrd/Mouser-ish. So I wrote 'Jewels of a False God' which I recently dusted off and published at Smashwords. Cover is below.

Just wanted to say thanks, Fritz Leiber, for so much enjoyment.