Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Westward Ho!

classic Western fiction
My granddaughter catching her first wave

Tonight, I head west. At least until I hit the Pacific Ocean. My plan is two weeks of surf, sun, and debauchery. Okay, the debauchery part was hyperbole. At my age, an hour in the water exhausts me. I’ve come to associate an afternoon sea breeze with naps. Surfline says the waves are tiny, but the weather is warm, the winds calm, and the surf glassy. I can’t wait to get my TSA/airplane ordeal completed and slide my key into the door lock of my condo. Tomorrow morning I'll take a walk to the bakery for twice-baked almond croissants and check out the waves from my balcony as I eat breakfast and sip coffee.

Since I’ll also be working on Jenny’s Revenge, I may get into some debauchery after all. Jenny’s shenanigans have surprised me, and I don’t think she is up to any good. I can’t wait to see what she’s up to next. Whatever it is, it won’t be good for Steve or Virginia.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Train to Nowhere

This past weekend we spent a mini-vacation in Breckinridge with our daughter’s family. The Breckinridge Summer Fun Park thrilled the grandkids, but made my back sore. After a half dozen runs on the Gold Runner Coaster and a few races down the Alpine SuperSlide, this ol’ gent was ready for something more sedate.




I had never taken the two and a half hour ride on the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad because the train came along after my Steve Dancy Tales. In Leadville, the second in the Steve Dancy series, trains had not yet arrived in the ore rich town. A sub-plot in the book involved the Santa Fe and Denver & Rio Grande competition to lay the first narrow gauge track into Leadville. This feud between the two railroad companies had started years earlier in New Mexico. In The Return, Steve and his friends comfortably ride to Leadville on the winning Denver & Rio Grande line.

The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale by James D. Best
Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad

Leadville by James D. Best
Denver & Rio Grande


The predecessor to the standard gauge Leadville Colorado & Southern train came along about a decade later. The tourist attraction travels for about seventy-five minutes, stops at an authentic water tower, and then reverses direction. I knew the train didn't use restored period cars, so I wasn't expecting an authentic frontier experience. Beyond resting my back from being jerked hinter and yon, I enjoyed the ride and appreciated seats which had been configured for comfortable sightseeing. 

The kids enjoyed the train ride as well, but were happy to get back to the Coaster and SuperSlide. It made me wonder what a frontiersman would think of our modern playthings … or the cost. The mines may have played out, but there is still gold in them thar hills. 

Honest westerns ... filled with dishonest characters.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Did Abraham Lincoln say “That’s cool!”

He did. On the evening of February 27, 1860, Lincoln gave a famous speech at Cooper Union. This was a political speech made before New York City powerbrokers. The purpose was to help secure his nomination to run for president. Here's a snippet.

“We hear that you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that event, you say you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you and then you will be a murderer!”


I used this speech in a prologue for The Shut Mouth Society. Many readers have questioned whether Lincoln actually used modern slang. Luckily, there’s documentation aplenty.

This phrase brings up a point about writing historical fiction. I have an exceptional editor who highlights words or phrases not appropriate to my time period. (For example, she informed me that Winston Churchill invented the word underbelly.) But “That’s cool” taught me something additional: historical writers shouldn't use phrases readers believe are modern, even if they're historically accurate. When a word or phrase strikes the reader as incongruous, it takes them out of the story--a mortal sin for fiction writers. So my advice is to rephrase anything that even appears unfit the period of your story.

mystery thriller suspense


There are exceptions, of course. If I were writing The Shut Mouth Society today, I would include Lincoln’s use of the ubiquitously cool slang phrase. Why? Because it revealed one of his personality characteristics and dialogue should always be character revealing.








Just for fun, here's some old, old slang that sounds modern.
Trip the light fantastic – 1632
High jinks – 17th century
In the dumps – 1534
Elbow grease – 17th century
Nose out of joint – 1581
Plain as the nose on your face – Shakespeare
Sing a different tune – 1390
Play fast and loose – 16th century cheating game
Give short shrift – Shakespeare
Fish out of water – 1380
Hocus-pocus –1656
Hair of the dog that bit me – 1546
Shirt off your back  - Chaucer
Cutting off your nose to spite your face – 1658
Lift oneself by the bootstraps – Shakespeare
Without rhyme or reason – 16th century
Proud as hell – 1711
Break the ice – 18th century or older
Add insult to injury – 1st century
Bite the dust – Homer
Mountain out of a molehill – 1570
In one ear and out the other – 1583
Hem and haw – 1580
Win one’s spurs – 1425
Other fish to fry – 1712
Unable to see the woods for the trees – 1546
By hook or by crook  – 12th century
Lock the barn after the horse is stolen – 1390
Donnybrook -  1204, riotous fair in city of same name
Philadelphia lawyer – 1735


Now, that's cool!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Reading to a child instills a love of books

Cartoon by Grant Snider

As Grant Snider so apply illustrates, a child is likely to fall in love with a single book. At least, initially. Still, no matter how many times I read the same story, a child curled up in my lap feels like I found  Ponce de León's elixir.

We moved to Nebraska to be close to our grandchildren. It was a great decision. We experience unexpected tidbits of joy every day. I've made a discovery, however. When my wife or I engage in a new activity with any of our grandkids, the initial fun wears out far earlier for us than for them. They can go on forever. That's one of the reasons reading to a child is such a good idea for grandparents. The child learns to use their imagination and reading becomes a pleasurable remembrance they carry throughout their lives. And grandparents get to sit in a comfy chair—something I can do longer than my grandkids.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Homesman ... A Good Western Film?

Will The Homesman be a successful Western. Too early to tell, but at least it's not a tricked-out mash-up. The film is based on a Glendon Swarthout novel. Swarthout also wrote The Shootist, as well as a number of other great Westerns. The film is due to be released in the United States later this year.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reading: The Struggle … Really?

literary fiction

Reading a struggle? Tim Parks writes that modern man’s addiction to electronic gadgets means reading is relegated to odd snatches of time. His advice is that we dinosaur writers need to adapt and learn to tell a story in fewer words than were used in the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies. (The 87 word tune at the beginning of The Beverly Hillbillies is famous for terse storytelling.)

Park opens his New York Review of Books article by writing, “The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.”



Adapt? Writing a story using Twitter might be fun and even creative as hell, but it would not be a novel. Park doesn’t actually suggest that writers restrict themselves to 140 characters, but he does predict that a novel “will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out.” To a great extent, this is because Park apparently believes fiction is art and must be studied, rather than merely enjoyed.

He writes:
“Let’s remember just what hard work it can be to read the literary novel pre-1980. Consider this sentence from Faulkner’s The Hamlet:
‘He would lie amid the waking instant of earth’s teeming minute life, the motionless fronds of water-heavy grasses stooping into the mist before his face in black, fixed curves, along each parabola of which the marching drops held in minute magnification the dawn’s rosy miniatures, smelling and even tasting the rich, slow, warm barn-reek milk-reek, the flowing immemorial female, hearing the slow planting and the plopping suck of each deliberate cloven mud-spreading hoof, invisible still in the mist loud with its hymeneal choristers.’”
Could he have found a more writerly example? Mark Twain would never write a sentence like that. For that matter, neither would JK Rowling, Stieg Larsson, or Raymond Chandler. Good grief. Maybe it was pompous writing, not texting that drove people away from long format fiction.

Except that people have not abandoned novels. Novels are increasingly popular. Instead of the novel adapting to modern lifestyles, our lives have adapted to reading in a different manner. Many of us do our reading on e-readers that we bring with us all the time because they weigh less than a Little Golden Book.  

A good novel is the best stress reliever ever invented. A good novel captivates the reader. A good novel instantly transports the reader to another place and time. And a good novel is inexpensive and accessible

A novel provides a unique escape from the relentless pinging for our attention. Despite what our ego may tell us, being constantly tethered to an iThingy is not obligatory. The world will not miss you for an hour or so. When you need a break, just turn off your other devices and open a novel. Give a storyteller some dedicated time and you’ll be able to handle your concerns and responsibilities with aplomb.

Monday, June 16, 2014

George Carlin Does Westerns

George Carlin was one of my favorite comedians. This is so old, he's almost unrecognizable. On the other hand, the style and humor is immediately recognizable as all Carlin.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Searching for Denver’s Past

I prefer to write my stories before doing significant research. (Except for Tempest at Dawn, which required advanced study and planning.) When I do the research first, I feel compelled to wedge into the story all of the fascinating facts I discovered, so the research ends up driving the storyline. One of the axioms of writing is to not let your research show. I find it easy to attain this goal by getting the story right first … then adding tidbits of historical information to set the time and place.

Historic Hotels
Oxford Hotel, 1891
I also need to walk the ground of my novels. For me, description is difficult, so it helps to visit the locations used in my novels. I don’t want description to downshift pacing, so I prefer to sprinkle around terse descriptions to give a sense of place similar to how the characters might perceive their surroundings as they went about their business. I also take lots of photographs, so when I write about a place, I can simultaneously view digital photographs of the area.



Jenny’s Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale starts in Denver, Colorado and moves on to Carson City, Nevada. The Denver portion of the book is in rough draft form, so my wife and I decided to spend a long weekend in Denver to add some location color. We had a great time and I got some good details to incorporate into my story.

In 1881, Denver was so fresh and striving that the official name was Denver City. The second half of the name was for those who might have doubted the status of the buildings clustered along the edge of the Great Plains. Nowadays, Denver is a thriving cosmopolitan area and they have removed City from their name. 

Historic hotels
Inter-Ocean Hotel, 1873
We stayed at the historic Oxford Hotel, which opened in 1891. Although this is a decade after my story takes place, the hotel helped me travel back in time. In Jenny’s Revenge, Steve and Virginia stay at the Inter-Ocean Hotel, which used to be located a block away from the Oxford. The Inter-Ocean was owned by Barney L. Ford, an escaped slave who taught himself to read and write. Unfortunately, the Inter-Ocean eventually became a flop-house and was torn down in 1973.





historic hotels
Windsor Hotel, 1880

Another prominent hotel in the story is the Windsor, but it's no longer there either. Well, that’s not exactly right. We were standing on the correct intersection, but I couldn't figure out the proper corner when my wife pointed up. Sure enough, we were standing in the shadow of the Windsor condominium building. Just like Steve and Virginia, my wife and I then walked the three blocks between the long ago demolished hotels.



Thankfully, the Oxford never saw the wrecking ball. The Oxford staff is excellent and they take their historic heritage seriously. It’s a fun stay and the incongruous Cruise Bar is an exceptional experience. The Art Deco bar feels out of place beside the Western motif and Victorian architecture, but it was the first bar in Denver after prohibition, so it has a birthright of its own.

Mizpah Arch from Union Station
Mizpah Arch Leaving Town

















I wish I could use the Mizpah Arch in my story, but it wasn’t erected until 1906. This arch stood five stories high and was lit with 2,194 light bulbs. As a passenger exited Denver Union Station, the sign read Welcome. On the reverse side it read Mizpah, which is a Hebrew word expressing an emotional bond between people who are separated. It was a landmark that became obsolete when cars became wider and upkeep expensive. In 1931, the Mizpah Arch became history.

Denver is a fun city with great food. It past is not hard to find. It sits right there in LoDo, lower downtown. This area used to encompass all of metropolitan Denver, but in the hundred and thirty years since my story took place, people and commerce have bulged out to occupy the empty plain that sat to every side of this mile-high city.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Over 1,000 ratings on Goodreads



My books now collectively have over 1,000 ratings on Goodreads with an average rating of 3.77. (201 written reviews.) 

I’m proud of my average rating because it’s close to Stephen King’s for Pet Sematary. Of course Mr. King has over 180,000 ratings for this one book and my mere thousand are across all of my books. Still, I’m happy that so many readers have taken the time to provide feedback on my books. Thanks to all my readers. I appreciate the support.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Too few cooks in the kitchen

As a Western writer, I keep an eye on Hollywood Westerns. Last night I saw A Million Ways to Die in the West. I wish I could say the movie exceeded my low expectations, but it was worse than anticipated. A couple laughs, but far too much mind-numbing nonsense in between. Seth MacFarlane sought his laughs by using modern-day allusions, genitalia references, and potty jokes, all punctuated with f- bombs aplenty. These devices have been used so much, they're now cheap groans. The problem with being edgy is that you constantly need to go further out. MacFarlane took gross-out over the edge, especially for diarrhea absurdities.


I suppose the movie is meant to be a parody of traditional Westerns, but the film uses so many anti-Western clichés that it ends up being a parody of itself. A Million Ways to Die in the West comes across as dull and repetitive.

Movie making is a collaborative art form. The tagline for this movie is "From the guy who brought you Ted." The singular noun is purposeful. Seth MacFarlane produced, wrote, directed, and starred in this farce. I believe a major theme of the movie was how everyone needs a helping hand on occasion. MacFarlane would be wise to seek help on his next film. When he works collaboratively, he's done some good stuff.

The big question was why this movie was ever made. In McFarlane's script, the character played by McFarlane constantly says that he hates the West. It sounded like serious damnation, not witty self- deprecation. Did McFarlane see the Western rearing its ugly head and feel compelled to knock it back down again. When Mel Brooks made Blazing Saddles, he was having fun with a tired genre. A Million Ways to Die in the West comes across as ridicule, not comedy.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Amazon Changing its Customer Rating System?

This seems like a good time to discuss Amazon’s ratings because The Shut Mouth Society has reached 100 Amazon customer reviews. Amazon appears to be in the middle of changing its rating system. (Ratings are the number of stars that customers give a product.) Or at least I presume it is in the middle of a change because the calculation for print/audio and Kindle ratings is different. At the top of the page for print/audio editions, there are now two numbers associated with the star ratings. The first number is the number of ratings without reviews and the second number is the count of reviews. The new rating appears to be a weighted average of these two numbers.

For example, The Shut Mouth Society has 100 reviews for 4.3 stars. The print/audio editions also display 162 ratings without reviews. There is a nifty roll-over chart which shows a combined 4.1 stars with a bar graft and sample review comments. (A roll-over chart is displayed automatically when you roll the cursor over the review count.)

suspense thriller
100 Reviews for 4.3 Stars

Some authors seem upset with the new system because their ratings declined. Mine did as well, but I favor the new system. I believe a larger sample size adds credibility to the quality assessment. I suspect those most upset were gaming the old system and their bogus reviews were diluted under the new system.

Amazon rankings and ratings

My remaining question is what is the source of these additional ratings. Amazon acquired GoodReads over a year ago, but the numbers don’t correspond to their ratings. I suspect these new ratings come from Kindle readers, who can assigned a star rating upon completion of a book.

Whatever the case, as far as I’m concerned, the more, the merrier.

Update, 06/04/14:

Ratings seemed to have reverted back to their old selves, so ... never mind.