Sunday, December 29, 2013

Should we thank the Tsar?

Did Tsar Nicholas II lead us to
the Information Superhighway?
Have you ever contemplated the debt we owe to Tsar Nicholas II? No, perhaps not. But as I showered this morning, the connection came to mind.

Like tsars and tsarinas for centuries before him, Nicholas was a despot who despoiled the Russian peasantry. He and his family lived in grand isolation, living off the labors of millions of miserable serfs who were barely more than slaves. Then along came war in 1914, and Nicholas decided to fight the forces of Kaiser Wilhelm--with the blood of his serfs, who eventually objected and overthrew him. But there remained numerous conflicting interests, allowing a small group called the Bolsheviks to wrest power. They established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), withdrew from the war, and inflicted untold additional pain upon their own countrymen. Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin and their ilk were godless communists.

From afar, America looked on the USSR with a combination of fascination and dread. Even as our allies in World War II, America's establishment hated them. After the war, they got The Bomb. Would there be a World War III? When in 1957 Sputnik circled the Earth, Americans saw the vivid threat and the space race was on. Throughout the 1960s we fretted over potential nuclear attacks from ICBMs and Bison bombers. If the Soviets destroyed certain of our mainframe computers, they would leave us defenseless. So in 1969 we (and not Al Gore) created a network of computers across the country and called it the Internet. That way, our defense never depended on the functionality of one specific computer.

So the space race brought microchips and satellite technology to the world, along with less memorable innovations such as Tang. The Internet eventually became public and birthed the World Wide Web, which truly boomed with the continuous advent of smaller and smaller devices processing more and more data at faster and faster speeds. Thus the iPhone, Microsoft Windows, and blogs such as this one.

In the 1970s a PBS series called Connections attempted to establish historical links between, say, cow pox and nuclear energy, or the Magna Carta and agricultural policy in Kansas. (I made up those examples, but you get the idea.) In that spirit, it seems reasonable to ask: If Tsar Nicholas had only shown a little more compassion to his people, would Google exist today?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A firing offense

I entered this in the El Paso Writers' League's annual writing competition and won Honorable Mention. 

Bang! Bang! The sharp gunfire frightened me. Was someone being murdered here in the office?

My employer was CGI, a well-established company that supplied software and support to automobile insurance providers such as Progressive Insurance. My colleague Lorraine and I were the only technical writers in our division, so we were attached to the Underwriting department. We worked in separate cubicles and were surrounded by sporadic noise as we churned out customer bulletins about product updates.

Bang! There it was again. The loud shot came from down the hallway, along with muffled conversation.

I hunkered down while others carried on with shouting and laughter. Our manager Patti was not a writer, and she relied on Lorraine, who was senior to me, for all editorial judgments. Every bulletin I wrote had to go to Lorraine for review. She marked it up and graded it in pencil—if she found typos, she graded the bulletin -1, -2 and so forth, then reported to Patti, who ignored my vehement objections. She told me it was nothing personal, but she was data-driven. “I’m anal retentive,” she liked to say.

No one screamed at the gunshots, but I heard a muffled conversation, so it seemed safe to stick my head out and see what was going on. Frank Chapman stood in the hallway, smiling as he showed a woman colleague what appeared to be a .38-caliber pistol. When he noticed my slack-jawed look he said, “Don’t worry. This is a starter pistol for races.”

That was a relief to me, although no one else seemed concerned. It was just one more part of the general office cacophony. I grumbled and went back to work. Frank and his friend finished their conversation, and he went back to his cubicle. It was next to mine, although he worked in another department. Thank goodness that’s over, I thought.

A few minutes later came another loud bang! from his cubicle, and by then I’d had enough. I stood up and looked over the cubicle divider and saw Frank at his desk, still playing with his pistol. I shouted at him, “Will you cut that out?” He looked embarrassed. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, and he put the pistol in his desk drawer.

The next day, Patti called all of her department into a conference room. “There’s been a company reorganization,” she said, “and I’ve been promoted to Director, effective immediately.”

That was fine, but who was our new boss? “Your new manager is Frank Chapman,” she said. Then she gleefully recounted to us what I’d said to him the day before. Clearly she thought it a great joke on me. I thought the company should have fired Frank instead of promoting him, but I kept mum.

Once Frank took over the department, he apologized to me once more, and then we stopped talking about the gun incident. Then he learned about Patti’s policy of Lorraine nitpicking my work. “That’s demeaning,” he said. “That stops immediately.”

When I thanked him he replied with a wink, “I trust you to do your job. But if you disappoint me I’ll shoot you.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Remembering President Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy
This week marks fifty years since the anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. Few events in my lifetime have been as stunning--my brother's death and the 9/11 attacks, that's about it. The killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy just piled on the hurt and colored the '60s as a decade I long looked back on with distaste. It wasn't all bad, of course. My personal life was fine, but for the nation it was the most tumultuous time since the Civil War.

So November 22, 1963 was the first major trauma that occurred in my lifetime and burned into my consciousness. I'd been a student at Boston University, waiting for an economics class to start when a student ran in with the news and turned on a transistor radio. At that point we didn't know the President's condition, just that he had been gravely wounded and rushed to Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Then the instructor entered. She had heard the news but grimly said our class would go on as usual. I absorbed nothing from the class that day as I sat in a daze, wondering what it all meant. And then the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald and his murder that weekend added to my feeling that the country had slipped into chaos. The rest of the decade brought us the Vietnam War, political murders, riots in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C.--and other places in the U.S.

The United States has never been an idyllic society, as blacks know better than most people. The struggle for racial equality had gone on for decades before the '60s. But for many of us, there had been a veneer of stability and order--perhaps illusion is the better word. We since have glorified President Kennedy, learned of and largely forgiven his faults. Would he have been as revered had he lived? No one knows. We do know that Oswald's bullets not only killed a man; they blasted our country out of the complacent 1950s and into a decade of anger and fear.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why, that two-terming Hawaiian...

The other day, the free local weekly called The Bulletin landed in my driveway, and I brought it inside. Most weeks I forget to read the paper even though it contains plenty of Las Cruces news. But this week I opened to the editorial page and read an opinion piece in which the writer called President Obama a Chicago mobster, apparently for single-handedly shutting down the World War II veterans' memorial.

Although I was pretty sure he was wrong on the facts, I emailed the writer and took him to task for name-calling. He promptly wrote me back, saying I was right, that Obama wasn't a mobster but a thug.

Talk about missing the point. No, I replied. We ought not to slur Obama (or anyone else, I might have added). The only thing we should call him is President. But we could also call him a two-terming Kenyan, or far more accurately, a two-terming Hawaiian.

I really should fess up here, lest I earn the label of hypocrite. Just show me a photo of Rumsfeld, Cheney, or LaPierre, and the invective rises in my throat like bile. It's irrational and inhumane, but most of us do it. Perhaps a fault line exists in our DNA that causes us to hurl insults at nasty, stupid morons.

That two-terming Hawaiian

The trouble is, no one maligns with style anymore. Truly vile sexist, racist and homophobic garbage aside, we still call people fascists, nazis, commies, socialists, and morons, and it's all so damn trite. Churchill called Atlee "a modest man with much to be modest about." Now that was a good one. And Shakespeare had a million of 'em, some of which could be recycled to good effect in Washington:

"All goodness is poison to thy stomach."
"He's a rank weed, and we must root him out."
"Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?"
"Idol of idiot-worshipers"
"What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name!"
"Vicious mole of nature."

Source: Shakespeare's Insults

So if you can't wrap your venom in a little wit, don't bother. You'll be just another corrupter of words. Oh, wait. Shakespeare wrote that too.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Climbing to Cloudcroft

A not-untypical house in Cloudcroft, New Mexico

Yesterday we drove our car to Cloudcroft, New Mexico to scout out possible places to park ourselves and our RV for the month of June or July of next year. Down here in Las Cruces at 4000 feet above sea level the October days are pleasant, perhaps our favorite month. The heat is gone, and the relative cold will not arrive until much deeper into the fall. But summer is a different story, with 100-plus degrees not being out of the ordinary.

The sign at the edge of Cloudcroft puts its elevation at 8650 feet. At my wife's wise suggestion, we both brought light jackets. We saw no one in the small town wearing short sleeves--there was just a nip in the air, and there's a likelihood of snow in the next couple of days.

Getting to Cloudcroft means driving through the San Augustin Pass in the Organ Mountains before leveling out on the White Sands Missile Range. We stop momentarily to tell the Border Patrol (not on government shutdown) that we are US citizens, drive past the White Sands National Monument (closed, thanks to Washington), and skirt Alamogordo before climbing into the Sacramento Mountains. The drive takes just a couple of hours.

Storefront flowers in Cloudcroft, summer 2007
Cloudcroft is a pretty town, with pine and aspen trees that could almost make a body think he's in New Hampshire. My wife identified three RV parks for us to check, and all three locations were well outside of town. The first one looked satisfactory. The second looked downright shabby. The third--well, the third looked like an overgrown field with a couple of derelict rigs that may have been gathering rust for the last decade.

Well, that made our choice easy.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Napoleon, author

Gallic Books has published Clisson and Eugénie, a love story penned, sort of, by Napoleon Bonaparte. It tells a tragic tale of the military officer, Clisson, who falls deeply in love with and marries Eugénie but then must follow his country's call to duty. He may be away for years. Will his wife stay true, or will she succumb to the handsome officer who carries Clisson's messages to her? It's a premise with promise, as Napoleon obviously based Clisson on himself and lived an eventful life. The introduction calls the story a novel, but it's more a novelty. The entire book is 80 pages, with the story itself being 20 pages.

Why so short? Well, N had a full-time job ravaging Europe, so he wrote only a few pages that became scattered, later reassembled, and when necessary re-imagined by historian Peter Hicks. The result, claims the cover blurb, reveals N as "an accomplished writer of fiction."

No, it doesn't. It's 19th-century romantic fare told with little plot or detail. Perhaps it shines a light on how N thought of himself, and it's reasonably readable and interesting. Typical lines:

He began to tire of serving men who did not value him. He felt the need to retreat into himself. For the first time, he turned his gaze upon his life, his inclinations and his situation.

The writing's not awful, but it has a lot of declarative sentences. Bottom line: If you like romance fiction, skip this one. If Napoleon himself interests you, borrow this from the library.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

And a one...

Does any more important number exist than one? Why, it's the beginning of everything. Chapter 1, Page 1. Lawrence Welk started up his orchestra with "And-a-one ..." We have one life, one spouse (at a time, anyway). I have one child. Christians, Jews and Muslims all believe in one god. Look inside my wallet, and you'll see a one-dollar bill. Alas, only one. Americans love to say "We're number one!" although one of these days it may no longer be true. And who can forget the 1972 campaign slogan, "Nixon's the One"? Indeed he was, in more ways than one. One unkind word may be all it takes to destroy one's happiness. Yet one act of kindness can soothe a tired soul. Egotists look out for Number One. We have only one chance to make a first impression. President Lincoln kept the United States one country. My books will reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list When Pigs Fly. I have only one book to edit at the moment, which is fine because I can only do one thing well at a time--speaking of which, time is a one-way street on which u-turns are forbidden. One Lay's potato chip or one piece of chocolate is never enough.

And one of these days, I'll blog again about writing. To quote The Great One, Jackie Gleason: "One of these days, Alice..."

Friday, October 04, 2013

A brief intro to social media

On October 12, I will talk to the El Paso Writers' League about social media, and this post will help me organize my thoughts. I'll talk about Facebook, blogging, Twitter, Goodreads and some of the related resources that have cropped up. My audience's knowledge level is mixed, so this will be a general overview.

So this is a draft of my outline, which will wind up as a handout as well. I invite anyone to comment, suggest areas I've missed, or correct any mistakes. Thanks!

Find friends by
--Typing in a person's name
--Typing in a category such as "people who read mystery fiction" (yields ~300,000 results)
--Typing in a location
Then click "Add friend."

Let people know your interests and accomplishments.
Post thoughts, news items, brags, photos; share what others post.
Comment on and "like" other people's posts.

Stay in touch with current friends, reconnect with old ones, make new ones.
Gain exposure as a writer.

Can take up too much of your time. Possible sales.

Send messages ("tweet") 140 characters or fewer to your followers. Others can retweet, so can you.
Can include links, photos
Follow others, many will follow you back.
Retweet for others, many will follow you back.
Your Twitter ID ("handle") begins with @ and is unique, such as @robertelee or @JaneSmith
Subjects denoted by # so you can narrow search
Useful examples for writers: #books, #ebooks, #mysteries, #fiction, #kindle, #novels, #poetry
Sample tweet:
     When Pigs Fly 100+ reviews & 4 stars on Amazon "hilarious"
     #humor #crime Not for kids

Always include a link in your tweets.

Reach potential readers. Possible sales.

Takes time.

List & evaluate books in your library.
Share info about your own books.

Reach potential readers. Possible sales.

Can take up too much of your time.
Overt self-promotion discouraged.

Internet Writing Workshop
Free email-based writing discussions, including various workshops.
Not a place to promote your work.

Post and share photos. Limited promotional possibilities, but fun.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Books, books, and more books

Over at the Internet Review of Books, my good friend Gary Presley and I collect, edit, and publish book reviews on a wide range of topics and genres. We assign most titles to other writers, but we write a few of them ourselves. Publishers will send us catalogs or online listings of new titles, and sometimes they will send books directly to me without my asking. Honestly, I love getting them. Most often I mail them to other reviewers, but sometimes I greedily keep them for myself to read and review. Such is the case with "Mr. President" by Harlow Giles Unger, about George Washington. Once in a while there's a book I simply don't know what to do with, such as Symmetry: A Very Short Introduction by Ian Stewart. Understanding it takes more knowledge of mathematics than I have, and it may not be suitable for review anyway. Selection of books to review is based on what's available to us, as well as on Gary's preferences and mine. We don't review lots of self-published books, but we review some. If you have something you'd like reviewed, feel free to check with one of us. Be forewarned, though, that our reviewers don't write fluff. If they have criticisms, they say so. Our aim, which should be the aim of all reviewers, is to serve the reader, not necessarily the author.

Gary and I have been working on the IRB since its inception by Carter Jefferson in 2007. If you haven't seen it yet, please check it out.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Pop goes my culture: Tara Reid up close

When my cyberpal Cairn Rodrigues asked me to write about pop culture, it seemed like a good time to revive my street cred, which pretty much died when Bill Haley and the Comets burst onto the scene in ’52. So I foolishly agreed.  Then today she’s like “Write about Tara Reid’s nip slip.” And I’m like “Huh?” And then I go “Maybe it’s like whosie’s wardrobe malfunction at the football thing.” So I check her out on the Google and confirm my suspicions. After seeing her picture, I’m like Whoa. (Cairn had written “It’s a chestnut,” probably not referring to the exposed protuberance.) Below is a photo of Ms. Reid, edited for relevance:

Over 18?
Click boob.

Under 18? You've
seen too much already.
Of course I am too old to admit to a degree of titillation (My 70th birthday is in October—no presents over $10 $20, please) at her pulchritude. Tara’s, not Cairn’s. Not that I—I don’t mean to say—you know.

So. Tara Reid. I understand she stars in a summer blockbuster called Sharknado, in which a tornado lifts thousands of sharks out of the ocean, while in defiance of the laws of physics it apparently leaves smaller fish behind. The sharks attack Hollywood like it was Pearl Harbor, except I’d think the sharks were the good guys. Anyway, some dude sees he’s about to end up in a shark’s toothy maw, so he revs up his chain saw and stands his ground.

The dialogue is quite compelling:

Guy #1: I hate sharks.
Guy #2: I hate sharks too.

Does cinema get any better than that? Well, perhaps in The Big Lebowski, in which Tara also has a part. But does she expose herself there? I saw the movie but forget her. I just remember guys bowling. How sad for me.

Cairn Rodrigues, who put me up to this nonsense, is a nice person with a rich sense of humor. Since what I wrote really isn't her fault, please visit her blog at

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A penny saved...

Today a grocery store clerk owed me a penny in change. "Which would you rather have," she asked me, "$10,000 today (not that she was offering), or a penny today, two cents tomorrow and so forth, doubling every day for the rest of your life?" I quickly said I'd go for the pennies. But is there enough copper in the world, or space to put it? Of course not. After a month or two, humanity would be crushed under avalanches of Honest Abe. And forget about inflation. There wouldn't be anything left to buy, because it would all be smothered in coins.

I'd get:
Day 1:  $0.01
Day 2:    0.02
Day 3:    0.04
Day 4:    0.08
Day 5:    0.16

Day 6:    0.32
Day 7:    0.64
Day 8:    1.28
Day 9:    2.56
Day 10:   5.12
Looks like chump change, huh?
But it gets better:
Day 20:  5242.88 (and don't forget we're accumulating the previous days, if we don't spend it)
Day 30: $5,368,709.12
Day 31 my calculator can't handle without using exponents. In a few days, we're zooming past Bill Gates and Carlos Slim. By two months we'll be storing extra coins on a distant moon--and probably not our own moon, which would be already full.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Random childhood memories

In fourth grade, pupils are in line between classes. I have a pocket dictionary and announce in a too-loud voice to a classmate, "See, 'bitch' isn't swearing. It means a female dog." An angry teacher confiscates my dictionary, and I never see it again.

Mickey Mantle
Dad takes me to a July 4 doubleheader at Fenway Park, Yankees vs. Red Sox. I love the Sox because they're the home team, but I worship the Yankees because they win so often. Mantle hits a single, and in the blink of an eye he's on first base. Later he belts one far, far over the left-field wall, up around the lights. I have never seen anything like it. The teams split the doubleheader. My Red Sox heroes are Ted Williams, of course, and lesser gods like Harry Agganis and Jimmy Piersall. Agganis is a local kid from Lynn who graduates from college in 1953, joins the Sox in 1954, and dies of pneumonia in 1955, an awful loss. Piersall is a flashy right fielder who suffers from mental illness. There's a movie about him, Fear Strikes Out. I listen to Curt Gowdy announcing a lot of games on the radio.

In fifth grade, our teacher warns the class that there's a strange man in the area who is asking children to go for a walk with him. Warning: Do not go with him. Shortly after, that man approaches me, and I run away in terror.

Our first car is an emerald green 1953 Chevy, complete with an AM radio. We take it on a three-week trip to Texas to see Mom's relatives, and we make a side trip to Monterey in Mexico. We make lots of stops at watermelon stands on rural roads, and I become thoroughly sick of watermelon. We decide to stop for lunch at a family restaurant in the South, but Dad sees a sign in the window saying they don't serve blacks, and he says we aren't going to eat at that kind of place. There are no interstate highways. We enjoy seeing the Burma Shave signs along the country roads, one sign for each line:


We see lots of them, because Dad drives relentlessly, 500 miles per day at 55 miles per hour or slower. My brothers and I come to look on family road trips as ordeals. In cities, he routinely runs red lights if he thinks it's safe. We kids keep count and treat it as a joke. Oh, and he's a spitter. Spits out the car window when he's driving. One day I'm in the seat behind him with my window open. I complain that he's just spit in my face. Close your window, he says.

We get our first TV when I'm 12 or 13. It's a used console, and Dad examines it in the store. The thing is huge. Dad finds a dead mouse in the case behind the picture tube, but we bring it home anyway. Probably all he and Mom can afford. We watch lots of Jack Benny, The $64,000 Question, Playhouse 90, and the Friday Night Fights. No station broadcasts 24/7, so we also see plenty of test patterns.

Audie Murphy
Movies at Loew's Theater in Beverly are as little 16 cents for matinees, usually including cartoons and a pair of movies. In the evening, a newsreel replaces the cartoons. We're Catholics, so we pay attention to the Legion of Decency ratings. The bad movies are labeled "Morally objectionable in part for all," or at the worst, "Condemned." I'm too young to understand the immoral stuff anyway. My favorites are the Disney and war movies. World War II hero Audie Murphy stars himself in To Hell and Back and thrills me to no end.

Dad has an unpredictable temper, often arguing with neighbors or our family. Sometimes the police show up. At his best, he reads to the family on Friday evenings from Reader's Digest Condensed Books. I love that, especially when he reads The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. But his anger can flare with no notice, and he can get physical with all of us. There are times when he threatens to kill us all, but in time I learn that he's just letting off steam. He doesn't like other people swearing, but in his rages he tells Mom and us boys that we can all "go take a flying fuck at the moon." I only understand the moon part, and I can't picture it but I know it's vile. The most memorable physical hurt I remember is a Christmas morning when I quarrel with my older brother and Dad breaks it up by hitting me in the face with his leather belt. Mainly, his weapons are words.

And you know what? I still love him, at least when I'm not busy hating him. Life frustrates him, and when his moods sour I just try to stay out of his way. The storms usually pass quickly. Mom, though, never forgets. Decades after his death, she still complains about him.

Mom buys me comic books at ten cents each: Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, whenever a new one comes out. After a few months when we've all read them, Mom bundles them up and mails them to Dad's relatives in British Honduras. In the Sunday paper, I love to read Pogo and Dick Tracy, with his cool two-way wrist radio. Pogo the possum gives me an early taste of political satire, though I'm too young to recognize it. Pogo's artist Walt Kelley is taking potshots at government officials like Senator Joe McCarthy. Dad thinks McCarthy is a little extreme, but at least he hates those commies.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Is Writing a Journey, or Just a Pit-Stop Along The Way?

 Today I'm pleased to host Jeannette de Beauvoir, a seasoned pro in the writing business.

Jeannette de Beauvoir
So I’m a writer.

We don’t say that in the same way that bankers do, or hair stylists, or store managers. We’re different, in that we really are what we do. Writers are never not writing, even when they’re not actually sitting in front of the keyboard.

So you have to be careful around us. We listen for a turn of phrase we may love, we hear your stories of family conflicts and dreams deferred and reactions to news stories, and we tuck everything away. We use you.

I’m a shameless example. I carry a notebook with me. I eavesdrop on conversations, I peer into lighted rooms at night, I ask seemingly innocent questions of strangers. All of my experiences are ultimately about words: how I’m going to render what I’m seeing or hearing or doing into words, which character can best use this situation or that conversation and make the words their own … well, you get my drift. I’m never not thinking about writing.

So if you meet me, beware. You’ve been warned.

Does it mean that I live vicariously through others’ experiences? Perhaps; but I rather think not. I live, if anything, in the liminality between reality and fiction, in the margins of stories, in the truths that can only be absorbed through novels. Toni Morrison once said in an interview, “I’m just trying to look at something without blinking.”
And maybe that describes best who I am. My work is dark, because I need to look at the world
without blinking. I explore what it might mean to a woman to learn that her beloved father may also be a war criminal. I write about a war hero’s deteriorating mental health and his family’s impatience with his narrowed world. I think about how far a person may be pushed when her husband abuses her and her child is murdered. I bring to light the hundreds of orphans misclassified as insane by a heartless system, and the CIA experiments that benefited from it. I fill a chapbook with poetry trying to get at the experience of domestic violence.

People talk about writing as a journey. As a metaphor. As a way of making sense of the senseless. For me, though, it’s always simply been an identifier. I’m not very good at much else in life besides writing, and I’ve never really wanted to do anything besides write. Does that make my writing a vehicle; does it mean that I’m a seasoned and savvy traveler of the interior? Or is it just who I am?

I don’t know, and I suspect that the answer is different for everyone. I’d be interested in hearing what your answer is … is your writing a journey? Or is it something that you do on the way somewhere else?

Or am I just asking the question as a way of peering into your soul for more material? When you’re talking with a writer, you’ll never really know.

Jeannette de Beauvoir is an award-winning novelist, poet, and playwright, who divides her life between Cape Cod and Montréal and spends far too much time thinking about all these things. Read more about her at

Friday, May 03, 2013

Fodder for Fiction: An Interview with Morgan St. James

Today I'm pleased to host author Morgan St. James, author of Who's Got the Money?It's a book that sounds like fun. So take it away, Morgan!

Drawing from Life Experiences for Fiction

Morgan St. James
I’ve been following Bob Sanchez’s blog for quite a while so it is my pleasure to add “my two cents” today. Life experiences are a wonderful resource for authors, whether used in fiction, non-fiction or creative non-fiction.

Most of us have stories about how we met our spouse or significant other, things that happened at the office, or an experience where a misunderstanding turned into something hilarious or violent. Others have amazing or astounding life experiences, but whatever the situation those incidents can easily find their way into fiction. Think about thiswhen recounting these tales we often embellish the facts for the shock or humor value. Sometimes it is exaggeration, and other times we add little things that really didn’t happen or eliminate embarrassing details. What we actually create in these stories is known as creative non-fiction, or facts mixed with fictional details.

This leads us to how authors can best use experiences to jump-start fictional plots or scenes in a book. I’m going to do a bit of blatant self promotion at this point, to illustrate what I mean by using my latest novel from the Dark Oak Mysteries imprint of Oak Tree Press.

“Who’s Got the Money?” is pure fiction, but was inspired by true experiences. Most people associate prison manufacturing with license plates, but real prison factories produce close to a billion dollars worth of products every year! My co-author, Meredith Holland, and I both worked for the real private sector company that was under contract to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to market furniture manufactured in Federal prisons. By a mandate from Roosevelt’s time that created the program, we could only sell to the Federal government. This wasn’t a desk here and a chair there. We were part of a team that covered the whole United States, each of us writing millions of dollars of business a year. I personally covered Southern California, Southern Nevada and Utah. Meredith worked in the Pacific Northwest including Alaska.

The subcontractor we worked for did bilk the government out of millions before going bankrupt and got away with it. Once we left the company, we thought “New government embezzlement plots are in the news every day, so why not write a funny crime caper, using what we know?”
We wanted something like Nine to Five meets The First Wives Club, and that’s what we wrote. A story centered on three down-on-their-luck female executives who go to work for the fictional Federal Association of Correctional Reform. When they turn into undercover bumbling Charlie’s Angels types, that’s when our experiences and knowledge kick in and the fun begins.

Many of the situations we used were not what actually happened, but rather gave us inspiration and allowed us to create a very clever plot. NYT Best Selling author, former undercover FBI Agent Joaquin “Jack” Garcia called Who’s Got the Money? “a witty, well thought-out embezzlement scheme.” He added it was a good thing we weren’t crooks. How’s that for reality?

 Experiences and professional or industrial knowledge may just be resting at the back of your mind. Think about giving your characters professions and put that knowledge to work in a thrilling, funny or over-the top way, depending upon your genre.

For example, we could not have conceived of the unique scheme in our book without our using what we knew, nor would we have had any idea what big business prison manufacturing is! Once we had a direction, what we learned over a four-year period entered into devising a scam that could have worked in real life. We drew upon every bit of knowledge, from working in the system, being inside of massive military warehouses and supply depots, and having toured actual prison factories and spoken with the inmates and supervisors.

Incidentally, before being inside these factories, I’d envisioned something like a “garage-type” manufacturing space surrounded by cell blocks. Hardly the case. These factories are like any regular factory except that they are inside the prison gates and instead returning to comfy homes in the suburbs when the day is done, the workers go to cells at night that are located in a different part of the prison grounds.

We plucked the details we wanted, exaggerated many and created a fictional prison system with an on-staff marketing team. Then we cooked up our extremely clever and diabolical plot to embezzle millions.

Whether thrilling or funny, it’s your story and is populated by versions of things you’ve experienced and characters of your creation. Composite characters that blend two or three people you know are fun to work with. Grab the appearance of one real person, the quirks of another and maybe special skills or knowledge from another.

La Bella Mafia, due out in late summer from Houdini Books, is Morgan St. James’ next novel co-authored with Dennis N. Griffin, as told to us by Bella Capo. The amazing true story of an incredible woman who could have died many times but survived to tell the story. Daughter of a crime boss, promoter of clubs on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip and a female white boss in the Crips, she now dedicates her life to helping abused women through the La Bella Mafia organization.