Good-bye to an Old Friend

Thirty five years ago I bought a research tool that has helped me write for decades.  At the time I was still a year or so away from owning my first PC (a Commodore VIC20 that William Shatner –aka Captain Kirk–hawked on TV) and the Internet was just a communication device for the military industrial complex.  You actually had to get up off your butt and go to the library to do any in depth research.  One other thing you could use was the tool that I bought so long ago.

It was the 1980 edition of The New Webster Encyclopedia Dictionary of the English Language: Including a Dictionary of Synonyms and Twelve Supplementary Reference Sections.  A copy of the title page is featured above.

The dictionary started out with a very interesting forward entitled On the Origin of Words which, essentially, explained how the English language came to be.  Nine hundred and seventy two pages of word definitions followed until you came to the 12 supplements mentioned in the title.

The supplements were as follows:

  1. Synonyms and Antonyms
  2. Popular Quotations
  3. Classical Mythology
  4. Foreign Words and Phrases
  5. Student’s and Authors Manual
  6. Secretaries Guide
  7. Business Law for Laymen
  8. Business and Finance
  9. Names and Their Meanings
  10. The Story of America in Pictures
  11. Flags of the World (in color)
  12. Presidents of the United States (in color)

The last president listed in section 12 is Ronald Reagan.  I found out in section 9 that my first name means “The Lord is gracious, merciful” and in section 5 I found out how to edit a document using Proofreading Marks.  There are too many great quotations to list here but my favorite from the Writing list in section 2 is “Look, then, into thine heart, and write!” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

At this time, I have to paraphrase another well known quote, “Time waits for no man nor great tome of knowledge”.  Over the course of the decades, this book was referenced more times than I can remember especially after my son was born in 1984.  It was at his side countless times while doing homework and at mine as I did my writing.  Now, however, it is showing the effects of its great use and great age.  The pages are torn and falling out as they fade from yellow to brown and the binding is all but gone.  So I have decided to give it a new life; I have made the gut wrenching decision to recycle my old companion in hopes that its next life will be as useful as its first one was.

So good-bye my old friend, good-bye.

NOTE: I used this book one last time to look up the proper way to spell-and hyphenate-the term “good-bye” since there are many variations of it and discovered that the phrase is a shortened version “God be with you”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary on line is located here.  It even has a section for Scrabble:

Captain Kirk selling computers (as William Shatner):

How a near death experience inspired a story…

I am positive that near death experiences have inspired countless works of fiction and non-fiction.  I just never thought this would happen to me.

In my case it started out innocently enough; I woke up one morning with pain in my abdomen, severe pain, but even at that I didn’t think too much of it because until then I had been fine.  I tried to go about my business as usual but the pain prevented me from doing this so, reluctantly, I went to the emergency room.  The doctors there were very concerned and immediately began a series of test.  It turned out that I had a severe case of pancreaticitis caused by a dysfunctional gall bladder.  They told me that if I had waited a few days, my pancreas would have ruptured and I would have died.  A sudden shock to my pancreas would have sufficed as well.

After being admitted to the hospital, I was told that I could not eat or drink anything until my pancreas was cleared of all the poison in it; to reduce my pain and allow me to get by without food or drink, they started me on a saline IV and Morphine drip.  Essentially I went on a 4 day stoner because that is how long it took my pancreas to become stable enough to let the doctor go in in remove my offending gall bladder.

During this time, I was in and out of dream states almost to the point of hallucinating.  It was during one of these sessions that the oddest thing happened; a vision of a car that I owned years ago came into my mind.  It was a car that I had totally forgotten about, or so I thought.  What is more, the car was parked outside my then residence like it was always parked and to make things even stranger, a series of memories of this car continued with different views of the car parked in that spot. Some views were from the side, some from the back and so on.  After I returned to full consciousness, I remember this event and began to wonder why I still remembered this car and where these images were stored in my brain.

It took me several weeks to fully recover from this illness and during that time I was haunted by this question.  My mind mulled over a lot of possibilities but not being a doctor, I had no clear explanation and maybe a doctor would not have one either.  Then several ideas struck me: What if the brain really was like a computer and what if the brain could get clogged up with “files” like these memories of my old car?  What if this overload lead to debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease?  What if we could go in and clean out these files like you do on your computer?  Would that make your brain function better like deleting files on your computer makes it run faster?

At that point I had written my first two Detective Anderson mysteries (outlined in my blog posts I’m sorry, what did you say? and When a friend drives a story, but is not the story), now I wondered how all of these questions could involved Anderson and his team?

Well, throw in a “mad” scientist scorned by the local academia who is killed in a mysterious car wreck and then toss in the sexy owner of the Miami Dolphins (circa 1970) who pays Anderson a fortune to find out what really happened to him, then you have a wild rambling mystery that borders on science fiction. The story also introduces the hugely successful Anderson Detective Agency and a partner for Anderson.

And though the title of the story is one word, Images, at 19,324 words, it is the longest story that I have written to date.

Here is the On Borrowed Time book trailer that hints at this mystery:

Fact into fiction

When I first moved to California, I lived in Santa Barbara–a town I had never heard of before relocating to it.  It is a nice place, great weather, terrific scenery, and Hollywood stars walking on the streets like all of us nobodies, but after 5 years I decided it was not my kind of town so I moved south to the beautiful little town of Ventura and that is where I have been ever since.  I love it so much here, that I will never leave it really.  I have it set up so when I die I will be cremated and my ashes will be spread just off the coast so they can slowly wash ashore (thank you Neptune Society).

One thing that I really did like about Santa Barbara was their library.  It is a beautiful facility with a large collection of books.  Well one day I was there just browsing for nothing in particular when a title caught my eye.  It was A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Conspiracy of 1865 written by a man name Louis J. Weichmann.  I had never heard of this author and I always thought I knew everything about Lincoln’s assassination so I would have normally passed on this book but the intriguing title enticed be to pick it up and at least read the dust cover.  After I did that, I checked the book out, took it home, and read it is just a few days.  It is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it to anyone, history buff or not.

I, for one, didn’t know all the intricacies of the plot against Lincoln which included the kidnapping of the President in order to hold him for ransom.  When that plot went astray, sadly, John Wilkes Booth took matters into his own hands.  I also did not know that there was a mystery woman who often visited Booth in the home of Mary E. Surratt, the mother of conspirator John H. Surratt.  This mystery woman has never been identified.  There is a lot in the book that I did not know but that is because the revelations in it were divulged by Weichmann–a man who lived in the same house with the conspirators but was not party to it.  Louis J. Weichmann was a clerk in the War Department at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Anyway, the mystery of the woman who Weichmann spoke haunted me for years even after I moved so one day I applied the magic “What if…” question to this lady and came up with a wild plot for a story.  I call it Saving Abraham and it is available in Angel and the Bear.

The story is a science fiction tale that revolves around a plan to stop the conspiracy and assassination; the idea is dreamed up by a scientist living in Atlanta in the year 2145.  The scientist known only as Johnson, and his partner Locke, have invented a machine called the Timatron which can not only let you travel in time, it can also transport you to specific places as well.  For his own reasons, Johnson wants to save Abraham Lincoln from Booth’s bullet but he and Locke disagree on what this would do to time. They have a spirited debate on that subject with Johnson finally hooking in Locke’s greed to get him to come around to his way of thinking and help him on his mission.  Well, things go terribly awry–in a most personal way–but you will have to read the story and it’s double climax ending to see how badly Johnson miscalculated the power of time.

Along the way to this conclusion, though, you will read a historically accurate tale that I wrote with the aide of Weichmann’s book.  The boarding house of Mary E. Surratt, where Johnson takes up residence is where it really was located in 1865, the livery he used, the events of the time, the visitors to the house, etc. are all real people and places described by a man who lived in that time period and with these people.  The only part of the story that is truly fictional is the actions of Johnson and Locke.

However, to make these dueling scientist seem more real, I based them on two other men famous for their dueling diatribes.  They were based on the movie critics, Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, both of whom now have sadly passed on.  I admired them greatly and was such an avid fan, I could easily see them fitting into the roles I created for them.  At one point, Locke even gives Johnson a “thumbs up”.

This story not only shows how I used real people of the past, but real people of my time (Siskel & Ebert were both still with us when I wrote this).

Here are two links to the real people involved:

Louis J. Weichmann

Siskel & Ebert

Research: You have to love it

Unless you are an authority on a certain subject, you may have to do a lot of research to write a story or article.  Articles, of course, are usually nothing but the facts (though Opinion is allowable) but fiction can be written without them.  The problem with that, though, is that you can write a story full of nothing but fantasy and lose a reader because they have no real reference points.  I find that hard facts make a fiction story more real to a reader no matter what genre it is written in.  Take Jurassic Park as an example; what occurred in the story is highly unlikely to ever really happen but due to all the scientific facts used in the writing of it, the story certainly makes it seem like it could happen at any minute and make you feel that it is happening somewhere in our world.

In an earlier blog post, I told you about the creation of my story Woman In Black, which tell the adventures of a time-tripping better half of the Men In Black society.  In this story, Debra, our heroine, is sent back in time to deal with a pesky alien known to the masses as Jack the Ripper.  Her job is to eliminate this alien because his presence caused too many disruptions in the future—or so she is lead to believe.  The problem with this is that you cannot drop a beautiful blonde assassin, who is an expert fighter, a dead shot, and who can slice an alien up in a minute using her very non-regulation Stiletto, into the middle of the Whitechapel District of London in 1888 and not have her stick out like a strobe light in a darkened room.

So in Debra’s Assignment Package, there was suitable clothing and money for the period but there was something else that I put in there as well.  I thought about the time and place and realized that Debra’s pattern of speech would make her stand out just as much as anything else.  Jack the Ripper hunted his victims in a very poor part of London where criminals of all types roamed.  His victims were mostly poor prostitutes that sold their wares just so they could get a roof for the night.  As such, most of the denizens of the Whitechapel district spoke Cockney English.

So I inserted a copy of  “Hanson’s Cockney-to-English Dictionary” into her Assignment Package and gave her a few days to learn her new language.  Fortunately, Debra is as smart as she is sexy so by the time it was time to transport her to the Ripper’s hunting grounds, she was proficient in the verse, so much so that the following conversation took place as she roamed the streets hoping to trap Jack into an attempt on her life before he could get to poor Polly Nichols, who was his first known victim:

“Very nice, neck down, ya know.  The boat face is a problem, but then I don’t ‘ave to look a’ it I ‘spose.”

Whirling at the comment, the tawdry looking woman retorted, “‘oo you talkin’ ’bout, guvna?  Take a butchers at this.  These’ll knock yer mincers out.”

She then pulled down her neckline showing a wealth of cleavage.

“Ain’t neve’ said y’ ain’t got a bit of a body on ya; nice arse an’ all.   But a plain one y’are, I say.  Maybe a bit o’ color would dice you up.”

“Ain’t neve’ touched the stuff, an’ I ain’t gonna start fer the likes of you.”

“Oh I’d duck, ya right enough, you witch.  But I got ta get home to the trouble ‘n strife.  Maybe it’ll be I’d pass this way again.”

“Right, you get to yer troubles, she’s got yer by the barnacle bills, she ‘as.  Go on, get it on ‘ome, I got my bees knees to attend to.”

The man gave her an angry glance, she tensed, ready to act, but he only cursed at her, pulled the knot tighter around his leather apron, and faded into the fog.  Probably heading home for a warm meal and a dry bed; something Debra wished she could do at that moment.

The reference to the man’s leather apron is nod to the only real suspect the police had in this case.  Not only was a mysterious stranger called Leather Apron by terrified prostitutes in the area, a leather apron was the usual garb of butchers in that day and age.

While I was researching Cockney I discovered that it was more of a code language criminals used as a way to speak openly around Coppers who supposedly did not understand it.

I think the addition of these realities into a wide ranging science fiction story gave it some credence; who knows, maybe Jack the Ripper really was an alien.

If you want to learn Cockney and translate the conversation above, here is a link to a great site that will help you:

To read up on Leather Apron, go here: