When I started writing the Al Pennyback mystery series, I didn’t have a specific sub-genre in mind. It’s not a hardboiled mystery with a hero who is always battling bad guys; nor is it a procedural mystery – I go light on the technical aspects of crimes, criminals, or police procedures. I was just going for a good story that had a crime as a central element, which the hero, Al Pennyback, would then set about solving.
My main motivation for writing this particular series was the fact that I live in the Washington, DC area, and have for more than 30 years, and most of the stories set in this locale are about politicians, spies, or high-powered lobbyists. I know that the average Joe and Jane who happens to call the Washington metro area home lives a life that can be just as exciting as the K Street crowd, or the boys across the river in McLean, so, about ten years ago I started drafting.
My first, Color Me Dead, went through more than six years of rewriting; the title changed, the central plot changed, and most importantly, the name and background of the main character changed. I no longer remember what I called him at first, but, one day as I was sweating over the tenth or twentieth draft, Al Pennyback was born. He’s an African-American; after all, the area is predominantly African-American; he’s retired military; being retired military, I can relate to that, and the area also has loads of retired military people; and he’s a sucker for puzzles and unsolved mysteries. Despite, or because of, his military background, he hates guns, preferring to use his wits or his martial arts ability to get out of tight spots. He’s a widower; gives him an air of sympathy; but, has a girl friend. The sex scenes are only hinted at. I think too many modern mysteries go overboard on the sex. And, the language is mostly mild. On occasion, Al or one of the characters lets fly with an earthy expletive, because that’s the way people talk after all, but you won’t find curse words on every page.
That’s sort of the definition of a cozy mystery; cosy in British English; but, I didn’t set out to write cozies. Despite that, one of my British readers has decided that’s the sub-genre of at least one of the stories in the series, Dead Man’s Cove. He gave it such a good review, I don’t have the heart to argue the point.
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written cosy crime mystery, November 2, 2012
This review is from: Dead Man’s Cove (Al Pennyback Mysteries) (Kindle Edition)
I’ve never read an Al Pennyback mystery before and I’m pleased there are others since this one set the benchmark. It was a laidback cosy read and thoroughly enjoyable.
Al, a private eye, gets to spend the weekend with his girlfriend Sandra on a small island, Dead Man’s Cove at the invitation of his good friend Quincy (who had previously encouraged him to open up his detective agency) on a client’s yacht with a few other friends including two married couples. Al suspects these couples are putting on a front (as many unhappy couples do) but it has nothing to do with him as he’s more than content with Sandra and while he’s a bit of wimp when it comes to sailing, he goes along for her benefit if it makes her happy. It transpires that his wife and young son died some years ago and it’s been a long trawl to get back to some form of normality, and he is grateful for his good fortune at getting a second chance at love. However, what should have been a leisurely relaxing weekend soon turns into a busman’s holiday for Al.
It’s hard not to give too much away, but as the story progresses, the drinks are poured, the sun beats down and all seems right with the world, the unexpected happens – one of the party is murdered. All of a sudden all central characters are put under scrutiny and all kinds of secrets and lies are unearthed as Al tries to find the truth and, out of the unlikely bunch, a cold-blooded killer.
I liken this to the male version of Murder She Wrote (sleuth encounters murder while minding his own business), and I’m happy to say I’ll be purchasing every Al Pennyback thriller/mystery I can get my hands on if Dead Man’s Cove is anything to go by. It well deserved my five star rating.
Now, this is the type of review you want to get.
I tend to write stories in scenes, a lot like a movie, so that the reader can ‘see’ what’s happening. A few readers have taken notice of this. Here’s what one reader had to say about Till Death Do Us Part:
5.0 out of 5 stars First Review, July 17, 2012
This review is from: Till Death Do Us Part (Al Pennyback Mysteries) (Kindle Edition)
This book reads like a T.V. episode of a crime/adventure show.The author developed his plot slowly and effectively.His characters were interesting and well defined.It was a good read.
Following the advice given in most books on writing, I try to show, not tell. I let the characters’ dialogue and action move the story rather than filling page after page with exposition or descriptions.
Now, the question one might well ask is; where do the ideas for this series come from? The answer is – everywhere. I read newspapers, print and online, and every edition has at least one story idea. Till Death Do Us Part, for instance, came from an article I read in a South African newspaper on a flight from Capetown to Copenhagen a few years ago about a couple who’d come to Johannesburg on vacation and been victims of a carjacking. The wife was killed, but the husband escaped unharmed. It turned out later that he’d arranged the incident in order to get rid of his wife. I changed the setting to Jamaica and was off to the races.
I’ve done two books about radical militias, Dead, White, and Blue and Deadly Intentions. The proliferation of militias and other hate groups in the U.S. over the past several decades has always concerned me, so this was a natural.
Deadline started out as a story about scams against lonely women, but about one-third into the first draft I decided to throw a ghost in just for the heck of it. I’m a bit agnostic about ghosts – I don’t know that they are real, but I don’t know that they’re not, so there you are.
Whatever motivates the story idea, my main objective is to write a story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the page to see what happens next. According to two readers, I’ve succeeded:
5.0 out of 5 stars Great, July 30, 2012
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Till Death Do Us Part (Al Pennyback Mysteries) (Kindle Edition)
This was a great book. Fast paced, I couldn’t put it down. You really want to read this book. I loved it.
5.0 out of 5 stars My new hero….Al Pennyback!, October 23, 2012
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Till Death Do Us Part (Al Pennyback Mysteries) (Kindle Edition)
Just finished “Til Death Do Us Part” and really enjoyed Charles Ray’s Suspense novel….completing it in just two sessions. His characters ring true and I felt as though I too were fighting for “right vs wrong” along with Pennyback. Ray has the vernacular down pat for all walks of life and proves that having more experience with life and humanity has its’ advantages.
Well done you, Charles Ray!! Keep them coming.
There you have it; that’s where story ideas come from.
Green can mean a lot of things; new growth, peacefulness, jealousy. Here are some of my photos that symbolize green to me.
Ideas for writing come from all kinds of places. My Buffalo Soldier historical series grew out of a combination of inspirations. One day, I was sitting at my computer, surfing the Internet, and I came across a site about the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry on the western frontier, and I realized that not many Americans know a lot about the colorful history of these African-American soldiers and the role they played in the westward expansion of the country.
The germ of an idea was planted. What if I did a series of short stories (more like novelettes actually) that introduced them to readers? The more I thought about it the more it excited me. Several years ago, when I lived in North Carolina, I was a writer and artist for a short-lived magazine, Buffalo that was based in California. I had a regular cartoon feature, did a few historical articles, and did the illustrations for several of the magazine’s covers.
So, I already had a bit of grounding in the subject; it was just a matter of how to kick it off. I decided to center it on a few fictional characters, with the main character, Sergeant Benjamin Franklin Carter, and show the kinds of activities they were engaged in. While I strive to make it historically accurate, I try to avoid long lectures on history. Instead, I insert the historical facts and incidents in through the characters’ dialogue, or short descriptive passages to establish context. My main objective is to tell an interesting story that will keep the reader turning the page.
I can’t be sure I’ve succeeded. Reader feedback has been limited, but what has been received is encouraging. There is, for instance, this review of the latest in the series, Buffalo Soldier: Incident at Cactus Junction that a reader posted on Amazon:
Charles Ray does a great job setting the stage for a slightly different classic western tale involving the “Buffalo Soldiers” of yore. The story follows Sgt. Ben Carter and the soldiers he commands on a mission to the sleepy town of Cactus Junction which needs help with finding out who is rustling the local rancher’s cattle. The townsfolk are surprised to see black men in uniform and are at first reluctant to accept them or work with them. However as Ben and his men take on the task of finding the missing cattle – and the tough men who took them – the town soon warms to the Buffalo Soldiers. The story was put together well with great characters and descriptions. Although the plot is simple and the story straightforward, it should satisfy those readers who, like me, enjoy the old American west tales of adventure and action. If you’re a western fan you’ll enjoy this one.
This California reader gave the book four out of five stars, which I take as high praise indeed. My friend, Zimbabwean author Virginia Phiri (Highway Queen), who has read and reviewed a number of my books, also commended the series, describing them as ‘good writing, and good reading.’
I use a lot of my own military background, as well as my childhood in Texas during the 50s and 60s, to establish the social, cultural, and geographic setting, as well as trying to make the language used by the characters as credible as possible. None of the specific incidents in the stories are real, but they’re all based on historical events of the era after the Civil War when America was opening up the western frontier to settlement and development.
I do research on a continuing basis seeking new story ideas, and to make sure that the equipment, tactics, and events have a ring of credibility. For instance, during my research, I discovered that the US Cavalrymen, contrary to what you might see in the movies, didn’t use repeating rifles during this period. They used the single shot Springfield because the army viewed it as more reliable and durable than the new Winchester repeaters, and it was cheaper. Even in those days, the government was concerned about the bottom line. I also learned that white soldiers received $24 dollars a month pay, and black soldiers $12 – which wasn’t bad money in the 1870s when you consider that when I enlisted in 1962, my pay was $72 per month.
So, you see, ideas for your writing can come from anywhere. You just have to open all the doors and windows in your mind and let the light shine in.
Colors have meaning.
The color red is the color of fire and blood; it is associated with energy, danger, war, strength, power, passion, and determination. A very emotional color, red increases respiration rate and raises blood pressure. It is used as an accent color to stimulate quick decisions, and is widely associated with danger. The color blue, on the other hand, is the sky and sea, and is strongly associated with tranquility and calmness. In heraldry, blue is used to symbolize piety and sincerity, and is linked to consciousness and intellect. Its association with depth, expertise, and stability makes it the preferred color for corporations in America.
Now, none of this has any real connection with what I’m writing, except for the fact that political pundits have chosen to use the colors red and blue to symbolize America’s political divide; with red representing the conservative, right-leaning regions of the country, and blue for the liberal areas.
Everyone in America by now has had enough political commentary, and, if you’re like me, just looking forward to the holidays so they can stuff themselves to the hairline with turkey and all the trimmings and vegetate on the couch watching the football games. So, I promise that this is the last political screed you will see from me until the next mid-term elections two years from now.
If you haven’t seen the maps showing the results of the just-completed election, though, you might find it interesting to see how the color spectrum came out. The red states, all 24 of them, sit squarely astride the middle of the country for the most part, like a big scarlet gash, splitting the country roughly in half. This means that the president will have an uphill battle getting any kind of consensus during his second administration. President Obama’s support among religious groups varied, with white evangelicals and weekly churchgoers opting for his opponent in large numbers.
What I found interesting about the election results was the identity of those states that, despite being in America’s heartland, swung so far to the right. Some were not too surprising, but a couple defied what I would have predicted. This list shows the percentages who voted for each candidate, with the spread shown in parentheses. They are presented here for readers to draw their own conclusions.
Utah Romney-72.9 Obama-24.9 (47.7)
Wyoming Romney-69.3 Obama-28.0 (41.3)
Idaho Romney-66.5 Obama-32.6 (33.9)
Oklahoma Romney-66.8 Obama-33.2 (33.6)
West Virginia Romney-62.3 Obama-33.5 (26.8)
Arkansas Romney-60.5 Obama-36.9 (23.6)
Nebraska Romney-60.5 Obama-37.8 (22.7)
Kentucky Romney-60.5 Obama-37.8 (22.7)
Alabama Romney-60.7 Obama-38.4 (22.3)
Kansas Romney-60 Obama-37.8 (22.2)
Tennessee Romney-59.5 Obama-39 (20.5)
North Dakota Romney-58.7 Obama-38.9 (19.8)
Louisiana Romney-57.8 Obama-40.6 (17.2)
South Dakota Romney-57.9 Obama-39.9 (16)
Texas Romney-57.2 Obama-41.4 (15.8)
Montana Romney-53.3 Obama-41.8 (13.5)
Alaska Romney-55 Obama-41.6 (13.4)
Mississippi Romney-55.4 Obama-43.6 (11.8)
Arizona Romney-54.8 Obama-43.6 (11.2)
South Carolina Romney-54.6 Obama-44 (10.6)
Missouri Romney-53.9 Obama-44.3 (8.6)
Georgia Romney-53.4 Obama-45.4 (8)
North Carolina Romney-50.6 Obama-48.4 (2.2)
At this writing, the outcome in Florida has yet to be determined, but President Obama has a 6% lead so far.
The election is over, and most of the ballots have been counted. It doesn’t matter, though, because enough ballots have been counted and certified to let us know who won the election except for a few local races that are still being adjudicated. Barack Obama is back in the White House for four more years, the Democrats retained control of the Senate with a slight increase in their majority, and the Republicans kept the House of Representatives, although, thankfully, a few of the nuttiest Tea Party representatives got sent home packing.
The winners have made gracious acceptance speeches, complimenting their opponents for their ‘active’ campaigns, and the losers have made even more gracious concession speeches, promising to work with their victorious opponents. That’s what we’ve seen on the surface, but my more than 50 years in and around Washington, DC and the other focal points of our government tells me that the reality is different from what we see.
The winners probably did victory laps around their hotel rooms, with lots of fist pumping and high-fiving of supporters. The losers, on the other hand, were probably snarling at the TV screen as they gulped down something strong to ease the sting of defeat, and instead of trying to figure out why the majority of American voters rejected them, are plotting to throw spanners in the way of the winners at every opportunity, and how to come up with a better spiel to sell us their snake oil next time out.
Let’s face it, we Americans are all about winning. We talk about being good losers and good winners, but in fact, we’re neither. We gloat when we win and plot and make excuses when we lose, and politicians are better or worse at it than the average guy, believe me. Just watch if you don’t believe me. The Republican-controlled House, despite Romney’s call for reaching across the aisle, will continue to block almost every initiative coming out of this Democratic administration, and the Senate will, for the most part, continue to be split along partisan lines.
If I’m wrong about this, I’ll be happy to eat my hat.
I recently let my wife talk me into going mountain climbing with her and some of her Korean friends. Read more here.
I’m not an especially religious person. I was asked to leave my mother’s church when I was 12 or 13 because of my infuriating tendency – – in the eyes of the southern Baptists in my home town – – to question everything. After deciding at that tender age that the Baptist faith was too confining and narrow minded, I tried a lot of religions and cults, even flirted with the idea of atheism, decided I was really agnostic (read undecided) and that Buddhism was the philosophy of life most closely attuned to my personality.
I’ve never questioned the possible existence of a supreme being or some higher consciousness in the universe, I’m must not sure of its nature. When I was in Vietnam in 1968, though, I witnessed a situation that leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but also confirmed my middle of the road philosophy.
I was in an outfit that did behind the lines recon missions; a highly dangerous undertaking as the enemy knows you’re out there snooping around, and doesn’t much like it. One of our teams, while on a mission, was attacked and one of the members got separated from all the others. Poor guy wandered around the jungle for four days, occasionally encountering VC or NVA soldiers, including one incident when he and an NVA guy were on opposite banks of a stream getting water. Funny thing is, being out there all alone, wandering around like a lost sheep, he was never shot at. The guy at the stream just stared at him for a few minutes, nodded, got up and walked away.
We finally stumbled across him with a search team; or maybe he stumbled into them. Weary, hungry, and befuddled, he was otherwise unharmed. The whole thing, though, set me to thinking. I still wasn’t sure about the whole God thing, but the fact that this guy, with his dark skin, round eyes, and tightly curly hair had survived that long in enemy territory when the bad guys had a bounty on the heads of each of our recon guys, made me think that there was such a thing as miracles. Who or what generated them, I wasn’t sure, and it didn’t really matter. What it did for me was to peel away any cynicism I’d been coated in, and leave me open to the possibility of good things happening even when conventional wisdom says you’re screwed.
I dropped in on my friend Becca’s site today – and she claims she forgot to be funny; but, I peed my pants laughing at her lame attempt to not be funny.
I mean, really, what’s unfunny about frizzy hair? Maybe my efforts to grow a goatee? Could be. You see, it keeps coming in in patches, so instead of looking like a sinister scientist who’s creating life from dead body parts, I look like a goat who’s been in a fight with a weed whacker.
Seriously, though, I’m trying not to get ready for Halloween, and that’s scary. See, my wife thinks its neat to stand by the door and hand out candy to grubby little crumb snatchers from up and down the block who give you the evil eye because your candy’s so cheap, and who insist on trekking across your newly sodded lawn. You want to yell at them, but since you already have a reputation as the neighborhood Grinch, and your wife’s standing behind you with hands on hips and a stern expression, you just stand there and smile – well, more like a grimace.
Becca, you think you know hardship? Let me tell you hardship. Try getting up in the morning and finding nothing in the pantry but half a jar of peanut butter but no crackers, and you forgot to put a can of beer in the fridge, so the beer and peanut butter breakfast you planned to eat is with whole wheat toast (gag!) and warm beer (the English will pay for this indignity). When you’ve faced the problems I’ve faced, talk to me.
I could go on and on; but, my neighbor accuses me of going on and on too much, so I won’t. Oh, wait; there is one more little problem I just have to share; my wife asked (well, ordered really) me to pick up Trick or Treat candy the last time I went to the store – and, don’t you know it, I forgot. She thinks its in the pantry. I have just over a week to figure out how to sneak out to the store and sneak the damn stuff back into the house. Curses!
I hate Halloween. Bah, humbug. Oh no, wrong holiday. Doesn’t matter; hate that one too.
When I was a kid, I remember reading somewhere an article about the ‘Talented Tenth.’ This was a theory that said basically ten percent of the population was responsible for most of society’s progress while the remaining 90% was sort of ‘along for the ride.’ I have to admit that my observations as I matured didn’t do much to contradict that belief; that is, until I started looking more closely at how people behave.
After five decades of watching people in societies around the globe, under all kinds of circumstances from almost idyllic peaceful circumstances to the stench and bloodshed of war, I have come to the conclusion that the ‘Talented Tenth’ theory missed it by a bit. My observations, admittedly anecdotal rather than scientific, have led me to believe that people in groups tend to fall into a Gaussian distribution (so called for German mathematician and physicist Karl Gauss, who popularized its use to analyze astronomical data), otherwise known as a Bell Curve or normal distribution because of its graphic shape. Basically, in a normal distribution, the highest point in the curve, or the top of the bell, represents the most probable event or situation, with all possible occurrences equally distributed around it, creating a downward-sloping line on each side of the peak.
So, how have I observed people to sort themselves out in the normal distribution? Like I said, it’s not empirical data, but it seems to work out to a ratio of 20-60-20. That is, 20% on what I call the ‘good’ or ‘productive’ side, 20% on the ‘bad’ or ‘dysfunctional’ side, and the remaining 60% evenly distributed in the main or central part of the bell. I guess you could say we 60% are the ballast that keeps society on a somewhat even keel.
Now, on the ‘good’ side, we have the Einsteins, the Michelangelos, the Mother Theresas, and others who come up with the new, bold ideas; who go where no one has gone before. These are the people who make things happen for the betterment of the whole society. On the ‘bad’ side, we have the Hitlers, the Jeffrey Daumers, and the idiots who change lanes on the beltway without signaling, cutting in front of cars so close they cause them to stamp on their brakes, creating massive traffic snarls and sometimes causing fatal accidents. These are the people who take guns to school and use classmates and teachers for target practice before turning the guns on themselves.
While the ‘good’ side of the bell is busy trying to help society progress, the ‘bad’ side is constantly trying to pull it down. You might think that leaves those of us in the middle 60% at the mercy of geniuses and madmen; but, you’d be wrong. Like the ballast in a ship, we serve to keep things from going too far in one direction or another. The geniuses are often so deep in their vision of the future, they fail to solidly ground themselves in the present. We dullards of the so-so 60% keep them grounded in reality. At the same time, our outrage when the ‘bad-siders’ go too far helps to keep society from descending into total chaos.
As far as I know, no one has seriously studied this phenomenon. If they have, I’d be interested in seeing the results, just to see how far I am off the mark. But, I think that if one day this is ever studied, my theory will be somewhere in the neighborhood of the reality. After all, under the rules of normal distribution, it should be somewhere near the middle of the bell.
The one thing that you can be sure that all writers have in common is that at some point we have read a book or article on the writing craft. One thing that I have encountered a number of times in reading about writing is the statement that it is not true that characters can take over a story.
This is usually accompanied by detailed instructions on outlining a story, whether it’s a short story or novel, before you begin writing. I suppose if you happen to be a WWO, a writer who outlines, this is probably true. I don’t know what applies to WWNO, writers who never outline, because I fall somewhere in between. I usually start with a fairly clear idea in mind as to where I want the story to go, who the characters are, the nature of the conflict, and the setting. I write a concise description of the main plot, make a list of the characters, and even sometimes make a time line.
In most of the stories I write, things go according to plan. But, on occasion, things take a turn that I have not planned for. Because I tend to write serial stories, novels and short stories, I try to carry over the main theme from story to story. Sometimes, though, either readers who have taken a particular liking to a character, and offer compelling justifications for their views, or the characters themselves, turn my nice neat story line on its ear.
About a year ago, for instance, just for fun, I wrote a short story about an urban kid with money problems. He’d borrowed money from a loan shark and couldn’t make his payments. This particularly story had a postal theme, so I gave it the title, “Dead Letter.” The plot was simple; my protagonist was trying to lay low to keep from getting his legs broken, so he changed his name and moved. Unfortunately for him, the Post Office tracked him down by delivering a letter sent to his old name and address to his new digs and, you guessed it, the loan shark found him.
I ended the story with a shotgun blast through the door and him being slammed against the wall. Fortunately, I didn’t specifically say that the shot had killed him; I preferred to allow readers to come to their own conclusion. One perceptive reader, though, had taken a liken to my character, Louis Dumkowski, and sent me an email asking if I could do a follow on story bringing him back to life. While I don’t normally make such drastic changes because of just one reader, her email was so sincere, I decided to take a crack at it.
Since I hadn’t actually killed Louis, in the second story I had him regain consciousness with a chest full of splinters from the door, which had absorbed almost all of the buck shot from the shotgun. Now, of course, I had to give him a new challenge, so I put him on the run. After all, if the loan shark learned that he’d failed, he might try again. Doing the second story got me interested in Louis’s fate, so I did a few more, putting him in one crazy situation after another. Some readers liked it, and kept asking for more.
Louis matured a bit, but only a bit, from story to story; mostly with the help of his high school buddy, Cleatus Washington. And I finally wrote a confrontation story, with Cleatus convincing Louis to face the loan shark. That led to some more humorous situations as the loan shark, a superstitious street punk named Vinnie ‘the Enforcer’ Williams, was so freaked that he hadn’t killed Louis, he hired him to collect loans. For good measure, he hired Cleatus as well.
A couple more stories had the two of them encountering customers, and developing a conscience. Well, Cleatus developed a conscience, and drug Louis along, which brought me to the last story in the series – or at the last one that I’ve written.
My plan was for Cleatus to convince Louis that they should stop bleeding the poor people in the neighborhood and get into a more decent line of work. My plan was to have a confrontation with Vinnie, perhaps with a bloody nose or two, but with Louis prevailing in the end. As I wrote, I could see the story in my head like an old black and white B movie, and the dialogue was clear in my head. The problem was, these two reprobates didn’t want to say what I’d planned for them to say. And, when Vinnie appears near the end of the story, the confrontation just didn’t seem the way they wanted to go. He’d been around them so long; well, actually, he’d been spending most of his time soaking up Jack Daniels and coke in the local bar while they did all the work, but his earlier nearly religious superstition, and the fact that he was sponging off his uncle, didn’t make a fight logical. What the characters wanted to do, in fact, was become respectable and liked members of the community. So, I just let the movie play out, and the three of them end up shaking hands and deciding to begin helping the community – for a profit of course; they didn’t totally change their mercenary ways.
The response to “Outside Parcel” was immediate. One reader expressed pleasure that the guys were trying to go straight, and looked forward to their new adventures. As for me, I’m just curious to see what they might get up to the next time I sit down and start typing.
If you’re interested in knowing more about the adventures of Louis and Cleatus, check out “Dead Letter,” “Return to Sender,” “Unclaimed Package,” “Rural Free Delivery,” and “Outside Parcel” at http://www.fictionwritersplatform.net.