Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Lifelong Project

I recently finished writing the third and final book in a family saga that I’ve been working on, off and on, for the past fifty years. To be more accurate about this, the three books were all written during the past nine years (intermittently with several other books); but I have been chewing on the stories, legends, and gossip of this one fictitious family for all the time I’ve been a writer. I’ve published more than a dozen stories about various members of the family, using an assortment of different names for the same characters, and I’ve always known I would eventually have to write a novel about them. The novel has become a threesome: Elephant Lake, Geronimo’s Skull, and Promises, Promises, Promises. At last the books are written and are now published on Kindle and Nook. For more information, go to my Amazon author page: You’ll find pictures of the books and links to more information about them.
These books each stand alone, and they can be read in any order. For the purpose of this post, I’ll briefly describe them in the order they were written.

Set in the summer of 1950, Elephant Lake takes place at an elegant country estate eighty miles southeast of Dallas, Texas. Davy Llewellyn, an eight-year-old boy, is trying to figure out the adults in his life: his mother, Rose, an alcoholic and depressed widow; his Uncle Fergus Powers, an oil industry giant and Republican power broker who does magic for children; and his Uncle Mike, a has-been athlete and Hollywood playboy. Davy’s ally is his cousin, Lily, a self-conscious adolescent with enough sense to know her elders are fools. Davy’s escape is an eerie imagination that gives him the power of flight and leads him into encounters with a crimson dragon, a human skull, and an elephant named Boola Boola.

Geronimo’s Skull takes place over twenty-five years in the early twentieth century, from the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904 to the stock market crash in 1929. It tells the story of Fergus Powers, and his development from a boy of nine, fascinated by energy and machinery, to a young man in his thirties, poised to take charge of a failing company and turn it into the largest manufacturer of oil drilling equipment in the world. The central event of the novel happens when Fergus and four of his fellow classmates from Yale rob the grave of the Apache warrior Geronimo and steal his skull. Fergus is haunted for years by Geronimo’s ghost, until he fulfills a promise that he made to the Indian when he was a boy.

Promises, Promises, Promises is made up of three novellas set in 1963. Combined, they form a three-part novel about love, promises, family, the controlling power of generosity, and the importance of home. The three characters dominating the novel are Fergus Powers, a sixty-eight-year-old bachelor and a powerful and wealthy businessman; Rose Llewellyn, his younger sister, a widow who suffers from alcoholism and depression; and David Llewellyn, Rose’s son, an art student at Yale. In the first novella, “Bluebonnet Meadows,” Fergus has decided to marry Louise Blake of Columbus, Ohio, whom he has secretly loved for nearly fifty years; but first he must announce this decision to his sister, his niece, his secretary, and his cook. In the second novella, “Art Class,” David spends the summer in Los Angeles, painting a mural for his movie star aunt, and having affairs with two very different women. “Days to Remember,” the third novella, takes place on November 22, 1963, and is dominated by the news of John Kennedy’s assassination. Rose Llewellyn is living in Minneapolis, and has been sober for eight months when she gets word of the tragedy. She has lunch with her sponsor in AA, and they both fall off the wagon. The book concludes with an epilogue that ties the three novellas into a cohesive novel.
Now that these three books are finished and released into the reading world, I feel I can quit making up and writing down stories about Fergus, Rose, and Davy. I hope the three of them will now leave me be, so I can get on with writing other stories, other books…

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Richard Bissell's Stretch on the River

I’ve been rereading, for the upteenth time, A Stretch on the River, the first novel by my favorite American writer, Richard Bissell. Not only is Bissell my favorite writer, he’s also the writer who made me want to be a writer myself. And I’m not the only one. Elmore Leonard has said that 75% of what he knows about writing he learned from reading the books of Richard Bissell.
        Richard Pike Bissell was born June 27, 1913, in Dubuque, Iowa. He was the second son in a prominent, wealthy family. He was educated at Exeter and Harvard. But somehow all this class and culture did not seem to matter much to him, and he chose to join the working class.
        After college he became an ordinary seaman, then worked as a deck hand on riverboats on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers. Eventually he earned a pilot’s license on the Upper Mississippi, the first writer since Mark Twain to have that distinction. His novels A Stretch on the River (1950) and High Water (1954) draw from his experiences working on tugs and barges on the Mississippi.
        A Stretch on the River is the story of Bill Joyce, the second son in a wealthy family, who decides to forsake high society and sign on as a deckhand on a Diesel towboat called the Inland Coal. He finds himself keeping company with hard-working, hard-drinking, fast-talking, loud-laughing rowdies, not to mention lady friends in port towns up and down the river. Bissell’s ear for dialogue is brilliant, funny, and true. He does clearly like the work and the working life of the working class—this is his own experience he’s writing about, after all—but he doesn’t romanticize it or downplay the difficulty or the danger. One remarkable chapter is about the drowning death of a deckhand named Shorty, told almost entirely by Shorty himself in one long paragraph that goes on for six pages. That may sound gimmicky, but it’s not. Wallace Stegner included this chapter as a standalone story in his anthology Great American Short Stories.
        Not all of Bissell’s work experience came from the river. He also worked in the family clothing business, which he called the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory in 7-1/2¢. That novel, his second (and his third book) brought him fame and fortune in the form of the Broadway musical The Pajama Game, for which Bissell co-wrote the script. The musical in turn formed the basis of his fourth novel, Say Darling (1957), an affectionate but stinging satire of the New York show business scene, as seen by a Midwestern hick brought in to convert a novel into a musical. Say Darling itself became a musical, and once again Bissell co-wrote the script.
        His next novel, and for my money his best, was Goodbye, Ava (1960), set back in Dubuque (called Blue Rock in the book) and back on the river, this time not on a tugboat but on a houseboat. By this time, Dick and Marian Bissell were living in a houseboat on the Mississippi, docked at the harbor of his home town. In Goodbye, Ava Bissell is at the top of his form, focusing more on the people than on the dangers of life on the river.
        Richard Bissell also wrote travel articles and comedic nonfiction, but his best work is his fiction. And his best fiction is found in his four Midwestern novels, be they on the Mississippi River or in the town he calls Junction City in 7-1/2¢ and Blue Rock in Goodbye, Ava. Both towns are thinly disguised versions of Dubuque, where Richard Bissell was born, where he lived most of his life, and where he died on May 4, 1977. His tombstone, which he shares with Marian, is a giant granite slab with a map of the Upper Mississippi carved into it from top to bottom.
        No grander epitaph is necessary, but if there were room, it would be good to see, etched into the granite, this passage from The Monongahela:
        “To have a river in your blood, you have to work on her for wages.…Oh, they’re not all bold and reckless adventurers. A heap of them are as dumb and drab and spiritless as can be, but in the main they want to go places and do big things out under the sky. And when the whistle blows and they have to get out and make a lock they cuss and moan and claim they’re gonna quit. But mostly they stay. That’s the way it always was on the river, and the way it always will be, until the Monongahela and the Youghiogheny and the Tygart and the West Branch run dry, and the last steamboat whistle has echoed back off the hills, filling the valleys with that mournful music that haunts you wherever you go.”

Saturday, July 14, 2012


This week Susan and I spent two nights and two days in Port Orford, a charming small town on the southern coast of Oregon. It’s a place of wonderful hikes through forests and over the headland hills, a couple of fine beaches known for lively tide pools and agates, and a couple of fine restaurants. The place where we ate both our dinners was called Red Fish, and the food, the service, and the view were superb.
In the past we’ve stayed at the Castaway, a serviceable motel on a bluff overlooking the Port Orford harbor. Great view and a reasonable price. This time, though, we splurged and stayed inland a bit, in a “guest habitat” called Wild Springs. It was worth every penny. The accommodations are five separate cabins, set deep in a forest. Part of the forest has been turned into a wild garden, decorated with sculptures. Breakfast—and what a breakfast!—is served in a lodge that’s up the hill a bit, affording a splendid view of the Pacific beyond the forest.
Our cottage was named Earthsea, which was appropriate because Susan was reading Ursula LeGuin’s Sea Road at the time. (The story collection is fiction, but it could have been set in Port Orford.) Earthsea was cozy and comfortable, decorated in old-fashioned elegance. Though other cabins were occupied also while we were there, we felt alone in the quiet forest.
A number of special touches made Wild Spring unforgetable: a generous shower head, Chinese checkers, plenty of candles in the cabin, the absence of television but a screen for watching DVDs, a vast library of CDs and DVDs to borrow, and a deep, hot spa for a late-night soak.
For more information about Wild Spring, see

Why did Susan and I decide to splurge on this two-night getaway? To celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
These have been the twenty-five happiest years of my life, and Susan says the same. During these years we have worked and played side by side, day and night. We have built a business together, and a life, and a marriage. I’d like to write a novel starring this relationship of ours. Why not? It would have romance, love, sex, humor, travel, adventure, hard work, growth, family, and a passel of grandchildren.
Yes, these twenty-five years have given us a treasure chest of memories, and those memories also serve as a teaser of adventures yet to come.

But the story of this relationship would never make a good novel. Why? Because it lacks an essential ingredient of fiction. What is that missing ingredient?
Guess the answer and leave it in a comment below. First five people to guess correctly will win a free book. Leave your email address so I can contact you.

REMINDER: The invitational blog post for August will be 99-word autobiographical stories inspired by “Cinderella” or “The Ugly Duckling.” Please contribute. Open to all writers. Deadline August 1.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


 Greetings, Writers! Congratulations and thanks to all of you who sent me 99-Word Stories with the theme and/or title “Fireworks.” Your work is proudly presented below, in celebration of today, July 4th.

I’m pleased to say there were more real stories in this batch of submissions. That means in what you read below you’ll find people making choices and changing. That’s good progress.

Now I’m going to throw out a bigger challenge, because I know you’re ready for it. For next month’s blog, the deadline will be August 1, and here’s what I want from you, whoever you are (the invitation is open to all):

Write a 99-word autobiographical story based on either of the following favorite fairy tales: “Cinderella,” or “The Ugly Duckling.” You may write from any point of view, and set the story in any time frame. But don’t just retell the fairy tale. Write a story from your own life.

Yes, this is a harder assignment, but it will be more fun, and what you come up with will be a fine and important story. Remember the basic rule of story: Something happens to somebody.

I look forward to reading and posting whatever you send me!

Meanwhile, here’s July’s post, an explosion of colorful stories about FIREWORKS—


by Ann Bruno

July is a glorious month when we celebrate our independence. It is a month of picnics, barbeques and fireworks.

When our children were young we took them to Washington, DC to see the fireworks. We sat on the lawn at the foot of the Washington Monument and watched the fireworks. We were in awe, it seemed that the entire sky lit up with the most beautiful colors and shapes. It was such a spectacular display to behold. The look on my children's faces was full of awe. I have never seen a more beautiful array of fireworks than in Washington, DC.


by Marie Rose Elias

 Catholic school failed helping me know God. He was not in my home or present in my daily upbringing.

Dysfunctional kids chose to visit the park—our tithes having bought chocolate.

Adult with misguided vanities while raising children alone became excuse enough for not searching for God. I was busy working, socializing.…Looking for a husband takes time.

Somehow I knew something was missing within. I walked into worship three years ago, something grabbed hold of my heart! His love burst forth in my heart like explosion!

Independence Day! Tears of joy, to be home!


by June Kosier

It was June the 15th and I hadn’t gotten any firecrackers yet.
As a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, I just love anything patriotic. I especially love the red color of firecrackers. It perturbs me though that something patriotic and so American comes from Mexico.
I had been to several places and none of them had any firecrackers. Well I had one last place to try.
 I asked the man “Do you have any firecrackers?”
 “Yes,” he replied. “Over there in the sun section. Be sure you plant them in full sun for best results.”


by Denise Dreany

At fifteen Jack had a crush on her but he couldn’t speak. She was disappointed.

He went into the army and when he returned, love had lost its meaning. Gone. He moved away. He had a good life, a job, a house, but he lived alone.

After her marriage and divorce she looked for him. She found him in the country. In celebration, they tossed sparklers into the air to watch them swirl and spin in the darkness. He heard the sounds of distant guns and the hiss of falling bombs. The sky lit up.

Jack was fifteen again.


by Anthony Karavias

Fireworks come in different colors and a variation of displays. The colors are mostly red, white, and blue, as is the American flag—Red for valor, White for purity, Blue for justice. With these colors in stripes, and stars on a field of blue, Old Glory to me, means independence.

When I married my wife it was red, an act of valor (spirit of love). She was appropriately in white for purity. It was justice for me to have perseverance—and besides, blue is my favorite color.

I scooped up my wife, and since then we are still flying high.


by Jerry Giammatteo

A storm was approaching. Nervously, I sat on the enclosed porch overlooking Long Island Sound. Thick, foreboding clouds presaged the gathering darkness.
There was a faraway flash of lightning and a rumble of thunder; then another, a little closer; and another, closer still. Though only 7:30, the sky was suggesting midnight.

Finally, a bolt illuminated the porch and terrifying blasts shook our bungalow. I wanted to flee to my bedroom, but steeled myself. Torrents of rain fell.

Then, it was over. I walked into the house relieved, having taken nature’s best shot. I was respectful, but no longer frightened.


by Kinga Hosszu

There are seven steps to making a firecracker. Steve had memorized them all. He’d made over a thousand in his fifteen years; a good business for extra cash.

But this one he’d keep. The biggest one ever.

He swept the gunpowder into a thimble and secured the fuse with tape.

“This will be the mother of all bangs,” he thought as he rested it against some books.

He didn’t see Mittens jump. He only saw the firecracker tumble toward the ground, and Steve lunged, but clawed through empty air.

Then he saw the flash.

He never heard the bang.


by Rita Kushner

The cruise on the QE2 to Bermuda was to be our second forever honeymoon.

Toasting with glasses held high on the upper deck, we cheered the barges alongside, displaying a magnificent shower of fireworks, sparkling colors in great majesty, a not-to-forget performance.

And I truly have never forgotten. No sooner had we sailed under the great span of the Verazzano Bridge into the dark, roiling waters of an angry Atlantic Ocean when demonic, nauseating motion-sickness overcame me and continued throughout this disastrous voyage.
The trigger for this desperate memory is the magnificent, fantastic MACY'S JULY FOURTH FIREWORKS EXTRAVAGANZA!


by Elaine Polson Shiber

She hated the Fourth of July. Waking up to that dreaded noise, knowing she’d have to watch while the big twelve-year-olds lit cherry bombs, two-inchers, and more; and they ran while she hid. She feared she might lose a finger or an eye, or even die. She was five.
She liked the snakes that oozed quietly, and when it got dark, the sparklers.
Now she goes to concerts on the Fourth and claps in time to the “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and oohs and aahs at the fireworks exploding above her head.

She’s one of the big kids now. She’s fifty-seven.


BY Eric Shyman, Ed.D.

The fireworks boom. I look to my son.

The fireworks boom again. I look to my dog.

On the third boom, my wife and I look at each other.

To us, we have two babies, both braver than we could ever expect. We smile, place the marshmallows on the ends of our sticks, and continue to watch as our son alternates his gaze from the lit-up sky to the flaming white puff. He claps, says “mmm mmm marshmallow,” takes a bite when it cools and gives the rest to the dog. “Say ‘mmm mmm,’ Dixie.”

Dixie continues to chew.