Monday, June 30, 2014

Storm Clouds

On the surface, the salient passage in a very short Chapter 3 has nothing to do with Gloria Steinbrecher, although most of the chapter concerns her or the growing problems in her marriage to Ben. Instead, the heart of the third paragraph uses the absence of a reference to Gloria to paint a picture of a home in trouble.

The paragraph begins by saying that Ben, overworked like most coaches, slept later than he planned on the one day a week when he is able to make the five-hour roundtrip to the Boise area to visit their institutionalized son _ a trip Gloria refuses to make:
By the time he showered, dressed and recalculated the percentages of some new defenses he was considering, it was early afternoon. He crossed the rectangular living room, a brick fireplace at one end, a bay window the only structural embellishment, and beige walls with two small paintings. Aside from a framed portrait photograph of Gloria in her cheerleading outfit, there was a curious absence of family pictures _ nothing to indicate they had a child.
The final sentence discloses my intention in understating the details. Teddy, the couple's only child, is unwelcome in the home of his parents because of Gloria's inability to deal with his disability. Indeed, as Chapter 11 explains further, Teddy is unaware there is such a thing as a warm, supportive place where parents, not teachers, care for and work with their children. In Teddy's world, warmth and support are what he receives once a week when his father visits. A later paragraph suggests that the opposing viewpoints of the Steinbrechers have become a constant source of discord between them.

A young reader might be tempted to question whether such a time ever existed, but segregation of learning-disabled children was common during the Vietnam years, in Idaho and elsewhere. The movement to take them out of institutions and return them to homes, wherever possible, was in its nascence near the end of the decade. The history of Special Olympics is instructive here: The first International Special Olympics were held in Chicago in the summer of 1968, and it wasn't until 1970 _ two years later _ that Idaho officials caught on and staged an outdoor sports festival for special children in Pocatello.

As a community relations specialist with the Idaho Health Department, I was fascinated with the proposition behind the spectacle _ that sports competition fosters not only physical health in those who participate, but stimulates mental growth as well. It was affirmation to me that Juvenal's mens sana in corpore sano (translated: "A sound mind in a sound body"), which educators had used for centuries to justify physical education classes, could be scaled down and applied to the handicapped as well.

My strongest memory of the first Idaho Summer Games, though, relates to my work assignment _ to write a TV script for Grace Edgington Jordan, honorary chair of the event. Mrs. Jordan was married to former Idaho Gov. Len Jordan, a prominent U.S. senator at the time. I'd never written television dialogue before, and my boss kept warning me to get it right. I was as nervous as a skier in avalanche terrain while Mrs. Jordan smiled and spoke as the cameras rolled, and it made my weekend when she told me my script was the first she'd ever felt comfortable reading. My first thought: Maybe I've got a future in this business after all.


Big Ben

Chapter 2 of "The Leather Man" introduces Ben Steinbrecher, the title character, as a larger-than-life figure and _ in less than three pages _ suggests that life will not always treat him kindly. It's a quick snapshot of trials which reduce a Superman to the level of Everyman by the end of the book.

The chapter touches on the three (of four) struggles which afflict him early on and seem destined to last a lifetime: a blown-out knee which keeps him from near-certain fame and fortune in professional football, the mental handicap of his only child and his deteriorating relationship with Gloria, his wife, whose wedding vows were solemnized by Ben's minister father.

A torn ligament was career-ending in the early '50s. It happened to Ben during his senior season at North Dakota, and it was difficult to accept:
Ben was told the pain would subside in a few weeks, and, as long as he didn't try to play a contact sport again, he ought to be fine. It was like being told he could get by as long as he didn't try to breathe.
He learned to cope with that disappointment and shifted his love of sports after graduation to coaching, where his size, commanding presence, knowledge of football and recruiting skill earned him quick employment and a strong resume. But nothing about the first disappointment of his life had prepared Ben for the realization a few years after Teddy Steinbrecher's birth that his firstborn would never be able to keep up mentally with other children:
Okay," he thought after doctors confirmed his own agonizing diagnosis, "I've got to fight this." He began by reading everything he could get his hands on pertaining to mental disabilities. The process proved to be as painful and disappointing as trying to rehabilitate a broken knee.
Whatever friction there was in the Steinbrecher marriage could only be compounded by Gloria's reaction to Teddy. Her inability to accept his handicap soon made itself manifest as outright rejection of the child, something that began _ like a cancer _ to damage the parents' union from the inside out.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Chapter 1 Excerpt

Yippee! I got the ink spot corrected Wednesday and ordered 70 paperback books to hand out to book editors, reviewers and other literary bellwethers. I had to pay a ton of money for shipping, but the books should be in Idaho Falls in three to five work days, and then I'll be in business.

June 25th is the birthday of Kylee Martin, a brave little soul who read deeply into the bulky version of "The Leather Man" before I told her to wait until I edited the book down to manageable size. She's also the daughter of Jason Martin and my daughter Heather, whose name graces the back cover of the book as the photographer for the great picture of Shoshone Falls. It is situated in Idaho's Magic Valley downstream from the double cataract which gave Twin Falls its distinctive name.

The name of the valley where Canyon State College is located does not escape the attention of Gram, who raised Edison Green to become the confident, but undersized, quarterback recruited to lead the Wranglers to respectability. As he packs to catch a bus, she chides him for leaving Phoenix to move to a "strange place" like Idaho, where she fears a black player will be unappreciated in an era rife with racial tension. "You call it the Magic Valley?" she says. "Magic from mushrooms, if you ask me."

The purpose of Chapter 1 is not only to introduce Gram and Edison, however, but to explain how a small school like Canyon State could assemble enough talent to make a remarkable turnaround from its three-win record of the previous season. Edison's decision to drop to a lower-level program stems from his quarterback-or-nothing determination in an era when few colleges outside the South had black signalcallers. That's why I consider this the most pertinent paragraph of the segment:
He knew any major program in California or the Southwest was out. They had their pick of homegrown players and sports carpetbaggers, could set up a four-deep depth chart with capable performers at every position and every level, backups in triplicate, more than a hundred players on grants-in-aid, and all of them given good-paying sinecures that didn't take much time away from the books or the weight room. Professional coaches were jealous of the colleges in the days before Title IX; the NFL rosters were limited, while schools like Southern Cal, Texas and Alabama had enough capable spare parts to cushion the blow of almost any injury. Green's coach had even tried New Mexico State and gotten a reply: We could use a defensive back. Well, no thanks. Canyon City, here I come.
Chapter 1 also is important because it drops a hint about Jake Wombat, a shadow figure throughout much of the book whose character assumes great relevance at the end.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014


I got the softcover and hardcover printer's copies of "The Leather Man" yesterday, and that should have been a joyful occasion. It amounted to half of one.

The hardcover book and dust jacket were perfect, but there was an ink smudge on the first (title) page of the softcover book, meaning I have to call Archway today and then, presumably, wait for the publisher to fix the printing error and tack on another six business days (the shipping time for the new books) to get a perfect softcover copy to approve.

The thought bummed me out too much to work on another long post, so I'm going to implement an idea I had a week ago and give what I consider to be the best-written or otherwise most outstanding excerpt from the Prologue. After that I'll provide one excerpt daily from each of the book's 55 chapters, explaining what I like or think is important about the passage cited, and interrupting the sequence whenever I see the need to touch upon a different subject for a day.

"The Leather Man" begins along the Snake River, and ends for all intents and purposes, at a different point along the same river. Ergo, the Prologue, only a page and a half long, has to sound a note that will resound in the reader's mind at the end. That's why I consider the final sentence of the second Bullet Point and the final paragraph paramount in importance _ they shift attention from natural history to a bungalow along one of Idaho's beautiful rivers where a Canyon State football standout spent his formative years:
  • ... Fish as brilliant as the birth of a galaxy and cold as the distance between stars fill the Salmon and its tributaries in a banquet of taste and vision that could not help but attractor predators, including Man.
The abundance of just such clear and icy water and the magnificent fish which find sanctuary therein brought Joseph Xavier Talty to the valley of the Lemhi, a tributary of the Salmon, when he retired as a heavy equipment operator. After years of being serenaded by diesel engines and hammered by dynamite blasts, the dam builder somewhat oddly found himself compelled to live near a free-flowing stream in the shade of aspens and cottonwoods behind a pioneer fence that kept his small herd of Black Angus cattle in and passers-by out.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Start Small, Think Big

It's not easy knowing the unknowable. Johnny Carson understood that and prepared well for his Carnac the Magnificent shtick. That's why I have ready answers for questions like, "Why did you use asylum as an adjective in Chapter 24 of 'The Leather Man?' (It came to me when I opened a pound of mixed nuts.) Or, "Why is the football on the cover purple?" (It got washed along with the game jerseys.) Or, "You're a scrawny little guy. Where did you get the chutzpah to write about the inner feelings of a giant?" I answer this last question by saying, "Think like an acorn."

I mean, the trail up Everest begins with one step. The history of a symphony leads back to a single note. And, at least in my case, peeling off layers of character development reveals one idea that spawned all the others.

I put myself through the last years of college working the overnight shift on a loading dock in Pocatello, Idaho. It was dark on the dock, chilly when the big metal doors were up and the wind blew through, and some of the people who inhabited the place in the wee hours of the morning were nihilistic enough to suit the dark fiction of Harry Crews. But I didn't have an author moment until I became a sports writer for the Idaho State Journal. That opened the door for access to Idaho State athletes and alumni, among them a former lineman who stayed around town to coach. The thing was, he didn't look like a college lineman.

I say that because he was amazingly tall, coordinated. and quick (the reason Usain Bolt is the fastest man ever is that he is taller than other sprinters and moves his legs just as rapidly, so he inches ahead with every stride). The coach also had very little body fat, resembling a mountain of bone and muscle. At this juncture, just about anyone who has read "The Leather Man" might be tempted to say, "This guy was the template for Jake Wombat." Wombat, a basketball player at Canyon State College where the title character coaches football, is so rough the football players wonder why he doesn't take up their sport. An opponent thinks of Wombat as "a middleweight boxer blown up to six-seven." But Wombat arrived later in my novel's timeline.

Ben Steinbrecher preceded the other characters in the book, springing to life in the late 1960s when I was thinking about the coach cited above and hit upon an idea: What if some super-sized alpha male, incapable of being cowed by ordinary humans and unaware of the way other mortals filter their comments to avoid giving offense, were deprived of health, family, self-confidence and his belief system? What would happen? I immediately knew I had a book to write. What I didn't realize until later is that I was borrowing from an old plot, and the test had already been run _ in the Old Testament, on a man named Job. I won't give away my ending, but I will say that I had the wrong one when I completed the first draft of the manuscript, and that led to the seemingly interminable amount of time it took to get published.

The characters of Steinbrecher and his wife Gloria developed with the addition of their mentally handicapped child. That grew out of my next job _ community-relations work for the Idaho Health Department in Boise. One assignment was to write promotional material for the first Idaho Special Olympics, and that put me in contact with special children and their parents. I noticed the inner strength of the parents, and decided caring for such a child would add a new dimension to Steinbrecher.

One more career move, and I was back in journalism, working for the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner. At a gym located close to the newspaper, I became friends with a young Vietnam veteran. His talk about the war didn't ring a bell at first, but the fact that he'd worked briefly as a Los Angeles cop after leaving the Army _ and volunteered to work in Watts _ did. He said having a normal beat seemed too tame. That's just not normal, I thought after the revelation. That was my introduction to post-traumatic stress disorder, which went by other names at the time, and long-range reconnaissance patrols, called "Lurps." He said he usually volunteered to walk point, the most dangerous place to be in a column of soldiers looking for a fight. Later on I taught him to play handball, small compensation indeed compared to his giving me the basis for Quintus LeClaire.

With a hero and an antihero who becomes more heroic as he returns to football, I had the main characters set. LeClaire's is such a compelling story that I had to decide a few years ago whether to rename the book and rearrange the heroes, but I managed to get things in balance.

Other roles such as Wombat; Sam Moody; Sherry Sullivan; Edison Green; David Talty; Uncle Joe; Brock Banning; Froggy Lund; Taters Jones, Frederick Steinbrecher,and Jed Plinckett revolve in one way or another around the two main characters, and I had to flesh out each in a new way to keep them separate. I'm anxious for feedback on whether I succeeded.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Words (4)

Creative writing's equivalent of Shakespeare's pound of flesh is having to slash some of your favorite words for the good of the rest of your work.

I set out to write my first novel believing that I had escaped journalism's oppressive dictum of "Never use a word a sixth-grader wouldn't understand." I had to battle the inclination to do just that throughout a career that spanned four decades and took me and my family from coast to coast and from the Northern Tier to Arizona. My own tastes in literature run heavily in favor of authors who challenge me by using words with which I'm unfamiliar. Time-consuming though it may be to look them up, I always feel rewarded when I do. Most of the time I realize that that particular word works better in the sentence where I found it than any other word could have worked. Apparently I've been seduced by polysyllabic profundity.

Which makes me sort of a lone wolf. No sooner had I turned out my first version of "The Leather Man" and begun soliciting comments from friends than I was up to my elbows in complaints about "big words." Sometimes the words weren't that big; they were just too arcane, specialized or little-used, consigned to wherever words go when they live beyond the lifetimes of those who enjoy using them. "Surd" is a good example, and it's one of the words readers of "The Leather Man" won't have to deal with. It means "deaf" and refers to an absence of sound, but a secondary meaning is "senseless." I used it in what is now Chapter 4, referring to the pace of a dream that was turning into a Vietnam flashback for a troubled veteran. Then I took it out during a rewrite, pretty sure that it wasn't going to resonate with anyone.

That was early in the novel, but other words went ahead of surd, especially in the Prologue, which discusses the unique abundance and quality of Idaho water. I edited more than four pages out of the introductory portion of the book, including every bit of Payette, Idaho, farmer Nephi Purcell's fascinating battle with a 1,500-pound white sturgeon in 1911. The feedback I got was that the abundance of detail slowed down the reader's immersion in the story of the novel itself, which is not about fishing. Removed as concomitant casualties in the Prologue were words like:
  • Oppilate, which to me is a great verb meaning to stop up, or impede. I used it originally in the belief that readers might find it a rather more elegant synonym for dam or impound.
  • Anadromous.
  • Riparian.
  • Taxonomy.
  • Detritus.
  • Cognoscenti.
  • Rhyolite.
  • Leviathanesque (my preferred word, not in any dictionary, but means the same as leviathanic).
That was before the counting of chapters began. Later on in the book, I found reasons to strike (mostly because of their lack of currency in our vocabulary-depleted culture) words like:
  • Suppurating.
  • Ineluctable.
  • Lacuna.
  • Ubiquitous.
  • Gymkhana.
  • Vulpine.
  • Corvine.
  • Orison.
  • Sacristan.
  • Coriaceous (too perfect for a book named "The Leather Man").
For those who feel cheated, however, there are a few words left in that might help build vocabularies. Here are the several you don't hear every day, with definitions:
  • Fuliginous, adj., like soot (used in conjunction with my description of lava rock as soot-colored).
  • Sphygmodic, adj., pulsating.
  • Porcine, adj., characteristic of pigs, pig-like.
  • Anfractuous, adj., twisted, snake-like.
  • Anergic., adj., lacking energy.
  • Atrabilious, adj., melancholic; literally, of black bile.
  • Benthic, adj., relating to the ocean floor.
  • Boreal, adj., coming from the north.
  • Exanimate, adj., bereft or deprived of life.
  • Phalanx, noun, originally a massed infantry formation; closely packed group.
  • Janissary, noun, originally a Turkish soldier; now any elite, loyal fighter.
  • Crepuscular, adj., having to do with twilight.
  • Cyclopean, adj., of or pertaining to a Cyclops.
  • Chiaroscuro, noun, strong interplay of light and dark in an art composition.
  • Exophthalmic, adj., noticeable protrusion of the eyeballs.
  • Mastodonic, adj., of or pertaining to a mastodon.
  • Pullulate, verb, germinate quickly.
  • Prolix, adj., wordy.
  • Malevolent, adj., intending to harm or do evil to others.
  • Subclavian, adj., beneath the collarbone.
  • Susurrant, adj., murmuring.
  • Synecdoche, noun, letting a part of something stand for the whole of a group.
  • Gleek, verb, to drool or expectorate.
  • Verbigeration, noun, repetitive use of words or phrases.
  • Palindromic, adj., related to a sequence of symbols or elements that read the same forward or backward; used in the book to describe the regular, rolling appearance of the mountains east of the Lemhi River.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Words (3)

I was so concerned with not running long on my last blog that I left a worthwhile hint off my essay on shortening "The Leather Man." Go figure! So, I'll begin this one with one last bit of advice:

The second stratagem that helped me take out nearly 47,000 words _ about 35 percent of what I copyrighted to start with _ was to re-edit every conversation in the book. It was apparent almost from the start that my characters were talking too much, both to themselves and each other. I found long, long stream-of-consciousness segments in some chapters and conversations that took up entire pages elsewhere. Most of it seemed to be compelling storytelling when I did the initial writing, but, faced with my self-imposed mandate to shorten things, I noticed that some passages _ not all _ were unfolding upon themselves like a 100-foot garden hose in the backyard of a Las Vegas tract home. "The Leather Man" wasn't "Ulysses," I realized, and I certainly wasn't James Joyce, even though we both were fond of Irish humor and history.

Once I got down to applying take-out-the-fat techniques I'd learned over decades of shortening wire-service copy, it was easy to see what could be cut. In just one example from a conversation referred to in my second blog, Sam Moody, Canyon City's police chief, is trying to get prisoner Quintus LeClaire to open up about his experiences in Vietnam. LeClaire finally admits to having taken part in the first pitched battle between U.S. Forces and the Viet Cong. As originally written, he tells Moody:
The first time I got hit was during a big op they called Starlite, the first major ground battle of the war. The First Marines were headquartered in Chu Lai _ ninety clicks south of Da Nang, if that rings a bell. There's a coral reef, barely submerged, and you can walk out and look down and see fish all over the place, every color in the spectrum. It looks like a paint factory exploded underwater." He glanced at Moody again and returned to the subject. "The Zips forced our hand by moving a whole regiment into a nearby village, so we had to hit them first.
Cute simile, a description of Chu Lai as informative as a travel brochure, and a segment full of details that no combat-stressed ex-Marine is going to impart to an interrogator. In the final manuscript, I managed to insert an historical detail and still bring the narrative closer to reality. It came out this way:
I went ashore at Da Nang, if you heard of that?" He glanced at Moody again and returned to the subject. "We're looking for cover and nobody's there but reporters and flower children. Then, a few months later, we had a real battle, Operation Starlite. It was another amphibious landing, only this time a whole VC regiment was waiting.
I could give a dozen other examples, but they were basically more of the same.

Two of the late changes I made just months ago were to delete three-quarters of a chapter in the book's midsection and then an entire chapter in the final third. The gutted chapter, set during football training camp, contained paragraphs of detail on scrimmages, which are preparation for the real games to come. They had to go to leave room for the Wranglers' upset of a team from the highest echelon of college football. Then close to 3,000 words came out when I deleted what had been Chapter 43. It was cut because _ although it introduced most of the varsity basketball team _ it did nothing to advance the real story of the novel, which is neither football nor basketball, but the Leather Man's attempts to cope with the crushing blows life seems determined to deal him.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Words (2)

You can sum up everything an editor needs to know as two categories of knowledge _ what to take out, and what to leave in. Simple, except that getting close to perfection in both can take you on a long journey.

My novel "The Leather Man," now available at and, is a case in point. After 32 years of editing copy under extreme deadlines while covering a spectrum of events ranging from Olympic Games to the world premiere of "Twilight Zone: The Movie," I didn't anticipate any problems producing a trim, typo-free manuscript when I renewed work on the project I'd begun in 1974, my first full year with The Associated Press. I shelved the book quickly, though, because I found it virtually impossible to write creatively until four or five a.m. after night shifts in the Helena bureau. My office at home was an unheated cubbyhole in a rented house overlooking Last Chance Gulch. I didn't consider the location an omen back then, but it felt like it had been my last shot at success as an author by the time I quit the wire service.

As I suggested, I felt confident I could write a novel just as tightly as my old AP copy, but when I copyrighted "The Leather Man" in July 2008 it was as massive as continental drift. The version I sent to the Library of Congress had 628 pages containing 146,729 words. Nevertheless, I was proud of it and commenced trying to find an agent who could get my novel to a major publishing house. I sent out a dozen query letters and got around ten rejections. There would have been more, but a couple of fifteen-percenters didn't even bother to drop a snide note into my SASE'd return envelope (Who knows, maybe they needed a stamp? Agents must have financial crises, too).

I tried an alternate route later with a regional publisher who didn't require an agent, and that's when I heard that first-time authors shouldn't submit manuscripts longer than 300 pages. That was jarring _ I'd had bylines in Germany, Switzerland, Australia and Guam, among others, during my journalism career, and I didn't appreciate the "first-time" label, so I paused to consider my options. That produced a three-year gap in any progress toward publication, but I finally got back to editing in 2011. The first step was to examine every adjective and adverb in the book. Adverbs are tempting when a writer is looking to create a special effect, and most are redundant (I know, I have an adverb in the second paragraph. I used "virtually" because I worked on the book for about a month in the coldest part of a Montana winter before I gave up.)

I soon noticed that I was also finding ways to rewrite whole passages to shorten it, and on July 16, 2012, I stored a version that had been whittled down to 473 pages and 127,237 words. I immediately told all my loved ones that I had produced a real "final version."

I kept finding things I could improve, though, and on June 4, 2013, I stored a copy with 466 pages and 126,063 words. "Okay," I thought, "This is all that can be cut." By then I'd decided I was going to go with a vanity publisher, but I couldn't settle on one. It wasn't until February that I saw an ad that said Simon & Schuster was affiliated with Archway Publishing. That seemed promising, so I went with Archway. That could have been the final chapter, but once I got my sample edit I realized I had more work to do. I wasn't impressed with most of the suggested edits, but something clicked when I read the critique of the Prologue. I'd been thinking that my detailed story of landing a huge sturgeon out of the Snake River at Payette, Idaho, was too long, so I gulped and boiled four pages of fish story down to two sentences. Feeling empowered, I applied the same critical eye to everything else, and the words seemed to melt away. On resubmission, I sent Archway a final "final manuscript" with 308 pages and 99,123 words. My excitement was complete when the publication process produced a svelte novel with just 282 pages.

Now my only problem is wondering why I didn't just do the slash-and-burn editing at the start.


Thursday, June 19, 2014


There was only one way to deal with a new word in the past: Look it up, write it down, memorize it, then use it in a sentence. That was how you built a vocabulary, and in those days a big vocabulary was considered essential to personal success. That, apparently, was a long time ago.

A word jumped off the screen at me last night. It was "waiver," a perfectly good word, spelled correctly. The problem is that it was used as a verb. The writer apparently had no idea that the word he was looking for was "waver" _ a simple error, but jarring enough that I lost track of his argument. The situation reminded me of a similar mistake in the letters-to-the-editor column of my local newspaper a few years back _ "dribble" used when "drivel" was intended. The writer intended to be snarky, but wound up looking foolish to anyone who knew the difference. It was another case of mistaken homophones, or sound-alikes.

Homophones have been around at least since the Middle Ages. Shakespeare coined the term Dogberryism for inappropriate sound-alikes in "Much Ado About Nothing," believed to have been written around the end of the 16th Century, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals," written in 1775, introduced a character named Mrs. Malaprop, whose name gave us malapropism. Mrs. Malaprop was a comedic character, and malapropisms are naturally funny _ people like Norm Crosby built entire careers around mispronouncing words, and Yogi Berra certainly enhanced his legacy with malapropisms. I rounded out the character of Uncle Joe Talty in "The Leather Man" by making him the master of "a limerick, an intentional malapropism or a spoonerism for almost any occasion." But the effect of a word misspoken is different from the effect of a homophone used in print. Spell-checkers can't catch a misused word unless it's misspelled, but good spellers can and do. It all comes down to vocabulary, which is just as important today as it's ever been. Let's hope that teachers are stressing that in the classroom, and that kids are listening.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Thank You, Joyce Kilmer

                                                    THE REST OF THE BOOK

When I was asked to categorize "The Leather Man" prior to publication I listed it under General Fiction _ not Sports _ even though it is set in a college athletic department to which most of the characters relate and is endorsed by former Dallas Cowboys coach Dave Campo as "(a) story that encapsulates college football in the '60s." The reason is simple: "The Leather Man" is a complex book that not only weaves together the lives of the characters but reflects their interests, passions and hobbies. As the narrative unfolds, the progress of the Canyon State College football team becomes not the theme of novel, but a backdrop to the way the title character and a subordinate hero handle their life challenges and grow through them.

I majored in English Literature in college, intending all along to become a novelist, and four decades as a journalist never altered what I learned to be the first rule of any writing: Write about what you know. That's why sub-themes like trees and military history turn up in the pages of a book completed post-retirement. I touched on the military history part in my first blog yesterday, June 17, and today I'd like to explain the frequent tree references.

I was indifferent about trees until my wife and I moved to the aptly-named city of Boise (the French word "bois" means "wood" or "woodland") and bought our first house. The only part of Boise that looked like a forest when the fur trappers saw it was the dense bunching of cottonwoods lining the Boise River, but the settlers who followed them found fertile soil spreading to the hills on both sides of the river and a mild climate that encouraged experimentation planting anything up to and including magnolias. My conversion to tree-lover occurred that fall, when I got my first glimpse of a sweetgum with star-shaped leaves in autumn colors ranging from gold to purple on a single tree.

I planted a tulip tree in the backyard of that small Cape Cod, and a career move from Boise to Ogden, Utah, to work for the Standard-Examiner did nothing to dampen my increasing interest in everything arboreal. In fact, it increased when I learned that the University of Utah campus had been designated a state arboretum. Gasoline was about 25 cents a gallon back then, and we nearly wore out my car driving into Salt Lake City on summer weekends to follow the free arboretum guide to specimens like Ohio buckeyes, which thrived there, and individuals like a Zelkova serrata; a giant sequoia; a Paulownia; a bald cypress, and a European ash, recommended on the metal tag as one of Europe's most handsome trees. Somewhere along the line I had begun memorizing the Latin names, and the ash's name (Fraxinus excelsior) seem to bear out the fact that almost everyone agreed about its good looks.

While in Ogden I got so interested in trees that I considered becoming a botanist. I enrolled in a beginning Botany course at Weber State University and earned an A in what turned out to be a meaningless boost to my undergraduate GPA years after graduation.

Since "The Leather Man" is still largely unknown, I'm going to use this space to give readers excerpts from time to time. This one is taken from a conversation between Sam Moody, Canyon City's new police chief, and Quintus LeClaire, the Vietnam veteran whose flashback lands him in Moody's custody for interrogation (the swamp cypress referred to is known as a bald cypress in much of the country):
Tell you the truth, I thought where I grew up was the most beautiful place on Earth, but something changed while I was overseas. Home wasn't home any more, and the bayous were different. Swamp cypress was my favorite tree _ it's a deciduous conifer, you know?" Moody had no clue, but nodded anyway. "The kind of tree that has needles like a pine, only it drops them in the fall, Very picturesque! But, after I got back, all I could see was VC hiding behind the trunk. When I'm on dark water now, I wonder what's underneath the bateau.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Starting Out

I have to confess to feeling some trepidation about my introduction to blogging. It's not fear of writing _ I've been doing that since I was five; it's the feeling of unease that most people have trying something unfamiliar, like shifting gears in a car with what used to be called a standard transmission. I believe (and hope) this blog will look better and better as I familiarize myself with the medium.
My father, who was one of the five most intelligent men I've ever met (two of the others were Cornell University professors I interviewed for The AP), noticed two things early in my grade-school years: That I was making up stories and setting them down on paper, and that I was fascinated by animals. That led to my first two commercial writing experiences _ both of them of the natural-history genre, illustrated by yours truly. I finished the first when I was eight and the second just before my tenth birthday, and my dad bound them so that they look like real books. He tricked me into tackling the first project by offering me a penny a page, and I turned out 81 pages _ each one a description of the animal above a crayon-colored picture of the same. I was quite cavalier in organizing it _ for instance, the page describing coral snakes is opposite the page describing bison, and I discuss mandrills across from alligators. I was both better organized and hungrier for money when I began the second book the next year: It has 326 pages, chapters, an index and an "Identification Page" which states that I began writing it around Christmas 1949 and finished on June 13, 1950. While handing over the $3.26 at a time when a bottle of pop cost a nickel, my father made the fateful prediction: "Mel, I think you're going to be a writer."
After that he began letting me use his typewriter, and I started two much more stylish books _ a third one on animals, and the last on U.S. military aircraft (a new fascination) _ without finishing either. I managed to get 46 pages deep into the latter before I reached my teens and decided that was enough reason to quit, dropping my compleion average to .500.
The next important step on my writer's journey came in 1960, when my college roommate and I spent more than four months hitchhiking in Europe. I'd been told travel would have a broadening effect on my mind, and it did. We crossed the Atlantic in late July aboard the Cunard Line's RMS Mauretania, a 35,738-ton steamship so steady and massive that the often unruly ocean seemed like a pond. On the return trip in December, the Atlantic lived up to its reputation and tossed an even larger ship, the 81,237-ton Queen Mary, around like a cocktail shaker. But both passages left me lots of time to contemplate the art of writing, and, by the time I returned to college at the University of Utah, I couldn't wait to start studying Latin. It was a fortunate coincidence that the beginning course was taught by Dr. Jerry Gresham, the best teacher I've learned from in any subject, and it is no coincidence at all that Quintus LeClaire, the Latin-quoting tailback in my new novel "The Leather Man," owes his existence to the influence of that initial course.
Years later, having worked for three newspapers, the Idaho Health and Water Resources departments, and as a UPI stringer, I was hired by The Associated Press in Helena, Mont., and began writing "The Leather Man" after each night shift. I struggled the produce about 40,000 words before I realized writing until 4 a.m. every night was having a deleterious effect on my health, and I laid off the project for a while. The interlude stretched to more than three decades before my daughters got hold of the grainy old sheets of paper, read them and decided they wanted to see me complete the book. They took turns transcribing what I'd done, stored it on a CD and gave it to me one Father's Day. After I retired from journalism, I took up the project again; renamed the title character Ben Steinbrecher; relegated LeClaire to an antihero's role; beefed up Brock Banning as the villain; introduced Sam Moody as the Leather Man's best friend and Edison Green as Canyon State's controversial quarterback; boiled the original 40,000 words down to about 9,000 in the finished product, and added another 90,000 words to make it novel-length. Now I'm finally a published novelist, and I can't wait to see where it goes from there.