Between a rock and a hard place

I cringed when I read the opening line of the first draft of the new series. She’d named me Biff Steele, as if Rod Manly hadn’t been bad enough in the previous books. But names, however cheesy they may be, are not the worst thing that could happen to me. At least my author does her homework, unlike my best friend’s creator.

My pal, poor guy, has lived a really tough life. Not only does he have a name worse than mine—Rocky Hardplace—his psycho-behind-the-keyboard author lives her fantasies through him—killing, bombing, fighting, shooting, and sex … so much sex. Too much sex. SEX, SEX, SEX. It must be all she ever thinks of, day and night. Well, that and how to solve crimes using the dumb stuff she sees on TV shows. Doesn’t she realize that most of those characters are products of poor research and fantasy?

My writer, thank goodness, understands the huge differences between the written word and the on-screen action seen on TV and film. Live-action stuff quite often needs over the top excitement to capture and hold the attention of a viewing audience. TV watchers see events unfold in vivid color. They hear the excitement pumping throughout their living rooms via high-dollar surround sound systems.

Rocky, if he’s told his writer once he’s told her a thousand times that readers, as opposed to TV and film watchers, must have the means to extract movement and stimulation from carefully planned and plotted mental massagings of each of their senses. They do so from what’s nothing more than a writer’s carefully arranged blots of ink on a page. There are no images within a typical novel; therefore, the writer must somehow use only words made from a mere 26 letters to mold and form detailed pictures inside a reader’s mind.


A pangram is a sentence that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet.

The five boxing wizards jump quickly.


We, Rocky, me, and all the other members of the Fictional Characters Guild, have all traveled throughout the convoluted paths inside the minds of readers. And we know that each person has a different perception of what they read, and that’s because they draw upon their own past experiences. This, sadly, is where Rocky Hardplace’s writer really goofs. She has no experience in the world of cops and robbers, so she, unfortunately for her readers, makes up what should be realistic information, and some of it is totally absurd.

Rocky’s writer, as do many others, often has her hero tromping about his fictional city while doing some pretty ridiculous stuff—shooting a revolver that spews spent brass, knocking out bad guys with nothing more than a tap to the back of the neck, shooting guns from the hands of serial killers, and smelling the odor of cordite at crime scenes. She even forces upon her readers her own wacky-ass notion that FBI agents ride into town on white horses to solve every murder and kidnapping case. Someone really should tell her the FBI does not work local murder cases. That’s not what they do. And don’t get me started on the smell of cordite. Yes, STOP with the cordite already! The stuff hasn’t been around since WWII.

Thankfully, as I said earlier, my author does her homework. She reads books such as Police Procedure and Investigation, and she’s a regular reader of this blog. She also attends the Writers’ Police Academy and its offshoot event, MurderCon

20170106_221254My writer is a fictional hero’s dream author. I rarely ever do stupid stuff in my quest to save my city from crime and corruption (Have you ever noticed how much “stupid stuff” is found in books? I’m thankful that reality isn’t nearly as bad).

My author dresses me nicely. I carry the best guns money can buy. I’m an expert in the martial arts … all of them. My girlfriend is an astronaut. My work partner is smart, but remains at one level below me (my IQ is over the moon). I drive a really cool car. I live in a wonderful beach house. I have a flea-less dog as a best friend. And I have just enough flaws and quirks to keep my fans interested. Yes, my world is perfect.

If I could only convince her to change my name. Biff Steele … yuck.

Could be worse, I suppose. She could’ve written me as … Sergeant Lance Boyle.

It’s Saturday night, almost midnight, and your California protagonist has arrested a couple of strangers who sorta-kinda sound as if they’re speaking English, but not quite. Sure, every third or fourth word is recognizable, but phrases such as, “If’n you don’t let me go I’ma gonna stomp a mud hole in your ass,” well, they just don’t quite make sense.

The drawl, though, should be a dead giveaway. Yep, those folks are from the southern part of the country from where I lived for a few decades. It’s where life is just about as fine as the hair covering our little green friend pictured above.

You know the old saying, right?

No? Well, when someone who resides in the bottom half of the Commonwealth of Virginia asks how another person feels, and they feel good, the person might respond by saying, “I’m as fine as frog hair.”

So, without a Southern-speak interpreter your hero’s caught twixt a rock and a hard place. But this ain’t his first hog-callin’, no sir. He’s been in this pre-dict-a-ment afore. So he reaches for his handy-dandy Officer’s Guide To Southern Speak, and within seconds he’s a hootin’ and a hollerin’ with the best of of ’em, including that famous southern lawman, Cap’n Rufus “Peanut” Jenkins.

Cap’n Rufus “Peanut” Jenkins

Now you, too, can join in on the conversation. All you have to do is print out the pocket guide (below) and keep it real handy because you’ll want to know exactly what to do when Bubba Lee Johnson, Jr. says, “If you feel froggy, jump.” Of course, even without “jumping frog” warning, when Junior spat out his Redman chew—the whole wad—and snatched off his grease-stained Hank, Jr. t-shirt while puffing out his narrow chest, well, you sort of knew he was ready to fight. His words were simply a dare for you to make the first move (why they always, always, always tear off the t-shirt is a mystery of the universe, along with black holes and Stonehenge).

Anyway, poke your finger at the print button, ’cause if the good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’m fixin’ to help you understand Southern Speak. And to help us out, Bubba Lee is going to share some of his favorite expressions.

Take it away, Bubba …

Mindless Superhero

1) He’s so poor he cain’t pay attention (a person of meager means)

2) D’rectly (in a little while) “I’ll be there d’rectly.”

3) Like white on rice (extremely close to something or someone) “Bobbi Sue is so stuck on Junior she’s like white on rice.”

4) Looks like two bulldogs in a gunny sack (the motion of a female’s rear end is very appealing). “Hey, Junior, look at ‘ol Bobbi Sue over yonder. Looks like two bulldogs in a gunny sack.”

5) Fixin’ (going to). “I’m fixin’ to head down to the liquor store. Y’unt anything?” (See definition of “y’unt,” below).

6) Blessed me out (fussed or cussed). “I got Bobbi Sue pregnant and dang if’n her husband didn’t bless me out.”

7) Like a cow peeing on a flat rock (a downpour). “It’s raining so hard it sounds like a cow peeing on a flat rock.”

8) Slicker than snot (extremely slippery). “That dad-gum snow made my driveway slicker’n snot.”

9) Fine as frog hair (exceptionally nice). “Why, I’m as fine as frog hair. Thanks for asking.”

10) Rode hard and put away wet (looking pretty bad). “Dang, what happened to ‘ol Junior? He looks like he’s been rode hard and put away wet.”

11) Hungry enough to eat the south end of a northbound skunk (famished). “I ain’t eat in three days. I’m hungry enough to the eat the south end of a northbound skunk.”

12) Quieter than a mouse peeing on cotton. Extremely quiet. “It so quiet in here it’s, well, quieter than a mouse peeing on cotton.”

13) Dancing in high cotton (successful/wealthy). “I just got my income tax check and I’m dancing in high cotton.”

14) Stove up (sore muscles). “Dang, Lulu’s old man come in the back door and I hadda run all the way home. Now I’m all stove up.”

15) Nabs (Lance snack crackers). “I’m going to the store to get me a pack of Nabs”.

16) Catfish are carrying canteens. Dry conditions/drought. “It’s so dry the catfish are carrying canteens.”

17) – Disremember (forgot). Write down what I’m tellin’ you, Ralphie Sue, so you won’t disremember it.”

There you have it, 17 expressions your hero is likely to encounter when arresting a southerner. So listen closely and keep this guide handy. And, bless your heart, not everything that sounds nice is a compliment.

Bless your heart – a polite way to deliver an insult. Transforms a positive comment into a negative. “Her baby is really cute, bless her heart.” In the region of the South where I lived and worked for many years, this typically means the little one is basically stomp-down, butt-ugly.

REJECTED!

Therefore, if you’ve queried an agent who resides below “the line,” and their response to your manuscript submission was, “Your writing is wonderful, bless your heart,” well, it might be a good idea to re-think your career choice.

Help is on the Way

To help out (if the rejections become too overwhelming to handle), I’ve listed a few local “HELP WANTED” ads. A couple of them caught my eye, and they need employees right away. The first …

News reporter

Fence painter

Ghost writer for James Patterson

Undercover Writer

Carpenter

Rejected, again.

Paid participant in new drug clinical trials

I don’t think they gave me the placebo …

The letter “D” works overtime in the South

Oh, I almost forgot about the addition of the letter “D” in places it “dudden” belong. I “wudden” gonna mention these but they are an important part of the dialect in some southern locations. It “idden” right, but it is what it is.

Some of you, I know, “hadden” been around many hardcore southerners, so these phrases and words may be a bit furrin’ to you. And, if used anywhere else in the country they simply “wooden” work.

Suppose, for a moment, that Paul Revere had been born and raised in, say, Richmond, Va. If so, locals might have heard him cry out, “To arms, the Briddish is comin’, y’all.” Lawdy, that sounds purdy silly, dudden it?

Fine-lee, I’d like to mention the ever-popular:

  • Lie-berry (library)
  • Cain’t (cannot)
  • Don’t make me no never mind (I don’t care)
  • Cut out the light (turn off the light)
  • Might ought to/Might could (should)
  • Y’unt-to? Rhymes with “punt two.” Like, “Could the kicker punt two footballs at the same time? (Definition – Do you want to?)
  • Lie-berry Ann – (Librarian) “There’s the lady from the lie-berry. I think her name is Ann ’cause my teacher said I have to see the Lie-berry Ann to get the book I need for my report on moonshinin’.”

“Don’t make me no never mind if you go to the lie-berry. I’d go witcha but I cain’t right now. I might could go a bit later, though, if y’unt-to  Hey, don’t forget to cut out the light before you leave. And y’all be careful now, ya’ hear.”


* Before any of you “bless me out,” I lived in the south for nearly 40 years and have heard each of the above more times than I could count. Remember, many terms and expressions may vary from place to place, but I reckon you already knew that, didden you?

By the way, this article brought to my attention just how often frogs are mentioned in southern conversations. That, and their legs are absolutely delicious, which explains why frog-gigging is a favorite pastime in many locations in the south.

Don’t think you’ll want to participate in this kind of “gig,” Froggy. Unless your band is called The Entrées. In that case, well, plan on staying for dinner.

 

Jail Cell

Writers are a curious bunch of folks who should never let walls, doors, locks, or the word NO stop them from producing the best stories possible.

The tellers of both tall and short tales, in fact, go to great lengths to find detail—the perfect setting, great, believable characters, and those wonderfully juicy tidbits of information that stimulate a reader’s senses.

With pen in hand and minds wide open, a writer will do whatever it takes to reach the last page of their work-in-progress, including hopping on a plane, train, car, or truck to travel to wherever information can be found. They walk, they talk, they telephone, they email, they read blogs and books, they ride with cops, attend court proceedings, and they attend awesome events such as the Writers’ Police Academy. Again, they do what it takes and they do it all in the name of pleasing readers.

Many stories include prison and/or jail settings, as well as the residents and/or employees of each. So what do writers do? They meet with jail officials and arrange to tour their facility. Sure, it can sometimes be a very steep uphill battle to get a foot in the door to some places of incarceration. But, as it’s been said, where there’s a will …

Suppose, though, that you, a writer, find yourself incarcerated for a long, long time … perhaps even for the remainder of your life. What would you do? After all, your passion is the written word. You have so many stories to tell, especially the one that landed you behind bars. You’ve gotta write!

So how on earth would you obtain the information you need for your book(s)? The internet is often not available. No modern library (in many lockups you’d be fortunate if there’s anything more than a few tattered paperbacks stacked in what used to be a mop closet). You’d have very little, if any, contact with people on the outside. And, if your story involves law enforcement, forensics, etc., you can pretty much rule out the assistance of cops and CSI experts.

What would you do?

Well, one such writer, a prisoner, once reached out to me back a while back, via my publisher. He sent a three page handwritten letter, complete with a very nice, well-written one-page introduction that explained the reason for his incarceration—murder. He went on to say that he’d been sentenced to life for killing a woman (a close associate of a well-known outlaw motorcycle club) during a heated argument. He also said he feels no ill will toward police. In short, he did what he did and accepted full responsibility for the act, but the circumstances hadn’t stopped his desire to write.

Interestingly, this fellow, the convicted murderer, subscribes to Writer’s Digest Magazine, which is where he read an article I wrote (published in the September 2014 issue). Yes, WD is delivered to prisons.

My article is what prompted the lifer to write me with an unusual research request. A request that I strongly considered. It was a consideration that went against the very grain of my being. However, I was inclined to help because his story could’ve very well been a good one … a life-changer for someone on the outside.

There was a small problem, however, with delivering my information to this prisoner. You see, he had no idea where I lived at the time and I didn’t want him to know (return addresses are required on all inmate mail at this and other facilities). In fact, the bio in my book about police procedure states that we reside in Boston. This is a book the inmate has in his possession and he mentions it his introductory letter to Writer’s Digest.

howdunit_PPI

Non prisoners may also my purchase!

Therefore, when the inmate wrote my publisher he was under the impression that I lived somewhere in New England.

20141105_113239

As many of you know, we’re frequent re-locators (and that’s putting it mildly), so imagine my surprise to see a return address that just happened to be that of a state prison located very near where we lived at the time I received the letter. Very. Very. Near.

I finally came up with with a means to give him the information he needed, via an online source. I used the internet instead of snail mail to prevent him from learning our home address. After all, he had family and friends and “business associates” on the outside.

Anyway, the point of this long-winded story with no real end is that writers should never settle for an “okay” book when overcoming small obstacles is all that stands in the way of producing a really great story.

What are some of those barriers?

  • Too chicken to make contact with cops and/or other experts. Believe me, cops love to talk about their work and, if you let them, they’ll talk about it until the cows come home. So please don’t hesitate to approach a police officer. Of course, you may have to extend an offer of a cup of coffee to start the ball rolling, but after that, hold on because your mind will soon be filled with real-life tales of car chases, shootouts, drug raids, puking drunks, and struggles with the biggest and baddest bad guys who ever walked a dark alleyway. Of course, you should probably avoid weird and scary opening lines, such as, “Hi, my name Wendy Writer and I’m wondering if you would please tell me how to kill someone and get away with it?” Or, “Hi, my name Karla Killer and I’d really like to hold your gun so I can see how heavy it is.”
  • Procrastination (I was too busy to attend the Writers’ Police Academy. Maybe next year. In some instances, “next year” may never arrive. After all, we can’t do this forever!)
  • Fear of rejection by agents and editors. Settle for nothing less than a big fat YES, and don’t stop working and writing and bettering your craft until you reach your goals.
  • Television (Please STOP using TV as a source of information!! Easy isn’t always best).
  • Allowing life to run you instead of you running your life.

I guess what I’m getting at is that if a murderer who’s serving a life sentence in a pretty harsh prison setting is willing to go the extra mile for a scrap of important information needed for his book, then why shouldn’t all writers at least make some sort of effort to “get it right?”

How about you? Do you go the extra mile for the details in your tales?

Speaking of details …


It’s almost time to announce the name of the 2020 MurderCon/Writers’ Police Academy guest of honor. In the meantime, here are a few hints …

Over 3 dozen bestselling novels.
Rarely appears at writers conferences.
Numerous books adapted for film and TV and each feature big name actors.

Oh, and don’t forget, in addition to naming the 2020 guest of honor, the The Writers’ Police Academy/MurderCon will also soon announce an exciting, unbelievably thrilling, and closely guarded secret. Yes, you’ll lose your mind over this one! Hint … Reacher.

AND, we also have a couple of fabulous extra-special guest speakers in the lineup!

We’ve added some pretty cool hands-on classes, all related to murder investigations. Practical exercise workshops are extremely realistic where you’ll learn to use the equipment and the techniques and tactics utilized by investigators at actual crime scenes. In fact, MurderCon attendees will have the opportunity to properly collect and process evidence, all in a realistic residential setting which, by the way, happens to be a crime scene. Yes, you will be the police investigator and it’s up to you to solve the case. This is realism at its best!

Again, MurderCon/Writers’ Police Academy and Sirchie provide the same training that’s taught to law enforcement investigators from around the world. The classes offered at this one of a kind event include sessions taught in Sirchie’s elite Evidence Collection and Processing Training Program that, according to Sirchie …

“Our Evidence Collection and Processing Training Program provides law enforcement professionals and crime scene investigators with hands-on training using forensic tools that will help to execute the best crime scene investigation mission possible.”

Writers generally fall into one of two categories, panthers or plotters. Writers, you share these traits with killers, and this could be the reason your books are so devilishly delightful.

The Plotter

plotter starts each writing project with a plan, and before typing the first word of a new story they know how and why each action happens. They have a clear picture of their characters and setting. Plotters generally know where they’re going and how they’ll get there. They also know where and when they’ll stop along the way.

Plotter’s offices are decorated with multi-colored stick notes (red for character A, blue for character B, yellow for character C, etc.), and photos of celebrities cut from People magazine to use as inspiration for characters. Neatly organized stacks of notebooks filled with research material stand at ready on the surfaces of uncluttered desks. Pens are lined up next to keyboards, like sardines in tin cans. A predetermined word count must be reached each day.

A great example of a true plotter is top bestselling author Jeffery Deaver. Jeff once told me that he conducts extensive research and plotting for six months or longer prior to writing the first word of a new book. He’s extremely meticulous and organized, and records massive amounts of notes. Yet, he weaves this factual material into a story without even the slightest hint of an information dump.

Roadside Crosses

I often tell the story where, while reading Deaver’s Roadside Crosses, I learned about the use of a hard drive enclosure to retrieve data from a computer that had been rendered useless after having been immersed in ocean water. And, ironically, not long after reading the book my personal computer crashed and would no longer work. Obviously, I had a ton of material I couldn’t afford to lose so I purchased a hard drive enclosure and was able to recover all of my files. This detail in the book was real, but Jeff had smartly included it in a work of fiction without it seeming as if I’d attended a lesson on electronic devices. He’s a brilliant writer.

The Panster

A pantser is someone who powers-up the Mac, enjoys a long gulp of coffee, and then hands over the entire book to their characters, and it is they, not the writer, who do the majority of the walking and talking and thinking, all with very little help. Pansters are not much more than stenographers who works for their characters. They are the vehicles that transform characters’ ideas and actions into words on a page.

A panster’s writing journey, like that of the plotters, begins at point A. However, the panster often has not a single clue in advance how they’ll reach point B. The convoluted paths traveled will often be as much as a surprise to the author as it will be to the reader. They know where they’re going, but not how they’ll get there.

Still, no one is all-in as a panster or as a plotter. Things change as stories evolve and the writer must adapt. And both methods work well for both types of writers. I’m a panster and my wife Denene, the scientist, is a plotter.

Billy Bob Thornton is a Pantser

Billy Bob Thornton used the panster approach when writing the script for the movie Slingblade. Thornton has said that he likes to write late at night, generally between the hours of midnight and six in the morning. He says he writes in the “stream of consciousness fashion” and doesn’t rewrite. He writes his projects all at once. The actor/screenwriter/director wrote Slingblade, for example, in nine days.

Thornton had the character Carl in mind in advance, basing him on a blend of two people he knew from his past, a black man and a white man. He incorporated the look and mannerisms and walk from the black man, and the situation from the white man. The white man, according to Thornton, was fed in his backyard, like a dog. This combination of the two real-life men was the starting point for Carl’s character and story. The rest of Thornton’s tale flowed from there, without the benefit of notes, planning, or plotting.

Now, what does this have to do with murderers? Well …

Organized Killers

Organized killers, the “panthers,” have above average to average intelligence. They’re often thought to be attractive. They’re neat and tidy and are often married or living with a partner during the times they committed their crimes. They hold jobs, are typically educated, and are skilled at their profession. They look to be in control. And they often have above average knowledge of police and forensics procedures. They enjoy reading and hearing about their crimes, with a particular affection for seeing their crime scenes in the media. It is not unusual at all  for an organized killer to make contact with the media, or even the police.

Organized offenders carefully plan their crimes. They go the extra mile to prevent leaving evidence behind. Their killings are often premeditated. Killers in this group, the “plotters,” are antisocial and often psychopathic—they lack of empathy and other emotions. They’re manipulative of others. The tricky thing when dealing with organized criminals is that they often appear quite normal, and they’ll do their best to use charm to their advantage.

They’re not insane and they definitely know right from wrong, but they lack conscience and feel or show no remorse for the deeds.

Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, is an example of an organized killer/criminal.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland is a renowned expert on serial killers and she details Rader’s crimes in her book Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Denis Rader the BTK Killer. As part of her research, Dr. Ramsland spoke with Rader by telephone once a week for an entire year. Each week, Rader called her from the El Dorado Correctional Facility and the two of them talked for an hour or so. Also as part of her process of delving into Rader’s mind, Dr. Ramsland played chess, by mail, with the killer.

As many of you know, Dr. Ramsland is a regular presenter at the Writers’ Police Academy.

Disorganized Killers

Disorganized killers/criminals, “the pantsers” of the criminal world, typically do not plan their crimes in advance. They often leave evidence at the scenes of their crimes, such as fingerprints, footprints, DNA, tire tracks, or blood. They’re also known to simply leave the body as is, making no real attempt to conceal it or to prevent leaving telltale evidence such as semen or saliva. Their crimes are sometimes chaotic.

Disorganized killers tend to be younger in age. They’re unskilled workers who have no problem depersonalizing their victims. They may be mentally ill. They’re often of below average intelligence who lack communication and social skills. Many come from dysfunctional and/or abusive families. They may have been sexually abused by relatives, and they may present with sexual detestation. They’re loners who often travel on foot to commit crimes due to a lack of transportation. These are the neighbors of their victims.

Jack the Ripper, for example, was a killer who made no effort to conceal the bodies of his victims.

*No, I do not actually believe writers are potential serial killers. Then again, we still don’t know the identity of Jack the Ripper. For all we know, he/she was the author of great works of fiction and his/her killings were part of a gruesome research project.

There’s nothing in this world that can be compared to entering an abandoned house in mid July, in the south, to begin working a murder case. If the stifling heat, humidity, and smell of decomposing human flesh and organs don’t get to you, well, the flies, maggots, and other creepy crawlers certainly will. Without a doubt, it’s a full-on attack of the senses. But, it’s a job that falls into the laps of homicide cops—it’s what they do—and it’s a job that requires a special skill set. Not to mention a stomach made of cast iron and steel plating.

But, once you’re past the stench, gore, fly-swatting, and overall feel of ickiness, solving murder cases are a bit like writing crime novels … sort of.

Writers typically begin their stories knowing the identities of the murderers du jour, right? Protagonists typically work toward a “killer” ending to the story in which they travel, while their creators provide clues along the way that help their fictional heroes and readers solve the carefully plotted crimes.

Real-life detectives begin their journeys with an initial report that’s a written introduction to the basics—victim’s name, location where crimes took place, weather conditions, dates, times, responding officers’ names, time of arrival of the medical examiner, witness names and statements, if any, etc. This information, much like the very first Post-it note of a plotting author’s outline launches a story into a convoluted journey to the final page of a book, provides the starting points for investigations. And, those initial police reports often serve as guides that determine which direction the investigations should follow.

Remember, no two investigations are the same!

What follows the reading and studying of the initial police report or, an author’s first Post-it note, is an extremely detailed and meticulous prying, pawing, digging, and rummaging through each and every aspect of all the twists and turns and potential characters/suspects. No stone is left unturned, and no potential piece of evidence is left unexamined. For detectives, this often results in lots of long hours without sleep, meals, or time to rest. For writers, this means tons of sticky notes placed in all the right places, tons of research, police ride-alongs, and attending the fabulous Writers’ Police Academy.

When I approached a case where the suspect’s identity was unknown, and clues and information were scarce or non-existent—after collecting physical evidence—I often found it helpful to begin by first eliminating people who could NOT be involved, such as the people who had solid, unquestionable alibis. Then, I’d eliminate the folks whose innocence was proven by physical evidence (fingerprints and DNA didn’t match, etc.). It was often the last man or woman standing who committed the crime.

Writers, in lieu of using actual evidence to eliminate characters/suspects, they develop fictional evidence to do the same. And when something doesn’t seem quite right with a scene or character, well, the writers then simply removes a sticky note here and there and toss them aside. However, both detectives and writers typically file any discarded information in the event it’s needed at a later time. And, like writers, cops often find that information gained/gathered in one investigation just may be valuable in the next.

To Step Into a Murder Scene is Like …

So let’s open the door to the spooky house at the end of your street—the old Victorian that’s been empty for two years and is now surrounded by waist-high weeds. The once beautifully manicured lawn is now a graveyard for litter and other garbage left behind by transients and the kids who toss their empty fast food wrappers and plastic soda bottles over the rusted chain-link fence. Window panes are broken and many of shingles have fallen from the roof, leaving behind patches of tar paper and rusted nails.

For months now you’ve seen a homeless man going and coming, but this morning you realized that he hadn’t been around in the past two weeks. And there’s that strong odor. Like something is … dead.

So you call the police and the next thing you know your neighborhood is overrun by patrol cars and crime scene tape. You even heard one officer say something about murder.

Inside the “spooky” house, detectives are doing what they do best. They’re checking all the boxes on their mental checklist. And now their focus is on the victim.

The Effects of Death on the Human Body

Prior to the removal of a body from the crime scene, homicide investigators should note (and photograph) the presence of each of the following in his/her report:

1) Livor Mortis/Lividity (color, location, blanchability, Tardieu spots, other coloring). Are these consistent or inconsistent with the current positioning of the body?

Remember, lividity is the pooling of blood/purplish staining of tissue at the lowest portions of a dead body, caused by gravity. Livor continues to form for up to 8 – 12 hours after death. This process can be slowed to as much as 36 hours in a cool environment, including a morgue cooler.

To test for blanchability, a death investigator uses a finger(s) to push against the flesh. The pressure forces blood out of the capillaries in that area, causing the flesh to present as much lighter in color. If the pressure does indeed cause a change in skin color, the flesh is blanchable. This tells the investigator the body is still within the lividity period, meaning the victim died sometime within the past 12 hours, or up to 36 hours in cool surroundings.

You can try this on your own skin. Use a finger to apply pressure to the back of your hand. Release the pressure after a second or two and you’ll see the change in skin color (obviously you’ll use the finger of one hand to press against the skin on the back of your other hand). By the way, if you needed that instruction, well, the warning to remove Pop Tarts from their wrapper before heating are probably very important to you. And, if there was no change in your skin color, well, I hope your life insurance policy is up to date.

Tardieu spots are dark, circular areas—capillary ruptures.

2) Rigor Mortis

Muscles contain bundles of long, narrow cells. While we’re seated at our computers reading blogs and watching goofy videos, our muscles are, for the most part, at rest.

While resting, our muscles pump out calcium ions which build up electrical potential (energy). Then, when we’re ready to make that run to the mailbox to retrieve the latest royalty check, a nerve impulse causes those ions hook up with actin and myosin filaments and the muscles contract (become tighter). They remain in that state until adenosine triphosphate (ATP) binds to the myosin, and before you know it the muscles once again relax.

Got it now? No, well, don’t worry. All we need to know is that ATP has an obsession with oxygen. It absolutely has to have it to survive.

Actually, the body needs oxygen to produce ATP. Therefore, when a person stops breathing (no oxygen) the body ceases to make adenosine triphosphate. Without ATP our muscles can no longer relax. And when the muscles can’t relax, what happens? Right, the body stiffens, and that, my writer friends, is called Rigor Mortis.

3) Degree of decomposition (putrefaction, adipocere, mummification, skeletonization, etc.). Everything affects decomposition, from air temperature to animals and insects to shellfish, fish, alligators, snakes, and turtles, when the body is in water. Even soil types and clothing can affect the rate of decomposition. Interestingly, newborns who have not yet been fed, decompose slowly since the body is basically sterile. However, an injury or being fed will cause a newborn’s body to decompose more rapidly.

a) Putrefaction – the final stage of decomposition. Presents as discoloration of tissue, disfiguration, liquefaction of tissue, bloating due to gases forming in the tissue and organs.

The general order of putrefactive changes are as follows:

First to go are the larynx and trachea, followed by…

– stomach, spleen, and intestines

– lungs and liver

–  brain

– heart

– bladder, uterus, kidneys

– skin, tendons, and muscle

– bone

*The prostate resists putrefaction for a long time.

b) Adipocere – a waxy, soap-like substance that’s sometimes formed during decomposition. Normally caused by moist or damp conditions surrounding the decomposing body.

D. Insect and animal activity. Obviously, insects and animals can and do consume body parts. Animals may also scatter human remains, sometimes making the murder scene a bit more difficult to understand, at first look.

E. Scene temperature. Death investigators make note of the ambient temperature at the location of the body, and the method used to obtain it.

F. Description of body temperature. Is it warm to the touch? Is the flesh cold, or frozen.

It is extremely important to preserve the security of the body. Remember, the body is more than likely THE most important piece of evidence in a murder case. Investigators should oversee the labeling, packaging, and the removal of the remains by the M.E’s personnel, or EMS, etc. An identification tag should be attached to the body to prevent any mix ups later, at the morgue (yes, this has happened, and on more than one occasion).

Finally … No, police detectives do NOT use thermometers of any type, including rectal thermometers, to check the temperature of a dead body. It is not in their job description to do so. Yes, I once read the rectal thermometer thing in a book. So, no, no, and NO!

By the way, the image at the left is of a grilled pork chop. Had your stomach turning for a moment, huh?


*Remember, laws and procedure differ across the country. What happens in San Francisco or L.A. may be, and likely are, entirely different in Richmond or Baltimore or Dallas or Phoenix or Denver or Kansas or ….

*The black and white images contained in this post are from an actual crime scene, the largest mass family murder to occur in the U.S. It’s a case I featured in my true crime tale, Murder on Minor Avenue.

As part of my research prior to writing the story I visited the scene(s), interviewed dozens of people involved in two cases, including police detectives, neighbors, prosecutors, judges, family members, etc., and I visited the gravesites of the slain. Murder on Minor Avenue was published in an anthology called Masters of True Crime: Chilling Stories of Murder and the Macabre (edited by R. Barri Flowers) Publisher – Prometheus Books.

 

Many writers have never, not once, set foot inside a police car, nor have they climbed out of bed at 11 p.m. to swap pajamas for a police uniform, Kevlar vest, gun belt, sidearm, and spit-shined shoes. And they’ve not headed out into the night to spend the next eight to twelve hours dealing with the city’s “worst of the worst,” and worse.

Most people have not left home with their family saying, “Be careful, see you when you get home,” and know they’re saying it because they worry the next time they see their loved one will be at their funeral service. “Killed in the line of duty” is what the bloggers and reporters will say.

Sure, you all know what goes on during a police officer’s shift—fights, domestic calls, shootings, stabbings, drug dealers, rapists, and killers of all shapes and sizes.

But what those of you who’ve never “been there, done that” cannot honestly and accurately detail the sounds heard when someone take a shot at you. No, not the actual gunshot. Its the other noises that help bring super-cool details to your stories.

To learn about those sounds, let’s pretend we’re the officer who’s just been the target of a bad guy’s gunfire. We’re chasing the suspect through alleys and paths that wind through dark wooded areas, all while knowing the guy has a gun and he’s definitely not afraid to use it.

Can’t see your hand in front of your face, so you stop and listen. And then it happens …

That eerie calm.

It causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand tall and straight. Goose bumps come to attention on your arms. A lone pea-sized bead of sweat worms its way down your spine, easing through the space between your pants and the bare skin of your waistline. It feels oddly cool against your fear-warmed flesh.

If this occurred in a movie there would be, of course, background music. So let’s do this right. Hit the play button, take a sip of your coffee, or tea, and then read on to learn about A Cop’s Nighttime Melody.

 

10-4, I’ll take this one …

The call came in as “Shots Fired. Suspect is armed with a handgun and caller advises he is still at the residence and is threatening to kill responding officers.”

I was working the county alone so I asked the dispatcher to request backup from a nearby city and from the state police. The trooper in our county was also working alone. Our roles differed, though. He was out on the interstate writing traffic tickets while I responded to the usual plethora of calls. Either way, we were alone when we approached whatever situation was before us, be it stopping a stolen car with dark tinted windows or heading toward a house where I knew a man was waiting to kill me.

The sound of a police radio is far different when it’s heard late at night as opposed to the same radio traffic during daylight hours. Its an unexplained phenomena. It could be that dark skies and night air create different acoustics. Or that working the graveyard shift forces dispatchers to work really hard to battle “the thing” that comes out at night to squeeze their emotions into submission. They typically lose the fight which results in a manner of speech that’s without feeling, inflection, and dynamics.

Nighttime radio traffic echoes and travels far. It’s weird and out of place among the stars and creamy moonlight. Dispatchers drone on like robots … “Robbery at …” “Wife says husband hit her …” “Lost child …” “Possible drug overdose at …” “Loud music at …” “Peeping Tom at …” “Customer refuses to pay at …” Shoplifter at …” “Dead body in river …” Dead body in park …” “Shots fired …” “Shots fired …” “Man stabbed at …” Shots fired …”

Back to the man who wanted to kill me

I acknowledged the call with a “10-4, I’m en-route.” Then I hooked the radio mic back into the metal “U-shaped” clip connected to the dashboard. Next I pushed one of the many red toggle switches mounted into the center console.

With the push of the button, a faint click occurred simultaneously with the eruption of pulsating blue light. I stepped on the gas and heard the engine come to life. Since I was miles out in the country there was no need for the siren. Not yet.

I pushed the pedal toward the floor until I was cruising along at 70 mph. Believe me, that was pretty fast considering the curvy, hilly road that was before me.

There are no streetlights in the country. It’s super dark. Blue light reflects from trees, shrubbery, houses, mailboxes, passing cars, and telephone poles. It also reflects from the white lines painted on the pavement.

Meanwhile, the radio traffic continues with updates for me and with traffic from city officers and the trooper out on the interstate … “Use caution. Driver of the vehicle is wanted for a homicide in …”

My car radio played in the background. Golden Earring’s bass player thumped the intro to “Radar Love” while I attempted to straighten the curves by hitting my marks—drive low in the curves, on both sides of the road. Never at the apex. Unless a car is coming in the opposite direction or you cannot see far enough ahead to safely do so. The guitar player’s eardrum piercing leads began just as I hit a rare straight stretch of the road.

Hey, here’s an idea. Why not join me for the rest of the ride. So climb in, buckle up, and hold on. And, let’s crank up the radio to start the blood flowing. It’ll help set the stage. Off we go!

The blue strobes mounted on top of the car make a clicking sound with the start of each flash. The wig-wag headlamps do the same. The roadway is very uneven with a few cracks and potholes scattered about. They cause the patrol car to dip and sway perilously in the vehicle groans and creaks with each expansion and contraction of its suspension. The extra pair of handcuffs I and many other cops keep handy by hanging them from the spotlight handle that protrudes from the post between the windshield and driver’s door, sway back and forth and bang together causing a constant click, click, click noise.

The cacophony of speed and sights and sounds—creaks, clicks, and whirling, blinking, and flashing vivid blue lights, together with the combination with the car’s groans and moans and squeaks and rattles, the dispatcher’s monotonous voice, and the frenzy of the music—are out of sync and in total discord. Adrenaline, at this stage of the game is that a feverish pitch. It’s organized turmoil.

I switched off my lights a ways before reaching the scene—didn’t want to shooter to know  we were there—and stopped my car on the shoulder, a bit down the road from the driveway. I called the dispatcher on the phone to let her know I’d arrived. The use of the phone was in case the bad guy was listening to a scanner. I turned down the volume on my police radio. Way down. Remember, the sound travels far. I wished backup didn’t have to do the same (travel far).

I opened my car door slowly to avoid making any noise. The interior light was not operational—disconnected in police cars to prevent illuminating the officer and/or blinding them to goings-on outside the vehicle.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to remain here, for now,” I say to you. “it’s for your own safety. Lock the doors, and no matter what you hear or see do not get out of the car. I’ll be back soon.” I open my wallet to retrieve a spare car key. “Here, just in case.”

As I slid from the seat my leather gun belt creaked and squeaked and groaned, as leather does when rubbed against other leather or similar material. To me, the sound was as loud as fourth of July fireworks. My key ring (in my pants pocket) jingled slightly with each step. So I used a hand to hold them against my leg. The other hand was on my pistol.

I walked up to the house to peek into a window before knocking on the front door. I wanted to see if I could, well, see anything. But, as I closed in on the side of the house a large mixed breed dog stepped into view, showing its teeth and upper gums. The animal, with matted-hair and a crooked tail,  growled one of those slow and easy rumbles that comes from somewhere deep inside. I held out a hand for it to sniff. It backed into the shadows.

A quick peek inside revealed a family of five. A woman with two black eyes and three crying children. Two girls, not quite teenagers, but close, probably, and a wiggling and squirming baby. A man stood near a tattered recliner and tall floor lamp. He held a pump shotgun in his right hand. At the moment, the barrel was aimed toward the floor. He yelled a few obscenities and started to pace. Then he looked straight at me, or at least it seemed like he looked at me.

My heart pounded against the inside of my chest. It bumped so hard I could hear the sound it made with each beat. It was that song’s intro all over again …

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.

I’ve been driving all night
My hand’s wet on the wheel
There’s a voice in my head that drives my heel
It’s my baby calling
Says “I need you here”
And it’s half past four and I’m shifting gear.

Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump—

Then, from somewhere deep in the shadows.

Grrrr …….. Growl …..

From inside the home.

A baby crying.

A woman pleads and sobs.

A young girl. “Please, Daddy. No more!”

Sirens wail in the distance, beyond the black tree line that connects sky with earth. Sounds travel further at night, right?

The air-conditioning unit beneath the window snaps on. Its compressor humming and fan whirring. The metal casing rattles slightly. Probably missing a screw or two.

A Cop’s Nighttime Melody Approaches the Finale

I knew what I had to do and started toward the door with my leather shoes and gun belt squeaking and keys jingling and heart thumping. As I reached for the knob I took a deep breath.

The expansion of my chest pulled at the Velcro that held my vest tightly against my torso.

Crackle. Crackle. Crackle.

Right behind me now.

Grrr …. Growl …

Crying.

Screaming. 

Whir.

Thump. Thump. Thump!

Jingle

Squeak.

The door.

Turn and push.

“Drop the gun!”

BANG!

BANG!

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Crying.

And crying.

“10-4. Send the coroner.”

So, my friends, those are the sounds of working the graveyard shift … A Cop’s Nighttime Melody.

Thanks so much for joining me. I hope to see you again, soon.

 

*This is a repeat post per request. Thanks!

 

Undercover in the 70's

“Wash your hands thoroughly, man. You don’t want none of that pot leaking through your skin and messing with your head, you know.”

“Stop freakin’ out, Ralph. Mary Jane doesn’t do that,” said Detective Captain Kangaroo. ” You’re thinking of acid. I think you’ve been a narc far too long. You got jelly brain, or what?. You’re paranoid.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not taking any chances. You do what you want,” Ralph said. “Me, I’m not taking any trips unless that boss Trans Am out there takes me there.” He nodded toward the only window in the room.

Kangaroo leaned a shoulder against the wood-paneled wall in his office—his face just inches away from Farrah Fawcett’s toothy smile. The poster was his favorite wall decoration. “Ralph, the chief complained again about that loud hippie music blasting from your car when you drive into the parking lot. He’s threatening to take out the eight-track if you don’t dial Hendrix and Joplin back a notch.”

“Hey, can I help it if he doesn’t dig it?” Ralph said.

“Maybe he’d lighten up a bit if once in a while you’d play some Andy Gibb or Paul Anka. Hey, he likes Tom Jones. What about—”

“Tom Jones? Are you bugging’ out, or what?” Ralph walked over to the window and looked lovingly toward his undercover car, the sleek black vehicle that closely resembled the one Burt Reynolds drove in his movies. “Tom Jones. Unbelievable. Next thing I know you’ll be asking me to crank up a few Partridge Family tunes and ditch my Levi 501’s for a pair of Jordache’s, or a leisure suit. Well, I’m not doing it. I’ve got an image to protect. Catch my drift?”

“Look,” Kangaroo said, “I’m simply letting you know the chief has you on his radar. He thinks you’re burning out and I agree.”

Ralph, his anxiety clearly showing, twisted the obviously black mood ring round and round on his finger. When he’d first arrived the stone color had been deep blue. Stress and nervousness had edged out calm and cool.

“This whole scene is freakin’ me out,” Ralph said. “I bust my butt out there. It’s not a kid’s game of Rock “Em Sock “Em Robots, you know. Some of those dirt bags out there are as tough as G.I. Joe, the one with the Kung Fu grip. They’d as soon kill a Smokey as look at him. Yeah, I’m the Evil Knieivel of this department. I’m a little different. I stopped playing with Light Brights and Stretch Armstrong a long time ago. I’m not one of those folks you see on Little House on the Prairie. I’m a grown man and I know my job and how to do it, and you gotta do the things I do working as a narc in these times.”

“I know, Ralph, but that he’s the boss and—”

“Well, he needs to mind his own potatoes. The man is a doofus, a real jive turkey who watches Happy Days in his office, the crazy crib with all that red shag carpet, where the Osmonds spew 24-7 from the little transistor radio he keeps on his desk. But I have a job to do and if it means doing it while riding a Big Wheel and cooking my meals in an Easy Bake Oven, well, that’s what I’ll do. But I’m gonna keep on truckin’, man.”

“Like I said, Ralph, and here’s the real skinny. I think you may have been under a bit too long for your own good,” said the captain. “You’re even starting to sound and maybe even think like them. Why, you’re practically a Deadhead. So I’m pulling the plug. Turning off your black light. Switching you from 45 to 33 and a 1/3. Handing you a chill pill.”

Kangaroo, having lost his cool, continued the rant. “So you’re getting a haircut and a shave today. I want you sporting’ a flattop next time I see you. Dig? Because you’re going back in uniform starting Monday. So why don’t you split, go back to your pad, get cleaned up, put on some decent threads, and report back to me this afternoon with the keys to the Trans Am in hand. Oh, and when you drive in, how about cranking up the volume on a little Carole King. She’s far out, you know.”

~

Okay, the above goofiness and overwritten scenario was a bit of a stretch, but how many of you were able to follow the conversation? Do you write or enjoy reading tales set back in those days? If so, perhaps those stories, and your actual lifestyle, included one or more of these things of the past.

1. Pong

2. Fred Sanford

3. Platform shoes

4. ABBA

5. Colorful metal drinking cups

6. Portable hairdryers (with the hose and plastic cap)

7. World Book Encyclopedias (I read these for hours at a time)

8. Lava lamps

9. David Cassidy

10. Mork and Mindy

11.Tupperware parties

12. No seat belts

13. Romper Room

14. Tang

15. Pull tabs

16. Banana seats

17. Milk deliveries…to your door!

18. Balsa gliders

19. Sea Monkeys

20. Madge. “You’re soaking in it.”

21. Rosanne Rosannadanna

22. Kool-Aid

23. Test patterns

24. “Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific”

25. View Master

26. The Hustle

27. Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”

28. Tiger Beat magazine

29. Tube socks

30. The movie Jaws

31. “Dark Side of the Moon” – Pink floyd

32. Mickey Mouse watches

33. Record players

34. “American Woman” – The Guess Who

35. Bell bottoms

36. Short-shorts

37. Bewitched

38. Donny and Marie

39. Carnation Instant Breakfast

40. Polaroid cameras

41. Station wagons with wood trim

42. T. Rex, “Bang a Gong [Get It On]”

43. Ant farms

44. Sears Catalogs, and the company’s famous Christmas Wish Book

45. Disco

46. Pet Rocks

47. Air Hockey

48. Pop rocks

49. Hamburger Helper

50. Watergate Salad

Finally, let’s not forget those revolving red lights used by detectives (“bubble gum machines”). They had a magnet attached to the bottom and most were powered by plugging them into the cigarette lighter socket.

Yes, I had and used one of those lights that stuck to a metal plate on the dashboard, and I remember how excited we all were when our department switched to blue lights. Still, you couldn’t see a thing with either those contraptions spinning and flashing inside the car. But we were so cool, man. Really groovy.

Okay, I gotta boogie now, so I’ll catch you on the flip side.

By the way, I’m stoked about a few new and very wicked and way-cool projects in the works. I’ll lay the sweet details on you guys very soon. Ten-four, good buddies?


Remembering …

 

Ric Ocasek, The Cars

Ocasek was not the lead singer on “Just What I Needed.” However; he wrote the song and did so while living in a basement commune. I selected this tune to feature because my band played it, a lot. In fact, it was one of our most popular and highly-requested songs. When audiences heard the first note of the intro—the E power chord—they packed dance floors. The song was absolutely a lot of fun to play for the simple reason that it seemed to put smiles on the faces of people everywhere.


Eddie Money

I met Eddie Money several years ago in California. He and I remained in touch by email for a while after and, as life goes, our messages eventually stopped. He was an extremely nice man who loved life, his family, his fans, and his music.

Edward Joseph Mahoney changed his name to Eddie Money after an attempt to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, father, and brother, who each served as officers with with the NYPD. However, the job simply wasn’t for him and he left police work for a career in music. Obviously the decision was wise.

Money and I once discussed that I someday use him as inspiration for a character in a book. He thought it would be a real hoot to see it happen. Again, life and procrastination got in the way.

Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing are, of course, excellent guidelines.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

The renowned author also offered another fantastic bit of advice when he wrote, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

So, keeping Leonard’s advice in mind I’ll open today’s article with the weather, followed by the use of the word “suddenly.” The need to break a few more of Leonard’s rules were also far too irresistible to pass up.

The incident, one that’s quite true, went something like this.

The Night Was Dark, But Not Stormy

It was a quiet summer night, a night when the temperature hovered at the 80 degree mark long after the sun disappeared below the horizon, and after lightning bugs began their winking and blinking neon-like displays across fields and yards. Mosquito trucks rolled slowly along city streets, fogging neighborhoods with clouds of stinky insecticide. Humidity-filled air oozed across the skin and filled the lungs like a rapidly spreading disease. Flashes of heat lightning illuminated the distant sky, backlighting dark fluffy clouds and far away trees and tall buildings.

In short, it was a typical southern summer night.

The shift had been reasonably quiet with no real crimes to speak of, when suddenly a sweaty, frightened, nervous, and wild-eyed young man, a teenager, appeared at the lobby window. He was rail thin with long and slender arms and legs that protruded from his torso, resembling the wet and steaming spaghetti noodles that hang loosely from the holes in the bottom of a colander after all the hot water is drained.

He rambled on and on about a body in the woods. He stammered and stuttered about seeing a man shot to death. Between bouts of uncontrollable sobbing he told of helping three of his friends drag the dead man into the woods. Then they left him there to be eaten by wildlife or to rot, whichever came first.

An officer took the teen’s information, filled out a report, and then I was called to investigate.

I first bought the young fellow a cold soft drink and then asked him to take a seat in my office where a window air-conditioning unit hummed in the background as it sent chilled air into the room. I handed him a wad of paper towels so he could wipe the perspiration from his face. He reeked of sour body odor. Bits of leaves, tree bark, and lint clung to his short hair like teensy ornaments on a Christmas tree.

I began the interview.

He told me he was sixteen-years-old and was a member of a small gang. Actually, his “gang” consisted mostly of a few of his cousins and close friends, and that their gang activities centered around committing minor B&Es and selling drugs for a local dealer.

Recently, though, the dealer coerced the boys into doing a bit of “collecting” for him. This duty involved strong-arming people into paying their debts. Sometimes, he confessed, the collections involved extreme violence, such as beatings with bats and metal pipes.

This night, the collection of money owed, took an ugly turn. Four of the boys drove out into the county to the home of a young man who owed the dealer a considerable sum of money. He’d been given crack cocaine to sell but failed to turn over the proceeds to the boss. Actually, he, a former crack addict, had relapsed and smoked the entire amount all by himself. So the dealer sent “his enforcers “to collect, “or else.”

Since the man had no cash the four collectors were faced with a dilemma—fork over the cash themselves, or kill the moocher. Those were their instructions—return with $300 or kill him. So they grabbed the man and forced him into their car. Then they drove him to a remote area of the county where the made him get out of the car in the middle of road. Once outside they forced him to his knees.

The teen sitting across from me wept as he told of the man begging them not to hurt him. Then one of the teens produced a pistol and placed it against the back of the man’s head. The man began to cry, now begging for his life to be spared.

The gun-wielding man pulled the trigger twice.

As a group, the four teens dragged the body across the asphalt pavement, down into a rocky and weed-filled ditch, and then into the woods. They pulled and tugged the body across leaves and sticks and fallen branches and over small spindly young trees and bushes. They stopped to rest a couple of times. Then, after they’d caught their breath they continued onward until they’d dragged the dead man nearly 200 yards or so into the woods.

I called for a team of officers to help conduct a search. The teen rode with me, guiding us to the spot where they’d hidden the body.

We found the dead man after searching until the sun came up the next morning. He was on his back. His eyes and mouth were open, wide. It was as if he’d seen the bowels of hell and at that point died with pure fear freezing his facial muscles in an expression of absolute horror.

Flies buzzed around the wounds on his head. A couple flew into his mouth and then crawled back out. Black ants, and I’ll never forget this as long as I live, walked on the dead mans eyeballs. They stepped first one way and then other, randomly zig-zagging about. It was an odd sight to say the least. They looked liked ice skaters on two tiny frozen and morbid ponds. A wasp stood at the opening of the left ear canal.

So when people ask me about the things I remember most about working death scenes, well, I recall the weather, the suddenness of it all, the vivid descriptions of the people and places, the dialects of the people I questioned and how many times their statements ended in a manner that when written deserved to end in exclamation points. I think of the backstories of the killers and victims—the prologues to murder.

And, I think about the bugs and their lack of respect for the dead.

In January, 1830 Edgar Allan Poe and his good friend, Dr, John Lofland, the Milford Bard entered into friendly contest to see which of the two poet/writers could write the greater number of verses. Actually, it was the Delaware Bard who challenged Poe to the contest and Poe gladly accepted.

The two men went head to head, concocting their prose at the Seven Stars Tavern on Water Street in Baltimore and, when the dust finally settled and all was said and done it was Poe who lost to Lofland. Poe was then obliged to pay for dinner and drinks, the previously agreed upon “winners'” trophy. (Phillips, Poe the Man, p. 461 and Mabbott, Poems, pp. 501-502.)

As a result of Poe awarding the prize to Lofland for besting him in the writing contest, I proudly claim that it was a Lofland, my relative, who won the first ever “Edgar Award.”

Dr. John Lofland, the Milford Bard

Dr. John Lofland, one of Delaware’s earliest and most prolific writers, is a well-known name to Delaware rare book collectors.

John was born March 17, 1798, in Milford, Delaware. At an early age he developed a love for books and read all he could find, especially English literature. As a pre-teen, he abandoned fiction for science, theology, metaphysics, history, and mythology.

At his mother’ s urging, he chose medicine as his career path and began his studies in 1815, under the wing of Dr. James P. Lofland, a cousin and successful physician who practiced in Milford, Delaware. He soon began formal education in 1817 at the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania.

During his school years, Lofland’s passion remained with writing, especially poetry. When he left college (he was expelled for writing a poem about a professor who was unpopular) he dove headfirst into a literary career, even though the laws at time were such that he could’ve begun practicing medicine.

Lofland developed a severe stomach ailment and was prescribed laudanum as part of his treatment. He became addicted, as did many people back in those days, since laudanum was a common drug prescribed in those days for a number of illnesses. The addiction to laudanum was another commonality he shared with Poe.

The Harp of Delaware

As a writer, Lofland’s poems were regularly published in The Delaware Gazette and the Saturday Evening Post, and he soon gained nationwide reputation for his writings.

In 1828 a collection of John’s poems was published as The Harp of Delaware by Atkinson & Alexander of Philadelphia.

As early as 1894, the work was already considered a rare book, but sold well enough to provide Lofland a substantial income for many years.

Lofland’s Connection to Politics

Edwin Rowland Paynter was born in 1768. His great-great-grandfather, Samuel Paynter, emigrated to America from England in the early colonial days, near Lewes, Del. In 1823, Edwin Ross Paynter was elected governor of Delaware. The governor’s maternal grandfather, Caleb Ross, was married to Letitia Lofland, sister of John Lofland, “the Milford Bard.”

Other distant branches of the family tree include several Delaware politicians, including an attorney general, another governor, secretary of state, and a judge of the superior court, to name a few.

The Bard’s Final Days

It’s not certain, but it is believed that Dr. John Lofland, the Milford Bard succumbed to tuberculosis on January 22, 1849. He was body was laid to rest in St. Andrew’s churchyard in Wilmington, Delaware, not far from where we currently reside.


The Slave

From The Harp of Delaware by Atkinson & Alexander of Philadelphia.

by

The Milford Bard

 

I ask’d a wretched negro why—

He sigh’d in sorrow deep,

And of the cause of his manly eye,

So oft was seen to weep.

 

He said—‘Imagine you were borne,

Across the ocean’s wave,

And from your friends and kindred torn,

To be like me—a Slave!’

 

I asked why he did not bend,

Nor at his lot complain,

Until a happier day should rend,

The adamantine chain.

 

He cried—‘No day can end my doom,

Nor ease my bosom’s strife,

Nought but the night within the tomb,

For I’m a slave for life.

 

I told him he was happier far,

Than thousands here below;

Provided for, no cares could mar,

His joy, or cause his woe:

 

‘True, true,’ he cried, as from his eye,

The trickling tears flow’d free;

‘But for my native shades I sigh,

And for blest liberty.

 

I left him and could not restrain

The tumults of my heart;

And had I the pow’r I’d break the chain,

And bid the slave depart:

 

O! you who cannot for him feel,

But still his labour crave.

O! you whose heart resembles steel,

Think but yourself a slave.

What a terrific group of friends, who are taking time out of their busy schedules to help me celebrate the release of Bad Pick tomorrow (April 16) at 3 p.m.

Authors Annette Riggle Dashofy, Gretchen Archer, Cynthia Kuhn, Julie Mulhern, and Wendy Young heard I’d had an accident that put me out of commission for awhile and organized this party to help promote my new book, BAD PICK, since they knew I was unable to do the usual book launch promotions. PLEASE join in the fun.

There will be lots of prizes AND you’ll get better acquainted with some talented fellow authors!

Directions to the party.