Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mean Pete and the Big Five-O!


     My mother started reading the obituaries religiously long before she turned fifty.  I remember her reading them as early as her thirties. 
     She’d fetch the morning paper still attired in her nightgown and duster, plop down in her favorite rocker with a cup of coffee, and turn to the obituary page the very first thing, to see if anyone she knew or if anyone with a name she recognized--North Dakota had/has a small population, and we used to joke she knew everybody--had died. 
     Birthdays were a big thing to her.  She sent birthday cards to everyone she knew and to most of the closest members of our family. 
     She used to send out two cards to the same person--one funny and one serious.  To her, birthdays were a very serious thing.  She felt she had to acknowledge that.  I mean, when you think about it, birthdays in the end really mean death, right?
     And because my mom saw them as dark milestones on the way to THE END, she also felt the need to lighten them up with a joke. 
     I loved that about her.  “Congratulations” and “my condolences” for the same occasion.
     As far as Mom’s son is concerned, birthdays don’t mean crap.  Not even today’s ‘Big 5-O.’  It means only another day of hammering away hard on my latest western so I can get this one done and started on the next one and to get a check that I can promptly fritter away.  Not that writing and frittering are drudge work.  I love frittering almost as much as I love writing. I might head to town to my favorite Mexican restaurant for a seven-dollar burrito, to stock up on arthritis medicine for my doddering old curs, and to hit the liquor store.
     That’s pretty much what life is all about, anyway, isn’t it?  Food and medication?  Hey, when all is said and done, Mean Pete’s damn lucky not to be decked out in black-and-white striped overalls!
     But aside from the same-ole tedious chores, I’ll be hunkered down here in the old hideout, one step ahead of the law and two steps closer to THE END of my next book and the next check in the mail.

The End

Writer's Cartoon of the Day!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Mean Pete Writing Tip!


Here’s another Mean Pete pet peeve--one of many, naturally, but this is not the place to wax nasty about old ladies driving slow in good weather...

I’ve tried reading way too many novels in which the lead characters are flatter than old beer.  Not to get mean, but since the author is dead, anyway--the James Bond novels are a good example of this.  And so are too many contemporary mysteries, westerns, and other action-oriented books.

I think the crux of the problem is this:  Writers are so careful when formulating lead characters that they’re too careful.  They don’t give the lead characters enough definition.  Somewhere back in their minds, writers think heroes need to be so morally, intellectually, and psychologically superior to the general populace that the lead characters don’t quite become human.  They don’t have enough distinguishing quirks that make them leap off the page and into the reader’s lap.

I’ve read way, way too many novels in which I wish the writer would have spent more time with the bad guys or bad girls they’d created, because the hero was so dry and one-dimensional and, thus, predictable, that every time he or she walked onto the stage my eyelids grew heavy.

That’s a problem with courtroom thrillers as well as spy novels.  And it’s an especially big problem for beginning writers.

Here are three ways to fix it.

1. Give your hero/heroine some distinguishing physical characteristics. 

Make him taller or shorter than most folks, or give him another feature or two that stand out. 

For instance, the Colter Farrow character I write under my pen name Frank Leslie, is not only a lanky kid in his late teens, but he has long red hair and a scar.  Now, scars can be too easy and thus overdone and ridiculous, but I made Colter’s scar different.  He received the scar in the first book...when he was branded on the left cheek with a tilted ‘S’, which stood for the town of Sapinero, which the evil sheriff who gave him the nasty blaze wanted him to stay out of.

The scar makes Colter feel ugly, forever unable to fit in.  It’s a personal conflict that gives dimension to his character, and it’s just one more thing that adds to the conflict in whichever story he’s in.  Colter is far from the usual, handsome, lantern-jawed hero, but he’s the hero of what is currently my most popular series.

My Rogue Lawman anti-hero, Gideon Hawk, is tall and dark, with Indian features, and he also has the blazing green eyes of a lunatic.  Louisa Bonaventure, from the Lou Prophet novels, looks--and acts--like a straight-laced schoolgirl, though she’s as deadly as a two-headed diamondback.  (The trick there is in the contrast between how she looks and how she acts, making her memorable.)

2. Give your lead characters some original personal/mental/psychological foibles.

I am right now concocting a new character for a new series, and I really wanted Mule McPherson to stand out from all the other characters I’ve written.  One, he’s a big, shaggy-headed SOB, and he’s also rather loud and obnoxious.  This loudness and this devil-may-care attitude all stems from his having seen so much horror in the Civil War. It’s made him crazier’n a tree full of owls, as they used to say. 

Unlike my Lou Prophet, Bounty Hunter character, who is similar with regards to the old battle scars, this guy, Mule, is truly crazy and throws himself into trouble as though he were hell bent on self-destruction.  If he were alive today, he’d be locked up.  He’s big, burly, and bearded, and his eyes spark with boyish delight at the first sign of trouble. 

What makes ole Mule so dangerous and even reckless is that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies.  This hell-for-leather quality makes him irresistible to women, though of course they want to resist him because they know they should resist him--hell, some are even hitched to others--but they can’t!

Note:  I don’t have Mule being all gloomy about his war experiences.  Another of Mean Pete’s pet peeves is the plethora of gloomy/crazy/naval-gazing characters on the market today.  Those with acknowledged drinking problems and shrinks--lead characters who spend more time crying in their beer about how mommy didn’t love them enough than running down bad guys and gals. 

Mule McPherson doesn’t really know or acknowledge that he’s crazy, and he’s pretty much accepted the fact that his Confederate-sympathizing Texas ranch family has disowned him for his having fought on the Union side during the War of Northern Aggression.  It’s an itch he can’t scratch, and he does his best not to try, though of course it makes him real.  What Mule does do is something more entertaining on the page--he chases tail and swills bourbon like they’ve tapped the last cask!  And he never once considers a 12-step program.  (Though of course if you and I were indulging in such behavior, we probably should consider one...)

3. The third way to make your lead characters leap off the page and through your reader’s retinas is probably the most important one:  Test the living hell out of them!

I mean, really run them through the mill.  You might have one main problem they’re trying to solve, which is Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin.”  I love that term because it really doesn’t mean anything, because what it stands for--the main point or problem of your tale--doesn’t really mean anything, either.

What’s important is how the hero or heroine figures the problem out, or rights all the wrongs.  What should be the most interesting part or parts about the yarn you’re spinning is all the crap that happens to your lead character along the road to Resolution.

And you should have a lot happen to him--gunfights, stabbings, poisonings, Mexican imprisonings, car chases, tiger attacks, wicked women throwing themselves at him for sundry nefarious reasons--just every near-death experience you can come up with.  Throw the kitchen sink at the poor SOB, so that by the end, the guy or gal has been dirtied and bloodied nearly beyond repair...and the reader’s eyes are nearly popping out of his head because you’ve run a freight train right through his brain!

Check back for another invaluable writing tip from Mean Pete next week. 

Till then, stay angry.

(And keep Grandma off the road!)


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Pic of the Day--Writer at Work!

Circa 15 years ago or so...

Just to show that writing is damn hard work!  (I think I was working on RIDING WITH THE DEVIL'S MISTRESS.)

And out of that same box came this one:
"Yep, we did it, all right.  We played in the muddy slough you told us not to.  Our question is this:  What are you going to do about it?"--Buck and Thor

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Next Lou Prophet Book with Cody Wells Cover!

I love Cody Wells's covers, and here's another one for my second Lou Prophet book to be published by Piccadilly Press on March 1!  (The working title for this was GUNS OVER THE LITTLE MO, but Berkley wanted to keep "Devil" in the cover.)

Anyway, throw Mean Pete a beer and his critters a bone, and be sure to pick up your copy soon!

Mean Pete

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

.45-Caliber Revenge Now Available!

The first book in the Cuno Massey series is now available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

Mean Pete will be publishing the next two books in the series in the following months.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mean Pete's Pic of the Day

Mean Pete and his nephew and fledgling disciple, Eli Townsend, on Horsetooth Mountain this morning...

Sunday, February 17, 2013


I had the good fortune of seeing a coyote this morning on my morning bike ride up Horsetooth Mountain.  Though I was only about fifty yards away from him, this fella didn't seem to mind my watching him hunt for mice.  He seemed to be having a really good time, wagging his tail and lying belly down in the grass before suddenly leaping up off his hind paws, and pouncing.  This guy didn't have very good luck while I was hanging around--he didn't catch a single mouse--but he reminded me of this essay I wrote about coyotes about twenty years ago, when my ex-wife and I were living up in northern Montana, out in the middle of beautiful nowhere, with coyotes galore....


Often I'm awakened at night by howling coyotes, and I've found the minstrels sound much better from a distance than from nearby.  In fact, from a mile or two away, the songs, salutes, and inquiries can fill me with the same beguilment I feel when watching the stars or listening to the wind.
But on nights when the coyote choir sounds less like a Mozart nocturne than the laughter of psychopaths milling in the ravine only fifty yards from the house, I jolt awake, heart pounding, fearing for the ducks and geese, for the sleeping cats, for the calves, and, remembering stories of doomed dogs lured off by coyotes sirens, for my dog Shep.
I stumble out of bed, grab the flashlight and run outside. Though the hellraisers grow quiet the momenthear the door open, I swirl the light into the ravine and yell, "Go on, get out of here!" The tactic usually disperses them as quietly as scolded kids, and they take about as long as kids take to recover from the scolding.  A few minutes later, I hear the tenors again, though faintly, continuing their reckless fun in the ravines mazing out toward Beaver Creek.
According to Zuni legend, when a hunter coming home late at night hears a coyote howl, "he bethinks himself of the time when he must say farewell to the living, and go his way to the Lake of the Dead." On my nightly walk to the creek, the yips and wails of coyotes often inspire my own mortal musings.  The chorus usually begins at sunset, when the ravine through which the creek snakes fills with deep shadows and a damp chill, and when one lead singer starts yipping and squealing as though in misery. 
Following the first by only a second or two, another coyote tunes up with its own variation on the same theme—then another and another, until the dissonance grows into one great cacophony.  In the midst of such elemental madness, in the theatrical stillness of the creek at twilight, with the moon on the rise and the first stars appearing, I think of the prairie once hunted by grizzlies and wolves, and I begin to feel as alone as the deer must which hears its own mortality hotly panting in the surrounding brush.
I feel even more vulnerable when, as I head home from the creek in the dusk, I sometimes see the silhouettes of four or five coyotes half a mile across the salmon grass. I've never heard of anyone having been attacked by coyotes, but I hurry to keep pace with 0ld Shep just the same.  And I keep an eye on the distant, shadowy figures disappearing in swales and reappearing on hillocks around me,  as I remember the story by Tolstoy in which a wedding party, sleighing through snowy woods, is stalked and devoured by wolves, and that "brush wolf" is what many old timers call the coyote.
I discovered recently that coyotes don't cast their spell exclusively upon humans.  One night after a rain, Shep and I were walking through the hollow behind the farm when a coyote stirred from the brush below the opposite ridge and slinked up and over the ridgetop.  Shep thundered down the trail, splashed through the mud, shot up the bank, and disappeared over the hill on an interception course.
Despite Shep's hoopla, I wasn't worried for the coyote; the dog lives for the chase, but he's never caught anything but mice and porcupines.  Expecting to see him at any moment, wandering back in defeat, I climbed to the top of the ridge—and stopped. 
In a dip in the trail a few feet ahead, Shep and the coyote were standing together, in a mysterious communion, with their heads down and their noses only a few inches apart.  For a second, I wondered how I'd quell the imminent fight, but neither animal so much as growled.  They just stood there, guardedly and politely testing the other's scent.  After what seemed like several minutes but couldn't have been more than two or three seconds, the coyote turned and continued casually up the trail.
Shep remained where he'd been standing, looking around and whining as though bewitched and truly afraid.  When he saw me, he came running, fussing as though we'd been separated for days.  I tried to calm him and continue the walk, but Shep would have none of it. 
He yipped and danced around me and tried frantically to shepherd me back to the farm, as if Lucifer himself were waiting in the pinkening bluffs and darkening flats of the prairie beyond.  When I finally got around him, he sat down behind me, whimpering and shuffling his front paws until, spooked now myself, I relented and followed him home.
In Voice of the Coyotes,  J. Frank Dobie writes, "That superstition that a howling coyote turns at night into a ghost that no bullet can harm is but a manner of saying that the howler makes a target as insubstantial as Macbeth's air-drawn daggers."  I bore witness to this testament one spring afternoon when Shep and I were walking along the mesa shelving up to Eagle Rock, a volcanic dike jutting over Beaver Creek Road.
We were half-way to the dike's top when the intermittent barks of a lone coyote pierced the quiet around me.  From the thin, tireless voice, I took it to be that of a youngster airing out his lungs from a nearby ridge. Though I knew the animal was close by, I couldn't pick it out of the prairie.  There was no wind, but the voice seemed to swirl.  
First, I thought the sass was coming from the brushy drainages to the north.  Then I thought it was originating ahead, then behind, then ahead again—all the while sounding so close that I could have hit the cocky little cuss with a stone.  Not until I followed Shep's gaze did I finally separate the pup from the lichen-flecked fieldstones, sage tufts, and crocuses, on a flat ridgetop a hundred yards northeast.  The small, dun coyote, with a bushy gray tail half again his total size, bounced on his front legs with each angry yelp.  When I started toward him he turned tail and disappeared in a ravine.
"He's heard the coyote bark" is a Western phrase describing someone who's been beyond the edge of ordinary experience—someone who's fallen head-over-heels in love, for instance, or had a close brush with death. 
But you don't hear the adage voiced as often as you once did.  Most of us seem to have fallen under the illusion that all the mysteries have been solved, leaving little to riddles and awe.  A good antidote to this malaise lies in coyote country, in the vast sage flats creased with draws and ravines, where the extraordinary is only as far away as the next coyote chorus.