Reflections on Cottonwood Lake

 

I sit alone on the shore of Cottonwood Lake in the high mountains of Colorado on a sunny summer afternoon. The quietude is breached only by the freshening wind whooshing through the towering pines and the slapping of the waves against immense granite boulders scattered randomly along the shore. My daughter and Michael are kayaking on the blue waters.

My mind confronts the solitude uneasily, as if it is a unwelcome stranger beating on my front door. My uneasiness is vanquished after a few moments as the quiet overwhelms the chatter in my head. I realize that this moment asks nothing from me except appreciation. In my aloneness there is freedom to quietly contemplate my latest writing project, the sequel to my novel, Anahuac.

There is an excitement in writing historical fiction/crime novels. It is like constructing a puzzle for readers to solve. I love to sprinkle in tidbits of daily life that have been forgotten over the past fifty years. The completion of Anahuac, brought a simultaneous sense of accomplishment and loss. Living in the imaginary lives of my characters is pleasurable. Completion of a book brings a separation from my imaginary friends. Since “A Texas Story” is a series the characters don’t leave me for long. There is one inescapable truth about writing. If your butt is not in your chair with your hands on the keyboard there is no tangible product.

Early in my writing career I was intensely focused on getting a story on paper. I spewed out pages upon pages without clarity and sometimes without even a purpose. Those pages required copious revisions. Now I sit by the lake and calmly work in my head. This cerebral exercise will produce a better product when I am ultimately behind the keyboard.

I made substantial progress on the sequel to Anahuac during the first part of the summer. My efforts slowed about a month ago and I was worried that it was writer’s block. Instead I believe it only the Universe gently suggesting that I pause for a while to receive important information.

When the important information came I was attending a play called Heisenberg, written by Simeon Stephens. It was a strange play about a relationship between a man seventy-five years old and a women about forty-two. I didn’t find that premise particularly realistic. , but I did enjoy studying the dialogue techniques of the playwright. Near the end of the performance there was a brilliantly written line. It was the nugget that gave me insight about relationships. Stephens’ elder character says to his young love interest,

“We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we are sharing.”

Upon hearing the line I understood why my writing had been slowed. My sequel explores all manner of social and business relationships. The line from the play gave me a perspective on relationships I had never considered. Often romantic relationships dissolve in bitter quarrels when one or both partners see that the relationship no longer works for them. Is that true because many romantic relationship are based on an initial euphoria of unexplainable emotion, physical attraction, unrealistic expectations and a bit of fantasy?

The Stephens’ line posits that partners in relationships often imagines the relationship as something the other does not. This thought has my characters scurrying around in my head. I am betting that sorting out how my characters will react to their partners will be fun. I am excited about how my clarified thoughts will sound when they find their way into my characters’ dialogue.

Abruptly without warning, the brisk breezes off the lake turn cold. The sun’s warmth has been defeated by a chilly gale from a thunderhead roiling threateningly above a nearby peak. The kayakers are back on shore and Michael says we have to leave before the lightning is upon us. We are busy stowing the kayaks in the back of the truck and repacking the gear when the first large monsoonal rain drops sting our faces.

My characters are protesting, “We have things to tell you.” I wish I had time to listen but the lightning is nearing us. The chaos of the storm has broken my reflective calm. My characters continue protesting, but now I am at peace in the safety of backseat of the truck. I have been “writing” this afternoon, just not the way you might imagine. My characters and I settle in for the winding drive down the mountain.

Yes, my characters, I hear what you want me to write, soon my imaginary friends, soon.

Memorial Day 2018, at the Texas State Cemetery

Memorial Day is one of the least understood holidays on the permanent calendar of the U.S. The holiday was founded to honor our fallen war dead. If you look at the information on Wikipedia, you can see what a complex history the day has. These days, it is notable because of the absolute lack of major ceremonies honoring the true reason for the holiday. There was one held yesterday morning at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, sponsored by the Thankful Hubbard Chapter, National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Patrick Henry Chapter, Texas Sons of the Revolution.

We searched hard in the newspapers and online  before we found this moving and patriotic Memorial Day event. Kathy’s dad was a military chaplain, who served in World War II and beyond. Buried in an honored position on Chaplain’s Hill at Arlington, we strive to honor his memory. Any event that includes the National Anthem, prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, The American Creed and speeches praising everyone that made the ultimate sacrifice for our country is fairly unique these days.

The National Anthem and Pledge of Allegiance are tenets of our Country’s greatness. They are also ready targets for outrage these days. This is not a perfect country. Mistakes and injustices do occur. When and where we express our outrage is something to consider. I was happy that, in this sacred cemetery yesterday, a group of us was able to say thank you to those who died defending our country without discord.

 

Ellsworth Kelly’s AUSTIN @ the Blanton Art Gallery at UT

Promenade through the Blanton

Unique, exciting and cool is the best way I can describe the evening at the Blanton Art Gallery at UT last Thursday. It was also free, which makes it as good as it gets. The Blanton features a free Third Thursday event each month. This month’s event featured a Michael Alec Rose composition called THREE INTERVENTIONS. Austin Camerata performed the music as we promenaded through the gallery to enjoy three art works commemorating dramatic interventions. The first intervention was the sparing of Abraham’s son Ishmael. The second was Esther’s plea to save the Jewish people from an edict of death. The third was a unique portrait of  C.J. Walker, the daughter of slaves who was the first black woman business woman to become a millionaire. Walker’s intervention was that she gave thousands of black women jobs in the early 1900s when opportunities were few.

The featured photo with this post is Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, the structure he created on the UT Campus next to the Blanton. The structure is a marvel, and I won’t attempt to describe it other than it’s a combination of textures, a soaring totem, and works miracles with the natural light. It is well worth the visit.

The bottom line of all this is that Kathy and I are trying to take in the culture that surrounds us in our Austin and Washington, D.C. homes. Sometimes it is hard to get up the energy to make the hike where ever there are opportunities to experience the things that can enhance life. This was an exciting evening that sure beat watching television. I was reacquainted with the story of Esther and learned about an early black woman’s success. We took a chance, took a brisk hike, and found out many new things. Try it, I bet you’ll like it.

 

Call me Ishmael (and then listen to me on Audible)

Long ago, in some long-forgotten university course, I was assigned Moby Dick, and somehow passed the class without reading it, yet somehow misremembered, as memories of that class grew dimmer and dimmer, having somehow gleaned its contents. Many times such pleasant self-deceits go with us to our graves, without a hint of their falseness.

Recently, I published my book Anahuac on Audible. Audio books were a mystery to me before that experience, and so I felt like I should join Audible. After I downloaded Anahuac into my audio library, I had an opportunity to purchase another book. Audible suggested Moby Dick. Actually, it was on sale and I got two books for my one monthly credit. The first thing I discovered on my quest for the great whale was that I’d never actually read the book. Quickly, I understood that if I’d actually opened the book as an undergraduate, or at any time, I would have never finished it.

But Audible saved the day.

The audio book was 24 hours long. Some of it is so dense with technical information about whales and such that I would have stopped reading had it been a physical book. But I labored on, listening in my car, while I did paper work, or sometimes even with the television on and muted. (I am an inveterate multi-tasker.) At its conclusion, I’m only left wondering what my answer should be to the question: “Have you ever read Moby Dick?” I’ve heard it, and given that I’ve retained the plot and developed a newfound appreciation for the prose and even poetry-within-prose Melville is able to craft, I’d go as far to say that I have indeed read it.

Many of my friends and I are of a certain age that we well remember radio drama. Most audio books are not exactly like radio, but do come with the some of the advantages. An audio book can make a long car or airplane ride go faster. You can wash dishes and listen. The list is endless.

Moby Dick is obviously not a quick listen. Many audio books, as it turns out, demand less time than Melville asks of you. Anahuac, for instance, clocks in at a fraction of what Moby Dick demands, in just over nine hours. My story doesn’t have whales or Captain Ahab or a motley crew on a boat, but it does take you back to 1972, has a preacher in a sharkskin suit, an ambitious young lawyer, three women who fight valiantly (each in their own distinct way) to control their dreams, and a motley crew who camps in a public park awaiting the verdict in a murder case. If you’ve ever wanted to try an audio book, you might give Anahuac a try.

 

 

 

 

When there may be mysteries darker than murder

Yesterday, BookPeople’s Mystery People blog published my article on murder and mystery, which came out of Anahuac becoming available at BookPeople earlier this year. I truly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to Austin’s prestigious independent bookstore in this way.

I like BookPeople for a lot of reasons, not least of which that it’s just a short and relaxing walk from where I live. BookPeople has been supportive of my efforts to market my books and those of other local Austin authors. The Writer’s League of Texas uses BookPeople’s meeting room for their meetings. All-in-all, BookPeople is a great model for an indie book store.

I wrote the article for BookPeople to say thanks for all of their help and also to explain why my idea of a murder mystery doesn’t include a description of heavy violence or gore.This paragraph, in particular, captured a lot of what I was thinking about as I was writing the book, and once I began to see people interact with it:

Most of us abhor violence. Yet mystery, especially when it involves murder, is one of our favorite literary genres. The “why” of its popularity is not so hard to understand when one accepts that the violence and death in a murder mystery are usually purely fictional. We shiver in anticipation as the roller coaster reaches the top of the hill, because the exhilaration of the bottom dropping out is “safe.” Mystery lets us enter into the violent world of murder without actually being in danger. The journey is aided by the fact that our imaginations don’t—in the moment, at least—distinguish between real danger and the imagined.

If you are a fan of mysteries I encourage you to subscribe to the Mystery People blog. There are great insights from mystery writers, including interviews and remembrances, as well as reviews on a whole range of mysteries. It’s a great resource for those of you looking for which whodunnit to read next.

Morgan's Point City Limit

Did Emily Morgan, the “Yellow Rose of Texas,” win the war?

I like to include a short Author’s Note in all the books in my “A Texas Story” series, providing a bit of historical information about the setting for the book. In Anahuac, I described the dust up that young lawyer, William Travis started with the Commander of the Mexican military’s Fort Anahuac in 1832 that predated the Texas Revolution by four years. Travis wound up as the Commander of the Alamo that cost he and his men their lives.

The Author’s Note in the first book of the series, Morgan’s Point, summarizes the story of the Texas Revolution against Mexico and ends with the Battle of San Jacinto that created the Republic of Texas. The battle occurred on April 21, 1836. The victory over a far superior Mexican Army changed the world, not just Texas. Did the “Yellow Rose of Texas” really win the Texas Revolution? That is up to you to decide. Like so many other stories of Texas, the facts are muddled. The legend probably has as much chance of being true as any other of the stories about this 18-minute battle.  The one fact that is clear is that the world is a very different place because of it. As the 182nd anniversary of the battle approaches, I offer the prologue for your consideration. My books are available at BookPeople in Austin and on Amazon.

 

Author’s Note

The flag of Mexico flew over Texas in 1836. The Anglo settlers who legally immigrated to Texas from the United States entered under agreements between land impresarios and the government of Mexico. The vast expanses of Texas and the limited presence of the government of Mexico allowed many additional settlers to cross the northern river boundaries illegally for a new life.
As their numbers grew, the Anglos chafed under a legal system that did not recognize rights that the Anglos had left behind in the United States. The disputes, real or imagined, stirred the Texicans to action. Some have speculated that the presence of men like Sam Houston, a former Governor of the state of Tennessee, was part of a more sinister plot to allow the United States to seize Texas from Mexico.

Speculation aside, a convention was held at Washington-on-the-Brazos to form an independent Republic of Texas. A declaration of independence was signed on March 2, 1836. As might be expected, the President of Mexico, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, took exception. Santa Anna, as he was known, was already marching his armies to Texas to vanquish the upstart Texicans.

After crossing the Mexican interior, Santa Anna marched his large army to San Antonio, where they surrounded a vastly outnumbered garrison at the Alamo. It took thirteen days for a superior Mexican force to overrun the old church and kill the 180 or so Texican defenders. Those who died included several Mexican citizens who sided with the Texicans. Next, a portion of Santa Anna’s army went to Goliad where they surrounded a 300-man Texican army. The Texicans’ reward for surrender was execution.

Santa Anna was flush with these victories when he set off on a mission to capture the newly formed government of Texas. As fate would have it, Santa Anna’s army barely missed capturing the Republic’s interim President David G. Burnet and his family at a town called New Washington. New Washington was located on a peninsula called Morgan’s Point that juts into Galveston Bay. As Burnet and his family rowed away, a gallant Mexican officer commanded his troops not to fire because of the presence of ladies in the boat.

One person captured at Morgan’s Point was Emily Morgan. Emily was far from being part of the new revolutionary government of Texas. She was the former indentured servant of James Morgan for whom the peninsula was named. Emily, a Mulatto woman, was said to be fair of face. Rather than being a prisoner of war, she was conscripted by the Mexican army for the pleasure of Santa Anna. Ms. Morgan would also be known as the Yellow Rose of Texas after the battle to come.
With Emily Morgan in tow, the Generalissimo turned his gaze to Sam Houston and the last Texican army in the field. Sam Houston’s army had been engaged in a defensive flight across Texas. Some had named it derisively the “runaway scrape.” Depending on which group of Texican soldiers one asked, Sam Houston was either a worthless coward or a brilliant military strategist. The Texicans had suffered grievous defeats at the Alamo and Goliad. Sam Houston would fight when fate and geography gave him an opportunity for success.

Houston sprang into action upon learning that Santa Anna was nearby at New Washington and that President Burnet had escaped. Houston had his chance. Santa Anna’s forces were now split into three widely separated armies. Sam Houston drove his men in a desperate race to San Jacinto.

San Jacinto, a tiny village, was located at the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River near the site of Lynch’s Ferry. The ferry was a focal point for all routes of escape for the Texican civilian population fleeing Texas for haven in Louisiana and the United States across the Sabine River. Some said that Sam Houston was fleeing Texas along with the civilians. Lynch’s Ferry continues in operation at the site today.

No matter which of the theories was true, the destinies of two armies were sealed. Sam Houston and Santa Anna found themselves camped less than a mile apart at San Jacinto. Santa Anna’s camp lay hard against Peggy’s Lake. The inopportune location of Santa Anna’s camp was met with disbelief by the professional soldiers who commanded his troops. Sam Houston’s back was to the waters of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River. Like knife fighters with their left arms tied together, it was clear that one of these armies would not get out alive.

The tides of not only Texas history but of the world’s history were changed in a merciless eighteen-minute battle on the low-slung salt grass marsh. The silence of the quiet swamp was broken by a sudden barrage of cannons, rifles and pistols. A late afternoon charge by Sam Houston’s army drove the Mexicans into the shallow muck of Peggy’s Lake. The Texican Cavalry was into the Mexican camp with drawn sabers before an alarm could be sounded. The terrified Mexican troops raced to escape from the Texican force who screamed, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”

The irregular Texican army, set on avenging massacres at Goliad and the Alamo, butchered the remnants of the Mexican army mired knee deep in the mud. Their screams of “Mi, no Alamo, Mi, no Goliad,” only inflamed the Texicans. Peggy’s Lake was blood red by nightfall. A lucky few were taken captive or fled into the countryside.

One of those who fled was Generalissimo Santa Anna. Santa Anna, at least by legend, was said to have been entertaining Emily Morgan in his tent at the start of the battle. Santa Anna’s attentions were so diverted by the Yellow Rose, that a Texican victory was assured.

Captured two days later, Santa Anna was taken to a large oak tree where Sam Houston lay recuperating from an ankle wound. Sam Houston did not give in to the natural urges of his army. Rather than hang Santa Anna from the oak tree, he required him to sign an order directing the commanders of two larger Mexican forces advancing toward Houston’s army to withdraw back across the Rio Grande. With the stroke of Santa Anna’s pen, a new Republic of Texas was at least temporarily assured.

Peacock at Mayfield Park

The S.S. Hangover at the Contemporary Austin

You have to know the story of Clara Driscoll to fully appreciate the location of the Contemporary Austin art exhibit Kathy and I attended last Sunday. Laguna Gloria is Driscoll’s former home on Lake Austin. Clara Driscoll was a larger than life individual, whose legions of accomplishments included saving the Alamo from demolition and writing a Broadway show. Her father, Robert Driscoll, Sr. and mother Catherine McGrath Duggan Driscoll owned among many other assets, the 83,000 acre Driscoll Ranch just outside of Corpus Christi in South Texas. Wikipedia has an extensive discussion of her education and life accomplishments. She was a Texas original, educated in New York City and Europe. If you don’t know about her, it’s worth reading the Wikipedia article.

In 1917, Driscoll and her husband purchased 28 acres near Mount Bonnell on the Colorado River. At the time the property was five miles outside of Austin. The property was bounded on one side by the Colorado River, now Lake Austin and on another by a tributary called Taylor Slough. The slough feed into a small lake adjacent to Driscoll’s mansion before it flows into Lake Austin. They called their estate Laguna Gloria. The property was first owned by Stephen F. Austin. This is one of the most prized properties in Texas. The beautiful grounds and Italian influenced mansion are now a Contemporary Austin art gallery.

Last Sunday, Kathy and I attended an art exhibition performed on the small lake. In my younger years I would have questioned whether the performance was art. Thankfully, I’m not so strict these days and the SS Hangover exhibit was particularly enjoyable. The waters of Laguna Gloria were never used for better purpose than the surreal scene of a Scandinavian sailing craft (actually propelled by a secret motor) plying the tranquil waters of the lagoon. A brass orchestra played calming beautiful music, and Kathy and I were transfixed on the shore. Even the cold temps of the day disappeared for a time. We recommend you consider it.

Plus we recommend a stop over to the Gardens and the free ranging peacocks of Mayfield Park right next door. Kids and grandkids would love to see the peacocks, ponds and beauty of the park’s nature trails down to the water.

 

A Snowy 2nd Day of Spring in Washington, D.C.

The beauty of a snow in the spring is that you know it won’t last forever. As the pictures show, it is one of those days in D.C. Heavy wet snow in March is no match for the sun and the 45 degree high of tomorrow. The sun will get us back to spring. But today just looks like winter. Yesterday was the first day of spring and D.C. looked like it was trying.

There is a plus on snowy spring days. They keep me inside writing. Writing in the spring time is more of a challenge than most of the year. Spring in D.C. can be intoxicating—I mean, with flowers and trees blooming, although there is no shortage of booze in the District. I’ve learned over the past six years that practicing writing discipline is among the most challenging of quests. When writers are sitting quietly behind their typewriter hoping for a wisp of inspiration, it is easy to dismiss them as goofing off. Trust me it is some of the hardest work (though I really love it) I’ve ever attempted. It would be easy for a spouse or other relative to say,”Since you’re not doing anything can you run this garment to the cleaners?” I am lucky that my wife, Kathy, is just the opposite. She is the one that shoos me back to the writing desk when I am just messing around.

I will take some more pictures to share later, when it is perhaps 100 degrees.

Audio Book brings Anahuac to Life

Today Anahuac was issued on Audible.com as an audio book. The novel is now on Amazon, ITunes and Audible. There is a free preview of a portion of the audio book available on Amazon.com. The audio version of Anahuac was performed by Alan Adelberg, a professional narrator with national credits. Joel Block of The Block House Studio who is an award winner produced the recording. I was truly blessed to find such talented professionals. I described a bit of the recording process in prior blogs. There is great joy in hearing the words come alive and all you have to do is close your eyes and listen. Authors hear character voices when they write. I was pleased to hear some different inflections in Alan’s performance than what I heard when I wrote the words. His ideas actually enhanced the story. If you have friends who like audio books please tell them about Anahuac. I would encourage you to take the time to listen to the preview that is available. Even if you don’t think you would like an audio book (I was one of those before this) you might be surprised.

An Evening with the Anahuac Book Club

Book clubs are a writer’s best friend. The book club that meets at the Chambers County Library (in Anahuac, Texas) honored me by selecting my first novel, Morgan’s Point, as their novel for the month of March. Last night, the club met to discuss my book. What made the evening even more special for me was their surprise invitation for me to join them via Skype. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I enthusiastically accepted. What a grand evening it was for me and (I hope) for the members of the club. I would love for other book clubs to read my books and extend me that same invitation.

If authors have to explain too much about their book, they probably missed the mark. The Anahuac folks were full of questions, but they were the kinds of questions that I would have asked of authors whose books I enjoyed. I don’t want to provide any spoilers for those who might want to read Morgan’s Point or Anahuac, but women who meet the world on their own terms, predestination, mangled justice and the origins of the name Faircloth were hot topics. During our discussions I discovered  that Faircloth, the last name of major characters Taylor and Cooper Faircloth, is also the last name of the State Representative for the area. I had to explain that there were specific reasons I used the name Faircloth, but not because of the Honorable Mr. Faircloth.

Another fact that I learned during the meeting was that the old Mexican Fort that once stood on a high bluff along Trinity Bay in Anahuac had tunnels that were used to bring cargo up from ships. I wish I’d known that when I wrote Anahuac. There would have been some underground fun. Maybe it’s not too late. I am busy writing two books now. One is a prequel about Sarita Jo Franklin, the toughest woman on Smith’s Point, Texas, who was an important (albeit briefly appearing) character in Anahuac.

The first time I ever heard of a book club came back to me as I waited for the Skype call last night. I was only eight or nine years old when I first saw the movie The Third Man at the Woodlawn Theater in San Antonio. Joseph Cotton played the role of Holly Martins, who wrote schlocky Westerns. Martins is in post- war Vienna because of the death of a good friend, Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles. As a young boy, I was lost for most of this film noire masterpiece because of the film’s complexity. One uncomfortable scene I did understand was at a Vienna book club meeting to which Martins is invited to speak. It seemed that Martins has a following of intellectuals in Vienna who were dying to pick his brain about his cowboy works. Martins is out of his depth and their deep questions about his shallow works leads to an embarrassing evening. That memory was probably not the most settling of remembrances to have immediately before an appearance before a book club. Fortunately, I think I escaped Holly Martins’ fate last night.

Last night was enjoyable and instructive for me, and I’d like to thank the members of the Anahuac book club for such a wonderful evening. If you are a member of a book club and want to read one of my books, I will myself available for your meeting to discuss the book. Skype is an easy, fun way to make this happen.