Chris Malburg is a writer who wants to get things right.
Sure, it’s not unusual for a good thriller writer to head to the local library, spend some time with Professor Google, or visit a locale that he’s thinking of using as a setting. But how many would enroll in classes at the University of Southern California to learn the finer points of air disaster investigation?
Malburg would—and did—learning alongside experts from a host of “alphabet” government agencies such as the FAA and FBI. The final exam, by the way, involved heading out to a hangar to determine why three different planes went down.
That hard work has paid off in Malburg’s fourth Enforcement Division novel, MAN OF HONOR. American planes are crashing thanks to Chinese cyber terrorism, and it’s up to NTSB investigators to help stop them. The result of Malburg’s research is a novel that rings true in every detail.
From a writer’s perspective, what makes the Eastern Shore and Delmarva unique is that it’s out of the way. A proposed new Chesapeake Bay crossing could truly impact our sense of place. Here is the Baltimore Sun op-ed I wrote about that … in print on Sunday, Feb. 11.
Third Chesapeake Bay bridge would have lasting impact
By David Healey
To get a glimpse of how the Eastern Shore used to be before the Chesapeake Bay bridge, all you had to do was ask George Prettyman and Sterling Hersch. Both of these old timers grew up in the early 1900s in Rock Hall, where Sterling’s family owned the general store and George’s father was the Methodist minister. George, who wrote newspaper columns in the “I remember” style, recalled how back-to-school shopping meant a ferry trip to Baltimore — always an exciting outing for a kid from Rock Hall. Both Sterling and George are gone now, but this era before the bridge lives on in memory and legacy.
When the original two-lane Chesapeake Bay bridge opened in 1952, it meant an end to the Eastern Shore’s isolation, literally paving the way for development. But while the bridge was a boon for Ocean City, enabling tourists to “reach the beach,” it actually brought about the economic decline of places that had a business model built around the ferry.
The towns of Tolchester and Betterton, both near Rock Hall, once hosted hordes of day trippers from Baltimore, with the former offering an amusement park and the latter a selection of places to stay. Even in Cecil County, places like Hollywood Beach and Crystal Beach attracted crowds of beach-goers to the shores of the Chesapeake at a time when the Atlantic beaches were a much more difficult drive. But the bridge changed all that, and certainly there were no more shopping trips to Baltimore on the ferry.
In 1973, a parallel three-lane span was opened to relieve traffic congestion, and now, the state government of Maryland is in the early stages of planning for a third bridge crossing. Those changes that rocked the shore could happen all over again. …
I have signed up and will be tracking my reading in February. There’s a whole stack of books and in my Kindle, waiting for me: James Rollins, Linwood Barclay, Preston & Child, Sheila Lowe, William Myers, John Sandford. Can you keep up?
Introducing CCPL’s Winter Reading for adults!
Read for 10 hours within the month of February and receive a limited edition tote bag, while supplies last, and an entry to win Milburn Stone Theatre tickets (2 tickets per branch).
Winter. Outside my office window, rafts of ice cover the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The crew of a dredge crew climbs aboard a tug, headed to work on the icy water. In the distance, hunters are setting up decoys around their blind for goose season.
It’s also a good season for writing. The project that’s on my mind is the upcoming Eastern Shore Writers anthology, tentatively named, Bay to Ocean. I am working on a short story to submit. I don’t write much short fiction, so I turned to some of my favorites for inspiration. At the top of the list were “They” by David Morrell and “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall.
Hall’s hunting story is more famous; you can find it in more than a few anthologies for high school and college classes where fiction is still taught. Written 60 years ago, the story has a timeless quality, perhaps because it’s so easy to imagine ourselves in the hunters’ boots as the tide comes in.
“They” is more of a twisted take on Little House on the Prairie. Written by David Morrell, best known as the creator of Rambo, this is one of those stories that I turn to again and again when I need a refresher in voice and pacing and tension. In getting to the climax of a short story, there’s no time for the long slope of rising action; there’s an escalator. As writers, our best teachers are these great authors. Writing this story for the anthology has been a good excuse to dip deep into my Kindle and bookshelf.
CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Favorite pens for writing.
Another reason that I’m excited about the anthology is because I remember well the Shore Sampler that ESWA published many years ago. I was a student then at Washington College in Chestertown, and one of my classmates, Dean Hebert, had a poem in the anthology. Another writer, Douglass Wallop, had a piece in the Shore Sampler anthology. This interested me because as a student I had been granted use of the Douglass Wallop room at the O’Neill Literary House at the college.
Due to fire codes, students were no longer allowed to live in the Lit House, but it was a fine place to write and study and hang out. On the desk was the typewriter on which Wallop had written The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. I had actually read the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books version as a bored kid one summer afternoon, in the days before smart phones and the internet. That story became the basis for the hit Broadway musical, Damn Yankees.
The upcoming anthology is picking up where a great tradition left off, and it’s long overdue. What will you submit? If you don’t have a story, essay, or poem ready, there is still time.
Pour a cup of coffee. Read. Gaze out at the ice. Write.
(This piece appeared in Running Times magazine. These days I really prefer walking, but this is a good time of year to think about getting outside and exercising, no matter what form it takes.)
by David Healey
Because I’m a writer and a runner, I’ve often noticed that setting pen to paper is a lot like setting foot to pavement. Both take will power and the ability to go the distance. Writers and runners enjoy a challenge, something to test their limits, like finding a good metaphor or tackling a five-mile run.
Considering that writers turn to the same inner place as runners, it’s surprising that there are no great novels about running. Whole shelves are filled with novels about baseball and fishing and even football. There aren’t any writers who are famous for their running. Maybe running isn’t glamorous enough. Or maybe it’s not possible to fully capture the intangibles of running?
That’s too bad, because running can open up the senses as much as the pores, especially during those runs away from the blacktop. In my head, I try to compose descriptions of leaves crackling under my running shoes or the squish-squelch of wet grass. On my laptop computer, however, the words get all tied up in double knots.
For those who have felt it, a good run builds like a good story. Those first strides as I find my rhythm are like the opening lines of a novel: It is a crisp autumn evening when I set out on my run, heading for the trails along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. (PROLOGUE.)
Cold wind rubs like sandpaper across my puffing cheeks. (RISING ACTION)
I come to a hill, pumping my arms and leaning into the grade. Halfway up, a cramp gnaws at my side. (CONFLICT)
Then I coast down the hill, the cramp gone, the cool air smelling of leaves and so rich my lungs can’t get enough. (THE DENOUEMENT)
Back at the edge of town, the wild land gives way to yards and gardens. I sprint the final few hundred feet to the house, energized by that fall air. The water is blue as a vein and the sky is turning cobalt as I coast to a stop. (EPILOGUE)
That final sprint felt great. After all, most runners, like most writers, enjoy a good ending.
Be warned. At one glance, author Sheila Lowe can almost instantly know your deepest secrets and take the measure of your personality. For these insights, she does not rely on clairvoyance or palm reading, but on something seemingly more mundane.
Lowe is a professional graphologist, or handwriting expert. In fact, she is one of the leading experts in the United States, if not the world, and serves as president of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation. She has written nonfiction books on the topic, Adobe has employed her knowledge in developing its signature recognition software, and Lowe has weighed in on the handwriting of President Trump in media outlets such as CNN and The Boston Globe. (“It’s like a big fence,” she says of the president’s jagged signature.)
It is an expertise that serves her well not just in the corporate world, but in the world of fiction. Since 2007, her popular “medium-boiled” series featuring handwriting expert Claudia Rose has been engaging audiences. Her newest installment is WRITTEN OFF, in which Claudia finds herself flying from sunny California to wintry Maine in order to retrieve the manuscript of a murdered psychology professor. Claudia’s expertise enables her to gain insights into the characters who are now persons of interest in the professor’s death.
There’s more at stake here than catching the killer. The dead professor has left behind a considerable fortune and a mansion. She also has left behind a ragtag mix of troubled students. Again, handwriting plays a role in seeing beyond the facade that characters may be presenting to the world.
Like her character, Lowe lives in California, writing from a curving desk in her Ventura home that her friends call “the command center.” It occupies half her kitchen and is filled with monitors and stacks of folders and notes. There is even a microscope for Lowe’s other professional pursuit, which is handwriting analysis.
In a phone interview from that desk, Lowe comes across as wise and kind and insightful, much like her character.
Lowe was born in England, but has lived in the U.S. since she was a teenager. Lowe’s bio prominently mentions family. One son, Erik, is a tattoo artist. Another son, Ben, has performed for many years with the band Snap. (Lowe’s adult daughter, Jennifer, was the victim of a domestic homicide in 2000.)
A tattoo artist? A rock star? This is someone who encouraged her children to follow their bliss.
“It makes me the cool mom,” she acknowledged with a laugh. “It’s OK with me. I just want them to be happy.”
She noted that Erik helped with some insights into tattoo art as part of Lowe’s fifth novel in the series, Inkslinger’s Ball. “He took me to a tattoo convention for research,” she said.
And for the record, Mom did not get a tattoo.
An interesting quality of WRITTEN OFF is that while handwriting analysis features prominently, it is not necessarily the tool that brings the killer to justice. Instead, Lowe noted, the handwriting analysis helps to give Claudia insight into the other characters.
I sent Lowe a sample of my handwriting, which she was kind enough to analyze. Her response was intriguing: “I’d guess you write thrillers to give the rather dark side of your personality an outlet.” What I deemed as sloppy handwriting, she described as impatient. Based purely on handwriting, Lowe went on to theorize about a childhood experience that shaped my adult personality. Her insights from a single hand-written page were revelatory, and quite unsettling.
Suddenly, I felt like a character in one of her books. I was reminded of the captivating scene in WRITTEN OFF in which Claudia analyzes the handwriting of skeptical faculty members during a cocktail party. The scene serves to offer insights into characters who might be suspects in the professor’s death. In the process, Claudia reveals traits and histories that leave some characters reeling. It’s anything but breezy party entertainment.
As a graphologist, she spends several productive hours early in the day on her consultant work in the field, before moving on to writing.
CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Presidential autographs for sale.
As for her writing habits, Lowe said that she is “allergic to mornings” and tends to start writing around 10 p.m. and work until 1 a.m. or so—unless there’s a deadline looming, in which case she gets an earlier start. Her daily goal is to edit the writing from the previous day and then produce around 1,000 words of new material.
“Writing is hard,” she said. “I like rewriting. I like having written.”
She needs to start with a title, which is a quirk of many writers. The next step is to rough out the plot in a notebook so that she knows where the story is going. Once that is done, and the story is formed in her head, she sticks to the keyboard. The writing all gets done at that command center.
“I don’t feel tied to those notes,” she said. “I really don’t look at it again until my book is finished and I just go back to make sure I got in everything that I wanted to.”
If she gets stuck along the way, she finds that employing “grapho-therapy” is useful. The technique uses handwriting exercises done to music to encourage creativity.
What’s next for Claudia and this intriguing handwriting series? Judging by her brush with a Maine blizzard in WRITTEN OFF, Claudia may be taking some time off to warm up while Lowe writes an altogether different novel.
Until then, there are six previous novels in the series to catch up on, and a lot of handwriting clues and insights to consider.
The mother of a tattoo artist and a former rock star, Sheila figures she’s a cool mom. She lives in Ventura with Lexie the Evil Cat, where she writes the award-winning Forensic Handwriting series. Like her fictional character Claudia Rose, she’s a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in court cases. Despite sharing living space with a cat, Sheila’s books are “medium boiled,” psychological suspense, definitely not cozy. She puts ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances and makes them squirm.
Her non-fiction books about handwriting include The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, and Handwriting Analyzer software.
To learn more about Sheila, please visit her website.
(David Healey is a contributing editor at The Big Thrill.)
During the Civil War, it wasn’t uncommon to be drafted against one’s will and forced to put on a blue uniform. One Delmarva man hated the Yankees so much that to avoid this fate, he spent several years living in underground hideouts.
The ordeal of John Long, “Caveman of the Civil War,” is certainly one of the stranger tales from the Civil War era on Delmarva. His story was described at length in the Salisbury Wicomico News on May 27, 1920.
It is, unfortunately, a second-hand story, recounted from the childhood memories of the newspaper columnist. The newspaper article, and Long’s experiences, have been summarized by the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History & Culture at Salisbury University.
“Having made up his mind that he would not obey the call of his country to duty, his chief thought was to find some place where he could hide until the ‘unpleasantness,’ as he termed it, ‘had blown over,’ ” the columnist wrote.
Long’s solution was to build “two or three” underground caves. Like most of Delmarva, the region around Salisbury is a flat and sandy place where caves do not naturally occur. It’s likely that Long built his shelters in stream banks and also along the edge of a place called “Polk’s Pond.”
These caves were more than crude shelters. Long made them big enough to stand up in, with sides and ceilings finished with boards. He built bunks for sleeping but probably had no stove or hearth that might give away his hiding place. The entrance was more than likely disguised somehow to avoid discovery.
Long was able to keep a sharp eye out thanks to “portholes” he built to give himself ventilation and as a means to keep watch. The columnist wrote “Hundreds of times, he said, the (Yankee) soldiers were within a few feet of his hiding place, but by good luck he escaped.”
It seems that the Caveman wasn’t just a draft dodger and Southern sympathizer, but had somehow gotten himself into trouble with the local Federal authorities. A reward was offered for his arrest, and troops combed the countryside looking for him.
Friends apparently kept Long supplied with food, bringing him supplies under cover of darkness. The Caveman, however, wasn’t content to spend all his time hiding out. On several occasions, he donned a disguise— sometimes dressing as a “Negro woman”— and ventured into town. Long was described as being a big man who weighed 240 pounds, so the sight of him in a dress must have been interesting, to say the least.
One of his favorite haunts was a saloon run by “Old Man Hawkins” that once stood on East Camden Street. As the columnist described it, “Here the friends of the north and of the south often met and many a wordy conflict finally terminated in a ‘knock down and drag out’ fight.”
It’s a good bet that John Barleycorn played a role when the Caveman got himself into more trouble than he bargained for one night at the saloon. He got in a fight with several Yankee soldiers. He knocked a few of them down, then punched an officer so hard that he knocked the man out cold. “After a great deal of work on the soldier he was finally revived averring that he had been struck many a time but never so hard as that Negro woman struck him.” Somehow, the Caveman must have made it safely back to his hideout.
CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Work healthier with a standing desk.
Was there really a John Long and did this actually happen to him? When one takes a harder look at his story, parts of it appear to be nothing more than a tall tale, perhaps embellished by the columnist or by the Caveman himself. After all, it seems to stretch the imagination that a young white man, powerfully built at that, could get away with disguising himself as an African-American woman … one who hung out in saloons, no less. And would the Caveman really have stuck around to hear the Yankee officer compliment him on that knockout punch? If he felt so strongly about the South, he could have slipped into Virginia to join the Confederacy, like so many other young men from Delmarva. But perhaps John Long was a gentle man and something of a loner, happy to mix things up in a relatively harmless barroom brawl but not eager to join the killing fields of the war.
Census records do show a John Long in the Salisbury area. There’s no mention of him living in a cave, of course, but by then the “unpleasantness” of the 1860s was long since over and the Caveman of the Civil War had become a local legend.
Robert Bidinotto is an accomplished thriller writer from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but it’s his own story of success with independent publishing that many writers find thrilling.
The author has shared his success story at the Bay to Ocean Writers’ Conference held each year at Chesapeake College, and his will return again in March 2018. Here is some of the author’s story.
Having lost his job as a magazine editor, and entering his sixties, his employment prospects looked bleak. That’s when, with the encouragement of his wife, he finally wrote a novel. The result was Hunter, a self-published Amazon super bestseller. The author has been a tireless supporter of other writers with his “how to” advice on his popular website http://www.bidinotto.com/.
For self-published writers, Bidinotto stressed the importance of writing the best books possible by using advance readers, volunteer editors to stop every typo in its tracks, and great cover design.
Bidinotto offers tips for thriller writers and readers, starting with classic examples of great thrillers, including Peter Benchley’sJaws and Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean and Wilbur Smith’sHungry as the Sea. He also noted the thriller elements of classic films like High Noon.
As Bidinotto points out, thrillers come in all shapes and settings, but they have a common thread of often larger-than-life characters who overcome impossible odds, whether it is stopping a killer shark or the gang of killers due to arrive in town on the 12 o’clock train.
“Your job is to keep the reader riveted in that world,” Bidinotto notes. He quotes Lee Child: “Write the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow.”
Bidinotto has written a sequel to his bestselling Hunter, which also has become an Amazon bestseller. Just this month, a third book in the series was released, called Winner Takes All. The story focuses on an attempt to install a puppet president in the White House. Sounds like yet another great Robert Bidinotto thriller!
Tall, white-haired, and with a Virginia gentleman’s accent, William Styron looked and sounded like a Southern writer. But what really impressed me was that we had the same taste in alcoholic beverages.
This was in 1986. I was nineteen and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was visiting Washington College in Chestertown, Md., to instruct and inspire the young writers there, which is why I found myself at the door of the President’s House to have dinner with Styron, faculty and students. The president at the time was Douglas Cater, himself an accomplished journalist and Southerner.
A solemn-faced waiter wearing white jacket greeted me just inside the door of the 18th century mansion.
“May I get you a cocktail?” he asked.
Under the circumstances, it felt more like a pop quiz than a question. It didn’t seem likely that the bar at the president’s house was stocked with Natty Boh.
“Ahh . . . I’ll have a glass of white wine,” I said.
I heard a deep voice behind me. The great man himself was coming in the door. “That sounds like a fine idea,” Styron told the waiter. “I’ll have the same.”
At that point I stammered something witty like, “Hello, Mr. Styron,” and retreated – glass of wine in hand – into the crowded house. I hadn’t read any of his books yet and feared that he might ask me how I liked them. The college had invited prospective freshmen to the event, and they were there with their parents, getting a feel for the place. Several parents looked uncomfortable in that genteel Tidewater setting, or maybe it was only the thought of the tuition that was making them sweat.
“What wonderful knickknacks,” one nervous mother remarked to Libby Cater, wife of President Cater and lady of the house.
Libby, ever so polite, replied, “Oh, do you like my jade collection?”
As the newly educated mother and daughter moved on, Libby turned to me and confided how pleased she was that Styron, a one-time neighbor of the Caters, was visiting the college. The college was small enough then that even the first lady had a passing acquaintance with a college freshman she had seen around the Lit House on campus. Then her voice dropped a note as she added, “You know, one day he was out getting his mail when I was in the yard and he showed me a royalty check for forty thousand dollars.” Libby appreciated good writing, but she also knew the value of all things green.
Over dinner, Styron shared how the idea for “Sophie’s Choice” was born in a flash of inspiration that soon had him on a research trip to a concentration camp. Published in 1979, “Sophie’s Choice” became a bestseller and was made into a film starring Meryl Streep as the pale Holocaust survivor. Styron graciously answered the students’ questions on writing. He was self-effacing, even subdued, which makes sense now: this was soon after he nearly committed suicide, as revealed in his memoir “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.” One thing became clear, which was that Styron was a thoughtful man who loved storytelling and the craft of writing.
He read that evening from a work in progress about his days as a Marine during World War II, tough material for a college-age audience forty years removed from their grandfathers’ war. However, that didn’t stop me from reading “Lie Down in Darkness,” an experimental 1951 novel with echoes of Faulkner that nonetheless seemed as relevant to the ’80s as two other hot novels of self-destruction I devoured about the same time, “Less Than Zero” and “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Late at night, I would plow through all sorts of books that had nothing to do with class assignments. On a Styron kick now, and hoping I might be able to pair his advice to something I found in his writing, I plowed through “Sophie’s Choice.” The true horror of Sophie’s situation wouldn’t sink in until I dipped into the novel again after having children of my own. Now, from a parent’s perspective, Sophie’s guilt and grief seems overwhelming. The novel’s language is lush as a steamy Southern night. This is writing that takes its time covering more than 600 pages.
The book I never got around to was “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” about a bloody slave revolt in 1831. Since I seem to have made a habit of catching up on Styron after the man has come and gone, I’ll have to read that one next.
I’ll never write as well as Styron, but I understand from him that it is the writer’s imagination that matters most of all. You don’t have to be a Polish Jew or an African-American slave to understand your characters. A good writer must be able to imagine his way into his characters’ souls.
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted,” Styron once said. “You should live several lives while reading it.”
I won’t say that Styron inspired me to be a writer, but he certainly taught me that it was OK to be one. . . and that a glass of white wine was a perfectly acceptable cocktail.
(I wrote this essay when the author passed away in 2006, and it was distributed nationwide by by Scripps Howard News Service. Lately, I’ve been thinking of those late nights spent reading his books and how rare it now is to find anything so deeply written.)
CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Awesome notebooks for writers.