Book Review:  FULL DARK, NO STARS by Stephen King.

 renee kimball dog photo Written by Renee Kimball

 “From the start . . . I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive.  It gets in your face.  Sometimes it shouts in your face.  I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers.  Making them think as they read is not my deal.” (Full Dark, No Stars. p.365).

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“Stephen King” by Stephanie Lawton licensed under CC BY-SA-2.0, via Flickr

There are some who avoid works by Stephen King.  Literary elitists have shown disdain towards King for years arguing his writing is story-telling for the masses.  This review isn’t about the literary merits of King’s works, or his overwhelming success, or even about the monumental effect King’s life-long dedication to writing has had on the horror genre.  This brief review is a discussion of four novellas which are found in Full Dark, No Stars, released in 2010.

Short stories and novellas are not a new format for King.  King has published very successful short stories and multiple novellas over his 35-year long career.  He has clearly succeeded yet again, with Full Dark, No StarsFull Dark contains a common theme of each novella, a theme that explores the darker human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice.  Redemption is not found, but retribution appears in each.  Even evil acts can result in a twisted kind of justice–a black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.


The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska.  The story involves a barely solvable working family farm, a life of constant work, brutally harsh and unrelenting.  The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who constantly harps to her husband to sell the farm and a plot of 100 acres that Arlette inherited from her father.  Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and start again in the city of Omaha.

09-19-2018 WWW RENEE KIMBALL PIXABAY CC0rodent-3229592_640The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” verbally dominated and hen-pecked, is the browbeaten beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on his land.  Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of Arlette’s plan.  Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder Arlette.  Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, then they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives on a close by, ever again.  Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help with the murder of his mother.

As Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry determine it is the time for murder.  It is a clumsy and brutal murder; both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards.   Arlette’s murder becomes the prelude to the story that evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference.  Their deed results into the ultimate destruction of both father and son.  The darker psyche of Wilf bobs and weaves throughout the tale, and in the end, destruction follows. (Spoiler:  If you have a phobia against rats, you may not want to read this dark tale).


09-19-2018 WWW RENEE KIMBALL Semi double truck trailerBig Driver is the second story in the collection.  The main character, Tess, is a resourceful and successful mystery writer.  She is the author of a “cozy” mysteries series and well known for her work in that type of genre.  To ensure a little extra for retirement, Tess travels and gives readings of her books.  She receives an invitation to read in a small-town library not too far from her home, and readily accepts.  After reading, she takes a shortcut home on the advice of her hostess, the local librarian.

Things become dangerous when she has a flat tire in an isolated and abandoned area.  When a seemingly well-intentioned good Samaritan stops to change her tire, instead of helping her, Tess is beaten and raped.  Left for dead, Tess awakes to find herself in a culvert along with several decomposing female bodies.  Pulling herself together, she leaves the area on foot and begins walking towards her home.  She reaches her home and begins to plans her revenge.

Tess shows both sharp intelligence and quiet bravery, and no one portrays a woman’s strength better than King.   Tess is a force who leaves the reader applauding her quiet inner strength and problem solving skills.  When she meets up with her rapist/ would be killer, Tess achieves her revenge on a much larger scale than she imagined.


While King’s Tess is resourceful and brave, the third novella, Fair Extension, is written from the perspective of a male, Streeter, who is a bitter and unlikable character.

“Faust” by Harry Clarke. (Project Gutenberg Open Library System) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Streeter, suffers from incurable cancer secretly blames his bad health, career, marriage, and lack of income, on the twisted idea that if he had not promoted and helped his best friend, Tom Goodhugh, through high school, Streeter would have had all the successes that Tom enjoys –money and success and a perfect family.  Streeter believes that Tom should suffer the trials and tribulations Streeter has endured, after all, it is only fair.

Late on evening on his way home, Streeter takes an unplanned detour to a kind of roadside market.  He had seen a sign reading “FAIR EXTENSION,” and became curious.  A lone man named George Elvid, sits at the table with the sign.  When Street asks what kind of “extensions” Elvid offers, Elvid responds all kinds but the type of extension depends upon the requestor.  All extensions are tailored made and could be anything–credit extensions, love potions, to corrective eyesight.  A Faustian trade ensues, and Streeter exchanges the extension of his life for the life of his best friend, Tom.

The Streeter story is a black tale of harbored grudges and selfishness.  As Tom experiences horrific setbacks and death, he is slowly physically and mentally broken.  As this is happening to Tom, Streeter becomes healthy and rich.  In the end, Streeter remains unrepentant by his part in Tom’s tragic decline.  FAIR EXTENSION fails to arouse the reader’s sympathy, and there is no retribution, rather, it is a tale of cruelty and Jealousy.


The fourth and last story, A Good Marriage, is thought-provoking and believable.  The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left to start their lives. Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, (who she believes she knows well), for over 25 years.  She thinks she is living the American dream, or a semblance there of – not perfect, but predictable.  Then, by sheer accident, she trips over a misaligned carton in the garage.  Darcy then realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, has a double life and is a serial killer.

09-19-2018 WWW RENEE KIMBALL Wedding_ringsOnce Darcy does her research and confirms her suspicions, she realizes that there has not been a killing for 16 years.  She attempts to come to grips with what she knows for certain.  Her husband, Bob, intuits that she knows about his secret life realizing that the carton has been moved.  Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens. But that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges, he then promises he won’t kill again.

Bob explains Darcy is the reason he took a break from killing, being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his need to kill.  Bob also says that it can all start up again if she doesn’t keep quiet and if she turns him in, then the children’s lives will be ruined and Darcy will suffer the consequences and will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.

Several years go by with both partners ignoring their shared secret and no killings.  But Darcy, never feels at ease and in limbo.  Darcy is ashamed and feels responsible because she knows she is the only one that can reveal the truth and bring Bob to justice.

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“Winder stairs” by Martin2Reid, licensed under CC SA-BY-3.0 via Wikipedia

Finally, Darcy stages and then succeeds in killing Bob.  When a bit too tipsy from an evening celebration, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs.   Darcy is cleared of any foul play, but she knows there will be someone knocking on the door sooner or later who knows she staged Bob’s murder.  And the day did come, and someone came knocking, but it wasn’t who she expected.

There is retribution in the end, and a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book.

You will enjoy this collection; it is something that will make you think, even if that is not King’s aim, and may even surprise you.  One can never really know what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.

Happy Reading . . .


From the Afterword:

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Via Amazon

I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing…and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.” (Stephen King).

“Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone . . . These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer’s last stand.” Doug Johnstone. Independent. November 14, 2010.


King, Stephen.  FULL DARK, NO STARS, 2010Simon & Schuster, New York., New York.

Kirkus Review.  “Deals with the darkest recesses of the human soul. . .” Kirkus Review. Nov 10, 2010.

Johnstone, Doug. Independent. November 14, 2010.


Image of semi double truck licensed via Wikipedia under CC0
Image of wedding rings via Pixabay under CC0
Image of rat via Pixabay under CC0


A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate, fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters, and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.


I Love You, Peter Guillam…Thoughts on Point of View

helen-currie-foster-hotxsinc Written by Helen Currie Foster


2018-09-16 HELEN FOSTER WWW IMG_1910Okay, I’m addicted to John Le Carré. I’ve repeatedly re-read his “Smiley Trilogy.”  As you may know (but no spoilers), the seminal Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy tells us how George Smiley unmasked a mole in the British secret service (the “Circus”). Remember Alec Guinness as Smiley? Wonderful, but not as short and tubby as we imagine Smiley to be. When Smiley’s People was reissued, Le Carré wrote a preface referring to his completion of a trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979). Was he done, then? We’d hear no more about finding the Circus mole and foiling the Russian mastermind Karla? Could Smiley retire to study German poetry, maybe retrieve his beautiful unfaithful Ann?

John Le Carré will be 87 on October 19. In 2017, with A Legacy of Spies, Le Carré reaches back before Tinker, Tailor into The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1963), where Alec Leamas (Richard Burton starred in the movie), is killed at the Berlin Wall. Indeed, Le Carré goes back to his 1961 debut, Call for the Dead, where we first meet Smiley, his subordinate Peter Guillam, and the German assassin Hans-Dieter Mundt.

Part of Le Carré’s genius is his use of point of view. Legacy is all told, first person, by Peter Guillam—described as “tall, tough and charming” in The Honourable Schoolboy, but always just a supporting character, never at the seat of power. In Legacy, the aging Guillam (white hair, hearing aids) is called back to a hostile Circus from his Brittany home. and informed he’s a defendant in a lawsuit concerning Leamas’s death. In Legacy Guillam is protagonist, not just narrator. He’s thrown into painful memories of the Leamas (apparent) debacle as, at the instruction of the current unlovable Circus bureaucrats, he slogs through years of records, some of which he wrote himself, including the one he wrote about the loss of his beloved—never mind. No spoilers.

In contrast, Tinker, Tailor builds the story with three points of view: first, that of George Smiley himself, forced to retire from the Circus by the nefarious Russian “Witchcraft” plot, and currently abandoned by his beautiful and unfaithful wife; second, that of Bill Roach, a “new boy” with “no friends” at the horrid Thursgood school where the wounded spy Jim Prideaux now teaches French; and third, that of Peter Guillam, another “Witchcraft” victim now banished to a dead-end Circus assignment in Brixton.

Roach’s observations of the new teacher, Prideaux, show us both Prideaux’s strength and charm, and the daily pain and fear left by his capture and torture. Prideaux names Roach a “watcher,” the “best watcher.” Roach worries himself sick, watching, fearing for Prideaux, and he’s the one who tells Prideaux that his peaceful isolation at this school has ended. Strangers are asking about Prideaux in the village. With sinking stomach Roach watches through the rainy window of Prideaux’s trailer as Prideaux reassembles his gun.

2018-09-06 HELEN FOSTER WWW IMG_1909Guillam’s narration, as he helps Smiley undertake the search for the Circus’s Russian mole, tells us how he lies for Smiley and, heart thumping, sweat pouring down his back, steals records from the Circus that Smiley asks him to get.  Guillam shares thoughts about Smiley that Smiley himself could never convey—his brilliance, his invincible calm in interrogation, his vulnerable invulnerability. We see Guillam as a romantic, still attached to the Circus by idealism and the drive for adventure that (we suspect) also characterize the author.

All three points of view build purpose and suspense. Without Roach, we could not share Roach’s acute terror about Prideaux’s situation. Without Roach we would not have seen Prideaux try to level his trailer in the rain, drink vodka to dull the pain of the bullet in his back, teach perfect French to his students, engage them in wildly wonderful play. Roach has made us care about Prideaux.

Smiley sees himself as a fat balding spy, cuckolded by his beautiful wife. Without Smiley’s point of view we would not feel his guilt as he opens bills reflecting his wife’s unfaithfulness, feel his irritation with the pompous ambition of the not particularly competent men running the Circus, feel his terror at waiting, feel his satisfaction as pieces fall into place, feel his conflicted but unshakable determination to find the mole.

Without Guillam’s point of view, we might not understand that he so admires Smiley that at Smiley’s instruction he’ll attempt the perilous theft of records about the Witchcraft plot, and coolly lie about his presence in the building (sweat running down his back) while he’s interrogated by superiors.  With Guillam we feel a field man’s terror and joy in completing a successful field operation, but also his puzzlement about the multiple layers of the plot.

Back to the first-person narrative Le Carré uses in Legacy.  One character, the reliable but somehow removed Peter Guillam, suddenly bears the emotional weight of decades of deception. We like him. Perhaps we feel he’s one of us: a field man, not a cerebral strategist like Smiley; still human, still romantic, but longing for rest. In Legacy we, with Guillam, come face to face with the secret he has suppressed for so long.  We so want him to find rest. No spoilers., though.

John Le Carré! I’m drinking a toast to you tonight. Happy almost birthday!


Helen  Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series: GHOST CAVE, GHOST LETTER, GHOST DOG, and GHOST DAGGER. She works as a lawyer in Austin. Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros.



I Regret Nothing: My Love Affair with a Punctuation Mark

 Kathy Waller UnCon 10 06 2016 written by M. K. Waller

2018-09-03 www semicolon (2)


“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.”
― Abraham Lincoln


Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.
 Lewis Thomas, M. D.


“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” 
 Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country


Semicolons . . . signal, rather than shout, a relationship. . . . A semicolon is a compliment from the writer to the reader. It says: “I don’t have to draw you a picture; a hint will do.”
— George Will


I love semicolons.

My master’s thesis was rife with them.

But my critique group says I mustn’t use them any more. They say I should follow Kurt Vonnegut’s rule.

Mr. Vonnegut is wrong. The semicolon is not a transvestite hermaphrodite, representing absolutely nothing.

It is a compliment from the writer to the reader.

It is a wooden bench, where you can sit for a moment, catching your breath.

It’s a useful little chap.

When Mr. Vonnegut called the semicolon a transvestite hermaphrodite–well, bless his heart, he must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.


This post originally appeared at Telling the Truth, Mainly, under the title “Abraham Lincoln, Lewis Thomas, George Will, & Me: Great Minds Think Alike; or, Kurt Vonnegut, Go Fly a Kite.”


M. K. Waller’s stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers’ crime fiction anthologies, MURDER ON WHEELS and LONE STAR LAWLESS, in DAY OF THE DARK: STORIES OF ECLIPSE, and at Mysterical-E

She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly []


Oh, Those Accents: Scenes from the Fringe

 Written by Helen Currie Foster


Accents! Putting the accent on the right Sy-LLA-ble.

Okay, it was a dream trip–to the Edinburgh Fringe, 400 venues and a thousand dance/song/stand-up/improv/drama acts, each compressed into fifty minutes or an hour. Cabaret–Aussie powerhouses Ali McGregor, Stewart D’Arrietta. Drama I can’t forget: Midsummer, Underground Railroad Game, An Elephant in the Garden. We dashed from one improvised venue to the next (in lecture halls at the medical school, in churches, in large shipping containers). Then we queued, waiting for the doors to open. In every queue, we talked to those in line. “What’s the best thing you’ve seen yet?” In those queues, reserved Brits, silent Scots—they all talked. Shared their favorite shows. Asked, “Where are you from?” So did we, until a tee-shirted organizer gave the signal and we trekked in to find seats

Then—we suspended disbelief.

And reveled in accents.

Especially for the two-woman comedy teams, we reveled, rolled, rollicked in accents. One second: two competitive English upper-class matrons desperately competing for assurance that their volunteer activities had indeed left a beneficent mark on their village. The next second, two competing grandmothers with a new baby that only likes one of the two. Then suddenly, two Sloane Ranger types talking over each other about how they cahn’t stand a third friend’s constant DRAHma. Indeed, Fringe productions offer accents from men, women, Brownie scouts, manics, depressives, all ages and classes, trades and professions, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Yorkshire, Midlands, and London in all its accentual richness. The accents help tell the story: location, backgrounds, expectations. Add in the mobile faces, the roving eyes, the leers, the tight lips, the suggestive eyebrows, and the audience instantly “gets it.”

I was jealous. Jealous! In thirty seconds two women could create an entire scene with a ridiculous plot and leave an audience convulsed with laughter.

Contrast the lonely writer at her kitchen counter. No eyes, lips, voices, accents to help her out. Instead, a blank page. A blank screen. Letters of the alphabet. Prose.

Accents on the page can distract. In Five Red Herrings Sayers could pick just a few expressions for Scottish flavor. “Aye, weel.” But too much written “accent” can drive readers nuts. Instead, writers search for particular word patterns, particular locutions. I’ve tried mining written comments on foreign websites to find a helpful phrase. For example, in one website with comments on UK metal detectorists, I found, repeatedly, “If I’m honest, I’d say…”  I used it for my Scots pub owner.

No question, America has its own accents. The flat delivery and broad a’s of Massachusetts. Garrison Keillor’s earnest Minnesota delivery with its heavily voiced vowels; the South, rich in variety; Texas, offering accents from East Texas, West Texas, Spanglish, the distinctive nasal Houston-born UT coed accent, and more. But how to use them?

We mystery writers take refuge in consistent diction. We listen to the people around us so we can assign our characters a verbal “tell.” Our protagonist speaks like this, thinks like this, but his best friend has different and unique habits of speech. So does the antagonist. Maybe we use some regional expressions, though not every reader will “get” them. When I had a character say he was “horsed off,” a non-Texan was nonplussed. “I didn’t recognize that expression.”  Well, your loss, and now your verbal life is enriched.

Thinking again of improv: like those comedy pairs, we also assign our characters a physical “tell,” a repeated gesture, a posture. A way of hoisting the shoulders, fiddling with fingers, compressing the lips, messing with their hair. We assign clothing. Shoes. Car choices. Tidiness, or untidiness. Age. Eye movement. Yes, we writers have ways to create distinct characters. We do it on the printed page.

Still, it’s hard not to envy the richness of improv, which offers instant recognition of accents, of the implications of the actor’s roving eye, and the interaction between actor and audience. The actor builds the scene by playing off the audience’s reaction.

Lots to enjoy there. Plenty for writers to learn. And besides, it’s great material.

If Fate smiles, if ever you get a chance—take yourself to the Fringe!




Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery seriesGHOST CAVE, GHOST DOG, GHOST LETTER, and GHOST DAGGER. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.


A Dick Francis Race to the Finish

helen-currie-foster-hotxsinc Written by Helen Currie Foster

 Dick Francis wrote over 40 international best-selling mystery thrillers touching the world of horse racing. He won celebrity status as a British jockey, even serving as the Queen Mother’s jockey. In World War II he served in the RAF, flying Spitfires and hurricanes.

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By Paul Holloway from Leeds, United Kingdom (Steeplechase) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Many fans will recognize that he often uses a particular formula. The formula includes a young male protagonist with an offbeat background and some sort of hole in his soul, who winds up solving a murder. Let’s take just three examples: foreign service officer Peter Darwin in Comeback, movie director Thomas Lyon in Wild Horses, and architect/restorer of old buildings Lee Morris in Decider.

Each book uses first-person narrative.

Each man worries about something missing in his life. The young diplomat longs for love. The movie director fears he lacks the courage to take risks and make a movie his way. The architect fears his marriage no longer contains love, but knows he can’t leave his six children.

Francis uses his own jockey experience for horse racing features in each book, though these three protagonists do not race professionally. The foreign service officer, finding himself back in the small English racing village where he grew up, draws on childhood memories of the personalities and scandals of the village’s trainers and owners to find a murderer. The movie director, who grew too tall to race professionally, races real jockeys in his film to convince them he knows what he’s doing, and to persuade the producer to let him create the “wild horses” scene that caps the movie. The architect still owns shares in a decrepit racetrack owned by his vindictive father, who horribly abused the architect’s dead mother, and a cast of cruel and dysfunctional relatives who mistrust the architect. After an uphill fight the architect rebuilds both his family connections and the falling-down racetrack.

Each book depends on meticulous research on arcane subjects. Francis knows how to feed us this information without making us drink from a fire hose. With the diplomat, we try to determine who had both opportunity and skill to kill horses in a vet clinic without being caught—upholstery needles hidden in horse feed, the wrong anesthetic, the wrong blood plasma electrolytes during surgery. With the director, we see his cinematographic skill as he develops the climactic scene he has imagined, a scene revealing the solution to the long-ago death of a horse-trainer’s wife. We stand with him on the beach, filming as Norse horses led by one woman on horseback, her veils streaming, race along the dunes at dawn. With the architect, we determine who blew up the old racetrack stadium, why the proposed plans for a new stadium are bogus, and how to save the racing season with circus tents.

Of course, along the way, we worry with each protagonist. Will the diplomat find love with the bishop’s daughter? Will the director gain confidence enough to make the movie he believes in? Will the architect repair not only the racetrack, but his marriage? Plus, tension builds because in each book the protagonist’s determination to solve a murder imperils himself and/or those he cherishes.

In addition—and it reflects Francis’s genius in character development—Francis aficionados will recognize a recurrent scene in which the protagonist, viciously attacked, turns the other cheek (figuratively) instead of fighting back. This can perplex and frustrate the reader, who longs for revenge and the hero’s vindication. Francis makes us wait. The diplomat, slugged by a vicious horse trainer, backs off and drives away, seemingly cowed. The architect, beaten up by his own estranged family members, doesn’t retaliate. The movie director, after a first knife attack intended to scare him off the movie set, dons a home-made knife-proof vest and keeps filming, knowing he’s inviting further attack.

I think Francis ultimately uses these episodes for two reasons. First, he contrasts the villains’ nefarious motives with the protagonist’s disciplined determination to finish the job, to find the murderer. But the episodes are structural as well: the reader finally understands the protagonist must refuse to fight back specifically so he can maintain his disguise, conceal his knowledge, and succeed in solving the murder. These books aren’t police procedurals. The amateur sleuth protagonists can’t rely on police authority to win. These cheek-turning scenes demonstrate discipline and—ultimately—a gritty desire to win.  The thriller component comes as the protagonist’s desire to win also imperils him or his family.

By the time we’re identifying with the off-beat character (our first-person narrator), wallowing in the wealth of meticulous arcane research around the subplots, and turning pages rapidly to see the narrator safely escape peril—we’re pretty sure this formula works.


Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery seriesGHOST CAVE, GHOST DOG, GHOST LETTER, and GHOST DAGGER. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.


Cats, Computers, Clicking, & Knocking a Professor Out of His Chair

Kathy Waller UnCon 10 06 2016 Written by M. K. Waller

I fell asleep in my chair and when I awoke, I was right clicking on Ernest the Cat’s soft underbelly.

2018-08-21 WWW ernest and computer 2018-05-23Such is my life: cats, computers, and clicking. It’s past time for a new project.

Thirty-three years ago this month, I received a master’s degree in English. I’d spent the previous year digging myself into and then out of research that resulted in a thesis: The Writing of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. I followed my usual writing process: modified chaos. If my adviser had known how I worked, he’d have booted me out of his office the first day.

At the outset, he gave me some excellent advice:

  1. Modify your aspirations. When I said I’d like to write about Emily Dickinson, he asked if I wanted to spend all my time reading what everyone else had written about her.  I didn’t. He said I would be expected to add to the body or organized knowledge, and suggested I read Helen Hunt Jackson’s nineteenth-century American novel Ramona and see if I found anything worthy of research. I did, and I did.
  2. You’ll get six semester hours’ credit for the thesis. Don’t do more than six hours’ work. One hundred pages, cover to cover. It came in at 185.
  3. Don’t get tangled up in words. I got tangled up in words, but that’s my process.
Helen Hunt Jackson. Public domain, via Wikipedia

Starting out, I knew nothing about Helen Hunt Jackson. I knew Ramona was a propaganda novel the author hoped would gain sympathy for the Native Americans as Uncle Tom’s Cabin had for the slaves. The book was commonly described as sentimental romance. Combine sentimental romance with propaganda, and add that it was written by a woman, and you come out with a pretty bad book. Nineteenth-century chick lit.

After I read the novel and the standard biography of Helen Hunt Jackson, I held a different opinion. I thought it was a pretty good book. And I saw parallels between Jackson’s life and that of her main character. In other words, I had the foundation of a thesis.

Ramona, first edition. Pubic domain, via Wikipedia.

I was surprised no one had already tackled the topic. But Jackson was like the newly discovered Emily Dickinson*–her life was so interesting that critics focused on her and ignored her writing. In fact, there were times when I thought critics hadn’t read Ramona at all; the few references I found contained one error after another. That worked to my advantage, of course: where they got it wrong, I would get it right.

It also worked to my disadvantage. My words, even if they were never traditionally published, would be bound in hard cover and sit on a library shelf, available to the world. The book might travel through the interlibrary loan program. People I didn’t know might read it. Future scholars might refer to it in their theses. They might feel free to point out my errors.

That realization hit hard. It kept me from saying things like, “John Smith writes that Ramona’s husband’s name is Felipe, while in reality his name is Alessandro; this egregious error on the part of Smith suggests he is not only a poor scholar but also that he is an illiterate knothead. And I’m right, so nyah, nyah, nyah.” It didn’t keep me from wanting to say such things, but on paper it kept me humble.

I spent over a year immersed in all things Ramona–the history of the Franciscan missions and the Mission Indians of Southern California, U. S. government policy toward Native Americans, Helen Hunt Jackson’s life as a writer and as an activist in support of Native Americans, and social and literary commentary on the novel. It made for fascinating reading.

It made for fascinating writing, too. I would suffer for a while, then turn in a chapter; my adviser would say, “Keep going”; I would go home, barricade myself in the spare bedroom, play the Mario Lanza LP nonstop (Ooooooooverhead the moon is beeeeeeeaming, whiiiiiiiiiiiite as blossoms on the boughhhhhhhhhhhh), eat peanut butter, and ponder how to say what I meant.

IMG_3090I’ve heard that if you can’t write what you mean, you don’t know what you mean, but that’s not true. I knew exactly what I meant; I always know exactly what I mean. The challenge is to pull the correct words out of that vague, amorphous dust cloud looming above my head and string them together in the right order. Each time I finished a chapter, I was amazed at what I knew.

With a maximum of moaning, I finally completed the task to everyone’s satisfaction. I delivered the manuscript to the university library; the university returned it as bound copies.  I was tempted to borrow a stroller and wheel the thing around town. People who have babies show them off that way, and that book was my baby.

When I delivered the manuscript to my adviser for his signature, he made several more memorable statements:

  1. It’s publishable. He said I should contact Twayne and see if they were interested in a book. I didn’t. Quite frankly, I didn’t know how, I was too intimidated (and shy) to ask questions, and within a few months life threw up a roadblock that I didn’t have the energy to work around.
  2. You’re the Texas expert. Hearing that pleased me. I didn’t know there was much advantage to being the Texas expert on Ramona, since no one else would know I was the expert–I couldn’t go around telling people, and most would have said, “Ramona Who?”–but it was comforting to think I knew something the rest of the state (and several illiterate knotheads in other states) didn’t.
  3. I didn’t think you could do this. I thought the book was too flimsy. In other words, he told me to read Ramona and see if I could find something worth writing about and all the while he was thinking I would find nothing nothing NOTHING. I have never come so close to knocking a professor out of his chair as I did that day.

Anyway, that’s the story of the writing of The Writing of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. One bound copy sits in the library at Texas State University, another bound copy sits in the vault there (at least, I was told a copy would be hidden away), and a third sits at the bottom of a stack of books in my house.**

Since 1985, my copy has gathered dust, but I recently pulled it out and skimmed through it and thought back on the days when I was a lot smarter than I am now. And I decided it was time people knew that, although I’m probably not still the Texas expert, in 1985, I held the title.

IMG_3190So I’m putting it online. Unfortunately, since I can’t find the manuscript, I have to type the whole thing, including pages and pages of citations. Fortunately, I’ll be able to add illustrations.

The new site is currently private. I intended to make it public when the entire thesis is online. But after considering how slowly I type, I’ve decided to open the site chapter by chapter. As soon as I’ve proofed the introduction, I’ll go public. No one will want to read it in one sitting anyway. (I’m not saying it’s dry; I’m saying if I were writing it today, sentences would be shorter and semicolons would be few.)

I don’t expect hordes of readers to descend and jam all of WordPress’ ports, but maybe someone out there will be interested in reading about Helen Hunt Jackson and an American classic.

In case you’re wondering–Ramona is a half-Native American, half-Scottish girl reared by a wealthy Mexican widow who doesn’t love her because of her heritage. It’s unspoken but true that no Mexican of her adoptive mother’s class will marry her. But when Ramona falls in love with young Native American sheep shearer, her mother forbids the relationship. Southern California, where they live, is now under rule of the United States. Problems ensue.

I’ll add this, too–Doris McCraw, formerly full-time, now occasional Writing Wranglers and Warriors blogger, is an everywhere expert on Helen Hunt Jackson. Her Facebook page, Helen Hunt Jackson Live, can be found here.


*Helen Maria Fiske [Hunt Jackson] and Emily Dickinson were born a few months apart in Amherst, Massachusetts and were lifelong friends.

**I have a couple of other copies stored at some indeterminate location.


Made His Mark: Daniel J. Boorstin, A Man and His World

renee kimball dog photo written by Renee Kimball


Education is learning what you didn’t even know
you didn’t know. ~ 
Daniel J. Boorstin

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Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many people who have never heard of Daniel J. Boorstin.  You may not know of him or his lifetime of work.  Boorstin is one of a group of modern historians who rose to prominence in the 1950’s and beyond.   At the beginning of his career, there was no internet and the general public was eager for information primarily found in books.

Boorstin was born in 1914 and died in 2004, at the age of 89.   He was a man of many talents, but in terms of authorship and approach he was truly unique.   To study all his work would take a lifetime.

He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for the last book of a trilogy he titled The Americans. The trilogy included:  The Colonial Experience (1958), The National Experience (1965), and The Democratic Experience (1973).

Boorstin’s gift was his laser-like insight and unrivaled ability of connectedness.  He was adept at evaluating trends and society, as well as history, and combining both into highly readable chronologies.  His writing details historical events, social change, progress, and scholarly viewpoints throughout the history of America and the world.  To say that Boorstin was the consummate researcher is an understatement.

Not only was Boorstin adept at interconnecting facts, people, places, inventions, and abstract concepts into a smooth and interconnected whole, no one that I am aware of has written with the same clarity or ability as a historian – Boorstin has no equal.  He was also such a prolific writer; a published annotated bibliography was produced comprised solely of his work in 2000.

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The Image

Daniel J. Boorstin is what I have personally dubbed “a place keeper.”  He is the type of historical and social writer who sees the pivotal in the mundane, marks it, explains it and knows what effect the event had at a certain point in time, and the impact it could have in the future.  Boorstin was one of the first to literally name certain social conditions.  He was the first to coin “image”, the “non-event” and the “celebrity”, all concepts either invented, or first dissected, by him.” (Hodgson, 2004).

But who was this man? Why is his writing so important to us today?

Boorstin was born in 1914 in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Russian Jewish Immigrants.  His father was an attorney who represented Leo Frank, and despite being found innocent of the rape and murder of a young girl, Frank was later lynched by The Klu Klux Klan.  Anti-Semitism forced the Boorstin family to relocate to Oklahoma.

After completing his early schooling, Boorstin went first to Harvard Law, graduated, then studied at Balliol College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.  During 1938, he joined the Communist Party for one year. He dropped his affiliation when Russia and Germany invaded Poland.  He never returned to the Communist Party, and fully denounced it when questioned in later years.

He received his doctorate at Yale and was hired as a professor at Swarthmore College in 1942. Later, Boorstin became a professor at the University of Chicago, holding that position for twenty-five years.  He later attained the position of “Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions,” at the University of Cambridge.  In 1974, he became the Librarian of Congress upon the nomination of then President Gerald Ford, and retained that position for a full twelve years.

He married Ruth Frankel, in 1941.  Their marriage was a solid one lasting the rest of their lives.  Ruth was also Boorstin’s editor. “Without her,” he was quoted as saying, “I think my works would have been twice as long and half as readable.”

Boorstin is most famous for the trilogy, The Americans; however a second well-known trilogy spanned an all-encompassing study of man and the world in which he lives.   That trilogy included : (1) The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself, (2) The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination and (3) The Seekers: The Story of Man’s Continuing Quest to Understand His World Knowledge Trilogy.

These works are maps from where man began, his creations along the way, the curves and changes that mark man’s historical progress, and their effects on society. They are important because Boorstin is a place finder and a place keeper who shows our progress as a country, society, and habitants of this large world that we all are a part – and guides us to something better in ourselves.   These works are lasting works, we can all learn something from Boorstin’s achievements.



Daniel Boorstin’s books cited above are available from Amazon,


Hodgson, Godfrey. Obituary – Daniel Boorstin. Prolific American social historian who charted the corrupting influence of advertising and spin on political life. The Guardian U.S. Edition.

Mon 1 Mar 2004 03.59 ESTFirst published on Mon 1 Mar 2004 03.59 EST.

Daniel J. Boorstin. Wikipedia.

Encyclopedia Britannica. Daniel J. Boorstin. American Historian. The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Washington Post.  Langer, Emily.  Ruth F. Boorstin, writer and editor, dies at 95. December 6, 2013.


A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate, fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters, and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.


A Mind Unhinged

Kathy Waller UnCon 10 06 2016 Written by M. K. Waller

So you start writing your post about the incomparable Josephine Tey’s mystery novels two weeks before it’s due but don’t finish, and then you forget, and a colleague

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Elisabet Ney: Lady Macbeth, Detail by Ingrid Fisch, licensed under  GNU_Free_Documentation_License, via Wikipedia

reminds you, but the piece refuses to come together, and the day it’s due it’s still an embarrassment, and the next day it’s not much better, and you decide, Oh heck, at this point what’s one more day? and you go to bed,

and in the middle of the night you wake to find twenty pounds of cat using you as a mattress, and you know you might as well surrender, because getting him off is like moving Jello with your bare hands,

so you lie there staring at what would be the ceiling if you could see it, and you think, Macbeth doth murder sleep…. Macbeth shall sleep no more,

and then you think about Louisa May Alcott writing, She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain,

and you realize your own brain has not only turned, but has possibly come completely unhinged.

And you can’t get back to sleep, so you lie there thinking, Books, books, books. Strings and strings of words, words, words. Why do we write them, why do we read them? What are they all for?

And you remember when you were two years old, and you parroted,

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Edward Lear. Public domain. via Wikimedia Commons

The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat,

because happiness was rhythm and rime.

And later when your playmate didn’t want to hear you read “Angus and the Cat,” which you couldn’t read yet but had memorized, and you made her sit still and listen anyway.

And when you were fourteen and so happy all you could think was, O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!, and you didn’t know who wrote it but you remembered the line from a Kathy Martin Student Nurse book you got for Christmas when you were ten.

And when you were tramping along down by the river and a narrow fellow in the grass slithered by too close, and you felt a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.

2018-08-02 WWW PIXABAY CC0 sunrise-173381_640And when you woke early to a rosy-fingered dawn and thought,

I’ll tell you how the sun rose,
A ribbon at a time,
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –

And when you saw cruelty and injustice, and you remembered, Perfect love casts out fear, and knew fear rather than hate as the source of inhumanity, and love, the cure.

And when your father died unexpectedly, and you foresaw new responsibilities, and you remembered,

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise.

And when your mother died, and you thought,

Oh, if instead she’d left to me
The thing she took into the grave!-
That courage like a rock, which she
Has no more need of, and I have.

And at church the day after your father’s funeral, when your cousins, who were officially middle-aged and should have known how to behave at church, sat on the front row and dropped a hymnbook, and something stuck you in the side and you realized that when you mended a seam in your dress that morning you left the needle just hanging there and you were in danger of being punctured at every move, and somehow everything the minister said struck you as funny, and the whole family chose to displace stress by laughing throughout the service, and you were grateful for Mark Twain’s observations that

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Statue of Mark Twain at Finny County Library by Billy Hathorn [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikipedia
Laughter which cannot be suppressed is catching. Sooner or later it washes away our defences, and undermines our dignity, and we join in it … we have to join in, there is no help for it,

and that, 

Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And when you fell in love and married and said with the poet, My beloved is mine and I am his.

And when, before you walked down the aisle, you handed a bridesmaid a slip of paper on which you’d written, Fourscooooorrrrrrre…, so that while you said, “I do,” she would be thinking of Mayor Shinn’s repeated attempts to recite the Gettysburg Address at River City’s July 4th celebration, and would be trying so hard not to laugh that she would forget to cry.

And when your friend died before you were ready and left an unimaginable void, and life was unfair, and you remembered that nine-year-old Leslie fell and died trying to reach the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia, and left Jess to grieve but to also to pass on the love she’d shown him.

And when the doctor said you have cancer and the outlook is bleak, one to three years, and you thought of Dr. Bernie Siegal’s writing, Do not accept that you must die in three weeks or six months because someone’s statistics say you will… Individuals are not statistics, but you also remembered what Hamlet says to Horatio just before his duel with Laertes,

There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

And by the time you’ve thought all that, you’ve come back to what you knew all along, that books exist for pleasure, for joy, for consolation and comfort, for courage, for showing us that others have been here before, have seen what we see, felt what we feel, shared needs and wants and dreams we think belong only to us, that

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Photograph of Helen Keller at age 8 with her tutor Anne Sullivan on vacation in Brewster, Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Public domain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

everything the earth is full of… everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.

And about the time you have settled the question to your satisfaction, the twenty pounds of Jello slides off, and you turn over, and he stretches out and pushes so firmly against your back that you end up wedged between him and your husband, who is now clinging to the edge of  the bed, as sound asleep as the Jello is, and as you’re considering your options, you think,


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The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar…

and by the time the Pussycat and the Elegant Fowl have been married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and have eaten their wedding breakfast with a runcible spoon, and are dancing by the light of the moon, the moon, you’ve decided that a turned brain has its advantages, and that re-hinging will never be an option.

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20 pounds of cat


Image of sunrise via Pixabay, under CC0

Research the Business, Baby!

K.P. Gresham Cropped Color Portrait Written by K. P. Gresham

Who Are You Writing For? If it’s for yourself, and you have no intention of selling your book, go for it!  There’s a story in your head you have to get on paper, and you don’t care if anyone buys it. You can write anything you want, (and stop reading the rest of this blog). Just go do your thing and enjoy!

2018-08-01 kp gresham www pixabay cc0 books-3253834_640However, if you have aspirations to get this book on the market, a writer must take off the fictional hat and get down to business.  Literally.

I recently attended the Writer’s League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference in Austin, Texas. Thank you, WLT!!  Here are some magical tidbits that I heard that most assuredly involve research.

  1. What’s your market? When you pitch your book, design your cover, etc., what will stand out on the shelves? For that matter, where will your book appear on the shelf in bookstores? Are you writing a mystery? Science Fiction? Gardening? Genre matters.
  2. Who’s your audience? A romance writer has a very good idea what his or her audience is expecting. I’m confident that if your female/male protagonists is killed off at the end of the book, some people will throw your book at the wall when (and if) they finish it. Word of mouth probably won’t do you any favors.
  3. How does your audience receive information? If they are under thirty, consider Instagram to promote your book. Maybe the book isn’t finished or even half-way written but you can still build the outreach platform. Knowing your market/audience should provide good idea on how to connect with your readers so that you can keep your name and brand in front of them.
  4. If your intended audience is an agent or an editor, who should you pitch to? I’m talking specifics here. Go to the acknowledgement page at the back of your favorite authors’ books (or at least ones to whom you liken your manuscript) and check out the names of the agents and editors that they thank. This is a great source of knowing the NAMES of the folks who like to handle the kind of book you are writing. Once you get these names, go to their websites. Does the extended info you now have on this agent/editor look like a match for your needs? What are their submission requirements? Do they want just a query letter, or a synopsis, or the first five pages of your manuscript? Do they want it sent snail mail or email? Don’t waste your time or their’s by not complying with information that is readily available to you.

These are only four examples of items you need to know about from the business end of writing. A lot to keep track of? You don’t even know what questions to ask? Who can you turn to for help?

The answer is simple. Your writing community. Fellow authors, teachers, folks that you meet at conferences. Chances are you have a state or regional organization that can give you guidance—here in Texas, we are blessed to have the incredibly active and nurturing Writers League of Texas.  Within your own genre there will be folks to help you as well.  I’m a member of Sisters in Crime, the Heart of Texas Chapter. A lot of my fellow members have gone through what I’m going through. Writing is enough of a solitary experience. I need to surround myself with others who have the same questions, problems, etc. as me.

If you want to make money selling your books, hopes and misguided self-confidence will do you no favors. Research the business, baby.


K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling snow and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, K.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.

Making a Killing

DSCN1633 (3) Cartoon by guest poster David Davis


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Alien Resort © David Davis. All rights reserved.



Before becoming a cartoonist, David Davis produced, directed, and wrote sci-fi videos. Notable among them is Invisible Men Invade Earth, which received the Judge’s Choice award at the 2017 What the Fest Film Festival (Dallas); the Out of This World award at the 2016 Lionshead Film Festival (Dallas); and the Most Original Concept award at the 2016 Houston Comedy Film Festival. His films also appeared at the 2017 Fort Worth Indie Film Showcase; 2017 Dallas Medianale; 2012 Boomtown Film and Music Festival in Beaumont, Texas, and the 2012 CosmiCon and Sci-Fi Film Festival in Roswell, New Mexico.

Andrew Whalen of writes that David’s Reverse Effects, screened at the 2015 Fantastic Fest (Austin) “is almost like a living comic strip, but undeniably vigorous and fascinating.” He also labeled David “eccentric,” but the jury is still out on that.

David is now working on his first animated cartoon video.