Saturday, May 28, 2011

True Crime Read: The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case

Worthy of a summer reading list
The murder of Marilyn Sheppard outside of Cleveland in 1954 has always fascinated me.  When I was a kid I saw the TV movie staring George Peppard on the murder and it hooked me.  After all, this case made F. Lee Bailey and had all of the elements of a thriller – a mysterious bushy haired intruder, the rich doctor accused of the crime, torrid affairs, you name it.  While the producers of The Fugitive deny any links to this true crime, let’s get real…they are there. 

So when I came across James Neff’s book on the topic I was sucked back in.  I admit that I had seen news reports over the years about the Sheppard family going back to DNA testing to attempt to clear the Doctor.  I hadn’t really read any of the waves of books out there over the years which allowed me to come in with an open mind. 

I wasn’t disappointed. 

Neff does an excellent job of laying out the crime and the parties involved.  Sometimes with true crime books you don’t get a feel for the characters – especially the victims.  Neff doesn’t fall into that trap.  He made you really get into the heads of the key players in the case. 

The book took a neat turn with the more recent aspects of the case because Neff himself was drawn into it.  His notes were subpoenaed as part of the case that the Sam Reese Sheppard filed to clear his father’s name.  He did a very good job of making the shift to include himself in the story.  Neff’s writing style is smooth. He even was able to make sense out of the DNA testing parts of the case, which often times can be confusing (and was the jury in this case.) 

Overall, I recommend this book.  I did the Kindle edition and my only complaint was that the photos were at the end of the book.  A minor nit at best aimed at the publisher, not the author.  This is a good summer read and I recommend picking it up. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Movies I Watch When Writing – Part I: The War Flicks

I play a number of DVD’s in the background when I’m writing.  I will glance up from time-to-time, but for the most part these are just on to help me set the mood.  I figured it was worth sharing my list – just for grins.  This is the war movies that I play.  I have similar lists for science fiction and true crime.  Since I write a lot of military history, I figured that I would start here first. 

These movies are in no particular order…

Patton.  Having devoured numerous biographies about Patton, I know some of the historical errors in the movie.  That doesn’t mean I don’t love it. 

The Longest Day.  Lovat – bagpiper Billy Milligan – “hold until relieved.”  Robert Mitchum leading the men off the matter how you cut it, this flick is a classic.

Saving Private Ryan.  I put this here after The Longest Day purposefully.  There are parts of this movie that I love, some I cringe at.  I enjoyed the D-Day landing scene and the scene with General Marshall ordering the men to recover Ryan (mostly because this ties in well with my book, Lost Eagles.) 

The Lighthorsemen.  This is an Aussie film and a great one at that.  The Australian Lighthorse during the battles in the desert in WWI.  The charge scene at the end is, stunning. 

Zulu.  The battle of Rorke’s Drift and Michael Cain’s first big move, Zulu is stunning.  A handful of British troops take on thousands of Zulus.  The movie make you realize just how battles in the 18th century were fought. 

A Bridge Too Far.  “This is a day you will tell your grandchildren about; and mightily bored they will be…”  All of the big name stars from the late 1970’s are in the movie.  The Red Devils fighting it out in Arnhem make the movie for me. 

Cross of Iron.  Often overlooked, this Sam Peckinpah film is great.  Slow motion death scenes and a disturbing scene with the Russian Women’s Mortar Battalion make this neat to watch. 

Stalingrad.  I hate the dubbing but love the movie.  The battle of Stalingrad is one of my favorites to read about and this movie captures the essence of it. 

Gallipoli.  I probably should have moved this to the bottom of the list.  I like the movie, just not watching it.  It is good to have on in the background however.

World at War.  When I was a kid I used to watch this series every Friday night on the black and white set in my bedroom.  (I didn’t get out much, humor me.) 

The First World War - BBC’s documentary on WWI.  I know documentaries get a bad rap.  Trust me on this one, this series is worth watching. 

Flyboys.  Don’t lecture me on the inaccuracies of this movie about the Lafayette Escadrille – I am well aware of them.   I could almost  write an article on the mistakes.  Having said this, this is the Hollywood version of history and it does provide me with some entertainment, especially the dogfighting scenes.

The Blue Max.  WWI aviation movies are rare.  This is one that has a decent plot and some wonderful flying scenes.   If I am writing WWI aviation stuff, this movie is a requirement to have on.

Braveheart.   Hollywood screws up good history.  I love Braveheart despite the historical flaws.  The battle scenes are glory.  Mel Gibson’s dialogue rocks. 

Gods and Generals.  Having lived in Manassas this movie is why Hollywood changes historical movies.  I like Gods and Generals but it takes a special to sit through the whole thing thanks to the length and the fact that it is relatively historically accurate. 

Sergeant York.  Despite its age and corniness, this movie remains one that I enjoy having on while I am writing because it is about a real person and the depiction, from what I have read, is not too far off from reality. 

The Red Baron.  Trying to humanize the Red Baron in a movie is both hard and pointless.  Skip the plot, watch the dogfight scenes.  Those battle scenes are worth the price of this little gem. 

Gettysburg.  Fake beards aside – nothing is as cool as the charge of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top. 

Fail Safe.   It doesn’t get any more real than this – an errant B-52 bombs Moscow.  This movie makes you squirm on a few levels and is great to have on when I am working on building plot and tension in a book.   

The Patriot.  Is this a war movie?  Well, there are some battles, and they are entertaining which is why it remains on my list.  The plot is over-worn and the thought of the Americans fighting a guerilla campaign that turns the tide of the war is the stuff of myth more than reality.   Get past those flaws the movie is pretty fun to have on.

Gladiator.  I love the opening battle scene of this movie, which is why it is on the list.  The rest of the story, well, is interesting. 

Paths of Glory.  A friend turned me onto this WWI gem.  Stanley Kubrick was the brains behind this movie and did a very good job of tell this story of French mismanagement and rotten leadership during the Great War.  I tend to watch this movie after the climax of a book, when you are trying to make the book make sense to the reader. 

Glory.  I’m sorry, Matthew Brorderick as a regimental commander in the Civil War?  What in the hell was casting thinking?  Thank God Morgan Freeman was there to offset Broderick’s interpretation of the role.  When I’m writing and this is on, I stop and watch the storming of Fort Fischer, half wondering each time if they might pull it off.  Silly me…

Master and Commander.  I would have flogged the good doctor in this movie.  All of that crap about gathering biological samples and the sob-story of the young officer killing himself almost drained the life out of a good war movie; almost. 

Dr. Strangelove.  “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here…this is the war room!”  The quotes in this movie are worthy of a book all on their own.  I have found myself chuckling when I am writing on this movie is on – just from the snippets I overhear in the background. 

Lawrence of Arabia.  This movie has to play in the background because it is hard to sit down for three hours and watch it.  I do enjoy it however.  If you want to understand the mess that the Middle East is today, watch this movie for a sampling as to why. 

Thirteen Days.  The Cuban Missile Crisis, now there is a study in decision making and crisis management.   I have this on when I am writing parts of the book where I need to concentrate and organize my facts and details. 

The Alamo.  I have both versions and play both when I write.   In all fairness, I like the newer version that came out a few years ago.  I know, it is sacrilegious to not favor John Wayne, but that’s how I see it.  When I am writing about desperate situations, this is the movie to have on. 

The Lost Battalion.  You have to move past the fact that Ricky Schroder is the star of this WWI movie.  I find this movie to be one of the better WWI films out there.  There’s some aviation, an enemy that is not some mindless foe, and Americans in a situation that is hard to comprehend. 

The Bridge Over The River Kwai.  Accurate?  No.  Tension-filled?  Duh!  Great character development in this movie, which is how I use it when I write. 

So, there’s the list…what have I overlooked? 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Done writing another book...whew!

This week I finished the primary writing on my new book.  The working titles now are limited to:  Grip of Terror or In the Shadow of Fear.   It is my first true crime effort and I’m quite pleased with how the book feels and reads.   I saved the footnotes for the last – always a pain.  I swore in college I would never write footnotes again.  Now here I am, doing it as part of my second career. 

The bomb damage at the Tasty Cafe (author's collection)

This book is a game-changer for me because it introduces me to a new writing genre.  True Crime books have always fascinated me and the chance to write one has been wonderful. It’s one of the genre’s I read quite a bit of.  I am already working on two others if you can believe that, another set in my home town too.  I’m expecting a bundle of research material in the next two weeks from the Michigan State Police archives which will keep me busy for months.   I still plan on writing military history and sci-fi, this simply offers me  another area to write in; one I’m passionate about.

This book has me jazzed on a lot of levels.  One of the more interesting things I tried with this book is to introduce the town as a character.  Marshall Michigan has a distinct personality and culture.  I wanted people to feel that the community itself was part of the story.   Don’t read too much into this.  It’s not a speaking character – but it is one of the key players in the drama that unfolded in 1967.  If you’ve ever visited Marshall, chances are you understand what I am talking about.  It is a place that is special in my heart and in many ways reflects every small town in America.  When people read this book they will find themselves reflecting on how this small town is like ones they are familiar with. 

I incorporated a lot of period pieces to transport the reader back to Marshall in 1967.  I talked about the headlines, whether it was the Redskins playing the Beavers for football or which movie was playing at the Bogar theater…I used these devices to set the feeling, tone, and time.   I did some neat things as well about the passage of time and how it is measured in this little town.  It is interesting to read the headlines from 1967 to 1970 and see how things changed, from the font of the newspaper to the stories about a little place called Vietnam which went from being a sidebar to a headline article.  

I enjoyed the key characters well.  Enoch Chism, the murderer in this case, really was a new kind of evil.  The investigators of this crime, men like Fred Ritchie and Detective Kenney really relied on old-fashioned police work to solve the crime.  Part gut-instinct, part experience, part skill.  I hope that I was able to do “justice” (pun intended) to all parties involved.

You might think there is a moment of celebration when the book is done but that isn’t the case.  First, it needs to go for a review read and there may be changes that come out of that.  Second, there will be edits from the copy-edit process that I will need to do (hopefully minor).  Then there’s a “final pass” edit, what we used to call a blue-line edit, which is a review of the book in its final form.  I do get excited a little bit when I see the artist mock up of the cover, mostly because it’s interesting to see how a graphics person interprets what the book is about.  Truthfully I don’t get to celebrate until the actual book arrives and is in my little hands.  Up until that point, a lot can happen.  When I hold the physical book, then I know it’s real.    

So…any questions?  Which title do you like?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Here come the conspiracy nut-jobs...

I am an author/historian so I appreciate a good moment in history.  And boy did we have one this week with the death of Bin Laden. 

First off, let me say that I have known Navy SEALS and they are some tough hombres.  These guys went into a situation with some good intel and opened a can of whoop-ass.  I offer a salute to them.  Give them the reward money that is due for the head of this bastard. 

But don’t tell me who they are…

We live in a world were terrorists would go after these guys, their families, their children etc..  I know there will be a flood of Freedom of Information Act requests to get their names and faces.  What I can tell the media is…”let it go!”  These guys did a dirty and dangerous job.  If they want their names out there, they’ll say something. 

It’s probably wrong of me to want this guy dead – but he had confessed to the murders of over 3000 Americans.  To me, a trial just seemed like a chance for him to expound his position.  I like how the SEAL’s dealt with the issue – with a bullet in the head. 

Having said that the only thing that makes me cringe is the fact that conspiracy theories are bound to start.  Even now there are calls to see the photographs of his body to make sure it was him.  Like photos can’t be faked?  Hello?  If you release the photographs, we will be labeled as gloating over his death.  If we don’t release them – the conspiracy theorists will gravitate to this as proof that the government is covering something up. 

For the most part I don’t buy into conspiracies.  Most don’t hold water when confronted with facts.  That and I believe most people are not smart enough to create a really cool conspiracy that can stand the test of time.  But Americans, we love to believe there is more happening than what we see.  We like plots and subplots.  People use conspiracies to fill in the blanks in stories that they often have a hard time believing.  How many people buy into the concept that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone? 

So the conspiracies have already started to surface and there will be more of them.  Even now as the after action reports are being filed, the Administration is changing its story and people already sense there is a hidden agenda at play here.  Sorry folks, sometimes a good cigar is just that – a good cigar. 

I can’t wait to see the books that are already being penned that drive at the conspiracy that doesn’t exist.  In the meantime, let’s be thankful this didn’t go the Pancho Villa route (with no resolution).  The biggest terrorist on the planet is dead.  The world has to be a safer place.  For now…

Sunday, May 1, 2011

So what am I working on?

I have a lot of projects in play at all times.   Someone said, “oh, you are so talented to juggle multiple projects.”  The truth is I have the attention span of a gnat…and that writing projects are not linear things.  Sometimes the research takes time.  You have peaks and valleys of activity on a project.  It only makes sense to have a few irons in the fire. 

In the next month I will finish my first true crime book.  Technically the book is done, I’m simply putting polish to it at this point.  I am quite proud of this book because I feel I have not only captured what happened, but I’m filling in many gaps that the investigators did not have access to.  Even people who thought they knew about the crime (the bombing murder of Nola Puyear) will be surprised when they read this book. 

A long-term pet project of mine is my Bert Hall book.  Bert was the bad-boy of the Lafayette Escadrille.  While a founding member, he was the only one I’ve found that was asked to leave.  Bert’s story is a neat one but is complicated by the fact that he was a braggart and outright liar.  His two autobiographies are a mix of fact, fiction and outright fantasy.  This forces me to do some serious digging with primary archival sources to get as close to the truth as possible.  This book is so much fun to research because of the challenge, I’m not in any rush to complete it.  Every time I think I’m ready to start putting it to paper, another chunk of material surfaces. 

I have a Cuban missile crisis project that I have started.  I am awaiting a Freedom of Information Act request to be fulfilled before I can jump too far forward.  This is one of those projects that suddenly can get a massive burst of activity – if the National Archives can get some material declassified for me.  Yes, the Cuban missile crisis has a lot of books out on it – I am aware of that.  This book however is (hopefully) going to break some new ground on the subject.

I have another true crime project that will be kicking off in the next month or so.  Working title for this is A Special Kind of Evil.  This is a 1963 murder in Michigan that I came across that intrigued the heck out of me.  This one is a little different in that the case was never technically solved.  There’s a lot to this story – suffice it to say I’m excited about it.   Since I have a publisher with an expressed interest in this book  it will likely move to the top of the heap quickly.  I am looking forward to a big juicy box of documentation from the Michigan State Police archives which will serve as the core of the work I have to do on this project. 

I am also working on a Steampunk novel idea.  I need a little fiction every now and then to activate the proper cells in my brain working.  I like Steampunk fiction…it is the new emerging fantasy genre and I want to at least try to write a book aimed at that market. 

On the backburner are three other books in addition to this list!  Some of these are already primed and ready for me to put some time into them – while others are ideas that are percolating.  Aside from books I am working on two short stories for and an article I’d like to write for Over the Front. 

As you can see, my nights and weekends are going to be booked for some time to come…and I couldn’t be happier.