Monday, October 30, 2017


When authors are interviewed, they are always asked what they’re reading.

In a New York Times interview, Michael Connelly, the terrific thriller and mystery writer, listed some of his favorite books: Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo by Jack Cheevers; The Public Burning by Robert Coover; The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein; and Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (he apparently prefers it over the more famous Hannibal Lecter sequel, Silence of the Lambs). Connelly also likes John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series.

While I tend to overload on thrillers and mysteries, I also try to read a lot of nonfiction:  Chaser, a heartfelt book by John W. Pilley about a border collie that knows an astounding 1,000 words (putting the pooch on my level after I’ve had a couple martinis); Flight of the Eagle, a wonderfully written, one-volume history of the United States by Conrad Black. (Black gives a bit too much credit to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for my taste, but it’s a book every American can take to heart, written by someone sitting in Britain’s House of Lords who obviously loves the former Colonies.)

Reading nonfiction grounds a writer in various cultures and times. But it’s from other thriller and mystery writers that I get the most inspiration.

I’ve read all of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels (there are more than 30) many times each. For a quick fix, I grab one off the shelf and read an odd chapter. In one, Spenser, the indefatigable private eye, is in the office of his friend, Boston homicide captain Martin Quirk. Spenser notes that Quirk has a photo cube with family pictures on his otherwise sparsely appointed desk. I immediately got up and went to my computer and found a chapter in a mystery I was writing that’s set in my own private eye’s office. I put a photo cube on his desk while he is talking to Abby, his office manager. From there, I mentioned that Abby bought the cube to spruce up his desk.

Abby picks up the cube and sarcastically notes that she had hoped her boss would put family photos in it, not the pictures of Derek Jeter, Eli Manning, Mickey Mantle, and Secretariat he did. He defensively argues that he has no family.

She archly suggests a photo of the woman he now loves. That sets my hero thinking about whether putting his lover’s photo in a cube on his desk is too much a sign of commitment.

Point is, I got about 500 words out of that photo cube on Martin Quirk’s desk.

Writers don’t read to read; they read to write. What have you read lately?

By the way, I bet Chaser doesn’t know what indefatigable means. At least, I hope not.

Friday, October 13, 2017


Having just watched the Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam War and read "Dereliction of Duty" by H.R. McMaster, I thought I would revisit a great book about Vietnam that I read, and reviewed, a couple of years back. Here are excerpts from my review:

The Vietnam War cost more than 50,000 American lives and left a generation of our citizens, on both sides of the debate generated by the war, embittered and bewildered. More American wars have been fought since, often promoted by leaders who went out of their way to avoid service in Vietnam, but none have roiled the nation like the conflict in Southeast Asia.

Much of the bitterness has eased, as the nation realizes that the soldiers who fought in Vietnam only did their duty; in most cases honorably, in many cases, bravely. Recent surveys indicate that almost 90 percent of Americans now respect — even revere — Vietnam veterans.

The bewilderment will probably last a lot longer. How could it not, since almost immediately after the South Vietnam “domino” fell to the Communists, they fell out among themselves, with China and North Vietnam at each other’s throats in a border war. And now there is another Hanoi Hilton, which accepts Visa and MasterCard!

Epic stories about defenders who were outnumbered and outgunned (or out-speared) have held a special fascination since the Spartans fought the Persian hordes at Thermopylae. Think the Alamo, or Custer’s Last Stand.

That’s why Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Firebase Kate, by William Albracht and Marvin J. Wolf is such an inspiring Vietnam tale. Unlike the battles mentioned above, it has a happier ending, with most of the defenders surviving to fight another day.

Not that the odds weren’t as daunting as those at the Alamo or Little Big Horn. At Firebase Kate, in 1969, a group of fewer than 200 Green Berets, U.S. Army artillerymen, and Montagnard militiamen held off 6,000 surrounding North Vietnamese regulars for almost a week before finally abandoning a hill that was under constant infantry assault and denuded by enemy shell and rocket fire. The defenders didn’t want to leave. But with ammunition and water running low and with the number of dead and wounded mounting, the man in charge, Captain William Albracht, decided to fight his way out.

Air evacuation was not an option. As Albracht wryly notes, by the end of the battle the only things that could land on Firebase Kate were enemy shells.

Albracht, barely in his 20s and believed to be the youngest American captain in Vietnam, led his remaining troops off Kate and back to the relative safety of U.S. lines in a nighttime march unique in the war’s history. He got his wounded out, which included himself, and earned the first of the three Silver Stars he won for his Vietnam service, the last of which was belatedly awarded to him in 2012.   

The Firebase Kate battle was not without costs. Dozens of Americans and Montagnards died, including some very brave U.S. helicopter pilots. Those pilots, and their Army and Air Force comrades in helicopters and gunships, did their best to resupply Kate, remove the wounded, and rake the enemy assaulting the base’s perimeter.

As Albracht acknowledges, the battle’s outcome would have been far different without their support, and that of U.S. fighter bombers, in the face of hostile anti-aircraft fire and often deplorable flying conditions in the mountainous region.        

Albracht and Wolf are respectful of the courage — and professionalism — of the North Vietnamese but not of the South Vietnamese “allies,” who demurred from mounting a rescue of the troops on Kate for a variety of reasons, one of which, apparently, was that they hated the Montagnards, considering the indigenous tribesmen barely human.

In contrast to that opinion, Bill Albracht says of his Montagnard soldiers: “None of the 27 Americans who served on Firebase Kate would have survived the enemy’s onslaught if these short, wiry, dark-skinned, and unshakably loyal fighting men had not stood their ground, bled and died and fought as bravely and as well as any soldiers on the planet.”

Makes one wonder just who are more human: Men who fight for comrades or men who don’t.

Although I assumed the authors would praise all things military, and criticize the media and opponents of the war, Albracht and Wolf strive to be objective. They present a riveting account of a long-forgotten battle in a historical perspective that doesn’t mince words about the political and military shortcomings of American and South Vietnamese strategies and leaders:

  • Strategies that put isolated artillery firebases too far from the units they were supposed to support, along a border they couldn’t shoot across to return fire from an enemy using Cambodia as a sanctuary. (That didn’t stop Albracht, who when things got really desperate, put the lives of his men ahead of political expediency. He authorized cross-border strikes, which didn’t make President Nixon particularly happy.)
  • Leaders who cut Kate’s ammunition requests by half because they thought the defenders were using too much. (I’m sure the North Vietnamese would have agreed.) After the battle, Albracht tried to throttle one rear-echelon supply officer.

This kind of honesty and candor makes the actual battle scenes (themselves finely rendered) even more powerful. 

In addition to being a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, Albracht was a senior Secret Service agent whose 25-year White House career included the protection details of four American Presidents and numerous foreign dignitaries. Marvin J. Wolf is also a decorated Vietnam veteran and the author or co-author of many nonfiction books. They were able to locate and interview extensively many of the survivors of the Firebase Kate battle and have thus crafted a book that is more than a mere war story. The introduction alone, with its history of the South East Asia conflict and the Montagnard culture, is both fascinating and educational.

(“Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Firebase Kate” can be purchased on in both print and e-book forms.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


As not enough of the world knows, I write thrillers in which I kill reams of people in all sorts of ways: guns, knives, ice picks, frog poison, garroting, jellyfish, hagfish, falls from buildings, decapitations. It’s easy. I just think of an editor or publisher who has rejected one of my submissions.

Only kidding.
Point is, I believe I’m pretty adept at murder, mayhem, and massacre. But nothing could prepare me for what I had to do to my own copy when my son convinced me to turn my first novel, the brilliant, wonderful, insightful masterpiece, Sound of Blood, into a screenplay. (The adjectives in the previous sentence were picked at random; I’m pretty sure no one else has actually used them to describe my novels before.)

Chris, that’s the son, has worked in Hollywood and thinks Blood is very “visual” and would make a great movie. We’ve already discussed who will play the major parts, with Jon Hamm and Scarlett Johansson our top choices. (Anyone have their phone numbers?)
We both know that there are more screenplays floating around on the Left Coast than Illinois governors in the hoosegow. Stop any 10 strangers on Rodeo Drive and ask them how their screenplay is coming along, and nine of them will say, “Fine.” The tenth will brag that “George,” “Matt,” or “Ben” is already looking at it.

I knew it was a longshot. But working with one’s son is a bonding experience, so I was initially enthusiastic. Of course, I have since written him out of the will (which actually improved his financial position).
Our first “discussion” concerned a rather lengthy golf match between my hero, Jake Scarne, and a financial arch criminal. The stakes were high: $20,000 cash and dibs on one of the most beautiful women on earth. She wasn’t really part of the wager, of course, but everyone knew the men were vying for her, ahem, attentions.

I LOVED the golf match, which ran several chapters and about 8,000 words, and was, frankly, a paean to the famous match between James Bond and Goldfinger in “Goldfinger.” That match runs about 10,000 words in Ian Fleming’s spy classic—and made it into the damn movie!
(An aside: My golfing buddies, who never accused me of using too much imagination when my characters killed or maimed someone, or had vigorous, teeth-jarring sex, were quick to call me out on my fictional golf match. I defended every shot, denying that I was implying I was capable of any of them. A 240-yard two-iron over water? Come on! It’s fiction.)

Alas, Sound of Blood, at 120,000 words, is about twice as long as Goldfinger, so something had to go.
Now, I’ve been self-deprecating enough. I think my golf match is a corker, complete with FBI surveillance and other nice touches. But I manned up and agreed to ditch it. Screenplays are typically under 120 pages. With the match included, “Sound of Blood” ran almost 160. 

Bye-bye, birdies!
But I will have my revenge. When “Sound of Blood” wins the Academy Award for screenwriting, I will skip the Oscar ceremony to play Pebble Beach. I’ll let Chris pick up the statue. He, like everyone else, cleans my clock on the golf course.

Friday, October 6, 2017


Like all authors, I am often asked where I get the plots for my novels.

When particularly cranky, I am tempted to say that, like everyone else, I steal them from the Greeks (or maybe a Roman or two). That is to say, there is really nothing new under the sun, fiction-wise, until someone invents a third sex. (I know; they’re working on it.)

But, I suppose, what people are really asking is how does one formulate a “new” plot out of the basic ingredients that have been around since man started writing on cave walls: boy meets girl; boy has a thing for Mom; girl dumps boy for his best friend; boy fights saber-toothed tiger (one of the first short stories)? You know, the basics.

So here, in no particular order, are wells of inspiration that have led to some of my nine novels. There will be more in future blogs.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: Yes, I know. Many authors, even those who write vampire novels, weave personal experiences into their work. Hopefully, not too personal, since there are laws against sucking blood from people, unless you work for the IRS. In my case, all my books are heavily grounded in my past as a police reporter, columnist, financial editor, corporate executive, director of a nonprofit, sex therapist, and various other personas—basically someone who couldn’t hold down a steady job. (I made the sex therapist thing up, by the way; just wanted to see if you’re paying attention.)

TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES: I kid you not. If you get up early enough, TCM runs a lot of black-and-white movies from the mid-1930s starring great actors with plots that somehow predate the use of LSD. I do not steal the plots, but they do send my mind racing.

For example, there was one film in which Fredric March or William Powell (it was early, and the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet) was prosecuting an obviously guilty floozy for shooting her lover. The courtroom scene is the highlight of the movie. It’s hard to beat the moment when, just as the D.A. bores in on the defendant, his own wife jumps up and shouts that she shot the victim, who was also her lover. The poor D.A. doesn’t even call a recess.

There were a lot of crazy plots in the 1930s that people swallowed whole, probably because what was going on in Europe was even nuttier. But this one makes my top five. So, I just had to use a variation, with a twist that didn’t include a courtroom scene. For some reason, I don’t think I can write a good courtroom scene, despite the fact that I’ve covered many trials, including Mob kingpin John Gotti’s first murder trial, where he was convicted of “attempted murder” after he shot and killed someone in a bar in front of 13 eyewitnesses.

DREAMS: I have actually “dreamed up” a couple of dynamite plots. Which is why I keep a pad (electronic or paper) by my bed. (NO, I AM NOT A SEX THERAPIST!) At least the dreams were dynamite when stirring my subconscious. In the morning, when I studied my scribbles, they seemed less inspired. I never actually used one. However, I know for a fact that there is one author who did turn a dream (that, bedside-pad-less, he somehow remembered) into a successful thriller about a German U-boat and the hunt for a treasure. The guy wasn’t even German! In keeping with my fading faculties, I also can’t remember the name of the author or the book, but, trust me, I didn’t dream this up.

I do wonder, however, why someone would dream about U-boats, unless he was sunk by martinis before he went to bed.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


In my career as a reporter, editor, columnist, reviewer and novelist, I have written millions of words.

I have won journalism awards, been nominated for a Pulitzer and have e-published 17 thrillers and mysteries on Amazon.

I have a website, and am active on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

And, yet, this is my first blog! Go figure!

I'm calling it "The Write Stuff," which is also the name of my column for the Washington Independent Review of Books (WIROB). I debated using another name, but I'm an inveterate punster, so why not? Besides, Sam Shepard, a great actor and playwright, just passed away and it just feels appropriate. His portrayal of Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff" movie based on Tom Wolfe's book about the Mercury astronauts (remember them?) is iconic.

What I hope to do in this blog is offer tips on writing. Such tips, I believe, will be helpful to fiction and non-fiction writers, and germane to print and electronic publishing. I will also provide some inside "how to" knowledge about self-publishing, which is a lot easier today than ever. (Please don't assume that my late leap into blogging is an indication of computer incompetence. I've been pretty busy writing those 17 novels.)

I also intend to comment on books and movies. I have been both a book and movie reviewer, so I hope my insights will be helpful. But please feel free to disagree -- agreeably, I hope -- with anything I say.

I will soon provide links to WIROB and other useful sites. WIROB, in particular, is a font of terrific reviews and commentary, aimed mainly at those who read print books. The fact that the WIROB folks put up with me, and my Amazon-centric e-book philosophy, tells you something about their devotion to literature.


“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” I think I got this quote from Oscar Wilde right. It should be every writer’s mantra — up to a poi...