Wednesday, August 15, 2018

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

Contrary to what some people might say, I am NOT like the kid Mikey in this iconic TV commercial.  I don't really hate everything.  Not yet, anyway.  It's just that my tastes tend to be decidedly ... shall we say ... non-mainstream.  Perhaps unique would be more appropriate. Maybe even distinctive?  Since I haven't posted anything in quite a while, I thought I might dust off my blog and share a few of my eccentricities with you. (If you would like to buy my book as a result of reading this post, so much the better!)

For me, music is life and life is music.  I'd rather die than live in a country in which music was forbidden by government--or any other--edict.

There's a select group of musicians whom I consider my musical idols.  They are: Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra fame; Canadian songwriter and folksinger Gordon Lightfoot; Percy Faith--another Canadian--who in his day was the undisputed king of orchestral music; the Beatles (n'est-ce pas?); Carole King who is my unquestioned queen of the angst-ridden, let's-get-melancholy and-sing-sad-songs genre; and Richard Carpenter, who teamed with his late sister Karen to define an entirely new niche of smooth, mellow rock in an era of dominated by the works of Led Zeppelin, the Doors, the Stones, Black Sabbath, and a host of others.

Jeff Lynne
The Electric Light Orchestra was my hands-down favorite band of all time.  Masterminded by lead guitarist/lead vocalist/songwriter Jeff Lynne, this innovative group took standard, electric-guitar-driven rock and took it to an unheard-of new level through the addition of cellos, violins, full orchestral propulsion, and unconventional full choral backing.  Combined with Lynne's melodic, hooky songs (I believe he wrote most of their hits with the exception of Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven) , ELO introduced an appealingly eccentric sound that propelled them to the highest reaches of the rock world.

I offer this clip from one of their landmark shows at London's Wembley Stadium in 1978 at the height of their fame.  Watch these somewhat offbeat musicians leave it all on the stage during the finale of Roll Over Beethoven:

Fast forward to 2001.  Having just completed work on an ELO-branded comeback album called Zoom, Lynne and a reconstituted group of musicians (the lone holdover being longtime keyboardist and friend Richard Tandy) find themselves in a Los Angeles TV studio drumming up support for an upcoming concert tour to promote the new disk.  However, due to anemic ticket sales, the tour never happens.  It wouldn't surprise me if Zoom turns out to be one of the final ELO-branded albums released as Jeff has turned his energies to producing other artists' works.  This is my favorite track from Zoom, a song with a fun, funky beat called "Alright."

Gordon Lightfoot
During a rare televised concert for PBS in Chicago in 1980, Gordon Lightfoot was introduced this way: "If the word 'troubador' can be applied to 20th Century music at all, then Gordon Lightfoot is a troubadour--perhaps the last one we'll ever know."

Well put!

He sang songs of lost love, lost hope, lost people, social relevance, injustice, the joy of lust, working-class life, and coping with all the nonsense that permeates the world.  His masterful songs--combined with the virtuoso work of his sidemen--made his music a dependable source of comfort and entertainment through most of my life.

However, time, tide, smoking, touring, and a lifesaving medical procedure have combined to nearly destroy his voice.  A resonant, rich baritone has been choked into a thin, watery tone that I find painful to listen to.  Perhaps I'm being overly critical; he continues to sell CDs and concert tickets.  I think I prefer to remember him in his prime when his voice was full and strong and his songs were instantly recognizable and loved far beyond his native Canada.  This is a TV clip of him performing one of his signature tunes:

Percy Faith
What?!  Doctor's office music?  Elevator music?  Okay, call it what you want.  But I think it takes a rare sort of musical mastery to blend the shimmer of violins, the shrill audacity of brass, the mellow fullness of woodwinds, and the solid subtlety of French horns, combine them with popular music, and produce a sound that brought a sense of civility to a musically-turbulent age.  Percy Faith did that and more.  I remember spending countless hours of my teenage (and later) years marvelling at how that man could weave the many disparate voices of an orchestra into a cohesive unit executing charts of exquisite quality.  Later, he would add women's (and men's) voices to the blend, adding a new dimension to his already-impressive resume.  Composer, pianist, arranger, and musician extraordinaire, Percy Faith's music will live forever.  In a rare Canadian TV shot, Faith and his orchestra perform their signature work:

Richard and Karen Carpenter
What?!  More elevator music?!  More doctor's office music?!  You bet!  While his sister was the "face" and the unmistakable "voice" of the group, Richard was merely the co-composer of several of their hits, the orchestrator, arranger, conductor, musical director, backing vocalist, and yes, keyboard artist.  But despite her angelic voice, her wealth, a guaranteed place in music history, and her fame, Karen was a lonely and very troubled young woman rarely able to enjoy emotional peace.  In this next clip, watch her eyes.  They are so sad and mournful, two elements that she channelled into her performances until her private pain became unbearable.  I hope she is resting in peace, comforted by how much her fans--myself very much included--still love her to this day.

Carole King
Whenever I hear this Carole King song, I get the urge to settle into my reclining chair, open a bottle of wine, and remember how long it's been since I've been to MY personal Canaan.  Ever since "It's Too Late" first soothed my ears, I've especially connected with her songs about past times, past loves, and past promises that never quite came true.

If there's one song category in which Ms. King really shines, it's the you-and-I-just-aren't-working-anymore-are-we? genre.  A case in point:

The Beatles
In the music industry's most laughable case of "dont-always-listen-to-the-experts," this obscure combo (at the time) was rejected by a major record label who disdained "guitar groups."  Go figure.

Honorable Mentions:
Okay, disco music wasn't the most cerebral art form on the block; but bits and pieces of that era still survive to this day having survived wave after wave of music trends and fads.  Although I personally will never forgive disco for destroying 1970s rock, the catchy beat and "fun" element still compels me to ask the musical question: did we REALLY talk and dress like that?????

This catchy tune is still heard during intermissions and extended breaks at sporting events.

This Florida-based band could be heard in any discotheque in
America (does anybody remember discotheques?) on any night of the week:

Some songs actually had a legitimate point to them:

Here's the one that started the whole tsunami, the mother of all disco songs:

How about a quick look back of one of the pioneers?  This oldie goldie makes you want to comma-comma-down-dooby-do-down-down all over again, doesn't it?

Rock's Red Rooster is STILL a chick magnet.

These two songs are just too damn catchy and likable for their own good:

I saved my last Honorable Mention for the man who brought us "That Old Time Rock And Roll."  This next song, "Roll Me Away," has special significance for me.  Bob Seger perfectly describes an apocalyptic journey I would've given my right arm to undertake in my younger days.  Sadly, a number of personal limitations (health being the most compelling) forbid me from even considering it anymore.  So I must be content with Bob taking this musical journey for me by proxy.  Thankfully, he does it sooooooo well.

Although primarily a hard rocker, Bob can also convincingly handle a nostalgic ballad as well.  He infuses this song so full of melancholia that it arouses a number of my own personal memories as well.

Before anyone accuses me of being comatose, there is that occasional current-day song that'll catch my ear and delight my musical palate.  Such is the case with these two songs capably performed by these two talented artists:

Do I have any favorite places?  Of course.  Otherwise I'd have nothing to write here.  Here is a blatant advertisement for one of my favorite places on earth.  Every railfan (and even you non-railroadaholics out there) should consider spending a relaxing summer (or autumn) afternoon here.

For the true railfan, this is the 3rd best seat on the train--following only the engineer's and fireman's perches in the locomotive cab.  The view is awesome if you don't mind a little coal dust on your butt (and a true railfan wouldn't mind that at all!)

My favorite foods:
Authors do not live by writing alone.  If that were the case, we would all be quite slender and haggard-looking.  I certainly don't have those problems ... at least not the slender part.  Italian Beef has been a passion of mine for many years.  There is something about tender, succulent roast beef--perfectly spiced--and cooked to mouthwatering perfection by folks who take family pride in preparing it and carrying on the tradition started by their fathers and grandfathers.  Want a little sample?  I thought you'd never ask:

That is 10 inches of gravy-moistened Heaven.  There is indeed some beauty left in this world.

COFFEE!!!!  How many authors like coffee?  Millions of hands just went up.  In my case, I always brake for McDonald's Iced Coffee--caramel syrup, please--as a quick pick-me-up or a reward for ... whatever ... or as a consolation prize.  Or just because I'm thirsty.  An excuse is not always mandatory.  So there.  When I first tried it, the flavor reminded me of an overloaded ashtray.  But doggone, the cursed thing grew on me.  Now there's no driving past a McD's without stopping:

I think the bakers of Girl Scout Thin Mints add some sort of secret ingredient to make these chocolatey treats absolutely addictive.  Because that's what they are: absolutely addictive.  I anxiously wait for February and March to roll around so I can stock up on TM's for the rest of the year.  And they freeze very well as a bonus.  So if I control myself and ration my supply, I can have Thin Mints all year round.  But with these tasty little morsels as close as my freezer, can I be counted upon to control myself?  NOT A CHANCE!!!!

Does Ross Ponderson (the author of the compelling and must-read novel, "Child of Privilege") like BBQ ribs?  I'm glad you asked that question.  ABSOLUTELY!!

To paraphrase the legendary Led Zeppelin song, here are 3 Stairways to BBQ Heaven.  Three stairways--but there is some waiting.  Fast BBQ is not great BBQ!

There you have it: a partial list of things that make me happy ... aside from nice folks like you buying my book.  Now it's time to get back to work on novel #2.  But first I'll listen to some ELO, run to McD's for coffee, pick up some ribs or Italian Beef, and enjoy a couple of thin Mints.

Priorities, you understand.  Until next time....

Don't forget to pet your thesaurus today!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

We Were So Innocent

Several days ago, I popped one of my all-time favorite movies into my DVD player: American Graffiti.

I sheepishly confess to seeing George Lucas's pre-Star Wars paean to 1960s teenage angst ten times during its U.S. theater run in 1973.  Nearly 45 years later, that DVD and my little Sony player frequently get together for a couple of hours of nostalgic fun.

While it meets the classic requirements for "coming of age" flicks (raging hormones, fast cars, rock and roll music, parent-duping, and continuous misbehavior), there's a certain depth to this film that still touches me after all these years; something of a philosophical message, if you will.

We were so damn INNOCENT back then, an innocence we sacrificed at the altar of sophistication.  You won't see cell phones, the Internet, email, digital cameras, GPS, texting, MP3 players, personal computers, surveillance cameras, or Google in this movie.  Yet the characters had one hell of a night with only drive-ins, hot rods, a howling disk jockey playing continuous rock and roll, movies, gangs, blondes driving T-Birds, sock hops, and the single-minded pursuit of sex to entertain them.  They were a hardy breed back then, weren't they?  Hardy ... innocent ... unsophisticated.  We're so much happier and better off today entombed in cyberspace and our virtual realities.

Aren't we?

Aren't we?

I'm sorry.  The number you have reached is thinking about it.

Even the juvenile delinquents of the day didn't seem quite so ... delinquent ... in retrospect.  Sure, they drove souped-up cars, rumbled, smoked, drank, and chased girls.

But make no mistake about it: every "nice kid" in the neighborhood secretly admired and envied them.  I know I did.  Why?  We "nice kids" lived vicariously through the neighborhood gossip of the bad boys' misdeeds, sampling a swagger, attitude, and lifestyle we knew we'd never experience.  The line between "nice" and "bad" wasn't often crossed; so they were our connection to life's "wild side."

But even the bad boys sometimes had their moments.

I recall one tough guy from my old neighborhood.  Although Frank came from a solid and close-knit family, my father labeled him a JD and warned me repeatedly to stay the hell away from him.  Frank wore a black leather jacket and white t-shirt, smoked cigarettes, slicked his hair back, and had that carefully-cultivated aura of BAD about him.  His reputation around the 'hood was that of a dude not to be messed with; a future guest of the state prison system, right?


I remember Mister Black Leather Jacket spending hours with me in my backyard trying to teach me to play baseball.  He did manage to show me how to catch the ball without my looking like a complete klutz.  That in itself was a major accomplishment.  He also took the time to teach me the finer points of pitching, laughing under his breath as he struggled to corral my out-of-control throws.  Frank did laugh at me a lot during those hours but I hereby publicly forgive him.  Because thanks to a juvenile delinquent similar to AG's John Milner, I was infamous for a wicked curve ball in our street-corner baseball games.

Anyway, AG's setting is Modesto, California (although most of the exterior filming was done in Petaluma), on the final summer night of 1962.  A tight-knit group of friends is enjoying a final night's mischief together before two of them would depart the following day for an eastern college.

Lucas does concede to a little character stereotyping: Terry the nerd complete with pimples, glasses, a perpetual hard-on, and romantic ineptitude; Curt the sensitive, intellectual, future writer who spends the evening searching for sex, gang membership, truth, justice, the American way, and an elusive blonde in a white T-Bird; John the bad-ass hot-rodder with a marshmallow heart and a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve; Laurie, an overly needy (but unbearably cute) head cheerleader portrayed by a pre-Laverne-and-Shirley Cindy Williams; and Steve, the clean-cut, every mother's son played by a post-Andy-Griffith-but-pre-directorial Ron Howard.

I won't grind though the entire plot here, but suffice it to say the five principal stories intertwine and diverge repeatedly throughout the night, backed by the ubiquitous howling of enigmatic disc jockey Wolfman Jack and one of the best movie soundtracks ever assembled.

Even the music of that era reflected an America only slightly bruised by the stony terrain of the Cold War.

The Beach Boys sang of surfing safaris, good vibrations, surfer girls, and little deuce coupes; Elvis Presley, well, he was Elvis ... need I say more?; Bobby Vinton, Connie Francis, Bobby Vee, and a thousand others sang of broken hearts and starry-eyed love; countless doo-wop groups shang-a-lang'ed, waa-waa-waa'ed, sha-la-la'ed, and dooby-dooby-doo'ed while we listened and dreamed of finding true love at the drive-in; songs such as Since I Don't Have You, Sixteen Candles, I Only Have Eyes For You, Come Go With Me, and Barbara Ann told stories of puppy love untainted by a world destined to turn upside down all too soon. 

But the old concerns about driving a cool car, having enough money to buy the latest records (what are "records"?), evading the radar-like surveillance of one's parents, getting to "first base" (or even beyond, you lucky dog!) with tonight's date, getting passing grades, and finding someone cool to dance with at the high school hop would soon be replaced by worries much more ominous, many having potentially deadly consequences.

That idyllic American innocence was about to come to a shattering end.  Massive rocks and boulders were waiting just beyond the next bend in the road.

Lucas chose to conclude his film with a downbeat ending.  I won't reveal it here, but his decision only added to American Graffiti's uniqueness, reality, and depth.  Real life doesn't always end happily with everybody smiling and pretty music playing.

Steve, Laurie, Terry, Curt, and John could not have seen it coming; neither could anyone else.  The age of America's innocence was about to end ... and never return.

With wide, disbelieving, and sometimes tear-filled eyes, we watched (and still do) as our comfortable old American tapestry was abruptly ripped to shreds and replaced by bizarre, confusing, and sometimes terrifying colors: the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Marines landing at Da Nang and the start of the Viet Nam War; the Beatles; Watergate; the Challenger Disaster; the Internet; anti-war protests rocking the streets and college campuses; terrorism; the civil rights movement; rogue nations with nuclear capabilities; disco music; the war on terror; the Kent State shootings; social media; the British music invasion; LSD; Chicago's 1968 Democratic Convention; climate change; personal computers; our inner cities in flames; the sexual revolution; cell phones; bullying; pet rocks, lava lamps, and mood rings; the fall of Saigon; 9/11; the My Lai Massacre; the hijacking of personal privacy by business and government; street, school, home, church, and workplace violence; hacking and data breaches.

After all that, can I interest anyone in a little innocence and unsophistication?

American Graffiti is truly a time capsule, a cinematic record of how simple, easy, and carefree life used to be ... once upon a happier time when we were so wonderfully innocent.  It's a great place to go back and visit.  And there have been many moments when I again wanted to live there.

Don't forget to pet your thesaurus today.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Chapter From Hell

The "chapter from hell" has finally fallen!

Those of you following my most active social media channels ( and know that a critical chapter in the novel I'm currently writing has had me spinning my wheels like a subcompact car in a snowbank.  I've come to refer to this problem child as my "chapter from hell."

For those unfamiliar with my literary career (shame, shame,shame!), I'm well into the first draft of my second novel, a story I've come to love even more than my debut offering, "Child of Privilege." (

Was that a shameless plug?  Yep.

For months now, I've been tied up in a creative knot by one of my novel's most pivotal chapters.

Having already painted the backstory, emotional makeup, and current circumstances of my protagonist--a young woman named Samantha--I'm reaching the juicier portions of my suspense arc, the part where Sam carelessly surrenders her heart and soul (and body, eventually) to the most diabolical, backstabbing, and cold-hearted S.O.B since Richard Van Werner in "Child of Privilege."

(Subliminal message: "He sounds like my kind of S.O.B.  I'll buy the book.")

In fact, I think Cole (my antagonist) makes Richard look like a kindly, gentle soul with a heart of marshmallow.  What a sub-human piece of s***!  (heh, heh)

A requirement that I impose on myself as an author is to experience my novel from the reader's point of view rather than my own.  What do I mean by that?  It isn't enough for a novel to be as structurally, grammatically, and mechanically correct as I'm capable of producing.  That's only part of it.  Each chapter (and each scene, for that matter) should have a definable feel to it; it should convey something--fear, sadness, anger, happiness, anticipation, empathy--or your reader will disengage and pick up another book.

Let's face it--there are millions of works out there from which to choose.

For you, however, that's a major no-no.

Every chapter and scene should flow at a proper pace while still taking the time to explain whatever may need explaining.  You don't have to sacrifice a scene's richness and texture on the altar of "Show, don't tell."  No, expository prose isn't a capital crime when used wisely.

Dialogue can also be used to divulge information; it should be interesting yet credible.  ("Do real people talk like that?")

At the end of a sequence, the reader should have a gut-level sensation of "I get it."

If not, oops.

If a sequence of events doesn't feel right--or, as I like to say, doesn't lie down right--that's a problem I need to address.  This may require relatively simple revisions, a more involved re-staging, or a complete rewrite--whatever's fair.

Such was the case with this chapter of my discontent.

Sam was about to allow her life to be changed--and potentially trashed--by her relationship with Cole.  My initial treatment didn't feel right; it didn't lie down right.  This was a major turning point in this woman's life and it simply didn't have the right OOMPH to it as first written.  Even though this is a first draft--and I let many things pass at this stage--it felt so wrong that I simply couldn't let it go.

So, what was the solution?  You're cooking up a literary omelette--crack some eggs, dammit.

Because of storyline restrictions, I couldn't alter the chapter's setting or basic premise; so I turned to my minor characters for help.  I had done this with great success in my first novel.  

(Subliminal message: "Hmm, that sounds like an interesting literary approach.  I'll buy the book.")

Luckily, I did have several offline characters just itching to come back onto center stage.  It was time to start the "What if" games.  

I started shuffling the supporting players in and out, "auditioning" them singly and in various combinations.  In all, I wrote over thirty different scenarios before I found one with the right flow, character sync, dialogue, credibility, and conflict potential.  It also set up a wonderful segue into the rest of the story.  It worked; it felt right; it laid down right.  Result: a happy author ... and hopefully, happy readers once the book is published.

Chapter from hell: doneWoo hoo!

There are innumerable solutions out there for writer's block.  Use whichever remedies work for you.  But please don't fail to consider the simplest solution of all: write through it and never give up.

It works!

Don't forget to pet your thesaurus today.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Listening to the World

On December 25th, 1964, I opened a Christmas present from my parents, a gift they were hoping would somehow appeal to their grade-school-aged son’s affinity for writing, electronics, and communication.

What I received that day was a portable radio about the size of a shoe box--American-made (what a concept!) and transistorized, no less.  While equipped with a carrying handle, AC adapter, AM and FM bands, a large speaker, a lighted dial, and a telescoping antenna, one feature immediately captured my imagination and hasn’t let go of it since: it could receive shortwave radio broadcasts.

With that humble beginning, my lifelong fascination with international radio had begun.

The mid/late 1960s was one the most turbulent eras in American history.  To say that the tapestry of American life was being torn further apart with each passing day would not be an exercise in exaggeration.  We were still reeling from John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963; little could anyone have predicted that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy would meet similar fates in the coming years.

The Vietnam War was polarizing the nation into hostile and irreconcilable camps: hawks and doves; police and protestors; conservatives and liberals; old school and new school; patriots and draft dodgers; students and draft boards; politicians and average Americans; the military establishment and pacifists.  Each faction trumpeted its “perfect” solution to the unsolvable: letting South Vietnam deal with its own problems; more soldiers and more bombs; immediate withdrawal; pacification; more effective weaponry; a negotiated peace; nuking North Vietnam ”back to the Stone Age.”

The air waves of the time were crackling with anti-war songs from iconic folk singers and rock-and-rollers alike.  Even the beloved Glen Campbell got into the act with his hit song “Galveston”—whose lyrics included “I am so afraid of dying,” and “While I watch the cannons flashing/I clean my gun/and dream of Galveston.”  At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, Sergeant Barry Sadler proudly sang of the bravery and patriotism of “The Green Berets.”

(Sidebar for those who are interested: Glen Campbell is currently suffering through the final agonizing stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  He reportedly can no longer play his beloved guitar; neither can he communicate in any meaningful fashion.  The day he leaves us will be a very sad day in my life.)  

It was amidst this international turmoil that I began my shortwave radio foray.  I quickly discovered that battle lines had been drawn along the air waves.  Each day’s listening found mega-broadcasters such as Radio Moscow, Radio Peking (as it was known back then), and Radio Havana Cuba on one side—and the Voice of America, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, Radio Canada, and the BBC on the other duking it out for the hearts and minds (and support) of millions of worldwide listeners.  One concept I instantly learned was the extreme “spin” employed by both camps.  Objectivity?  Forget it.  The same news stories routinely assumed radically different meanings depending upon the station.  This served as my real-world introduction to Propaganda 101 and spin control

I recall a Radio Peking newscast which was prefaced with: “My God, Dean Rusk must’ve made another appeal for peace.”  What followed was a detailed recounting—accompanied by somber, funereal music--of a Hanoi bombing raid that allegedly destroyed private homes, hospitals, and orphanages.  That same raid—as reported by the VOA--reported the successful destruction of weapons caches, military command posts, and guerilla safe houses.

Who was right?  I don’t know; I wasn’t there.  But the truth was likely somewhere in between. 

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and then-President Lyndon Johnson were the favorite targets of those newscasts and were pilloried daily … and mercilessly.  Imagine if social media had been around then. (shudder!)

Okay, enough of the political background.  This blog isn’t meant to be a forum for ideological or political debate.

But shortwave wasn’t all propaganda during those war years.  Moscow and Peking did occasionally present culturally-oriented programs showcasing their finest artistic talents.  And I vividly remember an evening’s enjoyment of sensuous Latin rhythms during a broadcast entitled “Cuban Music of Yesterday and Today.”

Some stations avoided the war news as much as possible.  Radio Netherlands Worldwide focused rather on Dutch culture, upbeat music, cheerful program hosts, and informational dialogues with its global audience.  I recall one of its most popular shows was called "The Happy Station."  Ecuador’s HCJB ("The Voice of the Andes") and Trans World Radio beamed a steady stream of soothing religious programming from their transmitters in the southern hemisphere.  

As my appetite increased for more distant and exotic stations from around the globe, I gradually acquired higher quality and more expensive radios to feed my shortwave jones.  While I drooled over the top-of-the-line receivers from Hammarlund and the R. L. Drake Company, they were well beyond a teenager’s financial resources.  But I must admit I didn’t fare too badly with an Ameco R5 made in North Carolina (Electronics made in America?  Those were the days!), and a Knight Kit Star Roamer from that center of the electronics universe, Allied Radio Electronics.  Both are pictured below:

Ameco R5 - my primary receiver

(Photo courtesy of Universal Radio, Inc.)

Knight Kit Star Roamer
(Photo courtesy of Universal Radio, Inc.)

So what exactly was shortwave radio listening (otherwise known as SWLing or DXing)?

Many stations were either supported, subsidized, operated, or owned outright by their governments.  Broadcast operations were very costly, and the politicians wanted proof that their programming was being heard.  Maximum bang-for-the-broadcast-buck, as it were.  After all, listeners were the raison d’ĂȘtre for the station’s existence.

Was anybody listening?  

When I encountered an interesting station from amidst the atmospheric noise, static, and interference of other stations shoehorned into a very small range of frequencies, I would keep the “fix” going as long as possible, continuously adjusting my radio’s controls to improve the reception.  I would take perhaps 30 minutes of program notes including announcer names, music, news, commercials, features, etc.  This was needed to convince the station that I had actually heard them.  Finally, I would rate the broadcast signal’s strength, consistency, intelligibility, and clarity.  This information was then snail-mailed to the station.

If my reception report was validated, a “verification of reception card” (or, as the early telegraphers’ brevity-oriented code dubbed it, a QSL card) would arrive via return mail.  This was legitimate proof (and a badge of honor) within the SWL fraternity that I had indeed heard that station.  QSL cards were as varied as the stations themselves; no two were alike.  Below is what remains today of my former collection:

Armed Forces Radio and Television Service

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Radio Moscow

Radio Finland

Trans World Radio

If you were really lucky (or if your report was especially valuable to the station), they might also gift you with a memento or souvenir.  These station pennants are some examples:
Radio Deutsche Welle (West Germany)

Radio Bucharest (Romania)

Radio Nacional de Espana (Spain)

My most noteworthy gift was from Radio Peking: a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, the infamous “little red book”.  While I neither embrace nor endorse Communist ideology, I keep the volume as a fond keepsake of that turbulent era.

But hard times have befallen the hobby in recent years.  Technology, national economics, and shifting audience tastes have prompted many major broadcasters to shut down their radio operations (and dismantle entire transmitter facilities) in favor of digital-delivery-based (spell that I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T) platforms.  Are these methods more cost effective?  Yes.  Are they more dependable than broadcasting?  Yes.

But I ask you: where’s the sense of achievement in that?  Where’s the thrill of searching the dial for THAT elusive station you’d been pursuing for weeks or months?  Where’s the challenge of straining to hear a station long enough to complete an acceptable reception report?  Where’s the serendipitous pleasure of scanning the shortwave frequencies and discovering a new and unknown station to explore?

Simply put, the thrill of the chase is gone.  It just ain’t the same anymore.

But I still have my memories of listening to war news, cultural exchanges, ethnic music, travelogues, concerts, and interviews at all hours of the day and night.  I still have the memories of meals eaten in my radio “shack” while straining to listen to some rare station I had spent months pursuing.  I still have the memories of receiving those treasured QSL cards in the mail and proudly pinning them to my bedroom wall much to my father’s disapproval.  I still have my memories of discovering Radio Somewhere-or-Other completely by accident at 3 a.m.

And what wonderful memories they are.

With that, we will now conclude our broadcast.  This is Ross Ponderson Radio signing off.  Thanks for listening and Good Night!

P.S. Don’t forget to pet your Thesaurus today.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What If I Played What If?

Ya gotta break a few eggs to write a novel.

The alleged success recipe is intimidating enough to make a grown author cry: mechanically-sound and easily-readable prose; a roller-coaster of a story line; enough subplots to populate a small town; characters capable of bringing you to tears, hurting your sides with laughter, or making you want to strangle them; a level of suspense that hooks readers from the very first sentence and never lets them up for air; and plot twists capable of keeping your readers wide awake and turning the pages at 3 a.m. on a workday.

To make matters worse, there are no guarantees that this recipe—even when strictly followed--will produce a best-selling novel.

Damn!  The prospect of all that work makes me want to crawl into bed, pull the covers up over my head, and settle in for the proverbial long winter’s nap. 

To be perfectly candid with you, I’ve come sooooo close in recent months to doing just that, at least within the context of writing.  More bluntly put, I’ve quit more times than a cheap watch. My debut novel, “Child of Privilege,” taught me a variety of sometimes brutal lessons in writing, editing, marketing and promotion, networking with other authors and bloggers, and social media basics. (Before “Child,” I was one of six people in the U.S. who had neither a Facebook page nor a Twitter account nor any kind of social media presence whatsoever. I was such a radical back then. Sigh.)

I had undertaken my next book believing that 2nd novels imposed even larger responsibilities upon their authors. Why? Because they were expected to be so much better than their debut siblings.

I was determined to bring this newly-acquired wisdom to bear on Novel Number Two which is slowing wending its way (with a lot of stall-outs along the route) through its first draft. Number Two was to be as perfect as I was capable of achieving. We’re talking soaring to new heights, crashing through barriers, raising the bar, pushing the envelope, reaching for the stars, breaking new ground, reaching the other side, rewriting the record book, ad nauseam.

God, I love it when I write like that!

The result? Analysis paralysis. Too much thinking and not enough writing. Worrying. Chocolate overdose. Doubts. Do-overs. An overwhelming urge to turn off the computer and watch my fingernails grow. Fussing over every finicky detail which is generally a huge no-no at first-draft time. I became obsessed with perfecting this book in just one draft rather than following that time-tested writing protocol of just-get-the-damned-thing-down-and edit-it-later. This has been going on for months now as I’ve gotten myself stuck like a subcompact car in a snowdrift.

So, I remembered that line from one of my favorite movies, the iconic feature, “Speed”: “What do you do?” 

You call out the reserves; shorten your bench; signal to the bullpen; reach back for that little something extra; send for the literary equivalent of the U.S Cavalry; google the phone number for Ghost Busters; try to find Clark Kent so he can summon Superman.

Last but not least: go for the doughnuts.

More realistically, you grab the most potent tool in the writer’s toolbox: the game of What-If.

One of my more troublesome roadblocks consisted of four characters intended as antagonists for my beloved protagonist and heroine, Samantha. (Yes, Virginia, Sam would eventually have seven really bad eggs determined to skin her alive. That’s quite an antagonist omelet, don’t you think?)

Problem: these four nasties were too weak to execute their own subplots. As individuals, they lacked depth, roundness, credible back stories, and complexity. I didn’t want to devote precious “onscreen” time to them in order to endow them with what they needed to work. They were germane to the story but not THAT germane.

What do you do? You start playing What-If.

What if I created additional characters to bolster these four weaklings? No, I didn’t want to overcrowd the stage. You CAN have too much of a good thing.

What if I dropped them all? No, Samantha needed a menagerie of villains to overcome. Otherwise, there was little point to the story.

What if I developed them all? No, too little time and space. 

What if I dropped some of them? No, that would still weaken the overall story line.

What do you do?

What if I did a “mix and match” amongst these four characters? Could a “personality transplant” between these four ineffective entities create more formidable players whose subplots could then be reworked and expanded to make Sam’s life even more miserable? Could a literary Six Million Dollar Man get my novel started again?

THAT’S what you do.  And that's what I did.

When the dust finally settled, I had “grafted” bits and pieces of those three characters onto the fourth, creating a considerably more powerful force whose subplot I’m already expanding … with several tantalizing plot possibilities under consideration. The three “donors” were then consigned to my Outtakes folder.

And more importantly, my desire to complete this book seems to have returned with renewed vigor. As the wonderful Fred Rogers used to sing: “It’s such a good feeling!” 

So don’t hesitate to reach for the What-If tool when your stories or characters need a little something extra. Sometimes an acceptable stew can be amped up into an epic stew with the simple addition of the right spices and accents. You might be pleasantly surprised at what happens. 

Before you leave:
Due to the success of my recent “Child of Privilege” Amazon Giveaways, I’ve been finalizing plans to conduct some future Giveaways in this space through the use of Rafflecopter. After several weeks of research, I’m excited about the potential for reaching new readers and connecting with them. Stay tuned to this space (following this blog via email is the easiest way of doing that!) and watch for future announcements.

P.S: Don’t forget to pet your Thesaurus today.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

An Author Comes Calling.

It's always a special occasion to have an author colleague stop by at the Country House for a chat and a drink.  

This time around, it's my pleasure to welcome Ceanmohrlass to my little cyberspace cottage on the lake.  She is a retired grandmother who has been writing novels for her family and friends for over 20 years. She is the family genealogist, and writing the family history has only increased the passion for writing. She resides in Texas, and is currently (and always) working on her next novel.  "Stephani's Light" is her newest literary offering. 

So, since we're all here to talk about books and writing, let's get right to some interesting conversation with Ceanmohrlass.

Has writing always been a part of your life? 
Absolutely, it has been a part of my life since I learned to write at 4 yrs old. Crude, but effective even back then.

What made you decide to publish on KDP?
I tried to submit Stephani’s Light to six different agents, and although I was surprised at the majority of the responses being very helpful and cordial, my book wasn’t what they were seeking at the time. I decided to continue the tradition of self-publishing instead of continuing to query agents.

Tell us about the inspirations for your books.
Most of the time, my inspiration is some very simple thing that just nags at me until I get a story outline created. I have scrapped thousands of stories well before a completed first draft, and have at least a dozen stories that are chomping at the bit to get their time in the spotlight.  Stephani’s Light was inspired by a late-night view of a lighthouse photo online, and a dream began that woke me in the wee hours of the morning.

How do you go about creating your characters?  Are they inspired by actual people?  Are they “composites“ assembled from many “bits and pieces” of personality?  Or are they purely products of your imagination?
The characters are a struggle for me still. Some of them are a conglomeration of me at a younger and far less intelligent age, who are fortunately written in a much better light. Others, well that is a trade secret. ;)

How do you deal with every author’s nemesis: writer’s block?
I will let you know when that happens. I hear it is a real downer. I have the opposite problem. The characters are beating down my door most of the time, taking control of my pencil, and shoving me out of the way!

Do you prefer first-drafting or editing existing work?  Why?
I vary. For something like NaNoWriMo, I just start that pencil scratching and don’t come up for air until my Frappe high subsides. I have to slap myself upside the head sometime after and yell, “What were you thinking here?”  Most of the time however I just write until I have gotten the scene from my head to paper, then the details start to call out to me to be fixed.  I have mild dyslexia (yeah, that’s fun for a writer) and I can read that paragraph 20 times and it still needs work after.

Is there a subject you would absolutely refuse to write about, even if doing so would assure you of fame and fortune on the scale of J.K. Rowling?
Yes. I will not write a scene that my grandchildren could not read if they are under 21. I just don’t have it in me to allow myself to do so. Money aside, I stick to my guns on this one, and the money isn’t worth being less in my grandbabies' eyes.

Are you a plotter or do you prefer to “wing it”?
I usually am a pantser, but lately, I have come to appreciate even a vague outline of sorts. (Wish the characters would respect those outlines, but sometimes...)

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? 
Gardening (horrible at it) and art, but reading is my main vice as the days become shorter.  (Note from Ponderson: I can totally relate to the lack of a green thumb.  I can lay claim to having killed a plastic plant!  It wasn't easy; but I did it!)

So tell us all about “Stephani’s Light,” your newly-launched book.

This is a contemporary fiction, and I consider it my tribute novel. This is the only one I have made available in paperback. My parents, younger son and his wife, my step-daughter, and my husband, and all my family and friends that encourage me are in my heart and a part of this book. The story of Macy, is one many of us can relate to. Macy has been content to trudge through each day but when her dreams begin to take over, things must change. I tried to make it light enough to not be depressing and readers to say, “Been there...” yet serious enough to show that actions have consequences in life. It is a journey of her sudden strength to take control of her destiny, and the havoc her rash decisions cause. I still tear up at the ending, but it does have that element of that happy ending that I try to incorporate in every novel I write.

Any final thoughts?
I have often been accused of being too perky, totally off the wall, and eccentric to the max! I wholeheartedly agree with this. I figure that I will someday become THAT granny on the porch, flowered dress, pearls, support hose, and a beer, in a big rocker on my screened-in front porch, antagonizing the young-uns when they pester me. :) I’ve survived cancer twice, and I understand the old third time’s a charm scenario, so I live for each day. No reason to waste a moment in life, whether I have 1 second or a trillion minutes left, I plan to enjoy them all.

Here's where you can check out the books written by this multi-genre fiction author:

I would like to thank Ceanmohrlass for stopping by on this beautiful autumn afternoon to share some of her thoughts on writing with us.  You can easily follow her on social media by clicking on these links:

My thanks to one and all for stopping by today.  I wish everyone a productive day and an inspiring autumn season.  Get out there and enjoy it! 

P.S: Don't forget to pet your Thesaurus today.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Got Flaws?

Tell me about your weaknesses.

No, this isn’t a post about job interviews.  However, once—just once in my life—I would love to respond to this asinine question by saying “Well, my main weakness is my tendency to puke on any job interviewer obtuse enough to ask me that totally lame question.”  I would then proceed to vomit the semi-digested remains of an enormous meal all over his/her desk.

I guess job interviewing isn’t one of my strengths; you might even consider it a weakness worthy of being mentioned during job interviews!

But we all do have imperfections, don’t we?  In my experience, perfect people are essentially uninteresting and not much fun to be around.  They lack depth, personality, warmth, magnetism, and charisma.  They are neither well-rounded nor sympathetic.  I’ve encountered a number of perfect individuals in my life—at least they loudly proclaimed themselves as such—and I’ve found them to be … frankly … boring.

This can apply to literary characters as well.  Consider the characters (particularly the protagonist) in the novel or short story you’re currently writing.  Do they have flaws?  Do they have imperfections?  Do they have personality elements that are downright unlikable?  Do they have relatability?

To be grandiose about it, do they have humanity?

If not, your writing may not be reaching out and connecting with your readers as effectively as possible.

As I sometimes reflect upon Dana, my protagonist in Child of Privilege, I wonder if I should’ve given her more of an edge, more of a nasty side, and a few more general flaws in her character.  Perhaps I should’ve given her more of a fiery temper or more of a potty mouth.

To this day, occasional plot questions still nag at me: after the incident with Wanda, what if our runaway debutante had resorted to prostitution in order to buy another bus ticket?  What if she had become a cocktail waitress at Red’s?  What if she had spent the night with some trucker at the honky-tonk and rode off with him?  What if she had cleaned out Greg’s cottage while he was at work and skipped town? 

During those final violent scenes in the bedroom at the Van Werner Mansion, what if Dana had actually carried out her wishes?

If you're unfamiliar with what I’m referring to, Child of Privilege is available at many fine online retailers.  To get in the know (and your very own copy), just follow THIS LINK.

(The preceding has been a Shameless Plug.  We now return you to our regularly-scheduled blog post.)

All characters—especially protagonists—need flaws.  Why?  Because perfect is boring; perfect is not much fun to read; perfect doesn’t keep the pages turning late at night; perfect leaves a writer little room for character development.  Perfect just sits there … being perfect.


Skillfully executed, flaws can become powerful devices for plot advancement, serving as triggers for totally unexpected twists and turns in the story.  But more importantly, they imbue your players with depth, texture, and connectability.  The most endearing characters reach out and touch the reader through their humanity, their fears, and their vulnerability.  They project the quality of humanness—like a bright spotlight--onto the theater stage of the reader’s mind.  The result: connection … and an engaged reader who keeps reading nonstop until The End.

So, don't overlook the potential value of imperfections when thumbnailing your characters.  You just might end up with some endearing personalities that your readers will love.  Allow them to stumble, fall, screw up, go to the bathroom at inconvenient moments, chew with their mouths open, leave the toilet seat in the wrong position, pick their noses, step in dog poop, scratch themselves in indiscreet places, and perhaps even fall asleep after sex.

Most of all, when some interviewer asks them what their weaknesses are, allow them to puke on the interviewers’ desks.

It'll serve ‘em right.

Imperfect is the new perfection.

P.S. Don’t forget to pet your Thesaurus today.