Tag Archives: South Carolina

Returning from That Summer Place

It’s almost back to school time here in southeastern Pennsylvania, which means the kids will be terminating their summer brain dumps, rushing to catch up on assigned reading and trying to remember how to convert improper fractions to mixed numbers. That usually means time for the grownups to start getting their acts together, too.

I admit that I’ve slacked off this summer in a few areas – writing every day being one of the biggest. But where spring has always been the traditional time of renewal for nature, back to school time is, for kids and adults, typically the start of something fresh. It’s an opportunity to establish new routines and actually stick to them because so many other scheduled events depend on things running smoothly.

Yeah, this summer my word count for Novel #2 has fallen off, but I’ve also gotten the chance to do some things that will help make that book better even though I’ve spent a few weeks not actively banging away at it. One of those weeks was spent at our family’s own summer place, this one deviating from past years by switching the Outer Banks of North Carolina for Folly Beach, S.C.

New places equal new inspiration, so in lots of respects it was a worthwhile trip. I’m hoping it ends up as a salable travel story for the freelance writing side of my work, and there are always little details I can pick up from somewhere new to add into a story. Plus, as someone who sets his books in South Carolina but is based full time in Pennsylvania, it’s good to get back once in a while and get in touch with the people you’re writing about.

It’s also been good to go down some roads in my own reading that I don’t often travel. I tilted more toward the fantasy side of things with Fran Wilde’s Updraft and delved into the world of the Mafia – particularly as it relates to Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. – in Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses (look for an upcoming story on Charles and the forthcoming film version of his book in September’s Out & About magazine).

Novel #2 includes more of a criminal enterprise subplot, so it was great to read Brandt’s book and get a window into mob life beyond that provided in the Mafia film pantheon of The Godfather, Goodfellas, etc. And it’s always interesting to see what styles other writers adapt. Wilde’s is lean and tight, which keeps her sprawling, world-building tale to a reasonable and accessible length. While I’m not creating new universes out of whole cloth this time around, I’m trying to keep things leaner myself, so reading other writers who can do so is a bit like taking a master class in how it’s done.

So, here’s to parlaying my non-writing experiences and unassigned summer reading into some good, solid work on Novel #2 once everyone in the house gets back to their school year schedules. It might not be lounging on the beach or by the pool, but there will be plenty of that again next year.

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In the Wake of Charleston, Waiting for Tomorrowland

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Wow – what a weird couple of weeks. A few major Supreme Court decisions that permanently turned things in the U.S. in a dramatically different direction, preceded by the tragedy of the Charleston, S.C., church shooting. The day of the shooting was hard for me. So hard for me that by 11:30 a.m., I had already decided to decamp from home and take my two kids to the movies.

Our choice was Tomorrowland, the Disney feature loosely based on the section of Disneyland and Walt Disney World that focuses on The Future. The film itself has been equally praised and panned, with detractors saying that it offers too nostalgic a view of the world to come because it focuses precisely on that Baby Boomer bang-zoom jet-pack-and-hovercraft ideal in which everyone would get along and we’d all be strolling around in shiny spandex unitards.

I’d spent the morning trying to wrap my brain around yet another mass shooting, this one in a city very close to my heart for a number of reasons. Continue reading

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Funky Friday: Writing Routine and the Power of the Atomic Dog

I and my family recently joined the ranks of the dog rescuers, adopting a smart and handsome pointer mix puppy we have named Percy, for no other reason than his given name was Persimmon and we just weren’t cool with that.

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Percy Pointer Puppydog Pruden, in a moment of relaxation.

So Persimmon became Percy and he’s eased into life at Chez Pruden very nicely. Not surprising since, whether he knew it or not, he was scheduled for euthanasia at the high-kill shelter in Greenville, S.C., from which the local group All 4 Paws Animal Rescue acquired him. As I’ve noted to others, Percy and I are now the only two native South Carolinians in our household (although being from Greenville, chances are he’d be a Clemson fan. I just choose not to think about that). Continue reading

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May the 4th Be With You! Here’s some Star Wars-Themed Disco to Help You Celebrate!

As I constantly remind my children (and pretty much anyone under 30 who will listen) I was fortunate to appreciate the arrival of Star Wars in its perfect, undistilled and most innocent form – in the theater in 1977 when the first film (and A New Hope will always be the first film) hit theaters.

Along with all the other cultural touchstones brought on by the film and its two sequels, it’s often lost on the younger folks of today that Star Wars landed in the cultural consciousness smack in the middle of disco’s surge out of Studio 54 and into the American mainstream. So naturally, we’d have to have a disco version of John Williams’ iconic Star Wars theme music, along with disco-beat hand claps and awesome pew-pew-pew blaster fire sound effects in the background. Continue reading

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Maurice Bessinger, South Carolina’s Most Famous Embarrassing Uncle, Leaves This Mortal Coil

Maurice Confederate flag

An exercise in non-satire: The late Maurice Bessinger in portraiture, bearing the sacred barbecue sauce to be offered at the alter of the reborn Confederacy.

Lots of people who’ve never lived in the South look upon it as this weird hinterland where regressive politics, loose interpretation of incest laws and strange culinary traditions make it our own little bit of the Third World here in the United States. One person who helped perpetuate this unfortunate image – particularly when it came to my home state of South Carolina – was Maurice Bessinger.

Bessinger, who was once considered South Carolina’s king of barbecue (that’s pulled pork to the rest of you), died over the weekend, sparing those of us who hail from the Palmetto State yet another embarrassing point of conversation whenever our home comes up in discussion. You can read his excellent obituary by John Monk at The State newspaper here. Continue reading

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For Your Holiday Book Shopping Pleasure, Here’s How To Get Inscribed Editions of ‘Immaculate Deception’

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The holiday gift-giving season is here, and one of my favorite ways to say how much I care about someone is to give them a book that I either know or suspect they’ll really enjoy. Usually they turn out to be books I’ve enjoyed myself.

What makes this sort of gift really special is having it signed or inscribed by the author. So if you’ve considered purchasing a hard copy of Immaculate Deception as a gift for someone this year, here’s your notification that there’s only one way to get a custom inscribed and signed copy of the novel, and that’s  either by bopping over the Novel Pursuits page to click the “order your very own signed copy” link or clicking here on this very page.

When you click the link, you’ll be redirected to PayPal. To request an inscription, simply type what you’d like me to write in the “Add special instructions to the seller” field, then complete your order. Charges will appear on your PayPal history or credit card statement as Write On Time LLC. It’s that easy!

Please note that since the Codorus Press crew is finished with live events for 2013, this is the only way you can receive an inscribed and signed edition (other than, you know, bumping into me on the street) in time for the holidays. Sorry, but I can’t guarantee that orders placed after Dec. 16 will arrive in time for Christmas Eve delivery, so make your orders soon!

Thanks, and happy shopping!

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It’s Halloween, Kids … Scary Stuff! Mwuahahahaha … BOO!

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True story: As a kid, I was unnaturally obsessed with monsters.

I would read or buy anything I could get my hands on that involved the classic characters, especially Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster or Mr. Hyde.

Looking back now on that time from the perspective a parent, I’m sure my own parents were a little concerned.famousmonsters131vgf

I partially blame my obsession on Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which combined with MAD magazine pretty much explains why I write the way I do.

Every month Famous Monsters featured as many stories as you could possibly wring out of every monster movie ever made. Pictorials featured background stories on the movies and – most importantly to me – stories about the makeup.

So important, in fact, that at one time I actually considered becoming a makeup artist as a career. It was a nice idea and led me into one really cool high school job, but what I was missing was the “artist” bit.

My interest in monsters also led to to a period of masterful (if I do say so myself) construction of Halloween haunted houses in the spare attic over my parents’ garage at our house in Summerville, S.C.

Fortunately, I had equally bored, weird and enthusiastic friends who would help me in their own masterful ways to pull these off. The other (more normal) neighborhood kids would come and drop a quarter a pop to walk through and be frightened by old spook-house gags like grapes as human eyeballs. a glow-in-the-dark ghost suspended from a beam by black fishing line and one friend apparently being sliced open by a giant pendulum blade.

Yeah, we were those kids. To the parents of the neighbor kids who paid to see our horror shows, I apologize for any therapy your youngsters had to undergo.

So now I’m living Halloween as a 45-year-old, and I can’t help casting my mind back to those days. We did a lot of improvising as far as special effects and materials. The giant pendulum was cardboard spray-painted silver and embellished at the blade edge with red tempura paint. We pillaged my dad’s spare lumber and used tools that these days, should I suggest that my son go off and build something with them, would get me arrested for child endangerment. There was lots of simulated gore (usually ketchup or red food coloring) and always – always – a record or cassette of spooky sound effects (thunder, groans, cats, evil laughing, etc.) playing in the background.

But should my kid want to do the same thing today, an entire industry exists to support him. Round about Sept. 15, Halloween shops pop up like mushrooms in otherwise vacant strip mall storefronts, packing in every single effect that we wish we had back them into a few thousand square feet, readily for sale to anyone with the wherewithal to pony up the cost. That cost, say those who track such things, is rapidly approaching what we typically spend on Christmas decorations.

Animated, full-sized talking monster mannequins. Smoke machines. Light effects. Everything you need for excellent make-up and costumes. Bony, motorized skeleton hands that rise from the earth and is guaranteed to make children under the age of 7 soil their pants and run away screaming. The spooky sounds, meanwhile, are available via download so you can freak out anyone anywhere with just your iPod.

It’s depressing, not because it’s too much, but because it’s everything I ever wanted and never could get my hands on.

My wife has hinted around that some year she’d like one of those giant inflatable Christmas decorations to go on our lawn. I say let’s take the money and invest in some really kick-ass Halloween decorations.

Santa chasing reindeer in an eternal loop of yuletide kitsch? Nah. Scaring the pants off the neighbor children? Yeah, that’s money well spent.

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Summer Reading Can Still Be Foundational Reading

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So I spent a good portion of the spring and early summer slogging through an exceptionally dense non-fiction tome on Napa Valley that was serving as background for a large scale co-writing project that, unfortunately, tanked hard in mid June.

I don’t consider it wasted time, because I’m one of those folks that considers any reading good reading. And in addition, I learned some things I didn’t know before, so it all evens out. Also, now if I ever want to set a story in California wine country, I’ve at least got a jumping off point.

But with the burden of research-related reading lifted, I got to return to some writing by several of the authors that have really inspired me along the way.

The gentlemen represented here aren’t going to be taught in high school English classes anytime soon, but I’ve immersed myself in their work over the years nonetheless. And that’s not to say that I haven’t spent my time with some English class stalwarts – diving back into the pool with Ernest Hemingway helped me learn how to write with a bit more economy. Then again, a few walks along some long dark alleys with pulp-master Mickey Spillane (who, incidentally, lived the last years of his life in Murrells Inlet, S.C., just down the beach from Myrtle Beach, where Immaculate Deception is partially set) helped me pull some tough-guy detective fiction tricks out of the bag, too.

But as far as modern-day writers who are still busy writing go, these guy are my boys. If you’ve read Immaculate Deception, you can probably see each of them peeking through the narrative, the subject matter and the writing style here and there.

Derivative? Some might say so. But others – mostly other writers – will be the first to tell you that the way to get started writing like yourself is to write like the people you love to read. What comes out after it’s passed through the creative filter of your own unique brain is – shazam! – your style of writing.

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A Barbecue-Basted Lesson in Creating Honest Characters

Bessinger's BBQ SauceWhat you see here is a bottle of barbecue sauce. With it I will give you some tips on writing compelling and honest characters.

Why barbecue sauce, and why specifically this one? Because it helps me illustrate some important points.

First, let’s talk about the sauce. It’s what’s known as Carolina mustard sauce, which, in the complex geography of South Carolina barbecue preference, is the style of choice from the state’s Midlands (Columbia and the surrounding counties) down to Charleston on the coast.

The Bessinger family has what might be called a barbecue empire in the Palmetto State. This bottle (smuggled up to me by my parents after a visit to my hometown of Camden for the Carolina Cup steeplechase) is produced by Thomas Bessinger. You probably haven’t heard of him, because he basically makes sauce, runs a restaurant or two and minds his own damn business. He is, however, challenged by the hurdles of being a businessman when he shares a last name with …

… Maurice Bessinger, who also makes sauce and runs a couple of barbecue restaurants, and is freakin’ famous – mainly for being a hyper-religious, Southern “heritage” zealot and fringe right-wing nutbar. Unlike his more business-minded relative, Maurice still plasters the Confederate flag on his bottles of sauce and plants right-wing leaflets at the tables of his restaurants. He begrudgingly lets non-Caucasians sit in his main dining room when it’s clear from the years he spent segregating his restaurants that he’d prefer they sit in the kitchen or at a picnic table out back.

Pretty much an asshole – so much so that I’ve declined to link to his restaurants here because most of the sites where he’s featured are along the lines of “Yay, Maurice! You’re an honest, racist American. You go, boy!”

And for lots of folks outside the South, they’d classify him along with other blatant Southern stereotypes – Boss Hogg, Big Daddy and that creepy banjo playing kid from Deliverance.

But not everyone in the South is a mini-Maurice. As is always they case, there’s hint of truth in all stereotypes. But what often gets overlooked is the nuance of the individuals who share similarities but defy the stereotype.

Take Maurice, for instance. In essence, he’s the Southern version of everyone’s Embarrassing Uncle.

Yes, the Embarrassing Uncle. He’s not just Southern – he can be anything. He’s basically the guy who fulfills a given ethnic, cultural or regional stereotype for your family to such a degree that you worry him blowing your image as a non-asshole, non-stereotypical member of your given group.

And don’t think that this is simply a “woe is us, the misrepresented Southerner” screed. This lesson goes to writing about any group with which you aren’t personally familiar and cuts across racial, ethnic, cultural and regional lines. I won’t list other stereotypes here – you know what they are for who you are – and me even acknowledging them would make me come off as kind of an asshole.

The problem with the Embarrassing Uncle is that he (or she – there’s plenty of traffic in Embarrassing Aunts, too) represents the absolute worst of a large, otherwise diverse group of people.

And even if they do share some of the Embarrassing Uncle’s unsavory traits, it’s less likely that they represent such an easily drawn image. Take the Embarrassing Uncle out of the mix and suddenly you have a nuanced, layered group of characters who, while having to deal with certain societal and personal issues specific to their region/ethnicity/culture, would still resonate with readers without looking like cartoon characters.

Striking this difference is difficult for many writers, because lots of people from outside the South think Southern characters are easy to write. Just throw in some neanderthal philosophies; some cute, deep-fried turns of phrase; wrap it up in some fake twang and serve it with a side of fried chicken and okra and everything will be OK, right?

I see this representation frequently on TV where Southern characters are thrown into decidedly non-Southern situations to represent regressive politics. Let’s say you have a (ahem … purely hypothetical) show about self-righteous, horny surgeons in Seattle or Santa Monica doctors who stand around discussing the ethics that none of them actually has when they’re not busy screwing each other. Need an anti-abortion or religious fanatic plot line? Well, hell … that’s easy. Throw in some folks with suspiciously Southern accents – regardless of the Pacific Northwest/Southern California geography – wind them up and go!

I make a point of calling bullshit on this whenever I see it because it speaks to writing that is lazy, lazy, lazy. You want people to fill that character? Great – but don’t assume that Neanderthal politics have to be represented by someone with a drawl. As with any stereotype, this sort of writing is an attempt to create characters out of literary Lego blocks – piece on some things that you think most folks believe about a particular group and then give that character a voice.

This brings us back to my barbecue example. If you were looking for a character to place in your story about a barbecue mogul, which one do you think would drive the narrative better? The Confederate flag-waving racist or his relative with the identical last name, who must deal daily with the challenges of being in the same business and trying to live down the stereotype here in the 21st century?

The obvious choice for many outside the South – where, unfortunately, most of our entertainment is created – would be Option A, because it would reinforce what most of the world actually believes about Southerners.

But the truth is Option B would make the much better primary character. He’s challenged by his relationship and deals with both inner and outer conflict.

Will the story still leave a tasty mustard-based tang in your reader’s mouth and suggest an atmosphere redolent of pit-roasted pig, hushpuppies and coleslaw? If you do it right, absolutely. But instead of nodding his head and muttering, “Yep, they’re all rednecks down there,” the reader will be challenged to consider that everyone everywhere has to deal with his or her own special kind of crap.

So whether you’re a Kansan who wants to write about South Philly mobsters, a New Yorker who wants to write about cowboys or an African-American who wants to write about the British servant class, you have to get a handle on a character’s humanity first, then layer on the things that speak to the world in which they live.

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Jak Smyrl and the Joy of the Picasso Napkin

Jak Smyrl Rockin' Horse

There’s an old story about a woman who approached Pablo Picasso in a cafe and asked him to draw her something on a napkin. However, before he would give it to her he asked for an exorbitant sum of money because that tiny sketch represented the culmination of his life’s work up to that point.

Not many of us ever actually cross paths with a great artist, let alone get up the gumption to ask him or her to create something just for us. Still fewer will have an artist create on his own something so very personalized that it could only ever be yours, and then hand it to you as a mere throwaway gesture.

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Jak Smyrl in a typically rendered self-portrait.

I was fortunate enough to have that happen to me thanks to a gentleman named Jak Smyrl.

He was the first staff artist for The State newspaper, the major daily newspaper that covers Columbia, S.C., and the surrounding area. His satirical map of South Carolina (rife with intentional misspellings and regional in-jokes) was first published in the late 1960s and since then has become iconic. His style mimics that of many of the best Mad magazine artists with a flair that was straight-up Southern.

Back in 1995, when I was a young reporter and columnist at the Chronicle-Independent in Camden, S.C., Jak, who had retired to Camden, was suggested to me as someone who could create a logo for Rockin’ Horse ’96 (top).

Rockin’ Horse was a concert that grew out of a newspaper column I wrote calling for more entertainment surrounding the Carolina Cup steeplechase event, which annually brings in more than 60,000 visitors and millions of dollars to the town of about 8,000 or 9,000 people. The concert was held on the grounds of Historic Camden as a benefit for the Revolutionary War historic site.

In the absence of our own newspaper staff artist I could hire to do the logo on the side (we got all our editorial cartoons from syndicates), one of the ladies in the layout department suggested I get in touch with Mr. Smyrl. She described him in loose terms as a former artist for The State, a description that really only scratched the surface.

We met at his home studio and I did a rough sketch of what I was looking for. He gave me an anticipated date of delivery for the final image and we worked out terms that were entirely too reasonable for someone of his stature (I seem to recall he asked about $100 for the image).

When I went to pick up the sketch, he was out of the house, but he had left it for Jak Smyrl Scott Noteme in a manilla envelope adorned with the personalized image you see to the right. As a result, an item that would otherwise have been recycled or tossed in the trash became, for me, a valuable work of art.

Jak, who died in 2007, is the subject of a new exhibit that was recently dedicated at the University of South Carolina. That means a significant number of people who actually know what they’re talking about considered his work a valid subject for study and appreciation.

I’m not sure where the rocking horse-and-jockey drawing I commissioned for the concert stands in that body of work, but I do know it adorned t-shirts, tickets and banners associated with the event. If you lived in or visited Camden in the spring of 1996, chances are you or someone you know could still find a Rockin’ Horse ’96 tee stuffed in the back of a drawer somewhere.

Maybe if I contacted the University of South Carolina they’d ask to include it. If so, I’d happily donate it to the collection.

However, as for that small bit of an ordinary manilla envelope that in a few pen strokes became something only for me, that I’ll treasure as my own little napkin from Picasso.

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