Monday, October 16, 2017

Where have you been?

My travels of late can’t begin to match country singer Hank Snow’s list of stopovers in the classic 1962 hit, “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
Still, I haven’t been sitting still.
In late September I spent an enjoyable couple of days spouting off about creative nonfiction, poetry, historical fiction, and Western writing at the Idaho Writers League annual conference. I have presented at several IWL conferences over the years, and it’s always a pleasure. LaDean Messenger, president of the Pocatello chapter, ramrodded the event and made it a success, just as she has in years past when it’s been Pocatello’s turn.
In early October, I made my way across the Salt Lake Valley (not always easy) to the Salt Lake Community College main campus for the two-day League of Utah Writers annual conference. Not quite as intimate as the Idaho event (with more than 400 attendees), but I still enjoyed speaking to aspiring and accomplished writers on improving prose by employing poetic techniques, writing opening lines that grab readers, and writing poetry.
The following weekend found me 100 or so miles from home at the west campus of Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, for the Write Here in Ephraim conference. Another enjoyable event, where I got to hang out with writers and teach a workshop on using humor in fiction as well as one based on the popular “Lies They Tell Writers” posts that appear here from time to time.
I haven’t been everywhere, but that’s some of the places I’ve been lately. Like my old Daddy always used to say sometimes, “Everybody’s got to be someplace, so you might as well be somewhere.”
And here I am.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 41: Plan on Rejection.

You hear the stories all the time: How famous author so-and-so’s first novel, which went on to become a best seller and a classic, received forty-eleven-hundred rejection letters from publishers before finally getting published.
Don’t plan on it happening to you.
Your book may go on to be a classic, but it’s unlikely you’ll get many rejection letters along the way.
That’s because what once was true is seldom the case anymore. In days gone by, publishers routinely sent rejection letters to aspiring authors. Some were boilerplate one-size-fits-all form letters, others offered actual criticism of the book, reasons why it was not a good fit for that publisher, even encouragement and advice.
But, except on rare occasions, those days are gone.
Queries and submissions today are met, more often than not, with silence.
Most large publishing houses are staffed by a fraction of the number of people they were in the past, and those still on the job don’t have—or won’t take—the time to respond to—reject—your work. Smaller publishers are often shoestring operations and the owner-publisher-editor-designer-distributor-chief cook and bottle washer has too many pies and not enough fingers to reject every (or any) submission that comes along.
This is true for unsolicited queries and submissions, but also, in many cases, applies when you’ve been invited during an interview at a conference or workshop to submit. You’ll get much the same treatment from literary agents. Unanswered queries are also the norm nowadays at periodicals.
Still, if you don’t submit or query, you’ll never get anywhere so you’ve got to do it. Just don’t bother steeling yourself for the heartbreak of being rejected. More likely, you’ll simply be ignored. Which I find even more disheartening.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 10.

Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher is the story of Sam Minard, a young man who leaves the settled parts of America to make his way as a free trapper in the West. Borrowing from both fact and legend of the era, Minard is loosely based on John “Liver-Eating” Johnston, and Fisher includes the disturbed widow for whom Crazy Woman Creek was named in the story.
Minard takes a Flathead woman for a wife and fathers a child, but while he is away trapping, Crow Indian warriors kill his family. The mountain man turns Crow hunter, tracking down and killing every man of the tribe he finds, which results in his being hunted by his Crow foes in an ongoing and bloody feud.
All that is well and good, and for the most part the story the book tells is not much different from other mountain man and fur trapper tales. What I like best about Mountain Man is Fisher’s lyrical language and rich imagery. I get cold and hungry every time I read the book; at other times I feel well fed and comfortable. He writes a romantic version of life in the Old West, but he romanticizes it beautifully.
The book was the basis (along with other sources) for a fine movie, Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford.
It’s a good movie. But, as is usually the case, it’s a better book.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Rawhide Robinson spills the beans.

There are plenty of people who interview authors. You can learn a lot about writers and their writing from what they have to say. But author and publisher Kathryn Jones takes a different approach. She interviews characters from books. It’s an interesting and revealing approach, and leads to some remarkable revelations.
Not long ago, Kathryn interviewed the extraordinary ordinary cowboy Rawhide Robinson. You can read the results on her site. Kathryn also graciously allowed Rawhide Robinson to post the interview on
Read all about it, and see what Rawhide Robinson has to say for himself.  

Monday, August 28, 2017

Once in a lifetime.

Here we go again—completely ignoring the joys of reading and writing to wander off into the trivia of life.
Sorry, I can’t resist.
On August 21, the good people of the good ol’ USA were treated to a coast-to-coast total eclipse of the sun. It doesn’t happen very often. For some of us, it will probably never happen again. So I thought I’d comment on the spectacle.
Where we live in Utah, 91% of the sun was obscured, leaving only a tiny crescent of the orb visible through our approved eclipse-viewing glasses. My wife and I sat on the driveway looking up from time to time for quite a spell.
But what we found most intriguing wasn’t in the sky—it was on the ground, at our feet.
Shading much of our driveway is a big (and messy) tree. Some kind of elm, we think. Where the sun peeked through the thick foliage, the tree created hundreds of “pinhole projectors” that cast the eclipsing sun on the concrete surface of the driveway. That’s what you’re seeing in the photo above—each of the many crescents is an image of the eclipsed sun.
We thought it was kind of neat, so we took a bunch of pictures of it. Later, on TV, one of the NASA experts mentioned the phenomenon. I doubt I’ll ever see it again.
Next time, it’s back to reading and writing. Unless, that is, some other strange and spectacular thing happens.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Picky eater.


Warning: what follows is all about eating and has nothing to do with reading.
Often at mealtime, and at meal-planning time, I am accused of being a picky eater.
I disagree.
If you ask me, I’m just a man of simple tastes. I can’t help it. I was raised that way. The town I grew up in was so small we did not eat pasta there. We had macaroni. And we had noodles. But if someone would have said “pasta” we would not have had any clue what that person was talking about.
Bread was bread. It was usually homemade, sometimes store-bought, but always just plain old bread. Nothing “artisan” and no one ever served up a loaf sprinkled with stuff that looks like it came off the bottom of a bird cage. I see that sort of thing a lot now. But I don’t eat it.
Vegetables mostly came in in the form of potatoes, peas, beans, corn, and carrots. Salads were occasional and as often as not made with potatoes or macaroni rather than green things—and none of that green stuff was ever kale or arugula, to my knowledge. I only remember being served artichokes one time, and that was on a cattle ranch in Nevada. Which surprised me, and still does.
Meat was a staple. Because we raised it, it was always available. Roast beef and steaks and hamburger and soup bones. Pork chops and roasts and ham and bacon and side pork. Lamb (which I never cottoned to; same with goat) and deer meat. Lots of chickens (and eggs), fried. Nowadays I’ve narrowed my meat menu down to beef and pork, with chicken (yardbird, as my brother calls it) very rarely, still fried. As for other poultry, I get turkeyed out for the year about three days after Thanksgiving. Fish and seafood were pretty much unknown at our house, except the occasional “fish stick” or the rare trout we caught.
We seldom ate out when I was a kid. A trip to the hamburger stand when out shopping was about it. In fact, I thought it unusual that people would go out to eat for no particular reason.
At our house nowadays we eat food somebody else cooked quite often, and it’s usually just plain old food. I’m told it’s because I’m a picky eater. But, truth be told, I am simply not interested in strange cookbook foodstuffs that usually end in the letter “i” and hide under some kind of sauce, and where “plating” and “presentation” are more important than taste.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Another Rawhide Robinson cover up.

Five Star, publisher of my Rawhide Robinson novels, recently sent the cover for the next book featuring the adventures of the extraordinary ordinary cowboy. That’s it, up there.
The book is due for release in February and I am looking forward to seeing it in print. It is always exciting (and somewhat intimidating) to see something you’ve seen about a million times on your computer screen show up as a genuine, actual, ink-on-paper book.
Read a bit more about Rawhide Robinson Rides a Dromedary: The True Tale of a Wild West Camel Caballero (and the other Rawhide Robinson novels). And consider putting the first two in the collection on your Christmas list for readers from junior high through geriatrics who would enjoy tall tales, Old West adventures, and cowboy humor.
And save room on your book shelves for the next one, come February.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 40: Characterization is key.

There is no shortage of advice for fiction writers about characterization. You couldn’t throw a loop at a writers’ conference without catching a session about character development.
You’ll hear endless discussions comparing implicit and explicit characterization. You’ll hear about archetypes and character voice. Introduction and emergence. And other fancy ways of talking about the people you make up to populate your made-up stories.
The problem, as most successful writers will admit, is that characters have a way of saying and doing things you never intended. They routinely violate the commandments you laid down in your “character bible.” They’ll often thumb their noses at you and do what they please, whether you like it or not.
Sometimes, characters simply refuse to develop the way you planned.
When that happens, you know you’ve done your job.
That’s because characters that take the bit in their teeth and run off with you are more like real people than carefully crafted, methodically developed, perfectly polished props.
Come to think of it, when it comes to successful character development, being a writer is a lot like being a parent.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Range Writers Extraordinaire.

Last night found us in Richfield, Utah, to enjoy some fine cowboy entertainment. Stepping onto the stage were some of the best wranglers of Western words you’ll find anywhere. 

Andy Nelson of Wyoming pens some of the funniest cowboy poetry going. He’s also adept at more reflective verse, and is author of an enjoyable book, Ridin’ with Jim, built around growing-up experiences with his father. 

At times, Andy teams up with Utah singer/songwriter Brenn Hill, trading poems and songs on stage. Brenn has been mentioned here before, lately as composer of “And the River Ran Red,” using words I wrote. Brenn’s ability as a songwriter covers the West both wide and deep, and his music, recorded on some dozen albums, earns him well-deserved recognition.

California cowboy Dave Stamey has won every award available for a Western singer/songwriter, many of them more than once. Dave’s insightful writing, virtuoso guitar licks, and comfortable presence on stage are always enjoyable.
There are plenty of cowboy singers and poets regaling the world with their works and I appreciate the talents of many of them. But you’d have to cover a lot of range to find the equal of these three—not only for their abilities as entertainers on the stage, but for the riveting qualities of the words they write.
And the fact that I count them all as friends is the result of my admiration, not the cause.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 9.

The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols is a strange book. It can make you laugh so hard you’ll fall off your chair. And it can make you cry.
The characters in the story are quirky, odd, strange, eccentric, and altogether realistic and believable. Nichols captures the dialect and vernacular of the people who have populated the northern New Mexico mountains for centuries in ways that tickle the ear. Equally well-drawn are the gringo interlopers who, in the name of “progress,” attempt to upset the delicate balance between people and the land.
While there are serious issues at work here, treated with the gravity they deserve, the missteps and mistakes of combatants on all sides add humor and hilarity to the telling. Pride and poverty, affluence and hubris, nature and the supernatural, legalities and scofflaws all play a role, and together they weave a wonderful tale of a town trying to survive in spite of itself.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Kansas City, here we come.

That title—a stolen line from a classic song—isn’t true, but it is more melodious than the factual “Kansas City, there we’ve been.” Last week was the annual Western Writers of America convention, held, as you have probably guessed, in Kansas City. 
Always a high point in the year, the WWA convention gives me the chance to learn a few new things, meet a few new writers, and, best of all, spend some time with writers I’ve met at earlier conventions and who have become friends. I find that hanging around with people who are smarter than I am (they are not hard to find) is always stimulating.
The only downside to the convention is that the family members who travel with me get to spend their days seeing all manner of interesting places and things while I am at meetings. But I do get to tuck in a few such visits now and then and see things I’ve never seen before—like the Arabia Steamboat Museum, home to 200 tons of artifacts recovered from a steamboat that sank in 1856 and was recovered 132 years later from deep under a cornfield. More about that another day.
Next summer, WWA convenes in Billings, Montana. I’ve been there for one reason or another several times over the years, and am already looking forward to returning to Big Sky Country.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 39: Believe in yourself.

People who attempt to write a book (or a short story, magazine article, movie, poem, or song) harbor the belief that they can pull it off. They’ve convinced themselves they can spend the requisite time in a chair, are confident they can string together the necessary number of words, and trust they can slog through the revisions and rewrites required.
Believing in yourself is a good thing. An essential thing. Without that belief, no word would ever get written.
But believing in yourself is only half the story.
If that.
It is equally important, perhaps more important, that you doubt yourself.
I think that bears repeating: If you want to be a writer, you must doubt yourself.
You must question every word. Is it the best word? Would another word say it better?
Would a metaphor, a simile, an allusion, or other indirect way of telling something work better than saying it straight out?
Is that the way this character would say that? Do you really think that character would do this?
And so on.
Writing—at least writing well—is a continuous process of self-doubt. And that’s just as important—if not more so—than believing in yourself.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Rawhide Robinson Rides the Interweb.

Rawhide Robinson, the ordinary cowboy who finds himself involved in all manner of extraordinary events, now has his own web site.
Visit and you’ll learn about the Wild West’s wildest cowboy. You can watch (in a matter of seconds) short videos about the books Rawhide Robinson Rides the Range: True Adventures of Bravery and Daring in the Wild West (winner of a Western Writers of America Spur Award) and Rawhide Robinson Rides the Tabby Trail: The True Tale of a Wild West CATastrophe (winner of a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award and finalist for a Spur Award). And you can read brief excerpts from those books as well as Rawhide Robinson Rides a Dromedary: The True Tale of a Wild West Camel Caballero, slated for release in February, 2018.
There’s no other cowboy quite like Rawhide Robinson. Pay him a visit online at And, of course, you can get to know him better by buying the books. They make fine entertainment for readers from junior high to geriatrics.
(If I do say so myself.)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Where palette meets palate.

For the past several years I have been fascinated by the fascination with “Certified Angus Beef.” It shows up on all manner of menus, from fine dining establishments to fast food emporiums. In supermarket meat cases, too. It’s supposed to mean something.
I don’t get it.
Growing up, we raised cattle. Herefords. (Red with distinctive patterns of white.) I worked for a rancher who had some Herefords, some Angus (black), Galloways (black), and a bunch of crossbreds (mostly black with white faces and markings—black bally, we called them). My dad punched cows for a big outfit that had cows of many colors and crosses—Charolais (white), shorthorn (mostly red), and the aforementioned breeds. There were a few exotic breeds like Simmentals around, but not so many as nowadays.
We ate beef from cattle of all colors. Some meat was better than other meat, but that had to do with how and what the cow was fed rather than the color of its hide. In fact, once a cow’s hide has been peeled you would be hard pressed to know from the meat inside what color the cow used to be on the outside—if you could know at all.
I once heard the great cowboy singer and songwriter Dave Stamey say on stage that he admired the people behind the “Certified Angus Beef” campaign for convincing us of the cockamamie notion that a color has a flavor.
I think he’s right.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 8.

When Ivan Doig died in 2015, we lost one of our best Western authors. Doig wrote a number of books and I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all. Several of them are listed among my favorites, including English Creek, Bucking the Sun, Mountain Time, The Bartender's Tale, and Last Bus to Wisdom.
But the one I find myself re-reading most often is Dancing at the Rascal Fair. It is the middle book of Doig’s trilogy featuring the McCaskill family but, chronologically speaking, it is the first story. Set at the tail end of the nineteenth century in the Two Medicine country of northern Montana, it introduces Angus McCaskill, who emigrates from Scotland with this friend Rob Barclay. It follows the men over some three decades as they build sheep ranches on the Montana frontier. They fight the elements, illness, and, at times, each other.
You’ll find adventure, violence, and romance in the pages of this remarkable book as it presents a realistic, hard-eyed look at life in the frontier West.
If you haven’t read Ivan Doig, it’s not too late to fill the gap.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Another one bites the dust.

American Cowboy magazine announced recently that they are drawing the shades, pulling the plug, turning out the lights, blowing out the candle, locking the doors, pulling in the latchstring, folding their tent, spooling their bedroll, and selling their saddle.
The June/July 2017 issue will be the last.
Jesse Mullins edited the magazine for its first 18 years, and under his hand it became, I believe, the best of the publications for aficionados of the modern-day American West. The magazine was never the same after being bought up by a big corporation and the ouster of Jesse.
The first of my poems to ever see print was in the pages of American Cowboy back in December 1997 (that’s the cover, above) and many others followed. Jesse assigned me a lot of articles from around about 2002 through 2011. Along the way I interviewed a governor, some entertainers, rodeo champions, writers, artists, and other interesting people. I didn’t write much for subsequent editors of the magazine, outside of an opinion piece in a 2015 issue.
It is safe to say that much of the success I have enjoyed as a writer stems from Jesse’s acceptance of that first poem and his support over the years. So, thank you, Jesse Mullins. And thank you, American Cowboy.
Requiesce in pace.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 38: You, too, can be a best-selling author.

We once addressed the “lie” that nobody reads anymore. The fact is, people are reading. Which brings up the question many (most) writers ask: “Why aren’t they reading my books?” The question persists, despite the many times writers (including me) have been shoveled tons of advice at workshops and conferences and elsewhere about how to become a best-selling author.
It can happen. It does happen. But, like most good fortune in life, the odds are against you. A writer friend of mine who had a novel turned into an Academy Award-winning movie likened that success to “being struck by benevolent lightning.”
The fact is, lightning may not strike you. Or me. Here are several million reasons why. 
Berrett-Koehler Publishers (a company I know nothing about or have any connection with) compiled some telling statistics about books and publishing from several sources. I’ve borrowed from their work here.
Of late, traditional publishers are cranking out about 300,000 books a year. Last year, some 700,000 books were self-published by their authors. That’s a million brand new books. And that’s on top of 13 million existing books still on the market, with more added every year.
So your new book (and mine) is competing for attention with at least 14 million other books. There are things you can do—or try—to get noticed. And you’ll likely sell some books.
Chances are, you might sell enough be invited to speak at a writers conference and tell other writers how they can be a best-selling author like you.
I’ve been invited to speak at many writers conferences—but never, ever, on that topic.
Maybe someday.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Porter Rockwell pulls the trigger in True West.

The latest issue of True West magazine (May 2017) is on newsstands. Most fans of the Old West are familiar with this colorful, lively publication that chronicles all kinds of people and events from our history.
In this issue you’ll find “Utah Bloodbath,” an article I wrote about Porter Rockwell’s pursuit and shooting of Lot Huntington, and the suspicious deaths of Huntington’s partners in crime after Rockwell turned them over to the Salt Lake City police. Robbery, horse stealing, and the brutal beating of Utah’s governor all led up to the shootout and are reported in the story. As is usually the case with history, many details are sketchy and accounts differ. But the article attempts to present events as recorded in contemporary sources. 
Porter Rockwell was one of the Western frontier’s most feared and respected gunmen, but his place in history in no way reflects his fame and infamy in his day. Perhaps this article in this influential magazine will help bolster his memory.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“Spring into Books” 2017.

Book lovers who live along the Wasatch Front here in Utah are in for a treat. The Salt Lake County Library System’s “Spring into Books” event is on the horizon.
Dozens of authors (including yours truly) will be on hand, offering reading for all ages and all interests. There will also be workshops, readings, fun and games, and other activities. If you’re in the area, join us Saturday, May 20 from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m at the Viridian Event Center in West Jordan.
Otherwise, find my books online at for good reading this spring, summer, or any season.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Was Mark Twain right?

There’s a quotation (that comes in several versions) attributed (without supporting evidence) to the great Western writer Mark Twain: “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.”
It seems that attitude is becoming popular among American writers.
As a sometimes book reviewer and writing contest judge, I read a lot of books. And more and more, I find a lot of editing errors. Punctuation is often sloppy. Sentence construction is sometimes unfathomable. Word choice questionable.
And correct spelling overlooked.
Letters in a word might be inverted. A related—but wrong—word form might be used. A homonym might be used in place of the correct word. Occasionally I come across a word that is correctly spelled but is the altogether wrong word—not a homonym, exactly, but sometimes it’s a word close enough to what the author intended that I can figure out what it should be.
I find such easy-to-correct errors in traditionally published books, but rarely. They appear more often in books from small publishers. But they appear most often in self-published books. Sometimes, in self-published books in which the author acknowledges an editor or proofreader or both. They should ask for a refund.
But, really, they should fix these things themselves. Everybody makes mistakes, and errors have a way of slipping through. There is no excuse, however, for outright sloppiness. Spell checkers help, but can’t flag a correctly spelled word used incorrectly. Use a dictionary if you’re not absolutely sure. It only takes a minute. Simple spelling errors should be as rare as hen’s teeth in a published book.
Truth be told, out of respect for readers they should be just as rare in online postings, emails, letters, and everything we write—but that may be too much to ask. Especially in a time when pointing out online mistakes creates furor and derision.
If you believe the aforementioned quotation attributed to Mark Twain, he would be delighted with the current state of affairs when it comes to spelling.
But I doubt it.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 37: Two (or three or six) heads are better than one.

There’s a term in vogue among writers these days: beta reader. I don’t know where the phrase originated or why (or what they used to call it), but all it means is that someone (or several someones) is reading a manuscript you intend to publish, or submit to a publisher.
Sometimes a “beta reader” is a spouse or another family member. Sometimes a friend. Sometimes a colleague from a critique group or other writing organization. Sometimes all of the above, or someone else altogether.
The idea behind beta readers is the notion that two heads are better than one—that they will point out pitfalls in your plot, cracks in your characters, lapses in logic, problems with prose, and so on, and perhaps offer advice on repairs.
Things, it seems to me, a writer ought to find and fix while writing and rewriting.
But many writers find beta readers helpful. On occasion I have been asked to be a beta reader but I doubt I was of much use since all I can offer is my opinion, which may be at odds with what the writer thinks.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I don’t use beta readers. Here’s why. First of all, the people I want reading my manuscripts are publishers and editors. People whose opinions really count, in numbers preceded by dollar signs. 
Next, as mentioned earlier, any glaring weaknesses in a manuscript should have been found and fixed already, by me. (Or not, which may well be the case.)
Sometimes, comments and criticism are more related to style than substance, and style ought to be the writer’s province.
The advice offered may not be bad—but it may not be good, either. You could do something a different way based on their advice, but different may just be different—not better.
Also, readers have differing opinions, so the advice of one is sometimes at odds with the advice of another—even downright contradictory.
Most of all, I suppose, there’s the question of who’s right and who’s wrong. Criticism from beta readers may lead to your doubting your work, even your ability. When you set out to write this thing, you must have believed you could do it. You can’t let someone who has no horse in the race convince you otherwise. As the late, great author Kent Haruf once said: “You have to believe in yourself despite the evidence.”
It’s all up to you, of course. Use beta readers if it helps. Maybe two heads are better than one. On the other hand, it could be equally true that too many cooks spoil the broth.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 7

Win Blevins appears on my list as author of a couple of my favorite novels. But while filled with interesting short stories, this book is nonfiction.
The Dictionary of the American West includes definitions and explanations of “Over 5,000 terms and expressions from Aarigaa to Zopilote.” It not only makes for enjoyable browsing, it is a handy reference, always at hand on the shelf next to my desk.
I also use and enjoy Ramon Adams’s Western Words, but while that book covers cowboy lingo well, the Dictionary of the American West is broader in its scope, including language from other subcultures, including mountain men, miners, Indian tribes, fishermen, Hispanics, and on and on.
While better known as a Western Writers Hall of Fame author of fiction—and you’ll see him here again for that—today Win Blevins earns a place on my list of favorite books for this important work of nonfiction and history and lexicography.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Join the fight to rescue the Apostrophe.

The apostrophe is a handy little punctuation mark that does two (and only two) jobs in writing: it shows ownership in possessive words, and it indicates missing letters in contractions.
For some reason, this simple little mark is widely misused and abused. A lot. Perhaps as often as it’s used correctly. Many, many people seem to believe apostrophes belong in plurals. (They would write plural’s instead of plurals.) As annoying as that habit is, we’ll let it go. For now.
This particular rant revolves around what is often the correct use of the apostrophe, but with the incorrect punctuation mark. It happens when writers drop a letter at the beginning of a word, usually when writing vernacular or dialect. (Such as ’bout for about, ’er for her, ’neath for beneath, ’cause for because, ’fore for before—well, you get the idea.)
The problem is, I found—with very little looking for examples as I write this—all these contractions printed (or posted) as ‘bout, ‘er, ‘neath, ‘cause, and ‘fore. All using an incorrect punctuation mark.

This: is an apostrophe. This: is not.

You’ll notice the marks bend, or hook, in opposite directions.
The one that hooks opposite the apostrophe is the single opening quotation mark, for use when quoted material falls within a larger quotation, such as:
“I saw Shorty in town yesterday,” Slim said. “He gave me a tip of the hat and said ‘howdy’ but that was all.”
Blame it on word processing programs. But writers share the blame when they don’t fix it.
When you hit the appropriate key at the beginning of a word, the single opening quotation mark appears on the screen, rather than the apostrophe that appears if you hit the same key within a word. Computers don’t know any better. Writers should. There are two ways to fix it; both are simple, one more so than the other.
You can fix it by finding a proper apostrophe elsewhere in your writing and copying and pasting it at the beginning of your contracted word. Or, easier still, you can hit the key twice—that will give you a single opening quotation mark followed by an apostrophe (or single closing quotation mark). Then, delete the wrong one and you’re correct.
“Big deal,” I hear you saying (perhaps with a crude adjective between those two words). Maybe you’re right. But the more we allow little lapses in communication—which is what punctuation is all about in the first place—the more accepting we are of bigger and more serious lapses. Before you know it, it’s all gobbledygook. 
Too much writing comes out that way, anyway. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

“And the River Ran Red” debut performance.

Not long ago, singer and songwriter extraordinaire Brenn Hill debuted “And the River Ran Red,” a song I had the good fortune to help write. As I’ve said before, writing a song is a strange undertaking for me, as I couldn’t carry a tune with a packsaddle.
But, thanks to Brenn, I think it’s a damn fine song.
Based on the tragic events of the 1863 Bear River Massacre, where US Army troops slaughtered some 300 Shoshoni men, women, and children, the song adds to a list of my writings on the subject, which include a nonfiction book, Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten and a chapter in The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed, as well as some short stories and poems.
Brenn Hill performed the song for the first time at the American West Heritage Center in Cache Valley, just 36 miles from the massacre site, on 10 and 11 April 2017. See a cell phone video of the performance on YouTube.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 6

John McPhee is a name you will see here again. He is, without doubt, one of my favorite writers. Some of his books are collections of articles he wrote for The New Yorker, others address a single subject.
No matter the subject, if McPhee writes it I will read it.
Witness the fact that I have read his books (and many others) on raising oranges, building birch-bark canoes, Bill Bradley, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the Swiss Army, cargo ships, and the geology of North America—subjects I have no particular interest in but enjoyed immensely reading about.
Among my favorite McPhee books is Rising from the Plains, one of five volumes that make up his Pulitzer Prize-winning compilation, Annals of the Former World.
The book is about the geology of Wyoming, as seen through McPhee’s travels with geologist David Love. You’ll find that reading about rocks can be fascinating.  But Love is also a Wyoming boy who grew up on an isolated ranch when the West was still wild, and those stories are just as engaging as the tales about traces of the Triassic on the landscape.

This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist. I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West.

So begins Rising from the Plains by John McPhee. How can you not read on?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 36: Plan Your Plot, Organize Your Outline.

Many fiction writers plan out a story in great detail before writing the first word. And many writing instructors teach the hows and whys of plotting and outlining. They swear by the process, claiming it provides discipline and keeps you on track. If you plot and outline well enough, you’re less likely to wander off on tangents or let the story ramble down paths not of your choosing.
But it’s not the only way to write. And, for some, not the best way to write. While every story starts somewhere, and the writer likely has some idea about where it’s going, many writers know little else about it. They like to let the story find itself, rely on the characters to drive the action, and allow causes to create their own effects and conflicts to reach their own resolution.
That’s the way I like to write. In fact, as I write this I am about 50,000 words into a novel, and while the story and characters have decided what happens next (as they have, for the most part, all along the way), what follows after that is pretty hazy, and where it will end is unknown—at least to me.
There’s a quotation by Ray Bradbury that sums up this approach to writing a book: “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”
E.L. Doctorow said something similar: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I trust that, at some point, the fog will clear and book I am working on will eventually reach its destination.

P.S. It did.