Thursday, July 19, 2018

Murder at a Maryland Newspaper

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and reading about on my computer. A gunman had killed five staff members at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis.

It wasn’t long before we were hearing about the dead, average men and women who were only doing their job that day as usual. I didn’t know any of them, but I cried for their families, their community and the loss to the newspaper world.

The murdered included Girl Scout leader and mother of four, Wendi Winters, 65, who kept the community informed with columns such as Teen of the Week and Home of the Week.

Gerald Fischman, 61, editorial writers who had been at the paper for 25 years and had worked at the Carroll County Times during the 1980s,

John McNanamara, 56, who had written two books on the university of Maryland during his 20 years at the Gazette. A graduate of UM he also loved to write about the university’s sports.

Rob Hiaasen, 59, assistant editor and features columnist. An article in the July 16 issue of People magazine mentioned that Hiaasen’s wife was celebrating her 58th birthday. She was waiting for him to come home before opening the present he had left for her. Now he would never come home again.

The youngest, Rebecca Smith, 34, was just hired last fall as a sales assistant and was engaged to be married. Little details like this that help us see these are just average people.

Each with their own story, each with a future that was cut short because of a man who hated and saw nothing wrong with taking a weapon and killing whoever he met, at what he considered his enemy, the community newspaper.

News media is our lifeline to what is happening in our world, letting us know things we need to know. Especially community newspapers, who not only let you know if your zoning may be changed, your taxes raised or your school closed (before these things happen so maybe you can do something).  They also run articles on fundraisers for charities, sports groups, medical emergencies, veteran programs, fairs, carnivals and other local events. They cover the graduations, the plays and the games of our children.

I had worked on my high school newspaper and went to work for the Carroll County Times soon after graduation. Since then I have written for other newspapers in Carroll and Alleghany counties and still write articles for non-profit groups.
I’ve always thought of journalism as an honorable profession with such writers as Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allen Poe, Ken Follet, and even Winston Churchill.

Newspapers have been part of American life since before we became a country. Benjamin Franklin, a writer and a newspaper printer, was one of the leaders of American democracy. The Annapolis newspaper reportedly had been published since 1727.

A small way for to help something good come from this tragedy, go to

Donations to the Capital Gazette Families Fund will provide help for the families, victims and survivors of the mass shooting. Also, a Capital Gazette Memorial Scholarship Fund was created to provide an annual award for select students pursuing a degree in Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

I am proud to have been a journalist and hope young people today continue to want to report the truth to the American people, whether through the written word, radio, television, computers or whatever else might be in our future.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Reviewing my Observations

I have not posted a new blog this month and am upset about that. However, I have been excited about publishing Storm on Savage Mountain and beginning promotional efforts.

I also am writing a non-fiction book that will give information about what lead to the writing of that book. So, although I don't have time to write a new blog, I reviewed my list of partial blogs to finish one, but found this complete book that was written in October 2016 to welcome the new year, but never posted.

So here is reviewing my observations for 2017. (Maybe it is time to do this again)
A new blog, a new year, a new opportunity to write, to learn and hopefully to make a difference.

I originally chose josobservations because I envisioned this blog to be about a wide variety of issues, not just about reading and writing (although those are my favorite subjects).

There are so many things I want to write about and so little time, that I get frustrated. However, when trying to decide what to write about for this blog, I decided to review my past blogging history and see if this was accomplished.

Books: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Tina Sankovitch

The Extreme Novelist by Kathryn Johnson

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande

The Great Detective by Zack Dundas

Last One Home by Debbie Macomber

Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran

Unthink, rediscover your creative genius by erik wahl

Write Small, Stylize: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey

Spunk & Bite: A writer’s guide to punchier, more engaging language & style by Arthur Plotnik

Perfect Bound by Katherine Pickett

What Price Eden by Dean Minnich

Christmas Carroll by Carroll County Writers

Writers have featured prominently in my blogs: John Steinbeck, Jeanne Adams, Tom Glenn, Dani Pettrey, Lucia St Clair Robson, Loree Lough, Doug Norton, D L Wilson, Julie Castillo, Lois Szymanski, Laura Bowers, Michele “Wojo” Wojciechowski, Mona Kirby, Fernando Quijano, B. Morrison, Jack Downs, Kerry Peresta, P J Wetzel, Betsy Riley, Alix Moore, Ally Machate and others.

Other Topics: I wrote about art featuring Jeffrey Kent, funny Christmas songs, and poetry in a blog about flying and again in my chapbook blog.

My writer friends and I enjoy sharing information and promoting other writers. So, many of my blogs are about communication, such as writing prompts, how to get ideas, publicity and promotion, local, state and national writing groups, writing conferences, book festivals and challenges such as Nanowrimo.

Looking back, there is plenty of variety and there will be more in the future. I plan to discuss more books. This gives me an excuse to read even more. I think my blogs have improved and hopefully that trend will continue.

One of the main reasons I loved being a reporter was because of the variety. Now, this blog gives me the opportunity to write about books, events and interesting people. I hope you will find these interesting and enjoyable.

I welcome questions, comments and suggestions for future blogs.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Published! Me and Michael Downs

Friday, May 11, 2018 was a big day for me and my writing career.  After almost ten years of writing and weeks of studying self-publishing and related topics, I published my book, Storm on Savage Mountain, through Kindle Direct Publishing(KDP).

It is now available at the Kindle Store and on Amazon. I have been working on this book for almost ten years. I was awake until 2:00 A.M. Saturday, trying to complete the KDP process. I also designed and printed a small marketing handout about the ebook  to let people know that a paperback version would be coming soon.

I have been writing all my life and a good part of my career was as a journalist. I also had published a chapbook and taught some classes on writing, but many people don’t think of you as a real writer unless you have written a book. So now I have and was ready to tell people about it.

I was up early Saturday morning to participate in Westminster’s Flower and Jazz Festival with other writers in front of Eclecticity, across from the library. It was a beautiful, sunny day and Main Street was packed. I enjoyed talking to people about books and art available at Eclecticity and especially about my books if they were interested.

I wish I could have stayed longer, but Michael Downs was speaking at the Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Writers’ Association. His topic, History and its Mysteries: How  Fiction’s Imagination Works with History’s Fact, sounded interesting and I didn’t want to miss it.

Like Michael Downs, I was a former newspaper reporter and like him, I like to fill in the gaps between the facts. So far, I am publishing fiction, but also am writing some non-fiction books.

Downs is writing non-fiction. His most recent book is the novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist, about the man credited with discovering anesthesia. He also published The Greatest Show: Stories, inspired by a 1944 circus fire, and House of Good Hope: A Promise for a Broken City, which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.

He discussed his approach to studying history and writing about it. First he looks at what he knows.
When he has found a subject that interests him, he looks into various sources of information. He does remind us that information can still be unreliable. Next, he looks for the mystery or what hasn’t been mentioned, such as the “whys” a person did a certain thing.

Michael Downs
You find the mystery or contradictions in the story and go from there, he said.  Imagination can help you fill in the gaps. You must use reasoned conjectures, seek patterns and consider evidence. He studied 19th century paintings and researched 19th century language so he could better understand their world and their words.

Downs stressed that history isn’t story. A lot more is needed to make that information into an interesting book or story.

He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. Downs is an associate professor of English at Towson University.

For more information, check out

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Flash Fiction

Recently, I have been interested in writing Flash Fiction, often referred to a short, short fiction. It usually is less than 1,000 words. Because of the limited number of words allowed in this type of writing, it is important to begin at a moment of conflict or a major turning point that plunges the reader immediately into the story.
Characters are often shown in one brief moment of time, perhaps in the midst of some physical activity or making a decision. 

This concise type of writing allows for no excess words. Writers must cut everything that isn’t essential to the story. However it is still important to have good flow and rhythm, as well as smooth, logical transitions.
Flash fiction still tells a story with a beginning, middle and end. There is usually a sense of story arc, even if only implied. Flash fiction is written in all genres. Often it ends with a twist or surprise. Endings should have a strong impact, then stop, no tying up loose ends.

Because lengths can vary, it is important to check guidelines before writing and submitting to publications or contests. Writers may enjoy the challenge of squeezing a lot of meaning in a small number of words.
Barbara Westwood Diehl, founder and Senior Editor of The Baltimore Review, defined flash fiction as “Intensity jammed into a small space.”

She mentioned the above suggestions and many more at a recent meeting of the Carroll County Chapter of the Maryland Writer’s Association, (MWA). The Chapter is sponsoring a Flash Fiction Contest for residents of Carroll County, offering a $100 prize and a year’s membership In MWA for the best entry this year.
For more details, contact Chapter President at or respond to this blog.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Children and Poetry

I just finished reading The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan. Although I started it last month, it seems appropriate that I finished it during National Poetry Month.
A children’s novel published by Random House Children’s Books in 2016, it will be interesting to anyone who enjoys poetry.

I loved the variety of subjects and styles she used in this book, as she has 18 children express their feeling about their school scheduled for demolition. Some form a “Save Our School” committee. Their teacher, who plans to retire along with the school, has the students write poems. These records of their fifth grade will be included in a time capsule.
The book is divided into the four quarters of the school year. The students write about how things used to be and how everything is changing. Their lives are different and their poems are different.

They tell stories about changes in family and friendships and issues with discrimination, divorce and death. Using many poetic forms, she gives each student a voice. Small illustrations throughout the book add to the sense of the child talking through poetry.

The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, was a NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the year, and won a Cybils Award for poetry, as well a Nerdy Book Club award.

Shovan wrote the Harriss Poetry Prize-winning chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone. She is a previous editor of the Little Patuxent Review and editor of two poetry anthologies. She taught high school, worked as a freelance journalist, an educational consultant for teens with learning differences and as a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland Arts Council. Another children's novel, Take Down is about a travel wrestling team.

Laura's author website and blog are at Find her on Twitter
I've loved poetry since I was a child and read poems from my father's copy of Best Loved Poems of the American People (1939 edition.  Although I only dabble in writing poetry when the muse strikes, I admire those who write it regularly and can earn a living writing.

National Poetry Month was started by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 and has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s place in our culture. Learn more at

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Writing murder and mayhem

Author Jeanne Adams talked about murder, forensics and investigative procedures that can help mystery writers. I don’t write mysteries (well, maybe a few attempts), but I do enjoy reading a good mystery.

She gave plenty of information mystery writers can use to help your novel flow. Such as, how your victim dies can affect your timeline, as far as the type of autopsy required and police investigation needed.

With a light, yet respectful tone, she talked about what happens to bodies (called remains) in different situations and how writers can use this knowledge to extend the plot timeline and make sure the details in your story are correct.

If the character died of a gunshot, what type and size of gun was used? What type of wound would it leave? Is it a type of gun that your villain or hero could handle?

Can there be delays in the regular procedures? How can someone steal a body or make a murder appear to be a natural death? Does the killer bury the body deep in a forest or have it go through the morgue? To collect life insurance or inherit property, there must be a signed death certificate giving the cause of death. Someone has to determine a cause of death before a body can be released for burial or cremation.

“Funerals are for the living, not the dead,” she said. Despite last requests, the body becomes the property of the next of kin and could be cremated within 48 hours.

Usually a coroner or medical examiner is called for a gunshot wound, even if it appears to be self-inflicted. But different states have different procedures and titles, so check them out.

Procedures are especially different in rural areas where your timeline may be extended if the body has to be taken to a distant location. She said that rural hospitals and morgues can be used to extend the time you have to have your criminal destroy evidence or help police to solve the murder.

Arguments at the funeral home may reveal the personality of different family members and friends and perhaps give readers a new suspect.  Adams discussed types and costs of caskets. I hope you know that they use caskets now, not coffins. Also, there is no longer an undertaker. Remember that if your murder occurred in recent years.
Joelle Jarvis and Jeanne Adams

I’ve often heard, the devil is in the details. Make sure those details are right. For forensics, you can contact people who work in the fields, such as forensic experts, crime scene technicians and morticians. A Public Information Officer can be helpful. Check out the National Funeral Directors’ Association and cemetery searches like Find-a-Grave. There is even a site called  

Some books she mentioned are:

When You are the Only Cop in Town, A Writer’s Guide to Smalltown Law Enforcement by Jack Berry and Debra Dixon. Adams considers it an indispensable guide to facts, procedures, and the how-to’s of small town law enforcement.  Jack Berry has over 30 years in law enforcement, the last 17 as Chief in a small town.

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders.

The Forensic Casebook: The Science of Crime Scene Investigation by Ngaire E. Genge, and The MindHunter book series by Kylie Brant.

“There is always an investigation,” she said, as she discussed what agencies would be involved in situations, such as industrial accidents, natural disasters or terrorist attacks. It is important to know the specifics in your story are correct before you lose credibility and sales.

Adams is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and had worked in the funeral home and cemetery business for 13 years.  Besides mystery and suspense, she writes romance and fantasy. Her blog is

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Girls in the Picture novel

Take a trip back to the early days of Hollywood and the flickers (movies), when you read The Girls in the Picture.
I read the book right after a presentation by Melanie Benjamin about her most recent book. This novel is timely, published just before the Oscars and during the discussions of “me-too” and “women’s voices in Hollywood.”

The title didn’t come from the idea of movie pictures, Melanie said, but from old photos where Mary Pickford and Frances Marion were often the only women in the room (surrounded by men) during important events, such as the founding of United Artists.
Besides giving us a close-up view of the new movie industry, she tells this story through the voices of two powerful women who became friends, during that time, imagining what they were thinking and how the movies changed.

The book is fiction, just as their movies were, but often truth can be revealed through fiction. Each person seeing a movie or reading a book sees it through their eyes.
Silent movie star Mary Pickford and writer Frances Marion met during the confusion that was early Hollywood and became best friends and movers and shakers in that world.

As a writer, I could identify more with Frances and her view of this emerging new method of communication. Some thoughts from the fictional Frances Marion that I could identify with:
”How fun-how freeing- it had been to put myself in other people’s shoes! To imagine their lives, their relationships, what they might say, even if it was merely party chatter. I wasn’t acting only one role, I was acting several—all of them—all intoxicatingly different.”
“This is it, this is what I was looking for, waiting for, all those years. This flowering, this opening of hearts and eyes and minds, great vistas, all through the creation of people like me – people whose imaginations were too big for real life, so we had to build another.”
“Perhaps the simplest formula for a plot is: invent some colorful personalities, involve them in an apparently hopeless complication or predicament, then extricate them in a logical and dramatic way that brings them happiness.”
These two women were very different, but both loved this new world, Hollywood. Mary could bring the emotions alive in front of the camera and was an astute business woman, while Frances was a writer and director.

Mary and Douglas Fairbanks married, became the king and queen of Hollywood during that era. Pickfair was like the Buckingham Palace of California and they entertained royally. Frances and Fred Thompson married and the four honeymooned together.
Both women were far more than just their jobs. Besides their movies, they were instrumental in forming United Artists,   the Screen Writers Guild and the Academy Awards and other Hollywood institutions. Pickford won the second Academy Award and Marion won two Academy Writing Awards.”

I had trouble putting this book down, although I knew it was not going to be a happy story all the way to the end. Life happens to all of us and not necessarily the way we want. I hope you enjoy “The Girls in the Picture” as much as I did. Thanks to Melanie Benjamin for a wonderful story and a good presentation and compliments to Penquin Random House, Carroll Community College and Carroll County Public Library.
I’ve also enjoyed Melanie’s books, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (which I read in 2012) and The Aviator’s Wife (2015) and look forward to reading more of her books.

You can learn more about the author and books at and on twitter@MelanieBen.
Okay. For those who have stuck with me, here is another quote from Frances Marion who volunteered and went to war (WWI).

“It was odd, I knew; I’d come to war for a lot of reasons, one of which, if I were being honest, was to gain experience; experience to write about. Because that’s what writers did; they lived, then they wrote about that living.”