Thursday, March 3, 2016

To Write, You've Got to READ

When I’m lying in bed reading, you might think I’m slacking off. However, as a writer, I’ve become a professional reader, as well. If I don’t read, how can I learn what to do and what not to do?

As I read, I notice how some writers drop in description of the landscape, or their characters’ surroundings. I notice the questions they ask of others, and the emotions they experience. I notice whether things are overwritten—for example, I recently purchased a book that was so folksy-cutesy I could not read it. The writer had overdone it by far.

By the same token, I also must give credit to writers who hit just the right note. I think Anne Hillerman did this in her book Spider Woman’s Daughter. I worked with Anne briefly, as a reporter at The Santa Fe New Mexican. I’m sorry to say I didn’t really get to know her. She wrote editorials at the time, and I was a beat reporter.

What’s clear in Spider Woman’s Daughter is that Anne did a great deal of research. I’m sure this involved a careful rereading of her father Tony Hillerman’s books, especially A Thief of Time, which she references at the end of the book. Also, she had to know a good deal about the physical features of the Navajo landscape: its towns, its highways, its government offices, its restaurants.

Sickos get a lot of time to read.
I also found a certain lyrical quality to the language Anne used in describing the landscape, and I picked up on the ironies that only someone who has been a local can know about Santa Fe, and more.

The last week or so, I’ve been forced
to lie in bed and read a bit more than usual, while suffering a sinus infection. However, just because I’m flat on my back doesn’t mean I’m not busy working toward the completion of my own first novel. I’ve reviewed my police procedure manual, but I’m also studying the technique of another favorite writer, and sometimes, right before I drift off to sleep, writing my next chapter in my head. When I'm over the crud, I hope to write down that next chapter—if not on actual paper, into the computer, where black and white is infinitely more editable.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

For Authenticity, Check It Out

DJ Disco at El Palacio during a break.
Sometimes, ya just gotta go there.

Fearing that my memory might be a little fuzzy, I had an opportunity recently to refresh it. Because I had set a scene at the popular Mesilla watering trough, El Palacio, I was gratified when I ended up there recently to see friends of friends who had frequented the bar while they were students at nearby New Mexico State University.

This bar advertises itself as "respectful." There's a dress code disallowing lowcut tops for women and wife-beaters (undershirts) for men. It has the standard wooden bar backed by mirrors, which multiply the bottles of various types of spirits on offer. It has a pressed-tin ceiling, a jukebox, a tiled floor, and tile on the walls.

The noise level the night I was there was considerable, so it was difficult to hear one's companions over the DJ disco in the room next to the main bar and in the back room, where a live band was playing for those who prefer more traditional Mexican music.

The bar, a fixture in Mesilla for more than seventy years, seems to be a favored hangout for area Latinos of a variety of age groups and philosophies. One often sees motorcycles lined up out front; you might see cowboy hats on the two-steppers and their partners in the disco and elderly folks who want to polka in the back room. I saw tattooed homies in athletic shorts and t-shirts, some older folks gathered at the bar, and my friends, so white they looked pasty in contrast to the majority of the patrons, who by that hour, were so numerous it was practically standing room only.

Frisky liquor advertising "art."
Velia Chavez, owner, says her dad, Pablo Salcido, originally opened the place as a blacksmith's shop. However, one night, her mother decided to have a dance there. "The place got packed," she says. People were asking for more dances, and after another couple of successes, "she told my dad, 'forget about the blacksmith's shop. This is gonna be a dance hall.'" 

Women were not allowed in the bar (except for dances?) until after her father's death in 1991, Velia says, shortly after the main part of the building had burned. After the fire, they had to do something within ten days to avoid losing their nearly sixty-year-old liquor license. The community was on the job to save the bar. It was rebuilt with lots of help from the local folks, and the pressed-tin ceiling puts the new building in synch with its' historical past.

The bar at El Palacio on a busy Saturday night.
My point in giving you this description? I've set a scene in my mystery novel in El Palacio. I wanted to be certain that what I remembered was authentic. It was. When my character encounters "Chuy" there, he is definitely in his element. But if you want to be sure, read my book. Then go to El Palacio and have a few cold ones.


My thanks to Bucket List Bars' July 30, 2011, YouTube video. Additionally, my apologies to those with Spanish surnames who may prefer Mexican-American, Chicano, or Hispanic as descriptions of their ethnicity.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Cartel

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera fair use
file photo, Wikipedia
Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera of the Sinaloa cartel was arrested in February 2014 and subsequently incarcerated at Altiplano Federal Prison. At the time, DEA officials noted that if Loera was not extradited to the U.S., it would soon be "business as usual," and at some point, he would be allowed to escape.

Big surprise, he did so last July: some say through a tunnel connecting the shower in his cell to a partly built house almost a mile away. Not everyone believes that this is what happened; it is almost as likely that he walked out the front door, some believe with the complicity of the Mexican government.

El Chapo is the model for Don Winslow's Adan Barrera in his recent novel, The Cartel, a book rife with cartel-to-cartel violence that spills over to and includes innocent women and children, journalists, doctors, activists, basically anyone critical of the cartels' modus operandi, many of whom simply got caught in the crossfire. Winslow's portrayal of the degree to which the cartels have devalued human life shows that it falls into the negative end of the scale. They just don't give a rat's ass who they have to kill, as long as they hang on to their piece of the drug trade and, therefore, the income to be had from the mega-buck industry.

Winslow obviously did extensive research to write his gory but engaging look at the "drug war," not to be confused with the "War on Drugs." His characters often state that Americans' lust for recreational substances running the gamut from the seemingly harmless marijuana, to cocaine, meth, and heroin is largely at fault for the bloodbath taking place south of our borders. Have you ever toked up? Snorted a line of coke? Yep, you can claim some credit for the thousands who have died in the cartels' power plays.

I read Winslow's book with interest, as my novel covers similar territory north of the border. What I learned via Winslow is that my take on gang-related violence and drug-trafficking in my own area isn't that far afield. With twenty-nine chapters written, I've been forced to take a breather as other work has cropped up that must be completed first.

You can bet I am anxious to get a grip on Chapter 30, and bring you up to speed with my Murders in the Mesilla Valley.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Time for My Trial By Fire

Vase with flowers, Santa Fe
For many years, I've been saying I was going to write a book. In fact, I started gathering deep background as early as 2009. However, in the spirit of someone I quoted earlier, who advised me "don't quit your day job," I've dawdled, marketed other work, created two books that were definitely NOT mine, and acted as publisher for them.

Now, an advisor tells me, "you're always complaining that you're undervalued in the workplace, that people aren't fair to you. Maybe it's time for you to be fair to yourself." This individual, while he has done many other things, supports himself as an artist. I took his comment to heart and I've spent some time recently doing additional research to flesh out my book. However, prior to that, I'd agreed to help a friend with a project that is important to her. I was feeling uncomfortable about it, but I realized that in order to do what my advisor had challenged me to do, I would have to back out of my friend's project. I sent her a quick email before leaving town for a week, promising to explain when I returned.

Then, I went to Albuquerque to do some research. The research took only a fraction of the time I spent up north. The rest of it I spent visiting friends I hadn't seen for years and spilling my guts about  my book. I guess I'm thinking if I talk about it, that will help to make it real. I certainly hope so. Now, if I don't do it, I will have shamed myself in front of my friends! (But I do believe talking about it helps make it real. I just have to keep telling myself I'm a writer and act accordingly.)

My advisor told me to begin by writing for two hours a day. I didn't time myself today, so I can't prove that I didn't meet my goal. However, it's a start. Blogging had better count (and who's to say that I am not the one who should decide that?) This is where I get to share the frustrations I encounter along the way, the fresh hell of "auto-correct," and test ideas I want to include in the book. Which leads to my next blog post: using one's writing as a way to promote social change. Look out, guys, you could be the next target.

(c) Beth Morgan 3/3/15 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Not So Happy, Happy, Happy

Back in November, I was doing the Snoopy dance. Now, I'm struggling through one of those periods in which I am feeling frustrated, troubled, and depressed. I think the Vado book is doomed. I have just written the publisher to that effect, and I'm awaiting word from their representative. I am going to see what happens when one must wiggle out of a contract.

This is unfortunate, in my opinion. The primary founding family in Vado seems to think there is all kinds of material about them already out there. There may be some, but it is not very accessible. While I have found several articles (one in New Mexico Magazine and several in regional newspapers), I've found no photographs, except in materials about Blackdom (where some of the Vado families came from). I've been told there were books written by the Boyer family that are publicly available, but I have not been able to find them. One of the family members had a fire and her photos were destroyed. The local newspaper also had a fire, and thus
has few photos from previous years in its morgue.

Gathering together what is left into a book, I thought, would be welcomed by the community. However, I am a stranger, and perhaps the family has been approached so many times they are weary of scholars. Like Floyd Westerman says, "Here come the anthros, better hide your past away; here come the anthros, on another holiday."

They say that when one door closes, another opens. We'll see what happens next. Will it be a maiden on the railroad tracks, Simon Legree pounding on the door, a jail cell or lawsuit for our heroine? Or maybe I'll get to work on MY MYSTERY NOVEL . . .


Friday, July 18, 2014

The Lost Time Crime

You may be wondering how come I haven't written much in the Murders in the Mesilla Valley blog lately. That's an easy one. I got distracted by LIFE.

In addition to having put everything else aside to work on getting a client's family history book ready for the printer, I went to France and then made a quick trip to South Dakota. The client's book has been at the printer's since before I went to France, first and second proofs have been received and corrected, and I expect the printed book will be shipping any day now. (That book is In The Shadow of El Capitan. It may eventually be available as a digital download. Please check back if you are interested.)

Additionally, the next project is looming on the horizon. What writers often tell each other, as Alamogordo Daily News reporter Jessica Palmer told me this week, is "don't quit your day job." Not a generator of great wealth either, my day job, but, oh well.

However, I'd like to take this opportunity to invite anyone with vintage photographs from the Vado, Del Cerro, Berino, and Mesquite, NM, areas to share them for a hometown book I've undertaken for Arcadia Publishing. It's to be a photographic history of the area, which I think would be a useful item to have on hand, since there doesn't seem to be much published. There are some mentions of Vado on the internet (some with photos from a northern New Mexico Vado, not our southern one) accompanying them. I've run across some articles that mention Vado in my preliminary research, but not many. And there's still much to do to gather info on the other communities, as well.

Thus, I am throwing myself upon the mercy of these towns' founding families. Here's your chance to see that your family takes its place in history. You can make that happen by contacting me and sharing your photographs. You can do that at, or by calling me at 575-233-4072.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Criminal Mind

Bundy: A Psychopath's Psychopath

Theodore Robert Bundy, 1979

What would you do if one of your closest friends turned out to be a serial killer? One woman managed to remain on friendly terms with such a man and later, to write his story with deep understanding. Ann Rule, a former policewoman, met Ted Bundy when they were both volunteers at a crisis center in Washington state. Rule's motivation for volunteering at the center was probably an outgrowth of her own brother's death by suicide. She found Bundy as a young man warm, charming, empathetic.

At the suggestion of a psychologist friend, I have been reading some of Rule's books. To write about crime, understanding the criminal mind seems important. I can't say that I have a grip on it at this point in time, but I'm learning. I was disappointed that at almost the end of The Stranger Beside Me, few assessments of Bundy's psychological profile had been put forward, except to note that he exhibited "antisocial" behavior.

Bundy confessed to having killed at least thirty women between 1974 and '78, but he may have killed up to one hundred. He seemed to be able to compartmentalize his life so that, once the deed was done, to all outward appearances he carried on a normal life. For many years, he had a live-in girlfriend who had a young daughter. He was able to conceal his activities from his girlfriend for most of the time they were together, and indeed, he managed not to get caught for a very long time. When he was caught, it was at a time when he had begun to unravel.

The entire duration of his killing career is not known, although it is thought he might be responsible for the death of an 8 year-old girl as early as 1961. (He would have been 14 or 15 then.)  Once started, he  he left a swath of attractive young women dead, from Washington state, through Utah, Colorado, and finally Florida. He murdered two of his last unsuspecting victims in their sleep in a sorority house in Talahassee, Florida, in 1978. The same night, he bludgeoned another young woman. His final victim was a 12-year-old girl in Lake City, Fla., about halfway between Tallahassee and Jacksonville. Often, but not always, the women, who nearly all had long hair parted in the middle, had been raped and bludgeoned to death with a crowbar, a board, a log, or some similar instrument. Sometimes, he strangled them as well, and the last was thought to have been stabbed. Some were dismembered and their heads disposed of separately from their bodies.

A thread running through the book is Rule's belief that Bundy killed these women because they reminded him of a woman whom he had loved, but whom he felt was out of his league and who eventually left him. That humiliated him deeply; his ego wouldn't let him accept it. In an interview shortly before he was executed, he told a psychiatrist that he felt pornography was responsible for pushing him over the edge from voyeur to killer, that his sexual fantasies had progressed to a point where observing did nothing for him anymore.

Watching that interview, I couldn't help feeling that Bundy was playing the psychatrist. I believe Ann Rule had it right when she (finally) pegged him as a psychopath—that is, an individual who is not only incapable of feeling empathy for another human being, but one who feels no remorse, no guilt. Shortly before his trial, he contacted Ann, who had been his friend for so many years, and asked her to intervene. She was not allowed to do that, but stated that she "knew what he wanted, although he had not said it outright. He wanted to come home . . . to confess it all . . . to be confined in a mental hospital . . . "

"The antisocial personality is mentally ill, but not in the classic sense or within our legal framework," Rule wrote. "He is invariably highly intelligent and has . . . learned the proper responses, the tricks and techniques that will please those from whom he wants something. He is subtle, calculating, clever, and dangerous." Rule also quoted Dr. Herve Cleckly, a specialist in the antisocial personality, who interviewed Bundy before his Miami trial: "The observer is confronted with a convincing mask of sanity. We are dealing not with a complete man at all, but with something that suggests a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly."

Theodore Robert Bundy, Utah, 1975, shortly
 after his arrest for possession of burglary tools.
A friend of mine stated recently that the majority of those who kill are not the Ted Bundys, the psychopaths, the sociopaths (something I will be looking at as I research my book). However, having known a sociopath—and having anguished over the direction his life was taking—I do wonder if there is any help for such folks. It seems like a "Catch 22," an unsolvable dilemma. Some of what I have read recently suggests that, yes, a psychopath can be helped through intensive therapy, which may indeed provide coping mechanisms. But I've yet to see that therapy can insert the missing piece into a brain so cold, that lacks the capacity to empathize or to feel remorse. On the one hand, we cannot blame them, as they did not choose their brain's dysfunction. On the other, many of them cannot be trusted to walk freely among us: Ted Bundy showed us that very clearly. He lured some of his victims into his car by convincing them that he was injured and needed help, even wearing a fake cast on his arm or leg, using crutches, dropping things. The functioning of their normal brains—which caused them to feel sorry for another human being—led to their deaths.

However, I am left with the question of whether the tendency toward psycopathy is genetic or acquired. I tend to think it is both. And also, if not all killers are psychopaths, what is their psychological makeup? If you have any thoughts regarding psychopathic killers or treatments for psycopaths, I'd love to hear from you.

© Beth Morgan, January 2014
Note: photographs of Bundy are in the public domain.