Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Excerpt from The Little Rock Messenger

Here is a short excerpt from my book The Little Rock Messenger

The year is 1956.  Young Lincoln South, a twelve year old African-American boy, is on a Greyhound bus trip to visit his grandmother in Atlanta.  Along the way, he suddenly finds himself with the responsibility to deliver family valuables to a young Jewish woman in Atlanta whose family perished in the Holocaust.  In this scene an older boy he befriended has convinced him to leave the bus because a hired killer may be looking for him.  (From Chapter Twelve of The Little Rock Messenger)

Lincoln hesitated, not sure how much he should tell Jeff Twilley.  He wasn’t exactly the most trustworthy kind of person.  He seemed like a boy in some ways, a boy trying to act like a tough dude, but he wasn’t sure exactly what he was.  Lincoln could tell there were things going on that Twilley wanted kept hidden, maybe because he was guilty or ashamed of something.  And if that was the case, he didn’t know if he could really trust him. 
But there was something else about Twilley as well.  He seemed to like Lincoln, and even acted protective toward him - like a big brother.  It was as if he cared about him, and didn’t want anything to happen to him.  In his present circumstance, Lincoln knew this counted for a lot.  He was alone with a big responsibility, and it was hard for him to keep it to himself.  He needed to tell someone about what Jabing wanted him to do.  He needed help.  And in the end, there was no one but Jeff Twilley he could talk to about it.   
Lincoln swallowed, then said, “Well - see, at the last stop - there in Chattanooga before we got on the bus, Mr. Jabing said there was a man after him, the white man who come into the waiting room - you remember - the one who knocked Mr. Jabing down and stole his case.”
“The German dude,” said Twilley.
“That’s him.  Mr. Jabing said he was after things that belonged to a lady who lives in Atlanta,” he explained.  “He said he was taking these things to her, but they weren’t safe with him.  So he - he wanted me to keep them for him on the bus.  I think he knew that man would come after him, that he’d steal them away.”
Lincoln could see Twilley thinking about what he said.
“So, tha’s why the German snatched the old man’s case,” Twilley offered.
Lincoln nodded.
“Yeah - but it didn’t have the lady’s stuff in it.”  He saw Twilley’s interest.  “I have it.  Mr. Jabing gave it to me before we got back on the bus.  And now the German man was just here.  That‘s who the cops are looking for now.”
Twilley had been leaning in close to Lincoln, taking in everything he said.  Now he straightened up, more alert.
“The dude from the bus station - he‘s here?”
Lincoln nodded nervously, watching as Twilley considered this development.
“He still lookin’ for the old man’s stuff,”  Twilley speculated.  His eyes narrowed at Lincoln.  “What was it Jabing give you?” he asked in a quiet voice.
Lincoln looked around, saw they were far enough away from everybody, and removed the jewelry box and key from his knapsack.  Twilley took the box from him and opened it, giving an audible gasp at its contents.  The pearl necklace lay across a bed of blue satin, lustrous even under the dim light.  Lincoln reached over and placed the locker key in the box alongside the pearls. 
Twilley wet his lips, staring in wonderment at the necklace. 
“Mr. Jabing says a woman will be waiting at the bus station in Atlanta, and that I’m to give these things to her,” Lincoln explained.
Twilley took a deep breath and looked up at him.
“You tell the po-leese ’bout these pearls?” he asked, his eyes hard.
Lincoln shook his head.
“Good,” he said, exhaling in relief.  “Never see ’em again if the cops get hold of ’em.”
Twilley took the necklace into his hands, felt the pearls and the weight.  He shook his head slowly and smiled.
“This is some hard cash right here, Linc,” he concluded.  “You hear what I say?  These things could buy maybe three or four Cadillacs.  Maybe more besides!”
Lincoln watched him fondle the pearls, bring them close to his eye for closer inspection.  Twilley was so preoccupied he forgot for a moment that Lincoln was there.  Suddenly, he came back to himself, and looked quickly around.
“Better put ’em away, boy,” he advised.  “Bad people would slice you open like a melon for ‘em.”

- From The Little Rock Messenger by Robert Ryland
  Available at Kindle Books

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Zeus and Bella

My two dogs, Zeus and Bella, follow a strict daily schedule.  Each day, we get up and they get a dog biscuit, then go outside to perform morning rituals.  About 10:30 a.m., they begin making noises about a car ride -- usually to our local dump.  Of course, I don't take trash to the dump every day, but when I do, it is usually around -- you guessed it -- 10:30!  Then if I am working in my office and I happen to go past twelve noon or twelve-thirty, they are quick to brush me with their noses to let me know it is lunch time.  They usually get a small tidbit as I prepare a sandwich for myself.  In the afternoon, between three and three-thirty, I begin hearing some odd grunting sounds, accompanied by more nose-brushing.  This is code for "We wanta go out for a walk!"  Now they have a perfectly good, generously-sized dog run that they can access at any time.  But the air and the smells there, you see, are not nearly so sweet as they are on a walk along our street or up the occasional path.  So -- a walk it is, which is good because it gives the "Master" some exercise as well.  Finally, at 5:50 p.m. on the dot, my two mongrels make their last request of the day known, which has to do with dinner.  No matter what I'm doing, or how deeply I'm involved in my office or in some project around the house, Zeus and Bella expect their bowls to be promptly filled with a doggy culinary delights.

Now it might seem that I give excessive attention to my resident canines, but when you think about it, their schedule is not much different than mine.  Each day I get up, have breakfast, take trash to the dump (although not every day), eat lunch, take an afternoon walk, and have dinner.  Of course, I don't make grunting noises or give nose brushes to signal the start of each event, but our day generally works out the same way.  So I don't think you could say they are the masters of this game because we follow the same routine.  After all, if I put my foot down, things bend to my will -- not theirs.  Remember the saying - "Dogs have masters; cats have staff."  At least I have dogs, and I'm pretty sure they know who's in charge.  Me.  I'm pretty sure.           

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Transylvania Connection

The county of Transylvania where I live in western North Carolina was named after the Transylvania Company, which was controlled by land speculator Richard Henderson before the Revolutionary War.  Loosely translated, Transylvania means "across the woods" or "into the trees", and is well-named because of the thick forests that cover its 381 square miles. The county seat of Transylvania is Brevard, a picturesque small town nestled in a hilly terrain of poplars, red oak and hemlock. 

The name Transylvania always seems to conjur up images of bats and vampires, which is understandable because of iconic Dracula movies that are part of our popular culture.  Dracula was created by Irish novelist Bram Stoker in 1897 in his gothic novel of the same name.  He apparently never visited Eastern Europe or the Transylvania region of Romania, but based his novel on research he did into European folklore and mythological stories of vampires.  The vampire myth soon became a staple of other books and then movies, starting with the 1922 silent film Nosferatu.  Anne Rice popularized the vampire in more current literature in a series of books, starting with Interview with a Vampire.  This was over twenty years ago, and the genre continues with many variations of dark princes on TV and in movies, the most popular being the Twilight series by author Stephenie Meyer. 

An interesting and compelling variation on the vampire theme is one created by Elizabeth Kostova in her 2005 novel The Historian.  The story interweaves the history and folklore of Vlad Tepes, a 15th century prince of Wallachia known as "Vlad the Impaler" and his fictional equivalent Count Dracula with that of a history professor, his sixteen year old daughter, and their quest to find Vlad's tomb.  The book is described as a combination of genres, including gothic, detective, and historical thriller.  Kostova has lived and traveled in Eastern Europe, and based her book in part on stories her historian father told her about Dracula when she was a child.  She began writing the novel after hiking in the Appalachian mountains and flashing back to her father's stories.

Appalachia, and particularly the mountainous terrain of Transylvania County, is similar to the landscape of the Transylvania in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania.  Although no one knows for sure, natural settings probably account for a good portion of a writer's creations.  Meandering through forests and over hills, looking out over lakes and coastlines, how could one not imagine a tale to go along with such wonders.                    

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Wilderness of Writing

Sitting down to write can be like taking a hike in the woods.  You can look for the designated trails - the upper loop, the lower valley, maybe the creekside path to see waterfalls - or you can just strike out into the trees and let your feet set the direction.  Writers have different ideas about the process of setting down words.  Whether it's fiction or non-fiction, there is no prescribed way to "put pen to paper" or fingers to keyboard.  Some like to construct elaborate outlines which detail characters and scenes; others simply sit before a blank page or screen and allow the story to take them on a journey.  I don't think there is any science to the writing process because it is so subjective.  After all, we're not dealing with an empirical construct here.

I like to write more from the seat-of-my-pants, so to speak - more in the vein of allowing the story to take the lead.  But I don't work from a completely blank slate.  I always let the idea for a story or book gestate awhile so I can consider every angle.  Therefore, by the time I sit down to write, I have a pretty good idea about a general direction.  Sometimes on the journey I will alter the direction a bit and find a new character or two, maybe a new plot point, but more often than not I just follow the lead of the story.

Both of my books - The Little Rock Messenger and Electric Highway - started out as long-consdiered ideas without any set path in mind for the stories to take.  The journey I discovered in each project happened through some mysterious alchemy called writing, and I've been happy with the results.  But the only way I will know for sure if my journeys are a success is to hear back from you.  Check out my books on Kindle Books at and  and let me know.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Down South in Savannah

My wife and I traveled to Florida recently to visit relatives, and on the way back home, stopped by Savannah, Georgia for a brief looksee.  I have always been fascinated by Savannah as a place of old world charm, gentility and hint of sweet decadence.  As a writer I love its layers of personality, with its colonial past, its shaded park-like squares of restored mansions, and its thriving business center and seaport.  And then there are the city's unusual surprises like the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences (one of the south's first public museums), the First African Baptist Church (built laboriously by slaves after long days in the field), and the Temple Mickve Israel, the third oldest synogogue in America.  Savannah also happens to be the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low (founder of the Girl Scouts) and more recently, Johnny Mercer, singer, actor and composer of over 1500 songs. 

Author John Berendt might have captured the city's qualities best in his book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Although in my short visit I didn't see the characters he described in his book, Savannah is a place with a certain feel which I'm sure can incubate all kinds of people and drama. And there must also be lots of stories buried in the city's colonial and civil war past.  A little digging, and I'm sure a writer could unearth some interesting facts to build a novel around - like the underground railway used to transport slaves north, or the fact that Savannah was one of the few important cities spared by General Sherman during his march across the south.  (It seems old William Tecumsah had a couple of friends who lived there, and as a favor to them and because he wanted to present Savannah as a gift to Lincoln, he didn't torch it.)  And thank goodness for that!  Sherman's gift is one I would say just keeps on giving.

So if you're a writer, and it's history, mood and color you're after, a locale like Savannah is close to pitch-perfect for a good story.  I believe I'll return some day - but only after I explore a little more in my own backyard of western North Carolina.  I'm sure there are a few surprises there too. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

E-Books Offer New Opportunities to Publish

There's been a lot written recently about the explosion of e-books.  Of course, the largest platforms for e-books, Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, and Smashwords have already been offering a new gateway for established authors to sell books.  But as time goes by, more and more new writers, tired of being rejected by literary agents and established publishing houses, are turning to e-books as an alternative.  Of course, without a major publisher behind you, it's still difficult to get your work out there.  Readers have to know your book exists if it is going to be sold and read.  And here is where social networking comes into play.

I must admit that at my advanced baby boomer age, learning and understanding new communications platforms like Blogs, Facebook and Twitter are still a bit of a challenge to my gray cells.  But it's been very enlightening to me to read about successes a number of e-book authors have had by using these platforms to promote their work.  Many of these authors are young and quite savvy at blogging and tweeting, and using music and graphics to generate interest in their books - even creating their own book trailers.  Authors like J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, H.P. Mallory and others are doing quite well and have talked about it on-line and to the press.  Konrath even has a helpful blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, that has been eye-opening to me, and gives me hope that I'll eventually find an audience. 

We all hear that you're never too old to learn.  I intend to test that theory.  And if you're a writer, you can't seem to stop writing anyway, so you might as well try everything.  So, as Jackie Gleason used to say (boy, now I'm really dating myself)...Away we go! 

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Tale About Electricity

Last week I published another novel on Kindle Books called Electric Highway.  It's the story of a woman who finds out that her brother's "accidental" death by drowning was actually murder.  He was trying to expose a conspiracy to keep an electricity price fraud scheme from becoming public.  I had fun with this because I once worked in the gas & power utility industry, and know just enough about the technical aspects of the business to make the story credible.  I write under the name of Robert Ryland.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

North Carolina is Fertile Ground for Writers

North Carolina is a state rich in history.  Many writers have delved into the state's role in the Civil War (or as some would describe it, The War Between the States), its coastal development, and the colonial past.  In recent years, writers like Robert Morgan and Charles Frazier have focused on western North Carolina, not only during the Civil War but before and after that period.  Morgan's Gap Creek and This Rock, Frazier's Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons immerse the reader into different periods of history in the state, mining real events and places to create compelling and beautifully written fiction.  I have not used North Carolina as a setting for my books so far, but living here is pulling me inexorably in that direction.

Transylvania County, where I live, was the last county formed in the state in 1861, and this year is celebrating its 150th birthday - its Sesquicentennial Anniversary.  A local Genealogy group has been busy pulling together histories of some of the oldest families in the area.  The third volume of their book dealing with the heritage of Transylania County is now under way, and will contain as many photos as possible for inclusion.  Like other writers living in the area, I look forward to reading the results.  I'm thinking it might inspire me to consider a local setting for my next project.  Only time and inspiration will tell.    

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Suggestion of Historical Parallels Can Be Tricky

In my latest novel, The Little Rock Messenger, set in 1956, a young African-American boy becomes a reluctant messenger-courier for an Austrian emigre he meets on a Greyhound bus trip.  The man is headed for Atlanta to deliver personal items to a young Jewish woman whose family perished in the Holocaust.  Unfortunately, he dies before he can complete his mission, but before he does, he entrusts the young boy to act for him. 

As I wrote the story, which I intended to be as much action-driven as character-driven, I began to see that I was developing a subtext suggesting the parallel plight of blacks and Jews who have been, and to some degree continue to be, victims of racial and cultural bigotry.  There was nothing ironic intended in my narrative, but the message is there nonetheless.  Are there perfect parallels in their histories?  Of course not.  Arguments can be made that societal integration has been much easier for the Jew.  And yet there was the Holocaust, and there continues to be anti-semitism in many areas of the world, most prominently displayed in the middle east. 

To me this is why writing continues to be a mystery.  A story is never created like a photograph, where all elements of a setting are known and understood beforehand.  A story is born through a process - sometimes grueling and time-consuming, sometimes less so - and during that process, characters and situations can turn in unforeseen ways, surprising not only the reader, but often the writer as well.       

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writing Fiction Set in the Past

My most recent novel, The Little Rock Messenger, is set in 1956 in the American South.  The main character is a twelve year old boy who travels by Greyhound bus to visit his grandmother in Atlanta.  Now, it just so happens that I too was twelve years old in 1956 and lived in the South (Memphis), and although I think I was a pretty good observer of life around me in those days, it wasn't always easy to write in a way that properly captured the look, the sounds and the feel of that earlier time.  Added to that is the fact that my main character is African-American, and I am a white WASP.  So I decided that if I was going to tackle something historical, even if the setting was not too long ago, I needed to do some research as well as use my memory of how things were in those days.

As my story moved along, I encountered a lot of questions.  For instance, how was a Greyhound bus designed in 1956; did it have air conditioning?  How much was gasoline?  How much was a bottle of Coke or Nehi soft drink?  What did a call from a pay phone cost?  Did African-Americans sit in the back of a bus?  Oh-yes. Did bus stations in the South have separate waiting areas for blacks?  Were blacks always talked-down to, or were there instances of kindness and respect shown by whites?  Was there any fast-food, or only sit-down cafes?  What was the popular music on the radio?  As my story includes a suspenseful chase, I also needed to research law enforcement practices in 1956 - both local and federal. How did local cops interact with the FBI?  Where was the regional FBI field office that would be involved?  Atlanta.  Where was it located in Atlanta in 1956?  How many agents were there at that time?  And so forth.

I was writing a book set in 1956 from the perspective of someone living in 2009.  We live now in a time that is far removed from that earlier period, and I was forced to immerse myself in the environment of my characters.  They had to wear clothes, drive cars, take buses, make phone calls, eat food, watch TV and movies, and listen to music that was available in 1956.  They couldn't whip out a cell phone, jump on the internet or click-on the cable TV for a 24-hour news update.  They used what they had, and that was my challenge.  It was also a lot of fun.  Because I kept asking myself as I got deeper into this project, how well would I function living in those times with what I know now?  Could I adapt, or am I hopelessly imprisoned by my own place and time?  It's an interesting question to explore.  Because no matter how remote a place we travel to these days, it seems we're never very far away from a cell or SAT phone and other modern conveniences.  Going back to the rudimentary life of 1956 wouldn't exactly be like cave-dwelling in Afghanistan, but it probably would seem pretty darn close.