How Poland saved Western Civilization….Twice!

When most Americans think of Poland, if they think of it at all, they think of it as a faraway place where they make kielbasa and have a serious shortage of vowels in their names. Some, who know a little more about the place know that it has had a very bad time of it in the twentieth century by being located between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. Talk about a bad neighborhood. One author called the area “the bloodlands”.  Between being invaded by Germany and “liberated” by the Red Army, it would be hard to tell which was worse, since each event resulted in a soul-crushing foreign rule and mass murder as a tool of government administration. So has Poland always been a victim? And what have the Poles ever done for us? Well, how about helping to win WWII? The Polish 303rd  fighter squadron helped defeat the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Polish scientists helped crack the German secret codes.

Not enough? How about this; the Poles saved Western Civilization….twice!

The first time was in 1683. The Ottoman Empire was at its height and was pushing deep into Europe. The Ottomans had been waging constant war on any part of Europe they could reach and had made much of the European areas bordering the Mediterranean uninhabitable through conquest or slave raids. Now the sultan had laid siege to Vienna, one of the intellectual and cultural centers of Europe, and the gateway to the rest of the continent. The Ottomans were on the verge of victory as they attacked again and again, wearing down the defenders. Of course, the Turks, themselves, were weakening from  the fighting, but they would soon outlast the defenders of Vienna. Once Vienna was taken, the Ottomans would use it as a base to attack the rest of Europe, and to replace European civilization with a repressive Islamic dictatorship. For the Europeans, things looked bleak.

Then the Poles showed up.

The Battle of Vienna, 12 September 1683 | Justice4Poland

Jan Sobieski and the Poles at Vienna 1683


The Polish king, Jan Sobieski had brought a relief force all the way from Warsaw to help break the siege. He swooped down on the Ottomans with 23,000 Polish troops, including the famous heavy cavalry, the “winged hussars”. The Poles charged downhill with 15,000 mounted men, possibly the biggest cavalry charge in history. The Ottomans were overwhelmed, losing thousands of men. They abandoned the siege and retreated back to Istanbul, and leaving their camp and artillery behind. Over the ensuing years, the Ottomans were driven from Hungary and other European areas they had formerly occupied. The Turks never again threatened Vienna and went no deeper into Europe. Europe and Western Civilization had been saved.

The Poles had saved western civilization, but they weren’t through yet.

After the first First World War, the Communists took over Russia and, once they had consolidated their power, decided to spread their revolution to their neighbors. Europe was devastated and mostly bankrupt after the war, and many people were sympathetic to the Communist promises of a better life with less effort. Not everyone realized the hollowness of these promises and the fact that Communist rule meant state terror, shortages, complete loss of freedom, the stifling of all innovation and improvement in everyday life, and the good possibility of state-imposed mass murder. Lenin ordered he Red Army, fresh from defeating the Czarist forces to began a push into Europe to bring the entire continent under the Soviet heel. Once Warsaw fell, the plan was for the Red Army to join revolutionaries in Germany in imposing a Communist regime there and spreading to the rest of Europe. The Poles grimly awaited the invaders, determined to stop them.

army as depicted in 2011 Jerzy Hoffman 3D film "1920 Battle of Warsaw ...

At first, the Polish army fell back in disorder, and as the Russians approached Warsaw, their victory seemed certain, and Europe seemed doomed to become Communist dominated. But the Poles had broken the Russian codes and  Polish Chief of State Józef Piłsudski came up with a plan to exploit this knowledge.

Jozef PiIsudski

In a complex battle., the Poles lured the Russians into a trap and defeated them. The Russians lost over 15,000 killed and had to abandon their plan to foment and assist Communist revolution in Europe and turned inward. This was bad luck for the hapless Russian people, but a lifesaver for Europe. Although Poland would fall to Hitler a few years later, Europe had avoided the fate of Russia, and along with it, 50 years of repression, terror, purges, economic stagnation, and cultural sterility.

So raise a glass to the Poles, and maybe have a kielbasa. We owe them a lot.




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How Amazon makes it unnecessary to eat a rotten egg

Fashions change in writing as do readers’ tastes. Some of this is just popular culture preferences and some is the result of technology. One technology driven change is the increasing importance of a book’s beginning.

Of course, savvy writers already know how important a book’s beginning can be. If you submit to a publisher, many will only want the first 50 pages or so. This means that if a book is slow to get started, it might never do so. The editor will toss the submission if it doesn’t grab the reader from the beginning. It wasn’t always so. Even well regarded novels of the Victorian Age were, shall we say, a bit leisurely in how they began. Pages of description and musings before anything resembling a charactwer or plot were not unusual. Some books even larded up the beginning with a preface, such as this one from a tome entitled Abbeychurch, or Self concern and self conceit (Many older novels featured alternate titles for some reason.) Anyway, here’s what confronts the unsuspecting reader on the first page;


Exhausted Student Sleeping Over Books Stock Images - Image: 25222634

Huh? What?….Sorry, I must have dozed off there for a minute. Now, where was I? Oh, yes; beginnings. Well, you can see that Victorian readers apparently had extraordinary patience, and were willing to wade through a swamp of prelude to reach the high ground of an actual story, but they were almost a captive audience. What were they going to do if the beginning was boring? Maybe watch TV instead? Maybe pop in a DVD? Maybe surf the web for something better? Nope. It was either read a novel or try to scare up some people for a game of Whist or lawn darts. Technology, or lack of it, helped to pepetuate the dull beginning.

Things are different now. The written word has a lot of very flashy competition out there. Few people will sit still for a plodding beginning when other diversions beckon. You have to grab the reader by the neck and yell “Keep reading, damn you!” Now, technology has done even more to  made a dull beginning an endangered species. As  you probably know, Amazon sells a lot of books, and almost every book listing features a picture of the book cover with the caption Look Inside! If you click on the cover picture, the screen will show the first 20 pages or so of the book. You can even download them into your Kindle. This is the electronic equivalent of browsing through a book in a book store (Except that you can do it in your underwear if you like, something bookstores often frown upon.) This is absolutely critical. This is your big chance to snare the reader and hog tie him. You have to make him want to read more; to make him need to read more. If the beginning doesn’t turn him on, he will never buy the book on the off chance that it will improve. A famous critic once panned a book after reading only the first few pages. When the author objected that he hadn’t read the entire book before condemning it, the critic famously replied “I don’t have to eat an entire egg to know that it’s rotten.”


The beginning is your best and possibly only chance to make the sale. Write a grabber beginning. I have to confess that my own record is a bit spotty in this regard. I start most Max Hurlock Roaring 20s mystery with the murder itself, described in a way to arouse the reader’s interest and curiosity. Once the reader is turning the pages to clear up the crime, I can afford to start filling in background, characters, and plot points. Sometimes, I just start with something to make them read on to clarify things. Here are some beginnings from the series

Death of a Flapper- First line: “That’s odd. There’s a light on in Miriam’s room.”


Death and the Blind Tiger- First line: The sudden silence when the engine stopped would have been restful and pleasant if the biplane had not been 2,000 feet in the air at the time.

Death in Unlikely Places–  First line: Everyone was surprised at how much blood a thick wool sweater could absorb.

Death across the Chesapeake- First line: Like mourners at a funeral, the small group of people stood in the hallway in front of the closed office door, talking in hushed tones and shaking their heads.

So that’s why it’s important to start off with a grabber. For the record, my own favorite grabber first line is from Charlotte’s Web.

“Where is Papa going with that ax?”

the white men with their ax

I dare anyone to stop reading at that point!

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Last Watch on the Alexander Henry

Here is an article I wrote for Thousand Islands Life Magazine about a mothballed Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker that seems  to be heading for the shipbreaking yard.

Alexander Henry

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The Undiscovered Country

When fiction is set in a specific time and place, getting the details right can be enriching; getting them wrong can be distracting, like a constant reminder that it’s just make-believe. (See my post about the Pizza Theory of Historical Exposition.) This goes for books, movies, and TV productions.

Despite occasional goofs, TV generally does a pretty good job of giving shows an authentic feel and look. Costumes and uniforms are usually authentic for the period depicted, and even vehicles, weapons, etc. are usually proper. They also do a good job with regional accents, especially New England and Minnesota. So when an exception such as Chesapeake Shores comes along, it is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Chesapeake Shores" - a Hallmark Channel TV Series starring Meghan Ory ...

Some very un-Chesapeake-like rocky shoreline on Chesapeake Shores


Chesapeake Bay Photo Gallery

Actual Chesapeake Bay shoreline


Chesapeake Shores supposedly takes place in the Chesapeake Bay region, but has none of the feel or flavor of the actual place. This is not surprising, since it is filmed in the Pacific Northwest on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and looks it. Aside from the lush vegetation, many scenes clearly show mountains in the background, something you never see anywhere near the Chesapeake Bay. On the show, the low and marshy Chesapeake shoreline appears with rocky cliffs, like the 100 foot rocky waterfall Disney showed in Tidewater Virginia in Pocahontas.

And the water is clear of the jellyfish that make swimming risky in the real Chesapeake Bay. Speaking of water, there are no white work boats in evidence anywhere. What happened to the watermen?

Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Virginia Tech; Courtesy of Eastern Shore ...

Chesapeake Bay watermen with crab traps

No one has any trace of any regional accent and seem to have no acquaintance with the actual Chesapeake Bay. For instance, at one point someone says they are having “fresh crabs” for dinner. No one on the Chesapeake ever uses that term, since it is meaningless. If you are having steamed crabs, you are having “crabs”. Otherwise, you are having “crab cakes” , “soft crabs” or possibly “crab imperial” “crab dip”, or “crab soup”.


Other than a few eroded areas such as Calvert Cliffs, there are no steep banks such as this one on the Chesapeake.

For that matter, where are they even getting all the crabs when there are apparently no watermen out catching them? Well, maybe they are rare “hill crabs” gathered from the surrounding mountains.


In the background you can see mountains.

Well, you get the idea. Maybe they should just call it Pacific Northwest and be done with it.


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The Mystery of the Withered Corn

At this time of the year, you see it in many rural areas; farm fields with rows of corn awaiting harvest. All summer the corn has been growing and now it is ready. You can see long rows of dry brown corn everywhere.

Flickriver: Photoset 'Mesopotamia, Ohio (Amish Country #1) ' by Don ...

So why not harvest the stuff? Why let it stand all withered and lifeless in the field? A few weeks ago, the corn looked great; all green stalks and lush leaves. Why wasn’t it harvested then? Why leave all that beautiful corn to die and dry out in the field? I have pondered this question for years. It seemed to make no sense. Get the stuff while it is fresh! But every year, the corn was not harvested until it stood dry brown and lifeless. What was going on? Maybe it was a scheduling problem with the combine harvesters, or maybe the weather, or maybe…

Finally, I asked a farmer. The answer was both simple and logical.

More dry weather allowed farmers to finish the last of the fall corn ...

Corn, like many farm products, is harvested by harvester machines that cut the stalks, separate the corn, then grind up the stalks and leaves and shoot the chaff out the back. In order for the machinery to be effective, though, the corn stalks have to be dry and brittle. If there is too much moisture, the ground-up stalks and leaves clump up in wet globs that clog up the blades and can’t be blown out.  The driver has to stop frequently and clean out the whole system. Trying to harvest corn when it is still on green stalks is an exercise in futility. So, if you see what look like rows of dead corn, now you know why.

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The Pizza Theory of historical exposition

Too many historical novels, or stories that are set in some other time and place run afoul of what I call the Pizza Theory of Historical Exposition, or simply the Pizza Theory for short. (BTW, please feel free to use the term, provided you can do it with a straight face.) You’ve probably encountered such stories yourself and maybe couldn’t quite put your finger on what turned you off. Well, never fear, the Pizza Theory will explain it all.

A basic pizza has three parts; the crust, the tomato sauce, and the cheese. The most delicate part of this recipe is the tomato sauce. If you use too little, the pizza is dry and is basically a hot cheese sandwich. If you use too much, the pizza is an inedible soggy mess.

In an historical or other time and place story, the period detail is the tomato sauce and subject to the same limitations; too little and there is no sense of time or place; too much and the story gets lost in a sloppy mess of detail. With the Internet, it is easy to find scads of detail about the language fads, fashions, and everyday life of another time and place, so some authors can’t resist temptation to pile it on like a gallon of tomato sauce.

Dawn Reader: A Pizza History

My book Death and the Blind Tiger is set in NYC in the 1920s. In one scene, the detective, Max Hurlock, meets a witness at the local automat. Here is the scene with too little tomato sauce:

          Max went into the automat and sat down at an empty table.

Wait a minute! That’s it? Were the Roaring 20s that dull? And what is an automat, anyway?

Let’s try it again, only this time with too much tomato sauce

          The Horn and Hardart Automat stood under a vertical neon sign in Times Square, between 46th and 47th Street in the upper and more fashionable part of town, also the part of New York with the most speakeasies for thirsty New Yorkers to enjoy bad liquor and good entertainment. The walls of the automat were shiny stainless steel, like a fancy railway car. Outside, a newsboy hawked the New York Sun with the latest about the airship Norge, feared lost over the North Pole despite international search efforts.

Dodging a lumbering Reo truck, Max made his way between several parked Ford Model Ts and a Packard by the curb. Across the street, the Hardesty building stood, a dull gray with black streaks like runny mascara under its windows, and a shoeshine stand outside. Two women passed by chattering about the proper way of dancing the Lindy Hop and about which speakeasy would be the best to visit that evening. One had on a blue flapper dress and a cloche hat covering bobbed hair, while the other seemed to be trying for the Clara Bow look, except for the hip flask Max could see protruding from her coat pocket. The women looked over their shoulders, as if fearful of a stray Prohibition agent following them. The clang of a streetcar bell rang out nearby, competing with the wail of a distant siren.

Enough, already! The story is drowning in period detail and Max hasn’t even gotten to the front door yet. Not only that, but we still don’t know what an automat is!

Now here is the way the scene was written in Death and the Blind Tiger.

          The Horn and Hardart Automat stood under a vertical neon sign in Times Square, between 46th and 47th Street. Max pushed open the front door to find about 20 tables, half of which were occupied by diners. Billed as the modern way to dine, the restaurant was a strange blend of the mechanical and the gastronomic. Two of the walls were solidly lined with rows of glass fronted stainless steel doors about six inches high and a foot wide. Behind each of these doors, post office box style, was a pigeon hole containing a plate of food. The patrons selected their meal or side dish from a window, and inserted several nickels to open the door. There were no waiters visible, just a cashier’s booth for making change. The occasional rattle of coins in slots augmented the low hum of conversation in the room.

“Well, it’s efficient,” Max remarked, “but it has all the atmosphere of a subway car.” He looked in one of the windows and saw a plate holding a portion of meat loaf that was in turn wrapped in waxed paper. Past the plate he could see through the other, open end of the box. Behind the wall of boxes, several waitresses scurried back and forth from an unseen kitchen replenishing the boxes as needed with freshly cooked delights. Horn and Hardart’s wasn’t so much a restaurant as a food assembly line.

... Image: Fast Food’s Birth At Horn & Hardart Automat | The Smoking Nun

The real Horn and Hardart automat (in the 1940s)

Here the tomato sauce is still a little on the heavy side, but look at what it does. The detail sets the mood, moves the story along, and explains what a 1920s automat in New York was like. Since the witness works there, this also helps establish that character’s back story, and gives the reader a mental image of the place Max’s interview with the witness will take place. The tomato sauce helps the reader digest the rest of the pizza; it is not a meal in itself.

So remember the Pizza Theory of Historical Exposition the next time you are reading or writing a story set in another place and time.

And don’t get me started on Pepperoni!

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“What the Hell…” endings

Many readers will say that the purpose of reading a book is the experience of reading, not the ending. Otherwise, why not just skip to the last few pages? It would be like skipping to the last few minutes of a movie. But that doesn’t mean the ending is not important. The ending is the last hurrah of the story and the farewell to the reader. It’s the chance to tie up the unresolved plot threads and leave the reader glad they took the time and effort to read.

So why would an author finish with a What the Hell ending? You know what a What the Hell ending is, don’t you? That’s where you wade through the entire book expecting that the ending will be both explanatory  and satisfying. The lovers will live happily ever after, the bad guy will get his come-uppence, the secret will be revealed, or the treasure will be found. The reader slams the cover shut (or switches off his ebook reader) and sighs with contentment as if finishing Thanksgiving dinner. But a What the Hell ending is when the hero, who has been struggling through the entire book and is just starting to turn his life around steps in front of a bus and dies on the last page, or nobody finds the treasure, or when the reader is told that the couple who spent the entire book getting together got divorced three months later. The reader stares  at the page incredulously and says “What the hell…?”

Can You Top These Terrible (and Fictional) Opening Lines? - Barnes ...

What the hell endings are the dirtiest trick you can play on a reader. They are Lucy pulling the football away at the last second with the reader as Charlie Brown. The reader has invested several hundred pages of his time and emotion in the story, only to have it snatched away. There are several basic types of What the hell endings.

1- The bait and switch- The reader expects a logical, satisfying, tie up the loose ends ending, but finds out that everything up to that point was meaningless. Example: The underdog baseball team struggles through the entire story to gain skill and respectability. In the climactic chapter, they finally make it to the playoffs and fight to stay even with the favorite. It all comes down to the final out and the underdog team loses on an error.

2- The cut off- This is when the story doesn’t really conclude, it just stops, as if the author simply got tired or decided to write something else. The reader is left to figure out the rest of the story on his own. Example; In the baseball story, the underdog team finally gets to the championship game and the story ends as the first batter comes to the plate.

3- The partial ending- The story concludes in a generally satisfactory way, but unresolved plot lines are left hanging. Example- The struggling couple fell in love, but no further mention is made of the drunken uncle who was last seen falling off a bridge, the author of the poison pen notes was never revealed, and the foreclosure of the family home was never resolved.

4- The all a dream ending- This is a classic when the author can’t figure out how to resolve everything realistically. It is also used when the author wants to be able to write a sequel, but has killed off several characters he’d like to bring back. Example: Probably the most famous example of this ending was when the TV series Dallas killed off popular character JR. For weeks they milked the “Who shot JR” theme, until there was no satisfactory way to make it all make sense. So they revealed that it had all been a bad dream. Bad writing was more like it.

5- The wait a minute ending- The story is apparently concluded and most of the unresolved subplots are wrapped up, but the reader finds himself saying “Wait a minute; what about…” because many of the plot points are contradictory, incomplete, or make no sense. Example: The ending depends on one of the characters remembering seeing a certain clue in a place the character could not have been.

6-The oh, by the way ending- The ending depends on information the reader was not given in the story. Example: The poison in the coffee did not kill the hero because, unbeknownst to the reader, he had installed a video surveillance system in his kitchen and observed the bad guy poisoning the coffee, thus enabling him to secretly substitute a new cup and have the bad guy arrested. Well, fine, but shouldn’t the reader be let in on it a little sooner? Reading a story is a lot less satisfying if you get the sense that another, more important story is going on at the same time but you can’t see it.

Ειδική Διαπαιδαγώγηση : ΕΜΕΝΑ ΔΕΝ Μ ...

So if you’re an author, play fair with the reader. If they’re read your work and read it all the way to the end, they deserve a reward in the form of a great satisfying ending that makes them glad they spent the time with you.  You want them to close the book reluctantly and feel they are better for the experience. Don’t pull that football away. Don’t make them slam the book down and say. “What the hell?” because the next thing they will say is “I’ll never read anything by that jerk again!”

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