Tag Archives: novels

Novel Ways to Make a Portrait

As both an artist and a writer I portray people I have known. I can also say that I have portrayed people I love, but that is rather redundantly repetitive because I basically love all people, even the really nasty ones who hate me in return.  It’s a teacher thing.  But portraits as a writer/artist/cartoonist/fool is not a straightforward thing.  Let me start by unpacking my portraits of the Cobble Sisters.  Sherry and Shelly Cobble are twin sisters.  They are in several of my YA novels about the little town in rural Iowa where I grew up.

Sherry Cobble22

They are nudists.  That means their family believes there are health benefits to not wearing any clothes when they are at home or spending private time with the rest of their family and friends.  I can claim that they are based on real people, because they are, but that takes considerable explaining.


                                                                                                                                                                             Sherry Cobble

I have a pair of identical twin cousins who I grew up with and learned about the unique things twin share from them.  But the Cobble Sisters are not a direct portrait of them.  They are not nudists.  And they would probably beat me to a pulp if I dared to insist that they were.

The nudist/naturists I once knew and lived near were in Iowa City where I went to grad school (and where I found the original model for the picture), and in Austin, Texas where my girlfriend’s sister was living in a clothing-optional apartment complex.  My parents lived in an Austin suburb and when my girlfriend and I visited the area in the 80’s, I stayed at my parents’ home and she stayed at the crazy communal resort for naked people where her sister lived.  This situation provided the background for the embarrassment humor in my novel Superchicken.   That’s the story that includes an episode where the main character is tricked into going to a nudist camp as a guest with the Cobble family.  Poor Superchicken didn’t realize until he got there that it was a place where you have to take off all your clothes to blend in.

Supe n Sherry_n

Which leads quite naturally into the second portrait I want to talk about.  Edward-Andrew Campbell is called “the Superchicken” by his friends in Norwall, Iowa.  That nickname is actually my nickname from high school.  It comes from part of the George of the Jungle Saturday morning cartoon show by Jay Ward (Rocky and Bullwinkle’s creator).

The nickname was hung on me by a girl I had a huge crush on from grade school through junior high.  Superchicken in the cartoon show was this mild-mannered chicken who could gain super powers by drinking super sauce and then fight crime.  She obviously thought I was full of hidden talents just like him.

So Superchicken is a me character.

But the picture is not me drawing myself as a boy.  It is modeled on my young second cousin who was my little buddy for the last two years of high school and during my first couple of years in college.  The portrait in the novel, however, is part me and part a student from my early years as a teacher.  The Anita Jones portrait is drawn from a Sears catalog model, while the real girl was the most popular girl in my grade at school,  I wasn’t the only boy hopelessly in love with her.

Finally, since I am well over the word-count target already, I want to talk about the portrait of the main character in my novel about to be published, Miss Francis Morgan.

On the left you see who Francis really was.  Mother Mendocino was born to be a teacher, and it is her natural-born love of teaching and rapport with kids that I am portraying in the novel.  In the novel, though, everything that happens in that classroom was really something that happened in my classroom, not hers.  Especially the invasion of the classroom by three-inch tall fairies.  But it should also be obvious that Miss Morgan is not a portrait of me.  I am not female.  I could never respond to and touch kids the way she does because our society frowns on that from male teachers.  And further, she is not Hispanic because the novel is set in 1990’s Iowa rather than the deep South Texas town where these things happened.  So I based the drawing on another teacher I knew from Iowa, one that had always been the next door neighbor girl when I was a kid.  She babysat me and was older than me.

So, my portrait art that I am mangling the discussion of in this post is made up mostly of amalgamated portraits.  A little of this person added to a lot of that one, with a sprinkle of me mixed in for goof-factor effect.  The novel Magical Miss Morgan is being edited by Page Publishing as I write this and will be available soon.  I am hoping that a few of you may be foolish enough to buy one and read it.   I truly believe in my goofy old heart that you will like it.



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Many, Many Murphys

In both the books Snow Babies and The Bicycle-Wheel Genius I used the characters of the Magnificent Murphy Clan to weave actual people from my past into my stories.  The Murphys; Mary and Warren, Warren’s father Sean “Cudgel” Murphy, Mary’s and Warren’s kids, Danny, Dilsey, Mike, Little Sean, Daisy, Sarah, Thomas “Pumpkin” Murphy, and Baby Jane all live together in a small, four- bedroom house dubbed “Murphy Mansion”.

Here is a look at a Paffooney of the irrepressible Mary Murphy with daughter Dilsey, and Little Sean on her shoulders., 



And here is one of my anti-hero Pirates, Mike Murphy with his little girlfriend Blueberry Bates.


Mike has the distinction of being in all three of my Norwall Novels, a very rare character indeed.  And, NO, that doesn’t mean that he is me just because we have the same first name… Okay, maybe a little bit me, but that’s just the nature of writing silly novels about adventures through time and space and farm-town Iowa.  I’m hoping to make you curious enough to buy one of my books.  Catch a Falling Star is available as a hardback, paperback, or e-book from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and the link here to I-Universe.  But I know you are far too smart for me, and I can never hook you just on the strength of my nerdy humor or my implausible Paffoonies.  Here’s hoping a look at the Murphys will help.


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The Bicycle-Wheel Genius


I have started work on the next novel which I will call The Bicycle-Wheel Genius.  It takes two of the important supporting characters from my novel Catch a Falling Star, and weaves them into a story that can only be called a prequel-sequel to the previous book.  It begins when the characters first meet and become friends.  It incorporates some of the events from the alien invasion in Catch a Falling Star, and it concludes the incredible story of a friendship between a really nice mad scientist and the only son of a rural English teacher.

I have included here the first two cantos of this humoresque hodgepodge novel so you can get a sense of how truly awful the whole thing is going to be.  (If you choose to skip this first-draft nonsense, I will completely understand.  Not forgive you, mind you, but understand.)

Canto One – In the dark corners of the house in 1984

The stupid boy was easily followed home.  When he patted the little Pomeranian dog on her fuzzy head, he entered through the back door, unlocking it with his key.  He went in to make his afternoon peanut butter sandwich, stupidly leaving the door unlocked.  The man in black couldn’t have asked for a better outcome.

The strip of bacon the man in black offered to the canine moron was soaked in a fast-acting, taste-free poison.  The barker was silenced.  The man in black quietly slipped into the house.  Standing in the back entryway, he could peer in and see the stupid boy bending over the peanut butter with the knife in hand.  The boy was handsome in a way.  He had his father’s stupid blond hair and myopic eyes.  The glasses on his little face were thick enough to magnify his blue-gray eyes.  He had that same owlish look that the genius father always wore.  But he had his mother’s lovely mouth and the same child-like oval face that always made his mother seem so appealing, so girlishly lovely.

As the man stepped into the kitchen, the boy looked up startled.

“Why are you dressed like that?” he asked.  “You look like some kind of burglar.”

The man in black grinned.  He whipped out the chloroformed cloth and pressed it over the mouth and nose of the boy.  The stupid boy melted into his grasp.  Swiftly bound and gagged, the boy was left tied up in a chair at the kitchen table.  Now, the real work could begin.

The basement door was the first obstacle.  It had a keypad lock.  The man in black dusted the key pad with fingerprint dust.  He could easily see the four keys that the genius always pressed.  He remembered  the pattern of code entry he had seen the genius using a hundred times from afar.  Two in the upper corner, the one and the four, the key in the middle, the five, and the one at the bottom, the eight.

It worked!  With a snap-hiss the electronically sealed door opened.  Down he went into the lab.

The small safe was still open.  Leave it to a genius to be sloppy about replacing paperwork and locking it up again.  He never re-locked the safe upstairs with his wife’s jewels in it.  Why would this safe be any different?  The safe-cracking tools could be left in the old black pocket!

Inside the safe, just where he’d been told it would be, was the manila envelope marked Tesla Project.  He took it out.  It was worth a fortune apparently.  Soon he would have the whole pile of money the ambassador had offered him.  The man in black licked his lips.  He stuck the envelope in his pocket.

Next would come the cover story.  Yes, the experimental prototype sat on the table where the ambassador’s advisor had said it would be.  How did the advisor know so much about the crazy genius?  He had never been at any of the family reunions.  The man in black smiled to himself.  Easy enough to do.  He used his lighter to start some of the papers on the table burning.  He added some more flames to the nearby desk.  Then he turned the prototype on.

Electricity began to shimmer and shine, crawling over the surface of the silver metal ball.  Tiny electrical bursts that looked like lightning arced out over the table and connected with some of the water pipes overhead.  The fire began to blossom faster than the man in black had anticipated.  Time to get out, or be immolated too.

At the top of the stairs he was horrified to see that she was there too.  She was bent over the boy, trying to untie him from the chair.

“Leo!” she said.  “What have you done?”   Her beautiful brown eyes were filled with horror.

It was a real shame.  He hadn’t expected her to get there so quickly.  He had intended for the boy to be the only one caught in the “accident”.  Ah, well.   He wasn’t actually Leo anyway.  Leo was dead.  He only looked like Leo and had taken Leo’s place in the family for a time.  He hit her with a violent blow to the temple and she crumpled.

The flames were roaring up into the kitchen from the lab.  The place would go up quickly.  In his haste to leave the conflagration, he failed to notice how her hand, as she crumpled, had managed to clutch at his pocket on the way to the floor.  He hadn’t noticed how the envelope had been dislodged by her fingers and also knocked to the floor.  As he strode swiftly out of the house, he did not realize that his prize had remained behind to burn with his innocent victims.  The perfect crime.  He would never be suspected.  But he would never be rewarded either.  He was congratulating himself as he slipped away from the blazing inferno, his handiwork.  And everything that mattered to the genius was on fire.  A whole world was passing away.

Canto Two… Norwall, Iowa, population 278, 1988

Norwall, like many small towns in Iowa, had not changed more than a particle or two a year from about 1919 to around 1982.  It had a main street.  The houses were done mostly in the Victorian style, with its various porches and bay windows and corner tower-like structures.  It was a sleepy-quiet   little farm town where practically nothing ever happened.  It was mostly set up for farm business.  There was a grain elevator at the west end of Main Street, and a lumber yard at the southern end of Whitten Avenue.  It was not unusual  to see tractors parked in town along with the family cars and farmers’ pickup trucks.

Tim Kellogg had been born in the Belle City Hospital in 1978, and had lived in the town of Norwall all his life.  He would’ve been bored to tears early on if it had not been for the Norwall Pirates.  They were the local 4-H softball team, but they were also the greatest secret club and eternal fraternity of liars that was ever put together on a boring Saturday afternoon in Iowa.  They had an interesting oral history.  It was rumored and asserted by former club members that once they had chased a werewolf and defeated him even though he had killed an old church lady and a local minister.  They also supposedly fought and defeated an undead Chinese wizard once, though details about that one were far more likely to change from tale-teller to tale-teller.

Not only was Tim a member of the club, but he was second in line to be grand and glorious leader.  His older cousin Valerie Clarke was the current leader, but she was in high school now and so beautiful that she couldn’t help but always be busy with boys.  Soon the club would be handed over to him, and no more girls would be members, possibly for eternity.  This was an idea of no small attraction to Norwall boys who were less than enthusiastic about having a girl for a leader.  You really couldn’t walk around the clubhouse naked or fart as much as you wanted to if your leader was a girl.

And Tim was very definitely looking forward to getting to know the mysterious new neighbor on Pesch Street.    In the very house next door a man with thick glasses and eyes like an owl kept bringing in the most fascinating stuff.  Computers, the big mainframe sorts of computers, fish tanks, hoses, machines both sleek and junky whose purposes were totally mysterious.  And there were so many bicycle wheels!  Bicycle wheels, gears, flywheels, chains, and driver cords.  What did this man intend to  do with all the wonderful  junk?  It was fuel for the wildest of speculations from the Norwall Pirates.

Tim rode up to the grocery store on Main Street and sat there on his bike in the middle of the sidewalk waiting.  His best friend and fellow Pirate, Tommy Bircher, rode up also and grinned a silent greeting.  Tommy was only a month younger than Tim, but was also different in that he had not lived his whole life in the little Iowa town.  Although his grandparents, uncles, and various other relatives were rooted here, Tommy’s father and mother both traveled to distant places in pursuit of their business interests.  Albert Bircher was an executive officer in a large Chicago-based business.  Tommy and his family had moved back to Norwall only temporarily two years ago.  Tommy had spent three years of his ten living in France.

“So, Tim, you got it all figured out yet?”  Tommy grinned puckishly.

“Oh, you know… yes.  The gossips in this town know everything about everybody, and all the gossips talk in the Post Office.  We just hafta go there and listen.”

“That could take some time.”

“Yeah, but it will be worth it.  We gotta find out somehow.”

“Okay, you’re the boss.”

Together, the two infamous Pirates stealthily walked over to the Norwall Post Office between what had once been the grocery store and what was now and always had been the fire station.  They parked their bicycles in the fire station bike rack.  They went in nonchalantly, trying to be nonchalant like they really belonged there, and hoping they really knew what nonchalant meant.

“Hello, boys,” said George “the Salesman” Murdoch, Post Master and gossip aficionado of the highest order.

“Uh, hello,” said Tim, trying to cover for both of them.  He quickly looked at the wanted posters and missing children flyers on the medium-sized bulletin board near the East end of the counter.

Marjorie Dettbarn and Wilma Bates, two of Norwall’s middle-aged church ladies were there trading juicy stories and other tidbits with “the Salesman”.

“You know, George,” Wilma was saying, “the police really should be looking more carefully at the backgrounds of people like that.”

“Why do you say that, Mrs. Bates?” asked the Post Master with a sly grin.

“You know his wife is dead.  They say it isn’t out of the question that he might’ve murdered her.”

“You’re so right, Wilma,” said Mrs. Dettbarn.  “He’s such a suspicious-looking character.  He never seems to hear you when you say hello.”

“Yes, “said Bates, “always has his nose in some book or other.”

“Do you ladies say hello to him a lot?” asked Murdoch the Post Master.

“Oh my, no,” said Mrs. Dettbarn.  “I said it once.  That’s all the chance a spooky young man like that really needs, don’t you know.”

“Yes, yes,” said Bates, “I never spoke to him at all.  You can’t be too careful around a person like that!”

“Oh, you are right there,” said the Post Master.  “He gets a check from the government twice a month, and numerous ones from different corporations.  I think he may be quite wealthy in many ways.  Who knows how a person like that earns so much money.  Probably something suspicious, I say.”

Tommy and Tim were both wide eyed as Tim nudged Tommy towards the door.

As soon as they were outside, Tim nearly exploded.  “A murderer!  And lots of money coming in all the time!”

“Yeah, he could be a professional killer who works for the government!” gushed Tommy.  “Oh, but who were they talking about?”

“You poophead!  They were discussing my new neighbor, Orbit Wallace!”

“Orbit Wallace?”

“Well, something like that!  The new guy that moved in next door.”

“Hey,” said Tommy, “maybe we should go stare at his house for a while!”

“Yeah!  Great idea!” said Tim.

So the two Pirates were now on a mission to catch the hired killer red handed.  Tim had visions of apprehending him literally red handed, with blood dripping from his fingertips.  Red handed in the worst possible way.


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To be Real or Not to be Real? Science Fiction Vs. Reality


Is the line between science fiction a bit blurry?

I think reality is the one thing that is most critical to science fiction.  If you don’t have something real in the story, then you are missing the science part.  But the key to that particular treasure chest is in how you mix the reality, also known to some as the truth, with the story, also known to some as the pack of lies.  So let me tell you a lie–er–a story about how I tried to build some reality into my little work of science fiction.

1990 was not the year I had the inspiration for the story.  That actually came much earlier, in my misspent youth back In the 1970’s.  Now, I won’t try to tell you that I had any close encounters of the third kind back then other than in a movie theater, because after all, some lies are too big and hairy for even me to believe.  The movie theater had a huge influence on my imagination, as did the Saturday matinees on the television, but the only true parts of that whole mess is how people think and feel in reaction to certain situations.

I could claim a kinship with Davalon and the fact that he was accidentally left behind on Earth because I was accidentally separated from my family at the Mason City Air Show.  I know the Mason City Airport isn’t a very big one to get lost in, but there were lots of people there, and I was a dumb kid at the time.   I could draw on that wonderful mix of panic, fear, and exhilaration at being completely on my own to help me plot out how a lost alien child would think and act in a small Iowa town.  Naturally he would immediately get himself run over on the highway.  That’s how it works, isn’t it?  Oh, wait, I didn’t actually get run over at the Mason City Airport.  That’s one of the big white lies I am trying to separate from truth here.

1990 is significant enough to use as the first word in a paragraph twice because that was the year of both Voyager 2 flying out into the outer darkness after having encountered and photographed  the huge gas planets Uranus and Neptune, and the year that a real invasion occurred when Iraq decided to invade Kuwait.  Both of those events get an obscure reference in my story because real events, even events that most people try to ignore, can make a pack of lies, er, story seem real.


Everyone has a Ms. Rubelmacher–inspirational by default

1990 is also the year I sat down at my electric typewriter and began pecking away at my first draft of the story itself.  1990 is also the year that happened 101 years after the events in 1889, when Theofrastus Wallace and Thornapple Seabreez flew a passenger train with Pullman coaches all the way to Mars.  Of course, that last bit is totally irrelevant because it didn’t actually happen.  It is just another pack of lies–er—story that I chose to tell as a screwy plot device to mix up the lies further and make the whole project murky at best.

So… Oops, wasn’t this paragraph supposed to start with 1990 also?  I guess not, because it’s all about how you have to use some real science to get your sticky little hands on a label of science fiction for your story.  Here you have to make use of all those glorious little facts and details you learned in science class when you were supposed to be paying better attention to what Ms. Rubelmacher was teaching.  Here I could place the notion that amphibians absorbed moisture and nutrients through their skin into my story about amphibianoid aliens.  I could also use the notion that fusion engines could be fueled by the water droplets in steam, and the imaginary anti-gravity engines were able to make a train fly.  I could use my knowledge of Martian Geography to help set part of the story on Mars, again thanks to the fact that Ms. Rubelmacher’s teaching was so boring, er, exciting that I actually had to read ahead in the textbook rather than listen.

So here we have a restatement of my thesis and a summation about all the idiocy, er, wisdom that I have to impart about how you mix what is real with what is a bald-faced lie, er, fictional story.  It boils down to this… Any good liar, er, con man, er, story-teller… yes, I mean story-teller, mixes just enough factual and verifiable stuff into the mix to make the lie, er, story believable.

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