Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Secret Societies: The Pinkerton National Detective Agency

The Pinkertons! It is not your usual thought when secret societies come to mind but, when talking about secret societies it is important to realize that some societies are so secret that their very existence is brought to question, others rely on keeping membership rolls secret, but most were organizations that simply kept some of their activities or inner workings secret. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency qualifies on several fronts as a secret society.

Allen Pinkerton didn’t create an ordinary detective agency. His agents were spies for the Union Army. The Pinkertons were the first Secret Service, charged with protecting the president. After the war, many employees of Pinkerton's National Detective Agency were hired to protect businesses. It is easy to see why the identities of Pinkerton’s operatives required secrecy and why they kept so many of their activities secret. If an agent’s identity were known it could very well cost his or her life.

Yes, I said her life. In my Nessa Donnelly mysteries I draw on the real life history of the women Pinkertons who risked everything to preserve the Union. The intrepid lady detectives of the Pinkerton National Security Agency worked under dangerous, difficult circumstances. The job they did was critical to the agency and to the security of the nation. Throughout his life Allen Pinkerton defended his decision to hire women, and argued the necessity of lady detectives in collecting information inaccessible to men. It was a battle he was unable to win.

Once his sons took over the agency, they got rid of the women agents. They also took the company in a different and more controversial direction. Pinkertons were primarily used as the muscle behind big business. Pinkertons were charged with infiltrating and bringing down the labor unions, protecting non-union laborers, and stopping labor violence (by force if necessary).

Branching out into pseudo-military and police work also raised the level of secrecy and the number of agents needed. At one time there were more Pinkerton agents in the United States than there were soldiers in the United States Army. These agents were responsible for the massacre of union strikers and the assassinations of labor leaders. Behind the scenes, the Pinkerton agents were hired for their brains, but in the coal camps and factories, the face of Pinkerton was often a thug.

The secret, military, brutish nature of the Pinkerton agency was worrisome to government officials. Pinkerton's private police force in Pennsylvania created a labor incident that cost the lives of 16 men and required the state militia to be called out to restore order.

Ohio banned them from working in the state for many years because they feared the company might move to take over state government.

Other states placed restrictions on how many agents could work in the state and began to require that all private detectives apply for a state license. States also began to pass laws restricting the activities of agents and protecting the rights of laborers.

When your PI gets into trouble with the law or has his license suspended, just remember if it hadn’t been for the secret activities of the Pinkerton agents, today’s PI’s might not need a license.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Historical: Brucetown Day

Tomorrow the Brucetown neighborhood is having a block party Since I can’t be there in person, I am writing this blog to share a little of the history of Brucetown.

Brucetown was founded in 1865. It was one of several communities that were formed to accommodate the influx of former slaves into Lexington. Let me make it clear that these communities were not generally founded out of the goodness of Lexingtonian’s hearts. Most of these communities were in low lying areas, near railroad tracks, cemeteries, or factories where property was less valuable. Developing African American communities on these properties served the dual purposes of profiting from otherwise useless land and keeping African Americans as hidden from view as they had been in their former slave quarters.

W. W. Bruce was one of the men that took advantage of the opportunity to profit from these new citizens. He decided to subdivide the land next to his hemp factory and built homes for the African Americans he employed as factory workers, allowing them to pay for the houses from their earnings. Homes were available for sale to non employees, but most were sold through interest free loans from the company. The factory owned the mortgage. It took years to pay for a home in Brucetown. If the factory worker left his employment before the house was paid for, his home reverted back to the factory. Becoming disabled in Brucetown could leave your family homeless.

Despite the disadvantages I have pointed out to these loans, getting a job at the hemp factory and buying a home through the company was a better deal than most poor people of any race could get in the nineteenth century. Owning their homes was a source of pride and whole families worked to pay off the mortgage early. The little community might have disappeared into the city like Lees Row (which exists only as Leestown Road) had it not been for the ability of homeowners to sell the small cabins Mr. Bruce built and build larger homes on the outskirts of Brucetown.

Tomorrow’s block party isn’t about the success of Brucetown or its much deserved neighborhood pride. It is dedicated to the memory of three African American men murdered by a white mob in 1878. The murdered men were Tom Turner, who was shot, Edward Claxton, and John Davis, both of whom were lynched. The murdered men were not criminals. They were ordinary working men who were merely suspected of having knowing something about of the murder of a white man killed two weeks prior. A man named Stivers had been hanged for the murder. Killing one man wasn’t enough to satisfy the thirst for blood.

Tom Turner refused to be blindfolded and taken from his home by the five men who broke into his house in the middle of the night. Mustering as much dignity as a man could while facing a mob in his nightshirt, Turner pushed his wife aside and told the invaders that they might as well shoot him where he stood because he wasn’t going with him. Four of the men obliged and fired. Any one of the shots would have been fatal.

The other two victims were Edward Claxton and John Davis: both agreed to be blindfolded and taken away by the mob. The next morning they were found hanged in the woods on the Northeast side of Lexington.

None of the men involved in the murders of Turner, Claxton and Davis were ever identified. Arrests were made, but Mrs. Turner was unable or too frightened to identify any of the suspects as the men who shot her husband. No other witnesses came forward.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Weekend Writer: Reaching for New Writing Experience

I love Halloween and my spouse adores it. She runs around singing "the most wonderful time of the year," drives all over town looking at the decorations, and gets excited by scary stuff. On Halloween we used to do an event in our house called "Scary Story Night." Friends stopped by with a short story they liked and I decorated for the season and set out yummy treats. We all gathered around and read or told stories for hours. It was a great event. Writing cut into our ability to host a party, but scary stories still play a part in our lives.

Naturally, when I had the chance to participate in the anthology "A Halloween Whodunit" I jumped at the chance. This year I was offered the chance to participate in a new Halloween anthology. This time the theme is horror...my first response was but I'm a mystery writer.

Sarah tells me that I have a talent for writing horror, particularly when writing stories from my life. She reminded me that I had won a contest for writing micro fiction Halloween horror and creep-ed out my friends with my scary story night contributions. What does that say about my life?

Seriously, horror stories are hard for me to read, let alone write. They give me nightmares. So when I was asked to write a Halloween horror story for an upcoming anthology, I paused for a few minutes before saying "yes."

Why "yes" when it is hard work to write horror?

Because I love the holiday...because writing this story forces me to hone my skills in new ways...because Sarah was invited too and I love being in anthologies with my wife...because my editor asked me to contribute...but most of all, because any story that can give me nightmares should be one the readers enjoy.

For me, writing is all about the readers. I don't want to be Emily Dickison, hiding my work away. I write with the intent to be published and the hope of being widely read. I love meeting and hearing from readers. Nothing pleases me more than having someone tell me this story is the best one I've ever done. That challenges me to reach for the next level. If I can make each new writing experience a great reading experience, I've succeeded. So if you're into creepy, stay tuned and we'll let you know when this year's Halloween anthology arrives.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Weekend Writer: Following the Rules

For me, writing fiction is the end product of the storytelling that happens inside my head. Long before I ever started writing stories, I told stories. My head buzzed with "what if" and "how did that happen" questions. Some of the stories were wonderful and I wish I could remember the details that made them sparkle in the minds of the listeners. Not committing them to the page means I may never write them at all. Others were downright awful. I am so glad that group was never written down.

Now I take a more professional approach to story telling. There is a folder on my computer titled "unfinished." It contains the germ of a story that may someday be written. I go back to it regularly. When I am stuck or unsure of what to write, I read through those ideas. Sometimes I pluck one out and write the story. More often, a whole new "what if" question pops into my brain and a new story is born.

This is why my number one rule for writing fiction is: write down the story idea. It doesn't have to be good. Just write it down. Put it away somewhere where you can go back and visit it now and then. If it doesn't become a story, so what? Not every idea is worthy of becoming a story. But for me, those ideas are memory triggers and at any time I may need to see just that thought to build a great story.

Second on my list is read, read, read... Did you get the point of that one? If writers don't read, they miss more than just a good story. Good books, bad books, books on the craft of writing, books about history, math, science... Read. Let your reading take you wherever your imagination wants to go. You'll learn from all of it. More important, perusing your interests will enrich your life. Reading will begin the process of furnishing your mind.

Pay attention. That may seem like a silly rule but hear me out. If you pay attention to the world around you, the world will help you furnish your mind with details the unobservant miss. For instance, you pay attention to a room of full bored people. Not a very interesting emotion to pay attention to? I have to disagree. If you pay attention, you can walk away with a head full of ways to show the reader boredom, body language, facial expressions, actions, and reactions are different in every single person in the room.

Write. There two kinds of writers in the world, the ones that plant their butts in a chair and write and the ones that find reasons not to write, the former finish manuscripts.

Edit. Nobody, no matter how practiced or professional, writes without needing to edit. Once you have a finished manuscript go back and edit. Typos, misuse of grammar, words, and punctuation sneak into the best of manuscripts. Auto-correct will slap you in the face with a totally wrong “correction.” So edit with an eye toward detail.

Read the work aloud. I will confess that I sometimes feel a little stupid for sitting in an empty room reading my story aloud, but not as stupid as I would feel standing to read my work aloud in front of an audience and realizing that I let something that doesn’t sound right get past me in the edits. I read aloud, every story, every chapter, because that is the only way I can be sure that anyone reading my work hears a natural sounding voice.

Use smart beta readers. Don’t just give your draft to a few close friends or family members to review. Find the best beta readers you can get and ask them to give you an honest evaluation of your work. It pays off big time.

Submit your work to publishers. In the electronic age everyone can be published. Go that route and you don’t have to deal with rejection. Go that route and you don’t get to know what it feels like to get an acceptance letter from a great publisher. You don’t get editors who can say no to your work if it isn’t up to standard. Even if you self-publish after paying a pro to edit, you should still send some of your work to others. It helps you grow as an author.

Learn from rejection. Any writer who hasn’t been rejected hasn’t submitted enough work. If you are lucky enough to get an editor that sends more than a form rejection read their advice. If not, go back and read the work they accept and see how yours is different. Then try again.

My final piece of advice for this blog post is: don’t stop. Don’t stop writing, don’t stop editing, don’t stop submitting and above all don’t stop growing as an author.

There are lots of other rules I have for myself about writing, but this is only my top ten. What about you? What are your top rules for writing.