Folsom's 93

The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men


How the Book Began

This is Tom.

I met him when I was about two-years old, shortly before he passed away in 1979. Growing up, I knew very little about my great-great uncle; only that his wife, my aunt Betty, loved him beyond measure. She often referred to him as, “My Tom.” They did after all, spend forty-two years together. Their relationship, however, wasn’t exactly conventional. They met in 1937 (incidentally, the year of Folsom’s final execution) when she was seventeen. He was forty-six . . . and married. After Tom’s wife refused to grant a divorce, the two carried on an affair until 1968 when Tom’s wife died and the pair married.

Little is known about Tom except that he was a bookie, a self-described professional gambler, and that he had a “heart of gold.” I also know that during prohibition, he and his father smuggled bootlegged liquor to the Hearst Castle. My grandmother recalled a story he told about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Apparently, Tom’s father or brother, was the fire chief of the city. They enlisted Tom, a then-teenager, and his friends to help in the aftermath. With the streets in ruins, it was nearly impossible for horses and carriages to navigate the city, so on roller skates, the boys collected bodies and brought them to the morgue.

After forty-two years together, it’s odd to not have some recorded family history, but they weren’t the most forthcoming duo. Much of that had to do with the fact that Tom had a wife. Another, was Tom’s chosen “profession.” His circle of friends and acquaintances included Bugsy Siegel and he even become a silent partner in the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas with the legendary bootlegger and gambling entrepreneur, Anthony Cornero. Despite the ties to organized crime, Betty was always quick to point out that Tom “never crossed the line” into that world.

Sometime in the ’40s, Tom made a trip to Folsom prison to collect money from an inmate. You couldn’t hide from a bookie in prison. I don’t know if Tom got what he came for, but he did leave with a box of mug shots. “The warden gave them to him,” Betty later said. They were placed in a closet and stayed there until the early 1980s. Tucked in with the pictures sat a 40-page text chronicling the history of Folsom from the early 1880s to 1943, presumably when it was written.  Betty (who had a flair for drama) showed them to me and the family on one of our trips to see her in California in ’88 or ’89.

These photos were freaky and awesome at the same time.

We warily looked through the pictures, fearing somehow, the fiendishness of the subjects would rub off on us. Some had on bowler hats, others bowties. A few had their hair smoothly slicked back, while others appeared disheveled and unkempt. The pictures spanned a number of years, as evidenced by the mens’ evolving fashions and mustache styles. Some mug shots depicted a friendly, neighborly-looking kind of guy, or even a schoolteacher. Others fit the criminal stereotype with their shifty eyes and menacing stare. Many looked downright surprised or stunned, not unlike a typical driver’s license photo.

The pictures and document remained with Betty, but she supplied us with copies of the text. As I grew older, I stored Betty’s unusual treasure in the back of mind, recalling every so often that my great-great uncle visited Folsom prison once and brought back creepy photos of inmates.  So anyway, that’s how the book began and with any luck, it’ll be available next spring from Linden Publishing.

I owe Tom a debt of gratitude for hanging on to these antiquities, because without them, I’m not sure these stories would have been told.


Can I Get a Woot-Woot?

This morning, I completed writing all 93 stories. I am by no means finished with the book, but I am one step closer. It felt like a milestone I needed to brag about.

My husband, ever so patient, supportive, and understanding, asked with hopefulness: “So, this means you’ll soon stop talking about executions at the dinner table?”

Of course not. It just means I have a entered into the land of revisions where I will trudge through the muck of rogue commas, swim through a sea of extraneous words, and fight off swarms of killer (yet inactive) verbs. That’s all.

I’m lucky I belong to a fabulous critique group whose members have traversed this treacherous land before me, so I know I won’t be journeying alone.

So tell me . . . what’s the best revision and editing advice you’re ever received?

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The writing planner is here!

The 2012 writing planner is finally here! Actually, it came together surprisingly fast. After doing 13 illustrations in a month, it’s great to see them all together in a finished product. You can order one for $13.95 and pick it up at the NCW Studio or $18 if you need it shipped. It feels great getting back into illustration, but the planner is hopefully going to help me write and stay on track so I can finish Folsom’s 93.

Alice in Wonderland

Peter Pan

Life of Pi

Kerrie Flanagan (creator of the planner) and I hope that it will help writers set and accomplish their goals. Kerrie even added a Submission Tracker page in the back. If you live in the Fort Collins area, stop by the NCW Studio on Friday, November 25th and Saturday, the 26th from 9-3 for the annual Holiday Mart. There will be lots of handcrafted items and food, as well as journals featuring a few of the planner’s illustrations.

Have a great Thanksgiving!


Get Organized with a Writer Planner!

Every writer could use a planner to help them stay on track. My friend, Kerrie Flanagan, director of the Northern Colorado Writers, publishes a writing planner every year. She asked me to do the illustrations for the 2012 version and I couldn’t be more thrilled with this project. In addition to writing, art is a passion of mine—even majored in it. (Word of advice for you youngins’: don’t major in fine arts. It sounds great now, but wait until you need to go to work in the real world . . .)

So I’m excited to be tapping into more of my right brain by returning to illustration. The planner is especially designed for writers to help keep them organized and on-task. Writing is a journey, thus, the theme of this planner. Each illustration portrays a different literary journey, such as The Road Not Taken, Alice in Wonderland, and the Odyssey, to name a few.

The planner will be available November 15th, but you can pre-order one for $13.95, $18, with shipping.

Around the World in 80 Days

If you’d like to pre-order your planner (and ones for your writing friends . . . ) visit Northern Colorado Writers and order online. Thanks in advance for your support!

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Writing Short and Compelling Nonfiction

The other night I attended a lecture by author and journalist, Greg Campbell. Greg is the author of Blood Diamonds, Flawless, and Road to Kosovo. I first met Greg earlier this year at the Northern Colorado Writers Conference where he presented a workshop on writing narrative nonfiction. Since then, I have tried to attend every one of his classes or lectures because he’s such a master of nonfiction. For this particular lecture, Greg focused on a journalistic approach to short nonfiction, having been in that field for many years. Greg’s book-length narrative nonfiction is certainly something to marvel at—he knows what he’s doing. Flawless was probably one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read in a long time—it’s fantastic.

Tuesday night’s lecture focused on writing short, yet compelling nonfiction. To define short, we’re talking 800 to 1500 words; 2500 at the most. Anything shorter, it’s tough to get too “compelling,” but nonfiction at that length, is typically newspaper articles—so you need just enough room for the facts. It could pose a challenge for me considering many of the stories in my book will have to be between 300 and 700 words. I’m up for the challenge.

The following are pieces of sage advice from Mr. Campbell. (I paraphrased) Take notes.

Know your audience. This isn’t just your readership. When it comes to short nonfiction, knowing an editor’s specific style is the first thing to consider. For example, USA Today and The New Yorker may have the same readers, but the types of work they publish is very different. Know your editor first.

Know your story. What is your story? And what makes it important? How does it differ from other published stories on the same subject?

Become a storyteller. Write your story in a letter to someone who knows you well. Tell them your story how you would in a conversation. The recipient will be able to tell you where it doesn’t sound like you, where the holes are, etc.

It comes down to voice. You can either put yourself in the story or not. You have to decide if it’s necessary. Can the story and its characters speak for themselves? If you have a message, trust your reader to get it without beating them over the head with it—it’s distracting.

Responsibility to get it right. It’s a no-brainer; get your facts correct. And forget being “objective.” Be fair and accurate. Greg stresses the importance of knowing enough about your topic to defend it, because you may just have to.

Blog a lot. It’s great practice. It’s that simple.

Greg Campbell’s Top 8 Rules for writing short and compelling nonfiction

8. Jump in with both feet; don’t go wading out. Open with a scene from the middle of the story. Drawing the reader in may require starting somewhere other than the beginning.

7. Use really good quotes—and lots of them. They create mile markers in your story, and what’s not compelling about a good quote?

6. Be declarative when you write. Take out the “he said” and replace it with “he thought.” Taking out the attributes puts the reader into the heads of the characters.

5. Pay attention to word selection. Pick words you actually use; that are colloquial, conversational, the way you would speak. Avoid jargon and using “favorite” words. Throw in some well-played metaphors and similes.

4. Pay attention to sentence selection. You can be “colorful” but don’t do it randomly. Plot them out and make sure they are a part of your vernacular. They need to settle into the background, not take center stage.

3. The inverted pyramid. So picture an upside down pyramid in your mind. The top third is the newsworthy stuff. The middle are details, and the bottom is background/filler. That’s your typical newspaper article. For a bit longer nonfiction, overlap another inverted pyramid on the bottom third of the first pyramid. That’s where you hit the reader with another surprise. Greg called them “electric shocks.” Add another pyramid. These “shocks” keep your readers interested throughout.

2. Find a way to wrap up the story by bringing the reader back to the beginning. This a common technique good journalists use to remind the reader where they’ve been. It brings them back full-circle and shows them that you constructed it that way instead of writing it willy-nilly.

1. Write with confidence! Greg couldn’t stress this enough. This comes back to knowing your topic inside and out. Complete mastery and clarity of the topic establishes you as an authority on the subject which will give you confidence to write about it. And confidence = compelling.

So there you have it. Check out Greg’s blog and learn about his forthcoming book on medical marijuana, out next spring.

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Book Review: Keep it Real, edited by Lee Gutkind

When it comes to writing, my first love is fiction, so when I took on a nonfiction project, I had no idea where to begin. I knew how I wanted my book to read, but I wasn’t sure how to get there.

As the Chinese proverb says, to know the road ahead, ask those coming back, I turned to the experts, namely Lee Gutkind, a creative nonfiction guru. In Keep it Real, various authors contribute their sage advice in this 161-page book. The chapters follow an ABC format and are laden with examples from published nonfiction. Gutkind covers all the bases with short and concise chapters that give practical advice concerning everything from the legalities of writing nonfiction, to deciding whose story to tell.

One contributor (although a list of authors are named in the beginning, the chapters are not credited) discusses the importance of research and immersing oneself in the subject:

 “By staying close to the informational, journalistic roots of creative nonfiction, by simply hanging out in the world and paying close attention, we may find that a large chunk of that mundane fact collecting and routine research will lead to untold stories and to  places that we, as writers and readers, didn’t know we could go.”

 The purpose behind the book is to teach writers that nonfiction doesn’t have to be a boring narration of facts; there is a place for imagination in nonfiction, in fact, it’s imperative. Gutkind urges writers to become the reader’s “tour guide” by “[leading] a reader on a journey, allowing her to discover parts of the world that she might not normally see.”

 Keep it Real is a great read for memoirists. There are several chapters devoted or pertaining to those who are telling their own stories.

 “A good memoir offers readers a human connection. A good memoir uses life experience, not to go more deeply into the self but to reach out to others. A good memoirist makes connections. A good memoirist’s primary goal is to show us something true about ourselves, about what it means to be human.”

 Keep it Real is an easy to follow, quick read with a plethora of examples to learn from. It opened my eyes to the different ways to effectively approach creative nonfiction (including 14 different point-of-view options)! While the book stresses the importance of writing nonfiction creatively, it also shows how important the writer keep it real.


Every Writer Could Use a Retreat

This weekend I attended the Northern Colorado Writers Retreat at Sylvan Dale Ranch outside Loveland. This is the second year I’ve done the retreat. Last year, I didn’t get as much done since I hadn’t finished my research at that point, but not one to pass up an opportunity to have peace and quiet (even if it was just to get a nap) I went.

This year, having completed my research, I had no excuses. We arrived Friday afternoon, got settled and had a couple of hours to write before our group of 10 gathered to discuss individual writing goals for the weekend. Then we had another couple of hours before dinner. I couldn’t pass up a rather boisterous game of Bananagrams, but after a few rounds, we decided it was time to write again.

From 9-5 on Saturday, we had uninterrupted writing time where the only sounds heard were the rushing river and the taping of keys on the laptop. I emerged from my room to grab a sandwich for lunch in the downstairs common room, then slinked back to continue tapping away. I did make sure I ventured outside to the sunny and peaceful deck to read over some transcripts.

After dinner, I forwent the evening movie of Dead Poets Society and continued to write for another 3-1/2 hours. Each morning I got in about 30 minutes of writing before breakfast.

I want one of these in my backyard

The only misadventure came in the form of a tiny four-legged critter that darted across my floor and turned me into the a shrieking woman standing on the bed, envisioning a thriving community of mice under the bed. Luckily he escaped out into the hall.

I spent 21 hour writing this weekend and met my goal of writing 15 first drafts of the Folsom stories. I’m thrilled I got these done, as I’m sure my publisher would be, too, however I don’t think he’d be happy to hear that the word count on each one is higher than I previously estimated. How I’m going to convince him the word count for Folsom’s 93 needs to be larger, I don’t know, but I’m going to try.

I’m not against begging.

Having this time to write not only resulted in 15 completed stories, but it rejuvenated my writing mojo. I needed to plow through these in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Not having the everyday distractions of home, I cranked out several thousand words of text I wouldn’t have otherwise written in that time. Don’t underestimate the power of a writing retreat. Even if it’s only a half an hour away, it’ll be far enough from the daily grind so you can focus on your love of writing.

(Also . . . check out this great post, What is a Writing Vacation? by writer Carol Deminski)

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Whiteboard Bliss

Until today, I thought my label maker was the next best thing to the invention of the wheel and a cure for polio, but then I discovered the pure elation of a whiteboard.

Now that I’m working with a publisher and have a deadline and word count to meet, I feel justified in buying this $30 whiteboard. (I had to hold myself back at the $50 magnetic one). I grew weary of writing down notes and outlines on pieces of paper because they often got lost, or I forgot which notebook I wrote them in. Not only did this dry-erase board simplify the paper chaos, but it’s mighty satisfying to use.

As I progress and as things change, I can erase, rewrite, erase, rewrite without using up paper—it’s brilliant. I can even pretend I’m Detective Kate Beckett from Castle; studying it, changing it, adding to it . . . (now I wish it was magnetic so could hang up some mugshots . . . dang it)!

ooh, look how pretty!