Choose: Who’s Coming to Dinner (Contest)

It’s party time … and you get to pick your six favorite fictional characters to invite — or perhaps eight, or perhaps three. Think it through, not just off the top of your head.

Now, ask them to dinner. Oh, what a night. Consider the conversation, the engagement. Reflect on the conflicts, the encouragements of the encounters.

Now play it out in your head or on paper. How’s that for a challenge?

What would (Rex Stout’s) Nero Wolfe answer when (Daniel Silva’s) Gabriel Allon, the famed Israeli spy, asks him what he would cook for (John le Carré’s) George Smiley?

Would (Charles Dickens’s) Ebenezer Scrooge send (Mark Twain’s) Tom Sawyer back to the kitchen to get a larger turkey, and what size would be Scrooge’s tip upon Tom’s return?

What would (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s) Sherlock Holmes answer when Scottish apocryphal bagpiper Gillidh Callum asks why the famous detective chose the violin over Callum’s majestic Highland instrument?

Would (Lee Childs’) Jack Reacher get into fisticuffs with (Ian Fleming’s) James Bond (yes, he was in books before movies) over a beautiful lady, say (Margaret Mitchell’s) Scarlett O’Hara?

I recall the BBC mini-series, Dickensian, which filled one Victorian London neighborhood with Dickens characters from Oliver Twist to Scrooge, the Cratchit family, Lady Dedlock, Miss Havisham, William Guppy, Mr. Bumbles, Captain James Hawden, Inspector Bucket and others. Jacob Marley was murdered and Bucket was on the case. What a hoot for Dickens fans.

And then there was Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, with a modern-day author visiting Paris and magically tugged back into the 1920s in Paris, where he gets to share his manuscript with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, and to meet with Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, T.S. Eliot, Henri Matisse…

You get the picture. But do you get the idea? Ways exist to create something different from the “parts” of different “sums.”

If you’re a writer or want to be, how about picking your “parts” and pushing them all together toward a greater “sum”?

Let me know your ideas. The most impressive one that’s not my coming-to-dinner scene gets a free signed copy of my novel, The Last Aliyah, which has been described by AFA Journal as “a chilling novel… with gripping narrative and political intrigue dripping from every page.” I like that one.

 

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Keep the Scene or Not?

My upcoming book, Jeremiah’s Jar, contained/contains a scene I must decide to delete or move to another location.

My “feet-on-the-ground” — that is, Sherwood and Jennifer Burton — tell me I need to put Max in another place for this scene to work. The best options are the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and the area outside Damascus Gate on the east side of Jerusalem, especially in the evening because Sherwood says “Darkness is where the devil works best.”

My question to you, the reader, is “Should I delete the scene entirely or move it from where I have it, the Arnona neighborhood near the American Consulate?

Keep in mind, my hero, Max, is a black-ops veteran and has been hired to protect the U.S. ambassador to Israel who is overseeing the move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Here’s the scene:

 

Invited to the consulate to meet the new ambassador, Max decided to survey its surrounds, get a lay of the land and a feel for its neighbors. If indeed he opted to take the assignment protecting the ambassador, he needed to be armed with personal knowledge, not paper surveillance reports.

Though home to a surprising number of Christians, the area was set hard against Arab neighborhoods to the east and southeast. Indeed, the 1949 Armistice Line, known as the Green Line separating Jewish and Arab areas, runs through the middle of the consulate.

Max parked in an alley off Kfar Etsyon Street and double-timed his way over the meandering Green Line, thinking for a moment that someone ought to spray-paint an actual green line along the pavement, the grass, over buildings, whatever—just so no unwitting visitor would wander into danger.

The Green Line, after all, was not a straight stripe, easily detected. It zigzagged here and there.

And, as in all Arab areas in Israel, non-Arabs tread carefully there if they dare tread at all.

For Max, intimacy with the neighborhood was both a professional necessity and a personal dare, kept private, self-to-self. He remembered being tossed off a bull once when he competed in youth rodeo in Dallas-Ft. Worth. He’d landed hard on his right collar-bone. His first thought was, Will I be able to shift the stick on Dad’s F-150? His second was of the bull: Thunder, they called him.

Later, his right arm in a sling, Max had walked to the barn where the bulls were penned. He’d found Thunder, stalked to his pen and looked him in the eye. The encounter began as a stare-down. The top rodeo bulls are the ones with red in their eyes, snarl in their mouths, and “kill” in their hearts. Thunder possessed all of these. As Max peered at his foe, he realized Thunder had been provoked to anger since he was born. The bull knew nothing else.

Today, with livid eyes watching him pass by, Max thought that bull hated because he was programmed to hate. These people were no different.

Yet Max could do little about that but defend himself if attacked, or prevent that assault in the first place.

He ambled through the area, then headed toward the consulate, watching life as Palestinians knew it. It was high noon and a bright sun bore down with eighty-degree heat on this mid-June day.

Kids kicked a soccer ball in the street. Mothers, their heads under scarfs, scolded some, indulged others, hugged still others.

Max remembered a famous Golda Meir quote: “We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”

Golda, Israel’s Churchill when it came to wisdom, had also said: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”

He looked again at several boys who had been kicking the soccer ball. One was holding the ball like he was trying to squeeze the air out of it and they were all staring at him. Was that hatred in their eyes? At so early an age? He looked down at what he was wearing: khakis, white button-up shirt and walking shoes. He guessed “Westerner” was written in bold type all over him.

Just then, a stirring reached his ears, someone or someones-plural rustling behind him and to the right. He kept his pace, neither in a hurry nor a saunter. He flexed his neck muscles and curled his shoulders frontward, then backward. His hands hung by his side, relaxed but ready.

More than once he’d been in a vehicle with the distinctive yellow Israeli plates, which invited stone-throws as they rode past Arab neighborhoods. Heck, if you wanted to visit the Mount of Olives, it was best to do so in a bus filled of tourists rather than in an Israeli car. The bus was less likely to be stoned.

Israeli “occupation”? Hardly.

Now there was a stirring behind him to his left.

Now a man to his right spoke in Arabic: “Here is one meant for death.”

“By burning or butcher?” replied a man to his left, also in Arabic.

“We’ll slice. You burn,” said the man on the right.

“In the middle of the courtyard by the old Chanakah Mosque.” A statement, not a question.

“Agreed.”

These people wouldn’t risk gunfire. Besides, killing a foreigner outright with a bullet wouldn’t be half as fun as a slow beheading or hot roasting. Guess this intelligence-gathering walk was a bad idea. Well, at least an enlightening one.

Ahead, the top two floors of The Diplomat loomed over the rooftops. Max guessed he was a half-mile away. He might be able to outrun these people. Naw! Though fear could be a healthy emotion in time of war, running was not an option Max had ever entertained. The thought that a rule is sometimes a good thing to break rushed in and he shoved the idea aside with a firm elbow.

He continued walking on but sharpened his hearing, listening as the footsteps on the asphalt drew nearer. He guessed ten yards on his right, fifteen on his left.

Suddenly the sharp call to prayer from a nearby minaret split the air, the words crackling through a bad sound system, and at the same moment Max whirled around. Before him were four men to his left, three to his right—all Arabs, from early twenties to late forties. Four brandished scary-looking knives.

Max looked right to left, pointed eastward toward the sound of the minaret and said in Arabic, “Shouldn’t you boys be going to Dhuhr prayer. The noon plea is to remember Allah and seek his guidance, no?”

The oldest of the men took a step forward, pointed an Arabic Jambiya dagger at Max, and shook his head. “Not right now.”

“Oh, I do think you need his guidance, my friend. Whether you end up in the hospital depends on your decision.”

The man put his left hand to his stomach and guffawed. His friends followed suit. A true Palestinian laugh fest, this.

Max turned on his heel and strolled toward the consulate. A sudden flurry of noise behind him spun him back around. All seven men were nearly upon him in a semi-circle.

Max pulled his Glock 19 from its holster under his shirt and pointed the gun at the leader’s head.

They all stopped in their tracks.

Max said, “I’d be happy to set this little baby aside and deal with you boys hand-to-hand, but I think this will be easier—for all of us.” He drew a breath, then, “Easier for you, mostly, because I expect you to simply walk away. Do so and you can have a nice day with your families, relax and ponder how you came so very close to cutting the head off an American infidel.

“Otherwise, you’ll just mean more work for the emergency doctors and nurses at the hospital, where you’ll have to suffer the indignity of Jews tending your wounds. Because that’s what those wicked Jews do, you know: care for whoever enters their doors, Arabs included. Even mujahideen.”

The leader glanced left and right, exchanged looks with his comrades, then tilted his head at Max. “You get to live another day, pagan. Come back and you won’t.”

The muezzin in the minaret wailed on about Allah and his guidance.

Max returned his handgun to its holster, stretched his arms out in front of him and wiggled his fingers in a come-hither motion. The leader began to stride ahead, then hesitated. Max read indecision in his eyes. None of his pals were joining him.

Max raised the index finger on his right hand and wiggled it. Come on.

The leader cursed and spit toward Max, then turned around and stalked away. His six friends kept pace with him, walking down the middle of the narrow street. Their shoulders were rounded forward. The body language read “defeat,” but Max wondered if, on another day, their backs might straighten to another language: “revenge.”

 

So, now that you’ve read my scene, what do you think?

Grab that Reader at First ‘Taste’

Opening paragraphs of books are a lot like soda pop. That first taste, that sip, tells you if it’s got sizzle and you want to drink it like a dying man in a desert, or look for another oasis.

When I decide whether I want to read a book, after checking out the back cover or inside flap I go straight to chapter one, lead sentence. “Grab me or lose me,” I say.

A reader will give a favorite author more leeway, I’m sure, but when it comes to checking out the unknown, that initial impression either clinches the purchase or waves sayonara, adios, ciao.

As a journalist I was trained in “All the facts, ma-am” — who, what, when where and why in the first paragraph.

As an author I try to reach in, grab the reader by the lapel, and pull them into the story.

Take a look at these openings of my novels and list best to worst for me, will you?

 

Jeremiah’s Jar (Coming soon)

Pft-pft-pft-pft. Another barrage of flaming arrows sizzled through the dense night air and over the northern wall into the city of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah glanced up in time to gauge that the arrows landed in and around King Zedekiah’s inner courtyard, perhaps seventy feet from where Jeremiah stood in the outer court of the dwelling where he was held prisoner.

 

The Last Aliyah (2018)

The call that changed Nobel laureate Omri Zohn’s life came at that hour when the most distasteful acts are perpetrated in Washington, D.C.—when Congressmen can board flights home before the news hits the airwaves.

 

The Three Sixes (2017)

Max Braxton slipped a butterscotch drop between his lips. If he were to die in the next minute, he fancied a sweet taste in his mouth.

 

Chasing the Music (2016)

Atop Dragot, seemingly in the clouds just north of Masada and with a magnificent view of Dead Sea to the east, Danny Arens knelt and bent over the ancient tablet with curiosity, his face close to the ground. The writing on the tablet was ancient Aramaic, his specialty. He rubbed his hands on his khakis to dry the perspiration of anxiety, then picked up the tools of his trade—a small whisk broom and a pocket magnifying loupe.

The hair on his neck rose in anticipation. But then, out of utter silence, he heard vehicles approaching up the nearly vertical, twisting road.

 

The Crossing (2016)

A triple play! Young Joshua Craig was still reliving the game-ending ankle-high line drive that he snapped from his shortstop position before stepping on second base to force out Bobby Jenkins who was off the bag, then drilling the ball to Jimmy Thomas at first base to catch Stevie Fowler before he could get back.

This was euphoria. He thought of the word in his 6th-grade English test Mrs. Green gave the class just yesterday. E-u-p-h-o-r-i-a. He couldn’t wait to tell Dad and Mom about it—moment by moment. His anticipation of the hit, his instinctive step toward second, his—Whoa! What was that?

Something suddenly grabbed his attention, something odd, something out of place.

 

True North: Tice’s Story (2015)

Tice stood at the riverbank, spring runoff flowing swiftly past him. Certain death lay ahead. Certain torture lay behind. First, he couldn’t swim. And torture? That’s what they did with slaves who tried to escape.

 

Midnight Rider for the Morning Star: The Life and Times of Francis Asbury (2009)

The air was so clear and crisp on this autumn day that it almost crackled. The aroma of salt from the nearby Atlantic Ocean mingled with the scent of the balsam fir trees all about him to create a curious combination. And the trees were so startlingly beautiful, adorned in brilliant yellows, reds and oranges, that they nearly whistled, “Look at us!” But neither the air, the aroma nor the foliage attracted the attention of the man on the tall, gray stallion.

Swearing’s Lazy in Prose and in Person

 

I recently read a novel, a thriller co-authored by a retired army colonel who apparently thought it necessary for reality’s sake to sprinkle the book with swear words—to the point that when the heroine visits her brothers, they are taken aback by her foul mouth.

My hero in Chasing the Music, The Three Sixes and the upcoming Jeremiah’s Jar is black-ops veteran Max Braxton and, guess what? He hasn’t sworn in three whole books.

Others around him have “cursed,” they’ve “sworn,” they’ve “spewed words that would shame a sailor.” They’ve said lots of words without actually saying those things.

Got it?

What disturbs me, what makes me question why on earth an author, or screenwriter, or journalist makes the decision to use shocking language and when they’ know the words will offend and turn off a segment of their potential readers or audience.

Many people I know simply turn off the TV set when actors curse. I’m sure they leave a book unread when characters swear. I’ve been disappointed in doing so myself and missing out on reading several books to which I’ve looked forward. I’ve repented for continuing to read the colonel’s aforementioned novel.

Writers may think dropping F-bombs, G-bombs, J-bombs and assorted other missiles are necessary because some people in real life are foul-mouthed creatures.

My take? They’re lazy writers.

There are options to get around taking the Lord’s name in vain or denigrating a character.

One of my favorite comments from Max is his description of the Dean of Students at Yale University in The Three Sixes. Max calls him a supercilious popinjay. Supercilioius: full of contempt and arrogance. Popinjay: a vain and conceited person.

No need for a writer to pen curse words. Rather:

He swore under his breath and flicked on the safety. He was going to get paid with or without the hit, but his baby wanted to be fired. More importantly, he wanted this hit. How many could claim to have taken out the leader of the free world?

 Or something like this:

The imam used a word Max didn’t know but it was uttered like a curse. “How did it happen?”

Do you have any ideas to avoid using the swear words?

Ahead of the Headlines

No matter what side of the political aisle you stand on, I don’t mean this to be pejorative. But the last and current U.S. Presidents have not only messed with my head, they’ve messed with my novels. Now that’s worse.

When I wrote The Three Sixes it was indeed “ripped from today’s headlines” and that was the problem. (You’ll have to read it to discover what I mean.)

Now, writing Jeremiah’s Jar, I find Mr. Trump is vexing me. Yes, I love the idea of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It is!

But when I started writing Jeremiah’s Jar no President had had the guts to follow Congress’s near-unanimous 1995 demand and do so, and that’s how I wrote the book… until those portions of it had to be rewritten last month.

And yes, I love the idea of moving our embassy to Jerusalem just like all our other 190 embassies are located in those countries’ capitals. It’s right and just and true. And for someone to complain that this would harm any “peace talks” shouldn’t any peace negotiations be based on facts?

However, I’m hoping the move of the embassy is delayed just long enough for me to finish Jeremiah’s Jar without a massive rewrite of a major subplot.

If the U.S. delays long enough, my publisher can say, “This book is ripped from tomorrow’s headlines.”

Now, that would not be vexing at all.

Headlines Ripped from My Novel-in-Progress

When President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it was like the old TV show, Law and Order: “Ripped from today’s headlines!”

Only this announcement was vice versa: Headlines ripped from fiction.

My work in progress (WOP), Jeremiah’s Jar, includes a major subplot in which the American President Tyler Kineo names Hawke Harbinger his ambassador to Israel with the intent to move the embassy to Israel and acknowledge Jerusalem as the Jews’ historic and eternal capital.

For 30 years Presidents and presidential candidates — Democrats and Republicans alike, including Clinton, Bush and Obama — have made this campaign promise only to renege.

So I felt safe when I started writing this book. The thought was, Hillary would win and even if she lost, Trump would fail to deliver his promise, just like his predecessors.

Either way, the argument for officially recognizing Jerusalem is accepting a truth that predates even the existence of any other country in the world. Before Germany existed, before England existed, before America existed, Jerusalem was.

Here’s a scene from my manuscript, which by the way now must be rewritten before publication. Ambassador Harbinger and his wife, Skye, are dining with my heroes, Max and Kat, along with two Holocaust survivors, Maurice and Sadie:

“Jerusalem’s been our capital since 1949,” Maurice said, “and according to international law, the Jewish people have legitimate rights to the so-called ‘land of Palestine.’ Those rights are preserved in three legally binding international treaties: the 1920 San Remo Resolution, the 1922 Mandate for Palestine and the 1924 Anglo-American Convention on Palestine.”

Maurice put his palms together and continued, “But Satan, that demon, has been about severing God’s people from Jerusalem since forever. In ’67 BC, the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes outlawed Jewish traditions, reading the Torah, and honoring the Sabbath and turned the city into a Greek colony and the temple into a place of pagan worship. Centuries later, Roman Emperor Hadrian rewrote Jewish history, renaming Judea ‘Palaestina’ and Jerusalem ‘Ailia Capitolina.’”

Hawke chuckled and nodded at Max, “I should have mentioned that Maurice is a history professor at The Ben-Gurion Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism
at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.”

“Ah-h-h,” Max exhaled.

“Besides all these resolutions and mandates,” Sadie said, “are God’s Word. Moses declared in Deuteronomy chapter thirty-two that God sets the boundaries of the nations.”

“And in the New Testament, too,” Skye said. “In Acts seventeen it talks about God establishing the ‘exact places’ men should live.”

“What I find inexplicable,” Maurice said, “is that the United Nations did not refer to the West Bank and Gaza as ‘occupied’ territories when they were ‘occupied’ by Egypt and Jordan from 1948 to 1967. The Arab states were the ‘occupiers’ of parts of the land west of Jordan until 1967.”

“Duplicitous,” Kat said. “Two-faced, deceitful.”

“That’s all true,” Hawke said, “but our primary message in moving the embassy to Jerusalem is singular, simple and significant: Israel’s survival is non-negotiable. Not in our eyes.

“Secondarily, we do not want to continue to insult an ally by refusing to acknowledge their declared capital as their genuine capital.”

Max gave a thumbs-up. “I wonder what Putin would say if we denied Moscow as Russia’s capital and moved our embassy to Kiev.”

“Or if we denied Paris is France’s capital and moved our embassy to, say, Lyon,” Kat said.

“I vote for Aix-en-Provence,” Skye said with a chuckle.

Max watched Hawke’s reaction. His laugh was genuine, his composure complete. He wondered what the ambassador would be like in battle, then prayed that would never happen.

“So you all get my point,” Hawke said. “America, alone, will be in Jerusalem. El Salvador and Costa Rica once had their embassies in Jerusalem, but back in 2006 both moved.”

“El Salvador,” Maurice said. “I remember them slinking out of town. Said they were moving because of increased Arab pressure during the war in Lebanon. And Costa Rica? They said their move was needed,” he made air quotes, “ ‘to bring the nation in line with international law and to mend relations with Arab nations.’”

“I was here then,” Max said. “Israel criticized Costa Rica’s decision as a surrender to terror. Uri Lupolianski, Jerusalem’s mayor at the time, called on the government to work with the United States to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.”

“Well, now we are. We’re no longer surrendering to terror, or the threat of it,” Hawke said. “We’re supposed to be the most powerful nation on earth, yet we’ve been cowering in the corner, acting like the weaklings on the block. Drawing red lines in the sand that rogue countries can cross without ramifications. Giving Iran, which bankrolls much of the world’s terrorism, a hundred and fifty billion dollars and a clear and quick path to nuclear power. Sending Iran forty million dollars to release American hostages. Bowing to every tin-horned ayatollah with oil under his feet.”

“That,” Kat said, “is a long way from Obama calling on the Supreme Court to strike down a Congressional law to have Jerusalem recognized as part of Israel on American passports. Remember that?”

“2015,” Hawke said. “And not just Obama, but George W. Bush, too. Presidents have the long-established authority to recognize foreign states, their governments, and their territorial boundaries. So the President’s determinations must be reflected in official documents, including passports.”

“I wonder,” said Sadie, “why your President—even Mr. Obama, who hated Israel—would oppose such a thing.”

Hawke shrugged. “Obama and Bush 43 both opposed the Congressional law which was passed in 2002 and called for U.S. passports of citizens born in Jerusalem to list their birth country as Israel, saying by recognizing Jerusalem as part of Israel it would lose credibility as an ‘impartial broker’ in peace talks.”

“So much for the separation of politics and the legal system,” Kat offered.

Max took a bite of Kfegh and offered: “So politics and the legal system works about the same as politics and warfare.”

Hawke chuckled ruefully and lifted his coffee cup toward Max as a toast.