All posts by Brad Whittington

Behind the Scenes: Portland Day 2

On Friday I awakened and dressed while contemplating the day that lay ahead, a pivotal day for our hero, who finds himself faced with the unexpected mission of rescuing a teenager from a wealth of bad decisions. To that end, he must assemble a team of modern day knights-errant to join him in battle against nefarious foes.

It was going to be a long day. Hensley takes 12 hours to go through the paces, but I was unwilling to subject my sister to such a grueling schedule. We did it in about half the time.

City State Diner, Portland, OR
City State Diner, Portland, OR

Our first stop—City State Diner, where they serve up a mean breakfast. Net research had drawn me to the Bacon Brie Scramble, but consultation with our server redirected me to the Freddie, which was everything one could hope for and more. If you find yourself in Portland and in need of breakfast, run don’t walk to City State Diner.

The Freddie, City State Diner, Portland, OR
The Freddie, City State Diner, Portland, OR

After an excellent repast, we took the half-hour drive down to what turned out to be the location of the former Pacific Rim Martial Arts Academy, now a bank branch office. Hey, I do write fiction after all so I felt more than capable to fill in the blanks.

Jet Set Coffee, Tigard, OR
Jet Set Coffee, Tigard, OR

From there it was a mere two-mile jaunt to Jet Set Coffee in Tigard, a hip little joint with an impressive mural of the defunct TWA flight center at JFK, now the T5 JetBlue terminal. Thankfully,  there were no surprises, and I got some work done for the day job while my sister got in a good spell of reading.

The Olive and the Grape, Portland, OR
The Olive and the Grape, Portland, OR

Then it was an appetizer at the Olive and the Grape in Lake Oswego, a charming little bistro with and ambitious menu and a welcoming atmosphere. Highly recommended.

Half Pint Coffee, Portland, OR
Half Pint Coffee, Portland, OR

Next Hensley seeks out Sea Tramp Tattoo to recruit his next warrior. Net research revealed that between the time of the story (2013) and the time of the writing (2015), a fire forced Sea Tramp to relocate. We parked near the original location, still vacant, and like Hensley, grabbed a drink at Half Pint Cafe, located in the former freight elevator shaft of a warehouse. Marco serves up a mean brew. Come on down!

Former location of Sea Tramp Tattoo, Portland, OR
Former location of Sea Tramp Tattoo, Portland, OR

Thus fortified, we visited the new location of Sea Tramp. Here’s the thing about walking into a place and informing the denizens that they are the subject of scene in a novel. Some are effusive and honored. Others are curious. And yet still others are indifferent.

Current location of Sea Tramp Tattoo, Portland, OR
Current location of Sea Tramp Tattoo, Portland, OR

The good folks at Sea Tramp were quite friendly, but I must confess they seemed tolerant but less enthusiastic than I might have hoped upon receipt of the news that they were to be featured. But I have a sneaking suspicion that if you’re in Portland and you want a tattoo, Sea Tramp is the place to go.

And this brings us to the most iconic of locations in this memorable day in Hensley’s journey, the Lovecraft Bar. I found the Lovecraft through net research, as it was only two blocks from the former and current locations of Sea Tramp Tattoo. I was immediately captivated.

Lovecraft Bar, Portland OR
Lovecraft Bar, Portland OR

The Lovecraft is not a place that I would frequent, or even enjoy when it is in full swing, but it is true to the vibe of the infamous HP Lovecraft, creator of compelling stories of  existential dread.

As a teenager in Fred, Texas, I went through my requisite morbid stage and consumed everything written by Edgar Allan Poe. The meager stores of the library thus exhausted, I branched out to Lovecraft and could only endure one volume before turning to more congenial and lighthearted material. If you thought Poe could craft terrifying tales, and you would be right about that, then prepare yourself for the next level before opening a book by Lovecraft.

Lovecraft Bar, Portland, OR
Lovecraft Bar, Portland, OR

The place is everything one could want in such a dive. If Mick Jagger could get satisfaction, then he would find it in the Lovecraft,  because everything is painted black. Walls, ceiling, floor, furniture, stage, soul. All black.

As I said, not my vibe, but an incredible setting for a scene in a novel. As I mentioned before, Hensley carefully considers what he eats and drinks to acquire the makings of the quintessential experience. Consequently I pondered what  Hensley would order in this depraved environment, and realized I was not equal to the task for I know nothing of mixed drinks. But I have a wealth of resources at my command.

As I was writing, although it was an advanced hour, I saw that my main man of Oz, recently relocated to Las Vegas for business, was online. I pinged him, and together we constructed a hideous cocktail to match the location. The Defenestrated Zombie. Let us just say that it contains ingredients that are illegal to serve.

I later challenged Chris Wall, the bartender at my favorite lunch, brunch, and dinner spot, Cafe Malta, to create a legal version of this cocktail, and you can find the recipe at the back of the book.

Complimentary pita bread at the Nicholas Lebanese restaurant in Portland, OR
Complimentary pita bread at the Nicholas Lebanese restaurant in Portland, OR

Thus liberated, my sister and I crossed the street to the Nicholas Restaurant where Hensley goes to purge himself of the dreaded cocktail. He orders dinner as he receives devastating news that drives him back into the street. However we did not deprive ourselves of the goodness of the Nicholas and were rewarded with an excellent Lebanese dinner. Don’t miss it if you can.

As Hensley faces his crisis, he stops by two more establishments on Burnside, the B-Side Tavern and the Wurst.

TRS-PortlandBSideLightsThe moment we stepped into the B-Side, I commented that I felt like I had stepped into a Texas roadhouse. The vibe was identical. In an earlier episode, I discussed the cultural and spiritual elements that constitute the roadhouse experience, and the B-Side embodies these very elements.

First, although Portland enjoys the same non-smoking laws that Austin shares, there was the immediate whiff of cigarette smoke, wafting in from the back deck as we later learned. I am not offering a value judgment in regard to the smoking laws. I enjoy a smoke-free environment as much as the next person, but it served as a reference point of frontier defiance that resonated with this Texan.

The next thing that impressed upon my consciousness was that the light boxes above the bar had lenses that consisted of x-rays. Rib cages, pelvic bones, femurs. It was simultaneously startling and charming. Brenda, our bartender, was as friendly as any Texan you could hope to meet. If you can endure the trace aroma of cigarette smoke, it’s a friendly place to hang out.

Our last location to investigate was the Wurst, a more brightly-lit establishment with a horseshoe bar, arcade games, and a selection of bratwurst-based sandwiches. If we had taken the 12 hours that Hensley does in tracing his journey, I would have sampled one, but in our abbreviated schedule, I didn’t have room for that luxury.


Behind the Scenes: Portland Day 1

Gentle reader, there is one aspect in which I am luckier than you. I have a sister who lives in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps you are not conscious of a gaping hole in your life in this regard, but once you decide to write a novel set in Portland, you will keenly feel your need. Should such an occasion arise, give me a call. I know a guy.

Portland is considered a sister city of Austin because we share a certain level of weirdness, if of somewhat different flavors. After all, Austin is in Texas, and there’s no cure for that.

After a forced march across the Continental Divide, Hensley rolls into Portland in the afternoon and finds himself in need of a wardrobe adjustment to allow for the difference in climate. As is his custom, he seeks out a Goodwill store. Net research provided the proper location but nothing less than location scouting could have revealed the nature of that store.

Ritzy Goodwill store in downtown Portland
Ritzy Goodwill store in downtown Portland

Oddly enough, it smells like every other Goodwill store I’ve encountered, but there the similarity ended. Upscale knick knacks. A vase with artistically arranged stark branches. Brand new Pendleton shirts priced at $30. It became clear I would have to do a bit of editing on that scene.

Thus provisioned, Hensley sought out one of his old haunts, the Virginia Cafe. This establishment has been in continuous operation since before Prohibition, and so Hensley felt confident as he approached the corner of Park and Morrison. Both he and I were in for a surprise upon arriving at our destination.

Portland HiRise
Portland HiRise

Based on net research, I expected to find a 35-story office building at that location, and I did. However net research did not reveal that it was under construction, and therefore Hensley would not have  been able to inquire inside for the new location of the Virginia Cafe.

Shockingly unfinished 35-story office building in Portland
Shockingly unfinished 35-story office building in Portland

I unexpectedly found myself in Hensley’s shoes, staring in confusion at this location and wondering what had happened. I needed to know what this corner look like in 2013. And in the next few moments the most amazing aspect of location scouting emerged.

Before I could pop into a shop and inquire into the history of the development on this corner and how it looked two years prior, a man in a three-piece suit and a red power tie crossed the street and greeted my sister. As it turned out they went to the same church. When we were introduced, I said “Glen, you might be able to help me out. I have a question about this building.”

He glanced at the building and turned back to me. “This is the most recent acquisition in my property management portfolio. What do you need to know?” Within a few minutes I had everything I needed to complete the scene.

Thus enlightened, we proceeded to the new location of the Virginia Cafe just two doors north of the Goodwill store, but it took me much longer to recover from this amazing chance encounter.

Entrance to the Virginia Cafe, Portland, OR
Entrance to the Virginia Cafe, Portland, OR

The Virginian Cafe is a charming little bistro with a fairly pedestrian menu. Based on web research I had Hensley order the London Broil, but I asked the waitress for the most popular item and she directed me to the club sandwich. I found it typical of the breed, if of somewhat ambitious elevation. I had the spicy tater tots, my sister had the spicy fries. They were spicy. Note the coveted jacket from Goodwill.

The Club Me sandwich at the Virginia Cafe in Portland, OR
The Club Me sandwich at the Virginia Cafe in Portland, OR

Having experienced our limit for fortuitous encounters, we retired the field to prepare ourselves for the daunting Friday that Hensley was to face.


Behind the Scenes: Santa Fe Day 3

As you might have gathered, the star of this production is somewhat of a gustatorian, or in the modern parlance, a foodie. As a result, I had to pay particular attention to what he ate and where. This characteristic pops up in the first chapter and continues on, climaxing in the last third of the novel in a memorable Friday in Portland where Hensley hits six or so establishments, all of which I can personally recommend.

It’s kind of a Bloomsday tour de force, if I can be so bold.

But back in Santa Fe, I needed the quintessential breakfast spot for Hensley, and my good friend and fellow writer Chadwick Wall, a frequent habitue of Santa Fe, pointed me in the right direction. I did my online research and was sold.

On site, I found a spot in the parking garage next door to Tia Sophia’s and walked past the infamous Carl taking a smoke break before I realized who he was. I resisted the urge to backtrack and introduce myself as it felt like it could be a bit awkward, so I proceeded on to do a bit of shopping for The Woman, particularly at the Christmas Store where I picked up some ornaments for our new scaled-down Christmas tree. Then I scoped out the Loretto Chapel, of which I spoke earlier, and returned to Tia Sophia’s for a Christmas burrito for lunch, just as Hensley does.

Tia Sophia's Christmas burrito
Tia Sophia’s Christmas burrito

I lacked the good fortune to be seated in Carl’s territory, but did score a table nearby where I could watch him in action. Carl is a force to be reckoned with. I took note of his interaction with his wards and copped some of his best lines for the novel. The Christmas burrito was everything you would expect. As I paid my bill I struck up a conversation with the owner, Nick, who turned out to be fellow writer, and spent the next hour chatting with him at a side table. Just an example of a fortuitous concourse of events that one encounters when one leaves one’s self-imposed hermitage and ventures into the real world.

But back in the world of The Reluctant Saint, our hero must sojourn to Portland, OR, and being techo-reluctant, he lacks the smartphone required to guide him to his destination. So he goes old school. Triple A.

I proceeded to the AAA office on Cerillos and posed my rather unorthodox question to the ever-helpful Brenda. It turned out that the exact map Hensley needed was readily available—a road map of the Northwest US. And thus our hero is on his way to Portland, as are we in the next installment, a wonderful city with much to recommend it.

The AAA map is a minor detail, to be sure, but let us recall the purpose of this exercise—achieving verisimilitude. What John Gardner called the fictive dream, a state of process for the writer, but more importantly, an experience for the reader.

By the way, if you’re a fan of literary fiction and  haven’t read Gardner’s Grendel, rectify that deficit immediately! Short book, large book, head melting book.


Since this is a short day in the location-scouting department, I’m going to clear off a space and have a fit, as Dr. Davis used to say.

I sit out on my deck in the wee hours of the night/morning and make up crazy stories that have no fact but much truth as I see it. Then you read them in whatever circumstance you choose to consume fiction. If I do my job, it’s like we’re having a conversation.

That’s how I see this thing that we do, you and I. On some level I know that many people will read what I write, but that’s not how I live the story. I write one on one. The rest of the world fades, and it’s just the two of us taking this journey, a voyage of discovery.

I started The Reluctant Saint with a name (Chrystal), a place (Santa Fe), and a structure (the stations of the cross). I also had the notion that after decades of wandering, Hensley would have to face some serious facts. But it wasn’t until the fourth draft and the penultimate chapter that I realized the ultimate root of Hensley’s dilemma.

As Davison says, “How bad do you want it?” For most of us, the answer is, “Not bad enough.”

If I were a sane man, I wouldn’t waste all these hours cranking this stuff out. But history shows I’m not all that sane. I’m reasonable enough on the surface, but bent where it matters. It could be my motto.

The Wunderfool: Reasonable, but marginally sane.

Just ask The Woman. Or the Number One Son. Or the Good Daughter. They know. As the latter-day poet and philosopher Leonard Cohen said, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

After a few decades on this planet, I’m convinced that we’re all broken to some degree. Some of us are just better at hiding it. And the first step to mending the broken place is to quit pretending it’s not broken.

Hensley doesn’t know it on page one, but in all his travels, from Galveston to Santa Fe to D.C. to Philly to Santa Fe to Portland, that is his destination.

Next stop: Oregon.


Behind the Scenes: Santa Fe Day 2

This day was one of many that highlighted the value of actually going there. I had three goals: scope out a lunch spot, the offices of the district judge, and the site of an imaginary roadhouse called The Tinker’s Dam.

I visited Santa Fe over four decades back. The only thing I remembered was the miraculous staircase at the Loretto Chapel. It had nothing to do with The Reluctant Saint, but I swung by there anyway, paid the $3, and went in. To the surprise of no one, the staircase looked just like Dad’s slides from that trip in the Sixties. Evidently I was a skeptic even as an elementary school kid, because I just couldn’t buy into the miraculous part of the staircase. After all, a supernatural event is by definition something that defies the laws of nature, and as far as I could see, this staircase looked like it was conforming to all the required natural laws.

My one discovery at the chapel was the fourteen sculptures of the stations of the cross on the walls. As a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, I knew nothing of the stations of the cross. It’s a Catholic thing, you know.

  • 1. Jesus is condemned to death

Then, seven years ago I was thinking about how to write this novel while listening to U2. Moment of Surrender came on and I heard this clever line:

I was speeding on the subway through the stations of the cross

Out of nowhere I wondered what it would be like to structure a novel around the stations of the cross. This is inside-baseball stuff that a reader doesn’t care about, but it is the kind of thing that those who write novels must contemplate. I did indeed structure the novel around the stations of the cross, but it is highly unlikely that anybody would notice while reading it, not even a Catholic novelist. Just like few people notice the communion scene in Muffin Man. So discovering the sculptures was a nice connection back to that agonizing period of story development.

If you’re the type who likes to dig out this kind of detail when reading a novel, look for telling character names, reversal of goals, and analogs to the passion events.

Back to location scouting, the fortuitous connection was ferreting out a lunch spot for Judge Simon Cox. Through net research, I settled on The Beestro on Marcy Street. The menu sounded like something Hensley would dig, and the photos looked perfect.

On the day in question, I popped out of my bed in the Roy Rogers room of the Silver Saddle Motel, looked out the window, and saw snow covering my rental car.

Silver Saddle Motel: Snowed in
Silver Saddle Motel: Snowed in

A propitious day. After a short drive downtown, I found a parking place, took a short walk through the freezing rain to The Beestro, and discovered it was a deli where you order takeout at the meat counter facing the street and then go elsewhere or jaunt upstairs to a small dining room with no table service.

At that moment I realized two things. I had to rewrite the setting in a couple of chapters, and I had to find an alternative location fast. Like right now before lunch was over.

I dashed through the rain to the car, found parking across from the Federal Courthouse, went into the bank to get change for the meter, and asked the teller for a good lunch spot nearby. And thus I had lunch at Santacafe, the 100+ year old house of Jose Manuel Gallegos, a defrocked priest. What could be more perfect for a story about a reluctant saint?

The fare was excellent, served by the newly-arrived-in-town Michelle. I re-envisioned the scenes in this new location and all was copacetic.

Thus sated, I tackled the courthouse. I survived the metal detector and chatted up the security officer. He hooked me up with a semi-retired judge who gave me a tour of the courtroom and a glimpse of the anteroom to the judge’s chambers. Score!

That left The Tinker’s Dam.

There’s something about a roadhouse that brings a soul down to the common denominator of the human condition. Some of my readers will be familiar with the vibe. Others might view such an establishment with a degree of trepidation and possibly disdain. I refer the second group to the previous installment for a grounding in the concept of the ragamuffin.

I’m not saying everyone should hang out in dimly lit, smoky bars. Everyone has their preferred hangouts, even if it’s a recliner in the comfort of one’s own home, which is my choice most nights of the year. But there are aspects of the roadhouse worthy of consideration, even if one visits such a place only in a novel.

Few places are more egalitarian than a roadhouse.

First off, like a genuine pub in the UK, there is no place for pretension in a roadhouse.  Social status, wealth, these count for nothing. There is no first class seating, no VIP section. No ambitious posers networking, gaming for the most adventitious connection in the room.

Second, you find the most down-home folks in a roadhouse. Sure you might encounter the occasional jerk, but for the most part, if you’re polite and genuine, you’ll find regular folks willing to accept you as you are.

Hensley needed a base of operations in Santa Fe, and I could think of no more likely place for a person of his caliber than a genuine roadhouse. But this isn’t the kind of place you can identify through net research. You have to live in a place to discover the real establishments. Consequently, I had no choice but to create one.

I quickly settled on the name Tinker’s Dam, because in a novel names are important. The phrase “not worth a tinker’s dam” refers to something worthless. Some might think this refers to a cuss word, hence the often-used alternative “tinker’s cuss.” However, it’s tinker’s dam, not tinker’s damn. It refers to a bit of throw-away material used by a tinker to hold solder in place to repair a pot.

The Tinker’s Dam is a roadhouse where those individuals society might deem worthless gather. Based on net research, I decided one would find such an establishment east of town on Old Las Vegas Highway as it parallels I-25. I took a drive out that direction and discovered that a lot of nice developments have sprung out that direction. But I also found the derelict shell of the Bobcat Bite in the perfect location for the Tinker’s Dam.

The former Bobcat Bit as a location for The Tinker's Dam
The former Bobcat Bit as a location for The Tinker’s Dam
The former Bobcat Bit as a location for The Tinker's Dam
The former Bobcat Bit as a location for The Tinker’s Dam

In the novel, a  gentle giant by the name of Scooter Bell owns the place. In his youth, his school buddies graced him with the ironic nickname Tinker Bell. It stuck and he owned it to the degree that he named his place of business, the Tinker’s Dam.

Turns out I wasn’t the first to think of it as the name of a bar. But I just now found that out. 😉

When Hensley returns to Santa Fe on his quest, he turns to his old friend for employment. In the crucible of the Tinker’s Dam, Hensley engages those in need of his counsel and faces his own midnight of the soul.

As I wrote, more than once I thought how interesting it would be to sit down with you, gentle reader, in a place such as the Tinker’s Dam and swap stories, ideas, confabulations. The modern equivalent of the primeval campfire, the marketplace of humanity the crossroads of the human experience.

Give me a call, come on down, and we’ll create our own Tinker’s Dam.

Behind the Scenes: Santa Fe Day 1

“Hensley wondered what Chrystal in Santa Fe was doing these days.” -last sentence of Endless Vacation

In case you were wondering, that sentence was all I had to go on as I set out to write the story of Hensley. That and the U2 song Moment of Surrender. If there is a thinner basis for a novel, I’d like to hear it.

I do not overstate the case when I say that I faced the story of The Reluctant Saint with utmost trepidation and humility. How else could one face the redemption story of a character such as Hensley? A self-serving bohemian. A calculating bon vivant.  The ground zero of the human condition.

The respectable among us can look at Hensley and say, “At least I’m not like him.” But some will immediately recognize the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. If I may be so bold, I would say that this story reveals two things:

  1. Other than an attitude of repentance, there is no difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector, although the Pharisee might not recognize it. Nor the tax collector, when it comes down to it.
  2. The only thing any of us can cling to is the grace offered to both the Pharisee and the tax collector.

We are all Hensley, whether or not we are willing to admit it. (See Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning.) If you look at your life and doubt this truth, see #1. And then read The Ragamuffin Gospel.

That being said, I will now clear off a space and have a talk about Hensley and me and my critique group.

Somehow I managed to get three novels published without a critique group. Actually, I know how I did it. As a son of a preacher growing up in East Texas, I operated on sheer storytelling instinct. However, I can say this without qualification: if I had enjoyed the benefit of my critique group and employed the good sense to listen to their sage advice, the first three Fred books would have been five times better than they are. These people are amazing.

Okay, we got that said and every word true, but here’s the thing. As brilliant as the critique group is, if you are a fan of the Fred books, you know me better than they do. And here’s the proof. They thought Hensley was my alter ego. When this came up in a critique session of The Reluctant Saint, I told them a few stories of my college roommate, and they realized the error of their ways. Compared to Hensley, I have the manipulative skills of an amoeba.

That being said, I had an experience in 2005 that I leveraged as I developed Hensley, both in Endless Vacation and The Reluctant Saint.

Hensley’s proclivity for opportunistic wardrobe expansion is based on a bad decision on my part over ten years ago. When I was living in Hawaii, I traveled to Denver for a week-long conference. Since it was June, I packed shorts and aloha shirts. When I arrived, I discovered the forecast was for highs in the 60s, lows in the 40s. Rookie mistake, even though I was far from a travel rookie.

As you probably know, it’s a 45-minute drive from the Denver airport to downtown, so as soon as I got into my rental car, I called The Woman back in HI and asked for the address of a Goodwill store. The most convenient location turned out to be in Golden, at which I acquired a charcoal grey sports coat for $9.99 that is still my favorite jacket. (You can see it when we get to Portland.) I got some jeans, socks, and shoes at a Target, and I was set for the week.

Which brings us back to Hensley. As demonstrated in Endless Vacation, with Hensley, it’s all about traveling light. If it won’t fit in a duffel, you don’t need it.

When The Reluctant Saint opens in Galveston, Texas, Hensley is traveling as light as they come. All he has is the clothes he’s wearing. Not surprisingly, Hensley soon finds that a hasty exit is the best policy, and within 24 hours he’s in Santa Fe looking for Chrystal.

As is his custom, his first order of business is to acquire a climate-appropriate wardrobe, and so he directs the cabbie to deliver him to the nearest Goodwill store, the one on Cerillos Rd. I found it much like any other Goodwill I’ve encountered. (When I got to Portland, I discovered a horse of a completely different color.)

Hensley gets what he needs at the Goodwill and proceeds via taxi to Chrystal’s house. As I was doing research from my hermit den in Texas, I consulted the forums on, talked with friends familiar with Santa Fe, and ended up with three candidates for Chrystal’s neighborhood.

The first neighborhood I tried had gravel roads, but despite that rustic touch, it was slightly too rizty for the story. The second neighborhood, Casa Solana (north of Alameda St, west of St Francis Dr), was just what I was looking for. I felt like I could pull up in any random driveway, knock on the door, and Chrystal would answer. But I resisted the urge. Sometimes discretion truly is the better part of valor. And I am nothing if not discreet, as you know.

The next location in my itinerary was a lonesome patch south of town on Highway 14. Through a combination of circumstances too convoluted for me to relate, Hensley finds himself afoot on this stretch of road, thankful to have lost nothing more than $700 of operating capital.

  • Highway 14 where Hensley is tossed out to fend for himself.

He uses a convenience store to call a cab and equalize his holdings. Then he re-establishes his locale-appropriate wardrobe at his favorite Goodwill and  eventually finds a room for the night at the Silver Saddle Motel.

Due to a travel crisis of my own making (a whole nother  story) I checked into in the Silver Saddle  just a few minutes short of 10 p.m. I installed myself into The Lone Ranger room (#14) and found it entirely to my liking as a place Hensley would find acceptable. Utilitarian but comfortable, and most of all, economical.

  • Silver Saddle Motel: The Code of the West
    Silver Saddle Motel: The Code of the West

The next morning I chatted with the proprietor for half-an-hour or so and learned that the affordability part was a conscious decision to establish a connection with travelers who appreciate authenticity and community. In other words, they are our kind of people. The kind you would gladly sit down with over a cuppa and a pastry and swap stories. Good people. If you find yourself in need of a room in Santa Fe, your first stop should be the Silver Saddle. And tell them I said hello.

Based on what Hensley learns in Santa Fe, he heads to Washington D.C.

Behind the Scenes: Location Scouting

verisimilitude / verəsəˈmiliˌt(y)o͞od / noun / the appearance of being true or real.

It’s the moment when you read a story and think, “That’s exactly how it is.” A feeling, an experience, a place, an idea. When you’re caught up in the story. When you’re interrupted while reading and look up startled to discover you’re not on a beach in the Caribbean or in a jazz club in Chicago.

Verisimilitude is what allows fiction to communicate truth.

Too often people ask, “Is it true?” when what they really mean is, “Is it a fact?” Sometimes truth and fact are buddies, but the reality is that often truth and fact are in opposite corners of the ring duking it out. If you doubt this, take time to read How to Lie With Statistics, a short little book that shows anyone with a basic facility with math how to perpetuate any number of lies using facts. Or, as an alternative, just watch any 24-hour news channel for a few minutes.

At the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy touches on this topic when he says

“Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Jesus used parables (stories that weren’t factual) to communicate truth. Religion aside, a novelist can do the same if he/she has a mind to. It all starts with verisimilitude. A lot of things go into creating verisimilitude. A big component is getting the setting right.

As I sat down to write The Reluctant Saint, I decided to use real places whenever possible. The story ranges across the US, from Galveston to Santa Fe to DC, back to Santa Fe, and then to Portland, OR. I could have created fictional places, as I did in Muffin Man and other novels, but I wanted to ground this particular book in the real world.

Being an amateur hermit (as proclaimed on my Facebook page), I conducted online research to select the perfect locations for my story. I spent a ridiculous number of hours on Google in satellite and street view. I posted questions in online forums. I perused websites of hotels and restaurants and bars and tattoo parlors.

Ultimately I decided to get on a plane and go to these places myself.

Here’s the thing about that. For the last decade I have cultivated my status as an amateur hermit. As a freelance writer working out of my home office and setting my own hours, I have that luxury.

But in the previous decade I traveled all over the world for the day job. When I wrote the first three Fred books, I lived in Hawaii and traveled internationally fifty-percent of the time, writing the novels in planes and hotel rooms and coffee shops all over the US, in Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. My first experience in location scouting was verifying the location and appearance of an office building in Geneva for Hell in a Briefcase.

In 2000, I filed state income tax returns for three states. On September 10, 2001, I took a red-eye to San Jose, CA. A friend in New Jersey woke me up at six a.m. the next morning and told me to turn on the TV. I was stranded in California for almost a week before air travel resumed and I was able to return home.

The travel schedule was both brutal and rewarding. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but I can’t deny that for the past decade I have enjoyed the life of the reclusive writer, rarely leaving the house except for the four-year-old Sunday School class and my writer critique groups.

So why did I choose to get on a plane and spend ten days outside of the comfortable little cave I had created? I asked myself that very question when my flight was canceled and I rented a car and drove seven hours at 85 mph from Albuquerque to Boulder to complete the final leg of my trip.

I had plenty of time to consider the answer, and it came down to Hensley.

If you’ve read Endless Vacation, you know that Hensley is a polarizing figure. People love him or they hate him. I love him, but I admit he is an acquired taste. He is an amalgam of my college roommate, a soulmate I met on a plane from Charlotte to Austin, and Bertie Wooster of Wodehouse fame.

Yes, he is a manipulative schemer, a sweet talker, a bon vivant and citizen of the world.  But he is all these things because he is a survivor. Nobody would blame a guy for showing up for work every day for his 40-hour-week dead-end job, but that guy does so because he is also a survivor. In the end, Hensley did what he had to do.

As I wrote the story, I saw so many things beneath his calculating smoothness that others didn’t. I cut the readers some slack because I didn’t have the space to explore those aspects of Hensley. After all, Endless Vacation is Davison’s story, not Hensley’s.

Of course Hensley is flawed. Who isn’t? Who can know what shapes another person, what forms the quirks that irritate us? Perhaps Evelyn Waugh was onto something when he wrote ,”To understand all is to forgive all.”

Despite Hensley’s pragmatic nature and myopic worldview, he has an ethos that those who see only the surface of his actions would never suspect.

That was the reason I had to write The Reluctant Saint. And that was the reason I had to leave my comfortable hermit cave and travel to the places Hensley went in 2013. To create the verisimilitude his story deserved. To use invented “facts” to tell the truth. The truth of what Waugh said.

If we could only see as God sees, if we could understand all, then perhaps we could forgive even Hensley his excesses.

What follows is my own journey to visit those places Hensley went and the story of the sometimes amazing, sometimes terrifying moments I encountered while location scouting The Reluctant Saint.

Feint Claymore Bombshell Crux

Q: What do those four words have in common?
A: They’re all names of chapters in The Reluctant Saint.

For the Jake and Berf books, I toyed with the idea of providing little clues to the chapters, like in Winnie-the-Pooh:

In Which
Eeyore Has a Birthday
and Gets Two Presents

Or like in Alice in Wonderland:


But in the end, I abandoned the idea. However, as I wrote The Reluctant Saint, I named the chapters to make things easier to find in Scrivener.

I didn’t intend to use them in the final product, but they grew on me. Ultimately, I decided to use chapter titles, but not the ones I had created during the first draft.

Instead, I chose a single word for each chapter (except for one). It wasn’t as easy as you might think. I enlisted the aid of The Number One Son, The Woman, and the folks from Novel in Progress who made it to Austin Java after our meeting.


I give you the list below. The words were chosen carefully, honing in on words that offered multiple relevant meanings as often as possible. Read this list and you’ll know everything about the novel before it comes out. 😉

Day 1: Thursday
Chapter One: Quandary
Chapter Two: Epiphany
Day 2: Friday
Chapter Three: Oasis
Chapter Four: Mirage
Chapter Five: Apprehension
Chapter Six: Wingnuts
Day 3: Saturday
Chapter Seven: Speculation
Chapter Eight: Stymie
Chapter Nine: Rout
Day 4: Sunday
Chapter Ten: Karma
Chapter Eleven: Legacy
Day 5: Monday
Chapter Twelve: Pursuit
Chapter Thirteen: Gauntlet
Chapter Fourteen: Bivouac
Chapter Fifteen: Compound
Chapter Sixteen: Tête-À-Tête
Chapter Seventeen: Succor
Chapter Eighteen: Fisticuffs
Day 6: Tuesday
Chapter Nineteen: Feint
Chapter Twenty: Claymore
Chapter Twenty-One: Bombshell
Chapter Twenty-Two: Crux
Day 7: Wednesday
Chapter Twenty-Three: Hiatus
Chapter Twenty-Four: Launch
Chapter Twenty-Five: Standoff
Chapter Twenty-Six: Sally
Day 8: Thursday
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Portland
Day 9: Friday
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Dragon
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Tattoo
Chapter Thirty: Nadir
Day 10: Saturday
Chapter Thirty-One: Materiel
Chapter Thirty-Two: Cabin Fever
Chapter Thirty-Three: Gambit
Chapter Thirty-Four: Quietus
Day 11: Sunday
Chapter Thirty-Five: Admission
Day 12: Monday
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Discharge
Chapter Thirty-Eight: Haystack


The Reluctant Saint: Cover Contest

Cover contest redux: How bout that passport.

If you wondered how much I listen, I like Cover B better, but Cover A won the vote.

One last question: What do you think of the passport in this version?


Brian Wootan has created two outstanding covers for The Reluctant Saint. Now somebody has to choose which one goes on the book, Cover A with the passport or Cover B without the passport. Vote in the comments.

TRSCoverContestB TRSCoverContestA

The Reluctant Saint: Straight From the Heart

This link is the soundtrack of this story. Let it play in the background as you read.

“You know I’ll never go, as long as I know it’s straight from the heart.”

Another late night on the deck writing. Why do I do it?

I can’t lie. I can’t stop myself. I write because there’s something I have to explain. To relive. To discover. To be quite frank, it’s a compulsion. I might be sick, but don’t tell anyone. It’s our secret.

I grew up an outsider. Maybe you can relate. I think you can. I wrote about it for years in obscurity, twenty years or more, and then by chance or fate or providence I got published and discovered that I wasn’t the only one. I found my tribe. I found you. It was a beautiful moment, one that I treasure to this day.

These days when I’m out here on the deck fighting my way through another story, it’s not just my story I’m searching for. It’s our story. It might take many forms, but in the end it’s the old story. Banished from the garden. Looking for a way back in. The big story. The only story.

Sometimes I write strange stories. Goofy stories, Let’s face it. I’m a goofy guy. But underneath it’s always the same old story. The love that changes everything. Because when it comes down to it, the bottom line is always love.

Over forty years ago I met The Woman. Anyone who meets her immediately realizes she is the queen to my court jester. Sure, I’m a fun guy to be around at a dinner party, but when life comes down to the real stuff, The Woman is the one you will call. That’s just a fact.

I strongly suspect that many of you fall into that category. The ones people can count on when things get rough. The tribe of The Woman. And I’m sure there are others out there like me. those who feel it just as much but aren’t much use in the clinch. Here’s the funny thing. All of us, the jesters of the heart and the royalty of the heart, we’re all spiritual ragamuffins, cognizant of our frailty, all sharing a longing for a transcendent love, a longing that gives us hope that such a thing exists.

There remains these three things: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

As my third favorite Canadian said (the first two are Bruce Cockburn and Robertson Davies, the order changing according to my mood):

It’s all for one, and all for love.

Three years after we met, I made this vow to The Woman in the presence of witnesses. We have made it this far through no fault or virtue of my own, but by the grace of God. I must confess that almost four decades later she is still my true love, and as recently as tonight I told her how happy I am and how lucky I feel that we still share our fortunate lives together. Let the one you hold be the one you need.

On April Fool’s Day 2016, Wunderfool Press will release The Reluctant Saint, the sequel to Endless Vacation. It features Hensley Fletcher, the vagabond brother from Endless Vacation. A bohemian, a rapscallion, but one who suspects that there is something greater out there for him, one who fights for the possibility. It’s an unlikely story of redemption.

You might like it. I’ll be offering a sneak peak to the insiders in a future newsletter. To get the inside scoop, sign up on the form on the right column of the website.

In other news, I might have failed to mention that Wunderfool Press released a collection of satire articles I wrote for The Wittenburg Door twenty years ago. It’s released in Kindle ebook form, which you can read on a Kindle or on your computer or tablet or smartphone with the Kindle app. For those in the tribe of The Woman, I have marked the Woman-Approved selections.

Build Your Own Religion and other bad ideas from The Door

One other thing for your consideration. Amazon reviews are the lifeblood of an indie author. If you enjoy my attempts to explore the big story, please take a few moments to write a review for a book. A sentence or two is plenty and I will be greatly appreciative.

Dash off a quick review!

And if you’re ever in Austin, ping me. We can do lunch or dinner and I’ll do the thing I do best.