Friday, February 11, 2011

In the Beginning...

I was asked recently what influenced me to become an author of suspense thrillers. I had been asked that question before, so I was ready with my standard answer about how I began writing at the age of ten. 

But then I thought: why did I begin writing at the age of ten? The question stumped me.

So I began at the beginning and thought back to those halcyon days of childhood. For me, it was a time of curiosity about the complexity and diversity of the world. A time of wonder, pranks, invention, country roads, and old deserted houses. Imagination ran wild. I scouted ravines for arrowheads. I took apart clocks to see what made them tick. I had a chemistry lab in our basement. A photo lab in my closet. I dug tunnels and built tree houses and blazed trails through the forested hills outside that small university town in Eastern Kansas, where I was born. I made rafts and swam in lakes. I restored an old multi-band radio and listened to strange languages from all over the world. I had wonderful parents, inspirational teachers, and a foundation of unconditional love.

But as I thought about all that, I realized it was my grandfather, Fred Florance -- "Pop" -- who inspired me to become a storyteller. That's because he was one of the originals himself.

James Houston Turner's grandfather, Fred Florance
Fred Florance (front, left) and his brothers.
Pop was born near Dallas, Texas, in 1879. He was one of eight children born to Civil War veteran, George Alvis Florance, and his young wife, Charlotte Johnson Florance. Pop loved swimming, and as a boy living in Arkansas, used to swim a mile every day in the White River. He loved working among the Native Americans of Oklahoma, and he spoke fluent Osage. He was a gambler who won and lost large sums of money. He eventually owned a tavern near Kansas City, where he played cards and shot craps with Harry Truman, Tom Pendergast, and Frank James, older brother of the notorious outlaw, Jesse James. So I grew up on Pop's stories about his life, his travels, and his adventures.

One such story involved moving in a covered wagon from Waverly, Kansas, in 1904, to Indian Territory, Oklahoma, when my mom was an infant. After swimming a swollen river with my mom wrapped in a blanket, Pop laid my mom on the other bank and swam back to lead the team of horses and wagon across. In the wagon was Pop's young wife, Aria, my grandmother. Once they were across, they set up camp on the bank of the river.

In those days, it was customary to give strangers who rode into camp a cup of coffee and food, which was usually salt pork and beans. Picture a starlit night on the banks of a river with a small fire crackling. The horses were grazing quietly and Aria was in the wagon nursing my mother. And suddenly, out of the darkness rode a tall stranger wearing a six-gun.

Actor Alfred Molina
When I recall this story I think of the actor, Alfred Molina, from the film, Maverick. A rough and tough character. Intense dark eyes. A scowl -- almost a snarl -- on his face. Dirty. Stinky. And packing a huge Colt .45. You know the kind I'm talking about. I have no idea if the stranger actually looked like Alfred Molina in that film. Pop never described him in much detail other than to say he was a big, rough-looking guy.

The stranger asked if he could have a cup of coffee. Now, Pop stood six-foot-one, and said he was afraid of no one. And if he actually was afraid, he would never let on. So he offered the stranger some beans and coffee. No fancy French plunger coffee, either, but the kind that had been boiled for an hour in a tin pot at the edge of a campfire.

To set the stage for you here: Pop and Aria had just sold the farm in Kansas and had a substantial amount of money with them in the wagon. But Pop was concerned the rough-looking stranger might rob them if he let on. So he made up a story about how broke they were, how he had a sick wife and baby in the wagon, and how they were heading down into Indian Territory to try and make a go of it. On and on Pop went, detailing their troubles. Finally, the stranger said, "That is the saddest story I've ever heard. I only have one dollar to my name, but I want you to have it." The stranger dug in his pocket, took out a silver dollar, and gave it to Pop before thanking him for the beans and coffee and riding off into the night.

Pop said he never hated to take a man's last dollar so much in his life. But he was afraid to tell him the truth -- that he had made up the entire story -- for fear the stranger really would rob them.

So if you wonder where I get my propensity for spinning wild yarns and telling tall tales, I got it from Pop. And like Pop, I get a lot of my story ideas from the life I've lived. From what I've experienced.

Incidentally, Pop gave me that silver dollar -- an 1884 Morgan -- and I still have it. It's worn and not worth much apart from its priceless contribution to my beginning as a writer.

Q4U: Was there a defining moment in your life that inspired you in a particular direction?