Recently I published a mystery novel called Robbed of Soul that combines a modern-day mystery with a 150-year-old legend of Montezuma’s gold in Utah. This is how the book came about.
In the spring of 2013 I received a strange email. It was from a television producer in England. They were filming a television series called “Myth Hunters” and wanted to do an episode about Montezuma’s Gold in Kanab, Utah. They had found my name on Amazon. I had published various short stories about treasure hunting, including one about Montezuma’s treasure. A month later we met in Kanab and they interviewed me for the show. (See a peek of the episode here.)
A year later I was in Kanab again, this time spending the day with a film crew from “America Unearthed,” a top-rated show that airs on the History Channel 2. Together we explored the mysterious 500-year-old cave Freddie Crystal excavated in search of Montezuma’s gold. (See a promo video of Montezuma’s Gold.)
|Me with the film crew of “America Unearthed”|
After that, I knew I had to write a book about Freddie Crystal and Montezuma’s gold in Kanab, but I didn’t want it to be a historical novel. So I ended up with Robbed of Soul, a modern-day mystery that incorporates historical facts and legends.
The following are pictures of me and Scott Wolter taken as we filmed segments of America Unearthed near the infamous Freddie Crystal cave in Johnson Canyon outside of Kanab, Utah.
I spent three and a half years in college because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
In those three and a half years, I learned many things about the world and about myself. The last thing I learned was I didn’t want to be in college anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love to learn new things — always have. I had just grown tired of doing it in that particular environment. I had been working toward a degree in English Literature, largely because, at the end of my sophomore year, my counselor informed me I had to choose a major in order to continue. English Lit was the degree I was closest to fulfilling from the mishmash of classes I had taken to that point. Yes, that was truly the determining factor, because I simply couldn’t make up my mind. I was interested in everything. Why the University thought it necessary for me to choose one area of study didn’t make sense, yet I had to play by their rules, even though I (or more accurately, my mom) was paying for me to be there. I had courses in biology, physics, three semesters of calculus, psychology, history, religion, and philosophy under my belt. I also took creative writing, Medieval literature, Shakespeare, Victorian literature, as well as courses in linguistics, two semesters of French and one of Russian. I even spent three semesters in the drama department as extra-curricular — Charlie Brown with wispy red hair? Yes, it was a thing.
Suffice to say, language and how we communicate has forever fascinated me. I also had a year and a half of Spanish in high school and was tutored in Japanese for several weeks as part of a job I had subsequent to leaving college. The variety of the spoken and written word around the world is astonishing. Even within the United States, regional dialects can differ wildly — sometimes to the point of confusion and miscommunication. And don’t get me started on the British Isles, South Africa, India, and Australia, all of which purportedly speak a language dubbed “English”.
Dictionaries give us a basis of understanding, but even they morph and change as language evolves. New words are added each year and the definitions of old words are adjusted in some cases if their meaning or usage has changed over time. Words and definitions can vary between brands of dictionaries. But, why all the confusion? Why isn’t something like the way we communicate more structured and immutable?
Because language is personal.
Yes, many aspects are fundamental. If I describe a woman walking down the street as wearing a red dress, we all will conjure a picture in our minds. That picture would be different for all of us, but we should all be able to agree on the basics: woman, walking, red dress. But what if I said the dress was scarlet in color? It’s still red, but the word “scarlet” will evoke different images — different emotions — within each person, based on our experiences. A young reader might be encountering the word for the first time and have to ask about its meaning or look it up. A fan of the movie Gone With the Wind might first conjure an image of the glamorous Miss O’Hara upon seeing the word. Someone who recently read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter may react negatively toward the word given its use and meaning in that story. Same word, different reactions. What if I used “crimson” instead? Again, more disparate meanings and feelings toward the word — and, by association, the woman wearing the dress — because of the individual experiences we each bring when we read or otherwise communicate.
As a senior in high school, I took AP English and one of our assignments was to read The Old Man and the Sea. I enjoyed the story and during one of our discussions about the symbolism and allegories within the work, my teacher mentioned an interview with Hemingway where he claimed he simply “wrote a story about a man and a fish.” In other instances, he, of course, talked about the deeper meanings within the story, but the quote got me to thinking. We all bring our own frames of reference, biases, and experiences when we read a work and can’t be certain how an author truly intended the reader to feel as they progress through a book. In fact, while doing some research for this post, I ran across an article where some scholars feel Hemingway had been so heavy-handed with the symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea, he might have been poking fun at the critical literary community. That shines an entirely new light onto the story.
Which brings me to the reason why I never finished that English degree.
As I took higher level literature classes, I noticed a pattern. Analysis of the assigned pieces drilled deeper and deeper, investigating why the author chose a particular phrase, or even a particular word, at a certain point in the work. I even remember a lecture on what happened during a dash — yes, a dash, just like these — within a story. At that point, I realized my professors had lost sight of the forest for the trees. Language is too personal to make absolute statements about intent and meaning. We can, more often than not, agree on basic premises when we communicate with one another, otherwise the world would be like the biblical Tower of Babel. But, for me, or anyone else, to say with certainty all an author meant by using a certain word at a particular point in a three hundred page novel just doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking Picasso why he placed a particular brush stroke where he did and why he chose that particular color. Maybe he had a specific reason, or maybe his brush slipped and he thought it looked good. Seeing deeper meanings in a piece depends as much on the viewer, or the reader, as on the artist.
Sometimes, the dress is just red.
The universe is a big place.
It’s so big, the vastness is difficult to comprehend for even seasoned astronomers. I never get tired of contemplating our place in the universe. Recently, a group of scientists studied the dynamics of several thousand galaxies around our own Milky Way and discovered some incredibly interesting patterns. Yes, the universe as a whole is expanding, but the relationships among the pieces within that expansion are even more complex than it first appeared. Have a look at this fascinating video (about 4 minutes) and see for yourself where we fit into the cosmic scheme of things.
Being human is hard.
Who am I so wise in the ways of science to come up with that brilliant conclusion? I’m nobody, really. Just someone who attempts to make a living out of observing the human condition as we hurtle through space atop an unremarkable (or remarkable, depending on your point of view) ball of rock with a bit of water and oxygen tossed in, just to break up the monotony. I am recorder and participant, examiner and subject.
“All right,” You may say, feeling somewhat frustrated by my obfuscating answer to the first question. What drove me to my pithy opening statement?
Now you’re miffed because this answer was too direct and implied an unsatisfying circular logic. Or, you smiled and maybe even chuckled to yourself.
And that is precisely my point. We all belong to a single species, yet at times we feel as different from each other as amoebas and elephants. We are complicated creatures who often find it difficult to understand our own reactions to things, let alone someone else’s. Two people can read an article or look at a picture and feel entirely different things. For instance, humor and cleverness on one hand, and hatred and violence on the other.
The attack in France recently showed us these opposing reactions. It’s easy to label the perpetrators of death as monsters, yet while their actions were certainly monstrous, labels won’t escape the harsh reality that they were also human. Emotions we’ve all felt — disgust, rage, persecution, fear, hopelessness — led to humans perpetrating violence on other humans. This isn’t something new either. Humans have waged war on each other throughout history for these very same reasons. Does that make us all monsters?
Some would argue it does. Others would say only those who perform the acts are monsters. Those we might call monsters claim they acted out of courage and self-preservation — noble attributes in most estimations.
“Ridiculous!” You say. “There’s nothing noble about the attack on Charlie Hebdo.” I would agree, yet there are many people in the world who would not. They are just as human as any of the rest of us.
Let’s look back at recent American history, to the abortion clinic bombings of the 1980s. People with Christian ideologies committed arson and murder, all the while in the firm belief they were doing the right thing. Were they any different than the Muslims who killed the people working at Charlie Hebdo? “Those were thirty years ago,” You may argue. “We’ve learned from our mistakes.” Unfortunately, violent attacks against these clinics have continued to happen, even as recently as 2012 and 2013 in Florida, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Dr. George Tiller was murdered in 2009 in Kansas.
We all hold different beliefs. We all feel right in our beliefs. It’s part of the definition of a belief. Where we run into trouble is extending that feeling of “right” to “righteousness” — the loss of tolerance for anything which conflicts with our beliefs. Freedom gives us the ability to feel and believe anything we want to. Freedom also means we must accept and tolerate those who hold beliefs contrary to our own, because, they too have the ability to feel and believe anything they want to.
Acting with violence toward someone else who holds different beliefs than you do is never acceptable. Neither is bullying them or suppressing their views or their ability to be heard. To live in a truly free society, we must all pay the price of tolerance and simply agree to disagree.
I want to first thank everyone who jumped in and pre-ordered Going Solo these past couple of weeks. It’s so nice to know that people are excited for the new book! Second, and most important, I want to wish everyone a fun, love-filled, and safe holiday season and pass along my best wishes for a spectacular 2015!
May the new year bring you all the joy and happiness you could ask for!