Daniel Elton Harmon
South Carolina Chronicler & Editor

 

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TABLES TURNED

ON AN INTERVIEWER

Harmon Featured in the Hometown

Newspaper for Which He Once Wrote

  

The Lexington County Chronicle & Dispatch-News (www.lexingtonchronicle.com) in March and April 2010 published a three-part interview with me in its weekly "Rockin' on the Front Porch" series. When I was a reporter for The Dispatch-News in the 1970s and ’80s, I wrote a weekly column called "Around the Apple Barrel." We lifted up ordinary citizens who held no claim to "fame"; we just interviewed to learn about their lives . . . and we came up with the good stuff—special talents, anecdotes, complex backgrounds (much of it profound, I thought). Jerry Bellune, current publisher of the now-combined Dispatch-News and Chronicle, thought it would be fun to interview the old interviewer.

 

JB: How did you become interested in mysteries, particularly period mysteries, and in trying your hand at writing a few?

DEH: Dad was a cop, a Lexington town policeman in the 1950s and then a Lexington County deputy. He became the county’s first plain-clothes investigator. This was when the entire Sheriff’s Department consisted of about seven people—including Sheriff Fred Boatwright’s wife Neula, who was the jail cook. (The sheriff’s home was in the old jail building on South Lake Drive, just around the corner from the courthouse.)

So I, too, wanted to be a cop when I grew up—a detective, not a uniformed officer. I watched too many TV cop serials: The Detectives, The Untouchables, Peter Gunn. As a kid, I set up my own private eye office in the dilapidated milk shed in the back yard of our farmhouse on Barr Road. My Grandpa Kaiser’s old desk was out there in storage, and I kept my copious case notes in it. I investigated things like, “Who is that kid on the bicycle with the tin bucket I’ve seen riding down to the blackberry patch below our back hayfield?” I’d trot down there and scrutinize broken blackberry briars and sketch the bike’s tire pattern, and file my reports.

I also kept my lock collection in Grandpa’s desk. With my little weekly allowance, I bought all the locks they sold at Dodd’s dime store. I even saved up and bought one combination lock from Taylor’s Hardware. I learned to pick those with items like twisted hairpins, straight pins and ice picks. I got pretty good at that, actually.

And I kept my self-defense material in my “office.” I ordered a mail-order packet of instructions in judo, ju-jitsu, karate, savaté (a so-called French “kicking system”), boxing, wrestling and weight-lifting. My best friend Dennis Steele—whose father also was a deputy—and I used to practice punches and blocks and over-the-head slams in our barn “gyms” on weekends. (Dennis planned to be a detective, too, before opting to become a rock guitarist when he got to high school.)

In seventh grade, I gave all that up. I saw a “day in the life of” careers program on TV that followed around a science fiction short story writer. It was a life changer. I decided I wanted to grow up to be a short story writer like him. I never did well with science fiction (never understood science fact), but I started writing stories. They were horrible—98 percent meaningless attempts at literary embroidery. I somehow received encouragement from English and lit teachers. My Aunt Beatie Harmon was the first; she taught me English in seventh grade and told me I had writing talent. Vera Parrish/Sullivan, my English lit teacher, was the deciding influence when I was in high school. Guidance counselors advised me to major in either English or journalism in college and become an English teacher or newspaper reporter, and plan to just write short stories as a hobby for 10 or 20 years. They pointed out—correctly—that fiction writers can’t earn a living unless and until they become “established.”

I picked journalism at USC, which led to newspaper and magazine work. J-school teaches you to stick to the facts in writing—who, what, when, where and maybe how and why—and use the inverted pyramid formula (put the most important facts at the top of the report). Extremely valuable lessons. Applying them to fiction writing, I learned to chop a short story down to the barest shell of simple statements and only then inject back into it a wee bit of descriptive “literature” that might genuinely add to the reader’s visualization of what I was trying to convey. I think every fiction writer should take a basic news writing course—learn to shred their own material, then reconstruct it in a fashion that might hold the interest of someone besides themselves.

The first two fictional detective characters I encountered were “Sherlock Holmes” (of course) in grade school and G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” about 10 years later. Momma, at my request, bought me The Complete Collection of Sherlock Holmes for my 12th birthday. I’m riveted to that era—“late Victorian” in England or “post-Reconstruction” in the American South. Not sure why. More recently, I’ve been devouring all the mystery writers of the period: Melville Davisson Post, Baroness Orczy, Jacques Futrelle—as well as a lot of the macabre authors like Amelia B. Edwards, H.G. Wells, Charles Dickens, Bram Stoker and Poe. I don’t merely read those authors; I try to write somewhat the way they wrote—stodgy. Not a smart strategy for a writer in 2010, but at this point I don’t care. I love that period and style, and that’s the way I want to write.

 

JB: How were your two amateur sleuths, Harper and McTavish, born in your imagination? Are they modeled on real people? Did Conan Doyle have anything to do with this?

DEH: I’m occasionally asked that: “Who are those guys—in real life?” The honest answer is “nobody I know.” They certainly aren’t autobiographical. They’re much smarter than me. Sometimes I inject an incident or trait from personal experience into the stories, like Harper’s ineptitude at chess and MacTavish’ bicycle accident. Beyond that, and our mustaches, they’re very different from me.

The first Harper story originated in the late 1970s or early 1980s and never has been completed. I have the guts of it in my “Harper chest” and intend to finish it someday. This chest contains all the old notes and scraps I’ve saved over the years pertaining to Harper. About 30 years ago, I started writing “The Farmer’s Money,” as I titled it. I don’t remember whether I conceived it as a short story or novel. It began with “The Reporter” (he had no name at the time) on a lark in the woods down near the Congaree Swamp, gazing through his telescope and spying this miserly farmer scurrying through the trees in the distance, on the opposite side of the oxbow lake. The farmer had been hiding his earthly treasure in a cave. The plot involved some crime—I’ll have to reread the notes to recall exactly what. The story is all in scribble-hand on yellow legal pad sheets. I was well into it when I abruptly put it on hold. I realized I needed to focus my creative energies on real, salary-paying newspaper work for The Dispatch-News. (I think I was the news or features editor and reporter, at the time.)

During this period, I interviewed Cyrus Shumpert for an “Around the Apple Barrel” column in The Dispatch-News. Cyrus rode with me around lower Lexington County, below Pelion, and told me fascinating stories. He took me to the ruins of Seivern, which had thrived briefly as a chalk town in the late 1800s, and spoke of an area criminal in the 1890s named Emanuel Williams (I photographed Williams’ grave). That led me to develop an in-depth local history piece about this outlaw and the train conductor who took him down. The “Bad Man of the Edisto” feature appeared in the August 1980 issue of Saxe-Gotha, a monthly magazine supplement to The Dispatch-News. Emanuel Williams 20 years later became “Jeremiah Bodie” in the first published Harper story, “The Chalk Town Train.” That story is based on the legacy Cyrus recounted to me.

During the next few years I drafted a couple of short stories built around “Harper,” as I’d come to call him—a crime reporter for an underdog daily paper in Columbia. During the 1990s, this fiction hobby project got pushed aside. In 2000-2001, I decided to go for it, writing and compiling a collection of Harper stories into a book. That’s The Chalk Town Train & Other Tails: The Harper Chronicles, Volume One. (You graciously penned the terrific Introduction for me!)

MacTavish wasn’t “born” until three years ago. I was doing some photo-features for a Sunday newspaper magazine supplement in Oconee County. The editor was interested in reprinting some of the original Harper material—but all the stories were too long for her space budget. We decided I might develop a Harper-like crime reporter of the same era, based in the upstate, and write the stories in short, weekly cliff-hanger serials—like the continuing action serials shown at Saturday matinees in the ’40s and ’50s. I started that, but the periodical folded before we got it going. That reporter/sleuth character ended up as “MacTavish.” Spartanburg Today magazine began publishing “The Casebook of MacTavish” in August 2008—not as broken cliffhangers, but as stand-alone short-shorts. They moved the series to a companion magazine, Boiling Springs Today, a year ago. The 18th MacTavish story just came out.

Harper and MacTavish are both late-19th-Century crime reporters. They’ve never met (but might cross pens in some forthcoming tale). Harper, based in Columbia/Lexington, covers crime throughout the state. MacTavish, based in Spartanburg, mainly covers crime in the western Carolinas.

I decided to bring them together (sort of) by publishing a quarterly e-magazette I call The Illustrated Harper & MacTavish Reader. Each issue contains one Harper story; one MacTavish story; one age-old (public domain) story by a classic author like Doyle, Poe, Edwards or Chesterton; and assorted nuggets of information about historical crimes and historical South Carolina. The quarterly magazette subscription is accompanied by a longer, previously unpublished short story presented serially, in weekly cliffhanger format, featuring either Harper or MacTavish. (For first quarter 2010, it’s “The Stolen Corpse,” starring Harper.) All the material is distributed by e-mail in .pdf file format. Everything goes out to readers on Saturdays—this is intended to be “cozy Saturday” reading.

 

JB: How do you do your research to make these stories come across as so authentic about a period that was long gone before you were even born?

DEH: Six years ago, I wrote an article for the online Web Mystery Magazine titled “Good Old Index: If You Write About History, You Need One.” It detailed the kinds of sources I use in researching/writing the Harper stories. Here's the gist of it.

Spend many hours in historical books and periodicals in which most people wouldn’t spend 10 seconds. For example, don’t just skim but read through some of those bound volumes of the Lexington Dispatch dating to the turn of the (20th) century. Pay attention to the advertisements. Check out local histories—town histories, church histories—from around the state.

Browse books about antiques and period architecture. Add a few of those to your personal library. (Outdated volumes can be had very cheap at used bookstores and garage sales—and their age doesn’t matter, because they all accurately picture and identify furnishings and other items that were common to the era.) Browse hand-me-down recipe collections, too; learn what people in your vicinity were eating a century ago.

Visit local museums that focus on local history. Study our ancestors’ apparel, the schoolroom replications, the outbuildings, the diaries and letters. The Lexington County Museum is possibly the very best in the state, for my purposes.

My own most valuable resources are the two period Sears, Roebuck catalogues (reprints) I bought in bargain book bins some years ago. If you want to examine what kinds of household things common folks (and higher classes, on the sly) were buying and using 120 years ago, look there. In fact, a few of the vintage sketches (buggies, guns, valises, farm implements) I use in The Illustrated Harper & MacTavish Reader come from old those volumes. Those catalogues take me straight back to the period I write about. I often come up with story ideas while browsing them.

 

JB: How has your Chalk Town Train book done and is there a McTavish volume in the works?

DEH: The Chalk Town Train got all-positive reviews in mystery fiction circles, both in the US and UK, after it came out in 2001. Two of the stories were pre-published in mystery/crime e-magazines. It’s sold hardly at all since then. I have about a hundred new Harper story ideas and germs of plots on file—some of them fairly well developed—but have completed only two more since the first collection was published. Basically, I back-burnered my lifelong passion and returned to writing and editing for a living. I had to.

The MacTavish stories have been appearing monthly in Boiling Springs Today (previously in Spartanburg Today) since August 2008. More than enough of those already have been published to compile into a book-length collection, and I’ll put that together this year. It will include a couple of longer, unpublished stories from the MacTavish “Casebook.”

Meanwhile, I’ve resumed “The Harper Chronicles.” Sandlapper Society recently picked up the original volume to sell at its online store, which has generated renewed interest. Sandlapper Magazine has been very supportive of the Harper series and all my other work for a lot of years. I hope to have Volume Two of the Harper series in print by the end of the year. The lead piece will be much longer than any of the previous stories in either of the Harper/MacTavish series—novella-length. I started it eight or nine years ago and have large pieces of it drafted (I write almost all the stories from the inside out), but never have made time to move it along. It’s called “The Men in the Orchard.” It involves Harper’s mother, who lives alone on a remote farmstead down in Aiken County, and some very sinister characters. The climax has Harper in self-defense action mode—a wild departure for Harper.

The Illustrated Harper & MacTavish Reader, the new quarterly e-magazette, was launched the day after New Year’s and so far has “trial subscribers” in eight or nine states and England, with a few actual “paid” subscribers. I’m happy with that, one month into it. If it’s to succeed at all, I expect very slow growth because this is old-fashioned stuff. I treasure every reader I have.

I’m an outsider writer. Most people today expect instant gratification from every medium. Action, sex and “raw” dialog are assumed components of entertainment and communication. I think I deliver action in my stories, but no sex or vulgarity. If raunchiness is necessary for entertainment, readers should deal me out and brand me whatever they want.

 

JB: Why did you move to Spartanburg and do you miss Lexington?

DEH: Timing. In May 1997, I set up a home office and began doing my editing and writing for Sandlapper Magazine and The Lawyer’s PC newsletter (both started by my long-time mentor and boss Bob Wilkins) from home. All of my projects by then had become telecommuting contracts, which meant it didn’t matter where I lived. I was married in June. My wife had an entrenched job with a home health company in the Charleston area, so we lived there. A year later, she got a promotion that entailed a transfer to the company’s Spartanburg branch. I said, “Sure, let’s go. I don’t care to stick around waiting for the next Hugo down here, and I’ve always loved the mountains.” Been here ever since, and love the foothills!

I deeply miss my Lexington friends and family. I’ve been reminded how much I miss them in the past year, since I joined Facebook and reconnected with a lot of them online. The Lexingtonians I remember truly are “dear hearts and gentle people.” I wish so much I could have attended that “Remembering Main Street” event. Being involved in Susan Hite Wade’s “Hite’s Restaurant” group on Facebook has taken me back to my youth.

I don't miss the traffic and sprawl. I swear, every time I’m down there, there’s a new traffic light. Not long ago I drove homeward out of Lexington on a back road I hadn’t traveled in several years, and there were not one but three new housing developments where I remembered fields and forests.

Doubt I’ll ever live there again, but each of us really has just one “home” on earth, and Lexington’s mine. (Maybe in Heaven we’ll get to roll back history and visit the Lexington we knew years ago, and the Lexington our grandparents and great-great-great grandparents knew in their day. . . . Wouldn’t that be so cool?!?)

 

JB: What else is Dan Harmon and his family up to these days?

DEH: Sherie’s a respiratory therapist and healthcare services supervisor. My daughter Courtney is on the art faculty at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte; her husband David Kimball is a lawyer with a Rock Hill/Charlotte firm. Sherie’s oldest, Jessica, is a graphic designer with Mode in Charlotte; her youngest, Alison, is a nutrition major at Winthrop.

I still edit (and mostly write) The Lawyer’s PC, the legal technology newsletter Bob Wilkins founded in 1983. It’s published now by Thomson Reuters/West. As contributing editor of Sandlapper, I write a couple of articles each quarter for the state magazine—which has been dear to my heart ever since Bob and Rose Wilkins founded it in 1968, when I was a high school senior. For the past 15 years or so, I’ve written 70-something books, most of them grade-level educational works for the public and school library market. I get to write about everything from historical exploration to international studies to biographies. Last November I finished the South Carolina volume in Rosen Publishing’s “United States: Past and Present” series, sixth-grade level; it’ll be published in the fall. Just yesterday I finished the draft of a high school-level manuscript on Internet security careers. Next due is a book on leukemia for a health science series on cancer. Never a dull moment. . . .

The Illustrated Harper & MacTavish Reader, launched the day after New Year’s, is my new e-magazette (distributed in .pdf format for online viewing, not in print). If I had my druthers, I would be spending about 80 percent of my time developing and promoting the Reader and the two Harper and MacTavish series, because they round up all the components of my love of history-mystery fiction. But I still wanna spend some time writing about South Carolina and those other topics.

The Lord has blessed me with interesting work all my life. My ongoing prayer is not to bungle it too badly.

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© 2010, Daniel Elton Harmon