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Friday, November 20, 2015


Today we’re joined by Earl Staggs, a two-time Derringer Award winner for Best Short Story of the Year. Earl previously worked as managing editor of Futures Mystery Magazine and is a past-president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Learn more about him and his books at his blog. earlstaggs@sbcglobal.net

Fact, Fiction and Legend

I love history, particularly when it’s about how people lived, loved, and died and what they did to earn a place in the archives of life. The facts are there, documented in stories handed down through generations or recorded by historians and writers.

But sometimes facts and truths foster legends and, once born, legends develop an enduring life of their own. Was there really a King Arthur or was he only a compilation of various myths and legends? Did George Washington really chop down that cherry tree, or is that only a legend created to teach children the importance of telling the truth?

How do we separate legend from truth? Fortunately, as a writer, I don’t have to. My job as a writer is to write an interesting and entertaining story even if I have to mix fact, fiction, and legend together.

As an example, I came across an interesting legend about Billy the Kid. According to the local lore in Hico, Texas, Billy wasn’t shot dead at the age of twenty-one by Sheriff Pat Garrett in New Mexico as claimed in history books. The story in Hico is that Billy lived out his final years there and died in 1950, a month after his ninetieth birthday. I visited the museum devoted to him and stood on the exact spot where they say he dropped dead of a heart attack. 

I took their legend, added a few facts, blended in a large amount of fiction, and produced a short story titled “Where Billy Died.” 

Now, I don’t write westerns or historicals. I write contemporary mysteries. In this story, a modern day bounty hunter named Jack goes to Texas to bring back a young bail jumper named Billy Joe Raynor. Jack has no idea he's been tailed by the chief enforcer for a major mobster. Is it because Jack roughed up the mobster's brother, or because of something Billy Joe did before he skipped town? In trying to stay alive and do his job, Jack also has no idea he'll get tangled up in a legend of the Old West about another young outlaw named Billy which will save his life and fix his marriage problems back home. 

I’m proud of how “Where Billy Died” turned out and even prouder that it brought home a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society as Best Story of the Year. It’s a long short story (9200 words) available as a 99 cent ebook.

Something strange happened as I wrote that story. The research I did for “Where Billy Died” sparked an interest in me. It occurred to me there were other stories from the past in which fact didn’t match legend and I began digging into them. That led me to write a series of articles called “History’s Rich With Mysteries.” For these articles, I put fiction aside and concentrated on separating fact from legend. Kevin Tipple was kind enough to invite me to post them on his blog site. 

The first article, "The Mystery of Billy the Kid", had to do with Billy the Kid and further research led me to uncover several truths which had been twisted into legends. For instance, I’d always thought Billy the Kid was left-handed. Not true, I found out. I discovered a few other things in the legend surrounding his life that were not true. 

Next, I wrote "Who Was Etta Place,", the girl who traveled with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Etta Place was not her real name and her entire life before and after she hooked up with Butch and Sundance is veiled in mystery.

After Etta, I took on Albert DeSalvo in, the man who confessed to being The Boston Strangler in 
“Albert DeSalvo – Was He Really the Boston Strangler?” Was he really the man who killed thirteen women in the Boston area? There are a number of reasons to believe he was not.

The next in turn was Frank James, Jesse’s brother, in "Frank--the Other James." A lot has been documented about Jesse but very little about Frank. He had a very interesting life.

In the most recent article, “She Cried For Help and No One Came,” I took a look at the horrific murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. Legend and urban myth have always told us thirty-eight people watched her get stabbed to death and did nothing. That’s not the way it happened. 

More articles are planned for the future. 

Our world overflows with legends, and they’re often more provocative and interesting than what really happened. One legend, for example, offers that Butch Cassidy escaped his storied death in Bolivia and lived to a ripe old age back in the US. Another one proposes that John Wilkes Booth lived in Texas many years after that night at Ford’s Theater. 

Whether these and other legends are true or fanciful leaps from the facts, as a writer, I find them irresistible. To me, they’re tempting nuggets in the gold mine of history begging to be explored. I hope I live long enough to dig out the truth in many more of them. 

Where Billy Died
When Jack, a Philadelphia bounty hunter, goes to Texas to bring back a young bail jumper named Billy, he has no idea he's being trailed by the chief enforcer for a major mobster. Is it because Jack roughed up the mobster's brother, or is it because of what Billy did before he skipped town? In trying to stay alive and do his job, Jack also has no idea he'll get tangled up in a legend of the Old West that turns everything he knows on its ear.


Kevin R. Tipple said...

Thank you for the mention, Earl. Your guest blog posts are extremely popular. I hope you keep them coming.

Susan said...

It's a fact that you are a legend, Earl. Just keep those stories coming!

Anonymous said...

I have such high regard for Earl, both as a writer and as a person, I;ll read ALL he writes anywhere! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Angela Adams said...

Fascinating post!

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, Kevin, Susan, Thelma, and Angela for stopping in and leaving such kind words.

And thanks a ton to the lovely and gracious Lois Winston for letting me take up space here.

My best wishes to all for a wonderful and loving Thanksgiving holiday.

Marja said...

I share your fascination, Earl, and thoroughly enjoy finding out what you've dug up. I love your fiction, too. You're an all-around talented man and you add interesting reading to my life. Thank you!

Earl Staggs said...

Marja, I'm glad you're enjoying the series. I'm enjoying writing them and will continue as long as Kevin will allow me to post them on his site. Thanks for the wonderful compliments. You sure know how to make an old hack feel good. All the best to you, my friend.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

As long as I am still around to do the blog, you are welcome to do stuff, Earl.

Speaking of that, if you could hurry up and get your first person account of landing at Plymouth Rock in to me for Thursday that would be great.

Earl Staggs said...

More age jokes, eh, Kevin? I love it.

Actually, as soon as we landed at Plymouth Rock, I found an Indian with Internet access and, while the other Pilgrims were preparing that first Thanksgiving meal, I sent you the story attached to an email. Check your Spam folder.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I did and it is not here. Please resend.

Earl Staggs said...

Dangit! Even back then, Yahoo screwed up.