Author Harry Hunsicker is a fourth generation native of Dallas. In 2005, he introduced the city to private investigator Lee Henry Oswald in his crime novel Still River (St. Martins Press) to critical acclaim. He followed up in 2006 and 2007 with two more additions, Next Time You Die and Crosshairs, to create a trilogy that captured “the dark heart of the Dallas underworld.”
Hunsicker is also the former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America, which is why in celebration of National Novel Writing Month, we asked him to talk about the craft of writing.
by Harry Hunsicker, Guest Blogger
November is National Novel Writing Month, sometimes known amongst aspiring scribes by the supremely inelegant abbreviation Nanowrimo. (Just slides off the tongue, doesn’t it?)
The goal of Nanowrimo is to write an entire book in one month. For those of you who don’t know, a completed manuscript typically runs between 250 and 500 double spaced pages. That’s somewhere between 70,000 and 120,000 words. Or, as I like to think of it, two metric tons of coffee.
By the time you read this, if you are participating in Nanowrimo, you will be just past the halfway mark. If you are somewhere near the middle of your first draft, I commend you and urge you to keep going. There are not many better feelings in the world than finally tapping out END on your first novel.
My first book, Still River, a detective novel, took six months to write and didn’t really come together in my head until I settled on the name of the protagonist, a Dallas-based investigator named Lee Henry Oswald. Lee Henry, Hank to his friends, is not related to Lee Harvey. The name is just one of many crosses he must bear.
As a life-long resident of Dallas, I wanted my main character to have a name that was instantly relatable to the city. (For a period of time, I considered writing about a hitman called Tom Landry, but I was afraid I’d be run out of town.)
If you chose not to participate in Nanowrimo this year, or if the pace has gotten too hard, or you find yourself stuck for whatever reason, consider this an opportunity to brush up on your craft. Here are some books that I have found helpful over the years. (If you’re cooking along, for heaven’s sake don’t stop to read anything. Just keep going!)
On Writing by Stephen King. Far and away the best volume on writing fiction that I have ever read. Part memoir, part how-to, the text peels back the secrecy on the creative process of one of the most successful novelists of all time.
Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell. In 1972, Morrell, a young college professor, published his debut novel, First Blood, a thriller about a Vietnam veteran named Rambo. Pop culture was never the same, not to mention Sylvester Stallone’s career. Lessons is Morrell’s ode to the craft, advice on how to tell a story and to tell it well. The essence of his message: Write about what you fear the most.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Beginning writers—and more than a few veterans—often have trouble plotting a story, the what-happens-next part of the process. If that sounds familiar, then grab a copy of this book. Save the Cat is designed for screenwriters but the advice is universal, clearly explained and illustrated with examples from the movies.
The last resource I can offer is a simple but effective bit of advice: Don’t ever give up!
To read the Lee Henry Oswald series or see other fictional stories related to President Kennedy or the 1960s, make an appointment to check out the Museum Reading Room!
Guest Blogger Harry Hunsicker’s forthcoming novel is The Devil’s Country (March 2017; Thomas & Mercer.) His work has been short-listed for the Shamus and Thriller Awards. He can be reached via his website: www.harryhunsicker.com, or on Twitter.
by Kevin Kendro, Guest Blogger, The City of Irving
Ruth Paine and Marina Oswald met at a party in February 22, 1963. Exactly nine-months later, on November 22, 1963, Marina’s husband, Lee Harvey Oswald, was arrested for assassinating President John F. Kennedy.
Ruth and Marina
Ruth Hyde Paine became a Quaker while she was in high school in the early 1950s. She believed strongly in the Quaker philosophy. One Quaker belief is that people must be able to communicate with their enemies in order to better understand them and thereby reduce disagreements that lead to war. America’s greatest enemy during the 1950s was the Soviet Union. While attending college Ruth took courses in the Russian language because she hoped that at some point she might be able to, in some small way, help with relations between the U. S. and the U.S.S.R.
Ruth had little reason for using her Russian language skills when she moved to Irving, Texas, in 1959. However, in early 1963, a friend of hers, who was acquainted with a number of Russian émigrés in the Dallas area, thought Ruth might enjoy practicing her Russian and invited her to a gathering of his Russian friends at his house.
She met Lee Oswald at the party, but found his conversation too political. She found Marina Oswald in one of the bedrooms of the home and struck up a conversation with her in Russian. The two young mothers, both with small children and in troubled marriages, hit it off immediately.
Over the next months, Ruth visited Marina at the Oswalds’ apartment on Neely Street in Dallas and had the Oswalds come to dinner at her house on 5th Street in Irving. When Lee lost his job in Dallas in April 1963, he decided to move to New Orleans and look for work. Ruth offered her home as a place for Marina and her daughter June to stay until Oswald found a job and got settled in New Orleans. For two weeks in May, Marina, Ruth and their children enjoyed a pleasant time together in Ruth’s home.
Then Lee called to say he’d found a job and an apartment in New Orleans and was ready for her to come join him. Ruth Paine drove Marina and June to New Orleans the next day.
In September of 1963 Lee lost his job in New Orleans. Marina, now eight months pregnant, moved back in with Ruth in Irving until her husband could find a new job and place to live. During this time Lee is alleged to have gone to Mexico City. Back in Irving, Marina found she enjoyed living in Ruth’s tidy suburban home when compared to the run-down apartments she had shared with Lee. She and Ruth developed a strong bond as they helped each other in caring for their children. Marina had her second daughter at Parkland Hospital in October, while she was staying with Ruth.
Lee Harvey Oswald returned to Dallas in early October 1963, and, on a tip that Ruth received from one of her neighbors, he got a job at the Texas School Book Depository.
Throughout the fall of 1963 Oswald spent the work week in a rooming house in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas just outside of downtown. On Friday evenings he caught a ride to Irving and spent the weekends with his wife and children at Ruth Paine’s house.
This was the standard routine throughout October and November until Thursday, November 21. On that day Ruth came home to find Marina and Lee standing in her front yard. Marina told Ruth that she thought he had come out to apologize for a fight they had over the phone earlier in the week.
Lee Harvey Oswald stayed that night at the Paine house. He left for work the next morning carrying a package.
After its investigation of the assassination, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald came to Irving Thursday evening to retrieve a rifle he had stored in the garage of Mrs. Paine’s house and that he had used it to kill President Kennedy during a motorcade through downtown Dallas on Friday afternoon.
Ruth Paine House Museum
The City of Irving purchased the Ruth Paine House in 2009 to preserve its historical significance. The house has been restored to its 1963 look and now serves as a museum that tells the story of Ruth and Marina’s friendship and the events that occurred there that swept the small home and its occupants up in the whirlwind of history.
For more information about the museum please go to http://cityofirving.org/490/Museums or call 972-721-3729.
Guest blogger Kevin Kendro is the archivist for the City of Irving.
Pep and Revelry! Betty Barton, Kilgore Rangerette recalls the 1960 campaign parades for JFK and Nixon
by Krishna Shenoy, Librarian/Archivist, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
In September of 1960, school had just started for the Kilgore College freshman Betty (Klutts) Barton. She had spent two weeks trying out for the nationally recognized Kilgore Rangerettes drill team and was thrilled to pass the auditions. From a young age, she had dreamt of high-kicking in the red, white and blue uniform and cowgirl hat.
The Kilgore Rangerettes started in 1940 and are known as “the first precision dance team in the world.” The Rangerettes continue to perform to the present day. In the early 1960s, the length of their uniform skirts – shortened to above the knee since the program’s inception in 1940 – was a subject of some local controversy.
Just weeks after earning her uniform, Mrs. Barton and the Rangerettes were called upon to travel to Dallas and march in two parades in two days. The parades celebrated presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, who both made campaign stops in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on September 12 and September 13, 1960.
In an oral history interview recorded with Mrs. Barton on October 5, 2016, she revealed that the parade on September 12th for Richard Nixon was her first parade performance as a Kilgore Rangerette. The Rangerettes performed a hand-jive routine as they marched through downtown Dallas. The Nixon parade ended at the doors to Dallas Memorial Auditorium; the poised Rangerettes split into two lines and waited to shake hands with Vice-President Nixon and his wife Pat. Mrs. Barton believes the spirit of the Rangerettes and the festive parade must have touched Mrs. Nixon, because she handed each girl she passed a red rose from the bouquet she had been carrying. Mrs. Barton was on the side with the vice-president and was thrilled to shake his hand, but recalls her disappointment at not receiving a red rose like the other girls.
That evening, the Rangerettes spent the night at the White Plaza Hotel in Dallas and awoke the next morning for a repeat performance, but this time for Senator Kennedy. Mrs. Barton did not get to meet the senator, however she clearly recalls the Rangerette routine flowing smoothly and the crowds enjoying the revelry.
You can learn more about Kennedy and Nixon’s 1960 election campaign and even see a photo of the Rangerettes marching in the parade in our special election year exhibit, A Time For Greatness. But don’t wait too long, the exhibit closes next Sunday, November 13!
by Stephen Fagin, Curator, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza
Who are you going to be for Halloween this year? If you were a youngster in October 1963, you might decide to go as a monster, a witch, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, that brand new superhero Spider-Man, or perhaps John or Jackie Kennedy. While not at the top of the Halloween costume list, a fair number of young people did indeed go trick-or-treating as the President and First Lady less than a month before the assassination.
There were different types of John and Jackie Kennedy masks on the market. In our collections at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, for example, we have a semi-translucent John F. Kennedy mask that was meant to blend in with the skin tone of the person wearing the mask—though the effect is deeply unsettling.
For children, the best option was a boxed costume by Ben Cooper, Inc. of New York. Cooper, a onetime costume designer for the legendary Ziegfeld Follies, launched his Halloween costume company in 1937. By the early 1960s, Ben Cooper, Inc. was one of the most prominent manufacturers of costumes in the United States. The company produced classics such as Frankenstein and the Mummy, as well as popular licensed characters including Howdy Doody, Gumby, Bozo the Clown, George Jetson, and a wide range of Disney characters. One particularly relevant costume at the time was simply called “American Hero Astronaut.”
For Halloween 1963, Ben Cooper, Inc. seized upon the broad popular appeal of the Kennedys and created children’s costumes called “Mr. President” and “First Lady.” Each came with a vinyl face mask with string and a one-piece rayon costume. As part of the Magic-Glo brand, the masks glowed in the dark when exposed to “electric light or sunlight for two or three minutes before wearing.” (We tried this with the masks in our collection, but sadly they no longer glow.)
Our “First Lady” costume has an original price sticker for $1.79, which is about $14 today. Ben Cooper costumes tended to be pricier options for parents, yet the company was known for their quality. Packaging on “Mr. President” and “First Lady” boasted that they were “double stitched for longer wear” and “treated to temporarily retard flame.”
Eight-year-old David Sherman of Rochester, New York, was a big fan of President Kennedy. “I think he was only two years maybe older than my dad,” he recalled in an oral history interview. “It was a White House that was like our house.” For Halloween 1963, he decided he wanted to go as the President. “I just purchased it, or you know, my loving parents did…. I remember being really cold because I got sick afterwards.” Weather reports showed a low in the upper 30s in Rochester, but David resisted wearing a heavy coat that night. “I went door to door as the President. I think people liked it. I think people laughed.” On November 22, 1963, young David thought back to his Kennedy mask when he heard the tragic news. He remembered, “I went into my room, and I just broke down and cried.”
Once designed and manufactured, Ben Cooper costumes would typically be sold year after year. After the assassination, however, thousands of surplus “Mr. President” and “First Lady” masks were destroyed, and the costume was never offered for sale again. Today they are of great interest to Kennedy collectors and Halloween enthusiasts. Beyond that, they offer a unique glimpse at the movie-star-like popularity of the Kennedys during their brief time in the White House.
Explore our online collections database to see other interesting pop-culture artifacts in the Museum’s collection.