Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steve Liskow. Show all posts

06 November 2017

Killer Tunes

by Steve Liskow

I've played guitar since the Monkees hit it big, and I read music (a little) and know (a little) theory, but I don't write songs.

I've been known to commit poetry under extreme circumstances, but songs have more technical demands than I can handle: melody, rhythm, lyrics, harmony, maybe even a bass line...and that's all assuming I can sing, which is still a topic of heated debate.

Strangely enough, several of my stories involve made-up songs. I had to convince people they're real to make the stories work.

In Blood On The Tracks, my first Woody Guthrie novel, we learn that dead singer Jeremy Garth wrote a song to Megan Traine. At the recording session, Meg blew a chord change and her mistake caused lots of bad stuff to happen. Since the session was years ago and Guthrie is only a so-so guitar player (probably a little better than I am), I had two problems. First, how would he figure out that the song was written for Meg? That was easy because I could put a hint into the lyrics. But how could Guthrie surmise that Meg made a mistake years after the fact?

That took some thought. I know just enough about music to recognize typical chord progressions, and I changed one chord so it wouldn't quite fit the rest of the song. It took me about half an hour to create a logical chord sequence for a song no reader will ever hear. Once I had it, I knew how a brilliant musician could make the necessary mistake, too. Several musicians have told me they enjoyed the music background in the book, and nobody has ever had any trouble believing what happened. I still have a general idea what the song sounds like, but don't expect to hear it on my next CD. Don't hold your breath for the CD, either.

Two other stories explore musical plagiarism. "Hot Sugar Blues," which appeared in the MWA anthology Vengeance (and was nominated for an Edgar) tells of a white blues singer who copied a song he heard a black man perform in a southern bar. I had to make it logical that he'd have trouble figuring out the chords until the performer showed him what they were, so I had Deacon Maddix put his guitar into a special tuning.
Keith Richards, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell and Richard Thompson all frequently re-tune for different voicings in their songs. Robert Johnson's early blues are hard to figure out, too, partly because he had amazing technique, but also because he played most of them in different tunings so he could use a slide or reach unusual notes. Johnson gave me the idea, and I put Maddix's song into a tuning I've never heard anyone ever use. Maybe someday I'll try playing a song in that tuning to hear if it even works. Maybe I'll do it for that same CD.

"Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma," in last summer's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, casts Woody Guthrie and Megan Train in another musical mystery. A man claimed that a singer worked with him on several songs, but released them without giving him any credit or royalties. Since the singer was known for her lyrics, I could work with words more than music, and had far too much fun creating esoteric rhymes. I even made one song use the rhyme scheme AAAAAAAA, which is harder in English than in the romance languages with an inflected ending. I simply listed the words that rhyme. I'd hate to try to write verses with those words that actually made sense, though. Maybe that's why someone ends up getting killed.

Right now, I'm polishing another story that involves a song. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes classic "The Musgrave Ritual" may have been my unconscious starting point because I was on a panel with Lindsay Faye, who recently published a collection of "new" Holmes stories. The song in my new story seems to be an obscure old ballad, but the characters suspect it's really much newer...and that the message is dangerous. I've written out five verses and even have a general idea of the chords and melody.

Look for it on the second CD I don't plan to produce.



23 October 2017

Writing and Reading

by Steve Liskow

Last week, I met a man whose advertisement for a "personal novel writing teacher" had been passed on to me by a friend. I wasn't sure what he wanted or expected.

We only talked a for a minute or two before I asked, "What are the last five or six books you've really enjoyed reading?"

"Oh," he said, "I don't read."

I heard the first timber crack and looked for daylight. "So why do you want to write a novel?"

"I want to get rich."

I ended the interview. I'm proud of myself for not telling him where he could put his misperception.

Most writers who teach have variations on this story, and we all wonder how you can possibly want to write when you don't enjoy reading. That's like a guy who can't stand heights wanting to skydive. Colorblind artists don't get far, either. Or tone-deaf musicians.

I taught English for years, and I still believe you can teach someone to write exposition (essays, research papers, most of the conventional school assignments) reasonably well, but the best students have an innate talent and hunger that carry them beyond the rest. It includes an ear for language that you only develop by reading a lot and starting young.

 Let's face it, writing is hard work, much too hard for anyone who doesn't love words and the way they sound when they dance together. My family included teachers, actors, and journalists, and they all read to me and my sister from the time we could sit upright. We both love to read and we both write a lot.

People who don't read have no frame of reference. If they read, you can use various books, characters, or scenes as examples. You can cite Wuthering Heights, Catcher in the Rye or Gone Girl for an unreliable narrator. You can point to Dickens or Hawthorne for description. But if the student doesn't read, you spend more time reinventing the wheel than you do teaching him to drive. My school called the class "Composition AND literature" because they go together.

If you really want to write, read everything. Read novels, both literary and genre. Read history, science, philosophy, psychology, mythology, religion, economics and essays. Read the King James Bible, too. It doesn't matter if you're Christian or not, listen to those rhythms. Read poetry (preferably older verse with a rhyme scheme) and drama aloud. Read comic books (OK, "graphic novels"), cereal boxes and shopping lists. But stay the hell off Twitter. 140 characters is not language, it's code.

What writer(s) show you how to create rich, three-dimensional characters? Copy them. Who writes terrific dialogue? Steal the techniques. Who writes magnificent description, creates vibrant settings, and immerses you in tone and atmosphere? Figure out how she does it and use the same strategies. Then read your work out loud while walking around the room. Does it make you feel the way you want your readers to feel? If it doesn't, fix it.

Writing has to capture the human experience, and that's the whole point of language. We are (or not) because we read (or not). If you want to write, you can take classes too, but you'll learn more from the authors who speak to you.

Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, said that style depends on two factors: the ability to feel, and the vocabulary to express those feelings. You find the techniques by reading, and they enhance your empathy and humanity...maybe. The only book I know worth mentioning for writing style (except Strunk and White, which is better for exposition than for narrative) is Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. If you haven't read it, pick up a copy.

Then get back to reading for joy.

Now, what's on your coffee table or nightstand?

25 September 2017

Nano, Nano

by Steve Liskow

At least one source claims that over 300,000 people signed up for National Novel Writing Month (November) last year, and I'm guessing that about 5% of them actually achieved the 50,000 word target by the 30th. If you're thinking about joining in this year, you have about five weeks to gird your loins, sharpen your pencil, or polish your keyboard.

I present workshops on preparing to write for NANO and I encourage people to sign up for several reasons.

First, if you're one of those people who has always believed you have a book in you, now's a good time to find out. Keep in mind that the catchy title is misleading. You won't write a book in a month, partly because a novel is longer than 50,000 words and partly because you're going to have to revise everything several times to make it coherent. If you don't believe that, maybe I can discourage you after all.

Second, trying to write 50,000 words in a month will help you find your most efficient process. Do you write more comfortably early in the morning or late at night? Do you work better in one long stretch or in shorter bursts of 30-45 minutes? Do you find it easier to type at a computer or use a pen or pencil and write your first draft out longhand? Can you simply jump in and start writing, or do you prefer to outline and create character biographies first? Writing, especially fiction, is a personal and intimate process, so nobody else can really tell you how to do it. You need to experiment and learn from your mistakes. Once you can get words on paper, you can learn more about plot and character, better point of view choices, and all the other mechanics.

But the first task, especially if you're new at this, is learning how much effort it takes to produce an average of 1667 words--roughly six and a half pages in 12-point font--every day. For the newbie, this is a daunting task. Even the act of sitting long enough to do it is rough, and you need to resist the urge to check your email, play computer games, or edit your picture files. Many established writers set daily word limits for themselves. Stephen King expects to write 2000 words, roughly eight pages, daily. I'm not sure, but I don't think he outlines. Neither do Dennis Lehane or Tess Gerritsen. Robert Crais outlines and plans, maybe because he got his start writing for television.

Keep in mind that if you're going to produce that much every day, not all of it will be brilliant. That's the biggest secret I can offer you. There are no obscure psychological tricks I know except giving yourself permission to produce lots of crap. Think of your first draft as a block of marble. The revision is the sculpting part: chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant or the Venus de Milo. Don't worry about whether what you're writing is good or bad. That comes later.

Some people (I'm one of them) like to do a rough outline or character background. I try to create a sequence of fifty scenes before I start the actual writing, then plan to produce at least one complete scene daily ( I NEVER quit in the middle of a scene because I'll lose the rhythm overnight). For whatever reason, my scenes average about 1600 words, so aiming at one a day keeps me on the target. By the time I write a complete first draft of the book, I'm often on the fifteenth scene list, or even more.

But sequencing and pacing come with practice and NANO is a great first step toward that goal.
If I write that quickly, I begin to find the rhythm of the book, too, and learn when a scene is in the wrong place or needs a different point of view. Then I change it on my outline/scene list. Actually, my first draft is that scene list.

Remember, if you write 50,000 words in a month, it's only the beginning.

But it's a great beginning.

11 September 2017

The Moments We Remember

By Steve Liskow

Jim Howard, a former Hartford police officer whom I see more often than not at open mic gigs, is one of those rare people who can play harmonica and guitar simultaneously. Today, he turns 71 (Happy Birthday, Jim), which makes him almost exactly six months older than I am.

But that's not how I remember his birthday.

We all have a handful of days we remember, and they change from generation to generation. Some are good days: meeting your future spouse, for example, or the day you won some award.

There are other days we remember because they changed the way we look at the world. Forever.

One Friday afternoon in 1963, I sat in my Latin III class when the principal came on the PA to tell us that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The next few minutes are hazy. I remember feeling like the floor had dropped out from under me, and the gorgeous German exchange student whom I never had the nerve to ask for a date turning to the boy next to her and asking him what "assassinated" meant. He answered with tears pouring down his face and most of us cried along with him.

I was sixteen. That may be the moment when I began to comprehend what I now identify as "evil."
Years later, my wife and I met Laurent Jean, a fine actor and director with whom we worked on many theatrical productions. Laurent's mother went into labor on November 22, 1963 and he was born the next day. I remember his birthday easily, too.

Five years later, I was shaving for a date with, coincidentally, another young woman from Germany when my next-door dorm neighbor burst in to tell me Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. I watched the play that night, but I don't think either my date or I could have told anyone about it the next day. By the time I walked her back to her dorm, we could see the orange glow dancing in the sky over Pontiac, Michigan as the town went up in flames five miles away.


Barely two months later, Robert Kennedy was shot, too. The year I turned 21 featured both those killings and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (Where former CT Governor and JFK Cabinet member Ribicoff infuriated Mayor Daly with his comments about police "Gestapo tactics" against demonstrators), not to mention the escalating Vietnam War.

By then, most of the shaping had been done and I was probably about 90% of the person I am now, for better or for worse.

One of my former students was in pre-med classes at George Washington University hospital when the Secret Service rushed Ronald Reagan into surgery after John Hinckley wounded him. He wrote me later to tell of his shock and horror when men in suits rushed in waving weapons and badges. This was his first life shattering event.

In January, 1986, I was producing a play and sat in the lobby of a local theater trying to reach my set designer on the pay phone (remember them?) and watching a portable TV replay the Challenger explosion. My director, a former Vietnam pilot and then an aeronautics engineer, watched a dozen replays and finally called the local news station to suggest what might have gone wrong. The subsequent investigation confirmed his suspicions. We didn't rehearse that night. A few people may have wired up speakers or focused a few lights, but most of us sat in the half-assembled gallery and cried for the astronauts and their families.

In September, 2001, I was teaching five classes--two for the first time--and still learning the names of 125 students. I cut through the media center toward the teachers' lounge and saw dozens of people jammed around the TV set near the AV department. They were still telling me what had happened when we watched the second plane slam into the World Trade Center.

To my students in 2001, the World Trade Center was what Kennedy's assassination was to me, and I remember feeling the curriculum shift slightly for the rest of the year.

Every generation has a horrific event that shapes it. Right now, we're dealing with several natural disasters: Harvey and Irma, the earthquake in Mexico City, tropical storm Katia, the fires in the northwest (Nope, no climate change, uh-uh). But I tend to give the man-made events more weight. We know that Nature is immense and implacable, but the assassinations and explosions remind us over and over (and we never learn, do we?) of our own hubris.

And that's what we all write about. No matter whether we write crime, romance, sci-fi, poetry, or anything else, our material is the shattering events in peoples' lives. The events that force them--and us--to surmount and survive.

The events that make us remember for too short a time that we are all human.

28 August 2017

Now It Gets Personal

by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I discussed Connecticut crimes that span our country's history. Several were grim "firsts," and they prove that you don't have to set a crime story in the Big Apple or LA.

But when people ask--as they invariably do--"Where do you get your ideas?" I have answers that hit closer to home. Postcards of the Hanging grew from a crime in the town where I attended high school half a century ago, but today I want to talk about other crimes that shocked Connecticut. I know or knew people who were involved in all of these, and even though I changed every possible detail, two of them have inspired novels...so far.

It's probably an urban legend, but New Britain, CT claims to have more package stores (liquor stores to you tourists) per capita than any other city in the United States. On October 19, 1974, Ed Blake felt ill and closed his Brookside Package Store early for the first time anyone could remember. It probably saved his life.

Two career thugs decided that holding up a New Britski packy would mean good money on a Saturday night. When they found their target closed, they went next door to the Donna Lee Bakery, where a customer called one of them by name. The men could have turned around and walked away, but instead they forced all six workers and patrons into the back room and shot them. They raided the cash register and fled, gaining less than twenty-five dollars for their efforts.

Passersby noticed their car and license plate, and police tracked them down within hours. They served long terms in Somers, Connecticut's maximum security penitentiary (one died of cancer a few years ago), but it didn't bring back the victims. One was the cousin of my assistant principal. Two others had a son in my junior English class. Ed Blake's son was a former student, too.

I've never used that story. You don't always gain insight by trying to analyze a horrific event. Evil is simply banal and stupid, and sometimes it comes down to unfortunate people being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Several years later, Pulaski High School became a middle school and I transferred to New Britain High School, alma mater of two Connecticut governors, Thomas Meskill and Abraham Ribicoff.

By the early nineties, NBHS, designed for 1600 students in 1973, had an enrollment of 2800. It also had turf wars between the Latin Kings, Los Solidos, and 20 Luv, all of whom wanted to control drug sales in the area. The President of the Latin Kings, Miguel deJesus, was no scholar but he caused no trouble in my fifth period comp & lit class, aside from doing no work. Other teachers had less luck with him, and his guidance counselor told me they were less sociopathic than I was.

On November 4, 1993, a car dropped Miguel off at the Mill Street entrance, directly below my classroom's window (circled in red).



He came early to be readmitted after a ten-day suspension for fighting. As he approached the double doors, a stolen car pulled into the driveway and a man wearing a hoodie put a handgun against the back of Miguel's head and shot him six times (the black circle on the picture). Dozens of witnesses saw the car, which was later found abandoned, but it took nearly two years of detective work before the shooter and driver were caught. Two members of rival gangs died in the next week, and police barely managed to contain an all-out gang war. Miguel was the first of three gang members I lost over the next three years.

Run Straight Down changed every detail, but it grew from that shooting. I focus on the teachers who had to go back into the building the next day and make it safe for the kids...when we all knew damn well that everything was broken.

After retiring from teaching, I read newspapers to the blind for several years, but in summer of 2007, a federal trial took place in Hartford without a word about it appearing in print. The jury eventually convicted Dennis Paris, alias "Rahmyti," of assault, drug trafficking, extortion...and over 2500 counts of trafficking under-aged girls along the Berlin Turnpike.
Raymond Bechard's book about the case includes transcripts in which the women are asked over and over if Paris knew they were between 14 and 17 while he forced them into as may as ten liaisons a day. They said "yes" over 300 times. The case convinced the federal government to rewrite the existing law so that if the person was underage, it didn't matter whether the trafficker knew that or not.

The Berlin Turnpike had been notorious for decades (I live less than a quarter-mile from the highway), and I revising Cherry Bomb when I bumped into Bechard at a signing and discovered that his girlfriend was a cousin of one of my former teaching colleagues (and another sister who had been a student). Through him, I got to do a phone interview with one of the "witnesses" to clarify details of prostitution from the woman's perspective.

Dennis Paris's defense counsel was Jeremiah Donovan. His trial was in session when two men invaded the Cheshire home of Dr. William Petit, a case I mentioned two weeks ago. Donovan later defended one of those men, too.

In March of 1998, disgruntled worker Matthew Beck, on leave for emotional problems, returned to the CT Lottery headquarters in Newington, armed with two handguns and a knife. He killed four workers. Lottery President Otho Brown lured Beck away from the building to give other workers a chance to take cover and call for help before Beck trapped him in a fenced-in parking lot. Survivors called Brown the hero who saved their lives.

Others weren't so lucky. Beck shot Linda Blogoslawski Mlynarczyk, formerly the first female mayor of New Britain, in her office. New Britain had a 21% Polish population, third in the nation at that time, and Linda literally walked through neighborhoods knocking on doors to talk with residents. She met her soon-to-be husband Peter when he helped her run her campaign. Over 1000 mourners attended the woman's funeral during a cold heavy rainstorm, the same day Mlynarczyk's farewell to his wife appeared on the front page of the Hartford Courant. It hurt like hell when I realized he now wrote even more eloquently than he had years before...as another student in my class.

Playwright Marsha Norman advises writers to write about the things in your life that still hurt, that still feel unfair and make you angry.

I've got mine.

14 August 2017

The Land of Shady Habits

by Steve Liskow

I set my first mystery in Saginaw, Michigan, about 80 miles north of Detroit. While I shopped that around, I also worked on a series set in Hartford, CT, where I now live, and many people asked why my stories didn't take place in New York, Chicago, LA, or Boston. I told them there were already enough private eyes there to keep things under control. Twenty years ago, Robert Parker, Linda Barnes and Dennis Lehane all worked Boston. It's a wonder there was even a parking violation.

Rosemary Harris uses a fictionalized Southwest Connecticut and a couple of other writers have set an occasional mystery in the state (Thomas Tryon, a Hartford native, created a version of Old Wethersfield in The Other), but I don't know why we don't see more of them. The state has an energetic multi-cultural background--Irish, Italian, Polish, African, Hispanic--not even counting the original occupants. Manufacturing and the insurance industry flourished here, and the history offers truckloads of material.

So does crime. The two towns that still argue over which is the oldest one in Connecticut both have seen major foul play.

Wethersfield, on Hartford's southern border, still has a section called "Old Wethersfield," with colonial architecture, tall trees, and a cove that leads to the Connecticut River. Thomas Beadle, a merchant who contributed to the revolutionary war effort, lived along the cove with his wife and four children. When the Continental Congress devalued Connecticut scrip to 1/40 the face value to help finace the war, Beadle faced bankruptcy and disgrace. In December 1782, after months of planning and delay, he struck his wife in the head twice with an ax and cut her throat in their bedroom. He did the same to the children in their rooms, then wrote a suicide note, sat in his favorite chair with a pistol in each hand, and shot himself through the head. His act was the first mass murder in the American colonies.

Over a century later, Amy Archer-Gilligan
ran a nursing home in Windsor, which borders the northeast corner of Hartford, only about ten miles from Wethersfield. Although she was only tried and convicted for one death, she poisoned at lest five men.

In fact, between 1907 and 1917, sixty residents of her home died, mostly from stomach ailments.


Eventually, the court declared her insane and she spent years in an asylum, dying in 1962 at the age of 93. Her story inspired the popular play Arsenic and Old Lace. If it had become a TV movie, maybe they would have called it Gilligan's Trial.

The Nutmeg State boasts (?) other ground-breaking crimes, too (pun intended). In 1957, authorities captured George Metesky, AKA "The Mad Bomber," after he had planted over thirty bombs in the preceding decade. After years in prison, he died in Waterbury at the age of 90 (Crime in Connecticut appears to be connected to longevity). His arrest came about after one of the first uses of a psychological profiler, whose description proved remarkably accurate.

Wethersfield used to be the site of Connecticut's electric chair, where Joseph "Mad Dog" Taborsky was executed in 1960 after killing at least seven people in a series of liquor store robberies. His reign of terror caused package stores to close earlier in the evening than had been customary.



In September 1983, several Puerto Rican nationalists held up a West Hartford branch of Wells Fargo and escaped with over seven million dollars, the largest recorded haul in history at that time. By the time authorities tracked down the thieves, they'd spent most of the money on political activism.

A much darker first occurred in 1989. In Newtown, philandering airline pilot Richard Crafts went to prison for killing his wife Helle, the first time a Connecticut jury convicted a defendant for murder without the corpse being found. Prosecutors built a grisly chain of evidence about how Crafts destroyed the body, and the case is still notorious as the "Wood Chipper Murder." It may have inspired the scene in the Coen brothers film Fargo.

In 2005, Michael Ross became the first execution in Connecticut since Mad Dog Taborsky after a jury convicted him of raping and strangling at least eight women in Connecticut and New York. Ross, who looked slightly more dangerous than cotton candy, picked up most of his victims hitchhiking.







In central Connecticut, the Cheshire Home Invasion of July 2007 is still an open wound. Two career screw-up druggies battered Dr. William Petit in his home, forced his wife to withdraw money from a local bank as a ransom (The banks' surveillance video was evidence at the trial), then raped and killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, aged 11 and 17. The injured Petit managed to escape and alert police, who captured the fugitives within blocks of the house, driving Petit's car. Their trial and ultimate convictions aroused a movement to bring back the death penalty, which Connecticut had rescinded after Ross's execution. The movement failed.

In August 2008, Omar Thronton, fired for stealing beer from the Hartford Distributors in Manchester, entered the building with two 9 mm semi-automatics and killed eight co-workers before turning his guns on himself.

It's disturbing to notice how these tragedies seem to come more and more quickly. The most horrific of many school shooting rampages took place in Newtown, the home of the Crafts couple I mentioned above. On December 14, 2012, mentally disturbed Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 20 six-year-old students, five teachers and the school's principal. He shot himself when police answered the frantic 911 call, and his mother--who bought him the guns, including an assault rifle--was found shot to death in her home. Local Senator Chris Murphe is one of Congress's strongest voices for gun control, and President Barack Obama's private visits to each of the victims' families are now local legend.

I'm closing this installment with the story that made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Even if you don't follow football, you might have heard of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, a star athlete at Bristol Central high school (where one of my theater buddies used to teach English). Hernandez was convicted of murder in 2015. while in prison, he was tried for two more murders, but was acquitted. Five days after his acquittal, guards found him dead in his cell, apparently after hanging himself.

Yes, it's a grim list. But it gets even worse. Next time, I'll discuss a few more cases, all of which involved people I know. I even used a couple of them for stories...

31 July 2017

RIP Dick Wagner

by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I wrote about Chuck Berry, a household name even if you don't like rock 'n' roll.

Three years ago yesterday, Dick Wagner, one of rock's great unsung pioneers, passed away from respiratory failure at age 71. I never saw a word about it in the newspapers or online, and only learned about it because Susie Woodman, my high school classmate and ex-wife of Dick's first drummer, posted it on Facebook.

When I mention Dick's name, most people say, "Who?" When I mention certain bands or records, their eyes widen and they say, "That was him?"

Dick played on over 30 gold or platinum albums and CDs, usually as an unnamed session guitarist, but those records include the blazing duet (With Steve Hunter) on Aerosmith's cover of "The Train Kept A-rollin'," backing Lou Reed on his Rock and Roll animal tour, and several Alice Cooper hits--most of which he co-wrote. He also played or wrote for Kiss, Meat Loaf, Peter Gabriel, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, and Frank Sinatra.

Back in my deformative high school years, I knew of Dick as the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/arranger of The Bossmen, a Beatles knock-off band in Saginaw, Michigan.
Dick wrote practically all their material, and you could hear him grow and develop as the Beatles did. By the time his band ended its run in 1967, it included Mark Farner, who would later perform with Terry Knight & the Pack, which morphed into Grand Funk Railroad. Dick went to Detroit and fronted The Frost, a good band that didn't make it, and started writing and producing. Other musicians and producers called him "The Maestro" because he could read music (a rarity for guitarists), write like a devil, and play guitar like a monster.

In the early seventies, he released an LP, but his label decided to call it "Richard Wagner." Of course it ended up in the classical bins and sold about twenty-six copies.

Dick's brilliance led to problems. He developed an Olympian cocaine habit--maybe from hanging out with Aerosmith--and he admitted to a sex addiction that led him to cheat on his first two wives with possibly hundreds of women. Eventually, he developed heart problems and had a nearly-fatal coronary in 2005. That and pressure on the brain paralyzed his left arm and he had to re-learn guitar after surgery and a long bout of physical therapy.

He began to tour again, often with musicians he'd known in Detroit including Mark Farner, and Dennis Burr. At about the same time, I connected with him on Facebook through my high school classmate, who still plays session keyboards and performs around Detroit. When I was looking for blurbs for my first Woody Guthrie novel Blood On the Tracks, Susie--who inspired my character Megan Traine--said I could drop her name to various Michigan musicians.
She knew or played with Dick--and Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, and members of both Savage Grace and ? and the Mysterians.

Most of them, surprise, surprise, never got back to me, but Dick said, "Send me your book. When do you need something?"

A few months later, he emailed me his blurb, short, sweet, and perfect. It's on the back of the book, and I sent him a copy.
By the time it came out, though, his health was deteriorating and he never mounted the comeback tour that was in the works. I read his memoir and found a CD of the Bossmen's songs on his old website. I was amazed how many of them I remembered from fifty years ago.

At an open mic last week, I played on of Dick's best-known songs as a thank you to a star who didn't have to give me a boost, but did.

"Only Women Bleed."

Thank you, Dick.

17 July 2017

Cats and Gats

by Steve Liskow   

Last Friday, my wife Barbara and I celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary.
For 31 of those years, we've had from one to three cats, and knowing that Ernie and Jewel will probably be our last pets is disconcerting, especially since both are developing health issues at a much younger age than we expected. Jewel has been on steroids (forfeiting her football scholarship) for nearly two years to fight her asthma (yes, cats get asthma!) and she's beginning to exhibit some of the side effects that the drug can cause.

Ernie has developed stage two kidney disease. So far, he loves his diet food--he has always eaten like a teen-aged boy--and is responding well to the blood pressure meds he takes because of the kidney problem. But both cats are only nine years old, and they've been together almost from Ernie's birth.

Barb and I met at a theater audition not long after I'd adopted a cat from someone who couldn't keep her. Many of out theater friends pointed out that cats fend for themselves more easily than dogs--which we both grew up with--if their servants have a schedule that involves late rehearsals or travel.

Cats are better teachers, too. They can demonstrate everything an actor needs to know about concentration, and they help me with my writing now because they give me a sense of proportion. Dogs may pretend they like a chapter because they want you to feed them. Cats don't care. If you don't feed them, they'll go out and kill something...or tear up the couch and stare at you so you understand it was your own damn fault.

A character in Jodi Picoult's House Rules claims that all cats have Asperger's syndrome, and it may be true. If you have a cat, you know it's always about them. Cats are narcissists at heart, and that fits well with some of the great villains in literature: Moriarty, Goldfinger, Hannibal Lector, or Edmund in King Lear. When cats stalk their prey, they model a focus that can be truly frightening, but the also convey a calculation that works with either villains or sleuths.

Cats can help you depict character quickly in other ways, too. What does it show you if a person doesn't like animals--or, better yet, if animals don't like him? Fran Rizer's Callie Parrish has a Great Dane. Robert Crais gave Elvis Cole a feral cat. He's just called "Cat," which says it all, doesn't it? Linda Barnes's PI Carlotta Carlyle has a cat, too. Megan Traine, the female protagonist of my Chris "Woody" Guthrie novels, has two cats. She named the tuxedo with double paws Clydesdale (usually "Clyde"), and calls his calico sister Bonnie.

Remember the Disney film That Darn Cat (I know I'm dating myself here)? Dean Jones's character was allergic to cats, and it helped deepen his character. Clint Eastwood played a New Orleans detective with two children in 1984's Tightrope, and a crucial scene shows the family dog stuffed into a clothes drier. What does that tell us about the bad guy? Don't worry, he gets what's coming to him.

Many publishers and contests stipulate that an animal can't be killed or tortured in the story, and that just shows ho much most of us value pets. Watch the memes and petitions on Facebook if someone mistreats an animal. Some of my neighbors complain when a rabbit or raccoon gets into their garden, but sometimes I think I'd rather have a raccoon, rabbit, skunk, fox or coyote living across the street instead. We wouldn't talk politics and they take care of their space.

03 July 2017

Fade to Black...

by Steve Liskow

I'm currently in the sixth draft of my latest Chris "Woody" Guthrie novel. Even though I know him and his companion Megan Traine pretty well by now (Starting in 2004, I gathered over 100 rejections for their first book) and the plot points are falling into line almost as if I knew what I was doing, one scene is reminding me of something I learned a long time ago.

Sex scenes are really hard to write well.

Every book sets its own standards for how explicit or how subtle, and sometimes you figure it out by doing it wrong. If it's too graphic, it verges on porn, and if it's too discreet, it feels prudish or even silly. Obviously, noir or hard-boiled stories allow more process than a cozy or traditional, but even then, you have a little...er, wiggle room.

Remember the Frank Zappa song "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" The punch line is "I think it's your mind." Well, sex scenes really aren't about the choreography of who does what to whom and how much how often as much as they're about the emotions your characters experience.

If you're just putting tab A into slot B and folding appendage C over corner D, you're writing porn. Janet Evanovich discussed Stephanie Plum's frolics with a fair amount of detail, but also with large doses of humor. If you add humor, which chick lit romance writers--Jennifer Crusie, Jayne Anne Krentz, and Rachel Gibson, to name a few--do, it's much better. I admit, I read chick lit for the terrific dialogue. Yeah, sounds like when we were in college and claimed we read Playboy for the interviews, doesn't it?

Dennis Lehane's novels featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro never describe their activities in much detail, but have any readers ever doubted for a second that they had a very hot sex life? Don Winslow, on the other hand, has a scene in California Fire and Life (one of my favorite crime novels) with Jack Wade and Letty Del Rio that tells you everything you never wanted to know...and it's perfect. These two have blamed themselves for ruining their relationship and splitting up years before, and now they discover how miserable they've been ever since. The scene is in Jack's head, and, graphic as it gets, it's so vulnerable it hurts to read it.

It's all about context, and sometimes you aren't the best judge. My first few books had some fairly explicit scenes, but I've moved away from that...until this one. In the WIP, Chris and Meg have their first really serious fight over a case and are trying to handle a situation they both botched in their previous marriages. Eventually, there's a hot make-up/apology sex scene. That scene didn't appear in my first draft, but my revising showed me it had to be there. In alternate drafts, it has become more and more graphic, and I've tried it from both Meg's and Chris's POV. I've even put it in and taken it out several times. I've tried it as a flashback, too, and it still doesn't satisfy me.

One more revision and it will go to beta readers. I'm already looking forward to their opinions and may even include three separate drafts of that scene: Meg's, Chris's, and none.

Who ever knew that sex could be so hard?

19 June 2017

Hiding the Ball

by Steve Liskow

If you read or write police procedurals, you probably know far too much about fingerprint patterns, blood spatter,




decay rates, DNA matching, ballistics and digital technology. Modern law enforcement relies on forensic evidence to solve crimes, and it works, which is all to our benefit. But it reduces the human (read, "character") factor in modern stories. I can't avoid them altogether, but I try to rely on them as little as possible.

Why, you ask. OK, I'm not a Luddite (although I do write my early notes with a fountain pen) but...

Readers want to participate in your mystery. The stories from the Golden Age--back before you and I were even born--required that the sleuth share his or her discoveries with the reader so we could figure out the solution (or, more typically, NOT) along with him. That's why so many of the classic stories of Agatha Christie, Nero Wolf and their peers had a sidekick as the narrator so he didn't have to give the sleuth's thoughts away. It also explains why those stories are so convoluted and complicated. The writers did what attorneys now call "hiding the ball," burying the real clues in mountains of red herrings, lying witnesses, contradictory information and complicated maps, not necessarily drawn to scale.

The Ellery Queen series featured the "Challenge to the Reader" near the end of the book, stating that at that point the reader had ALL the necessary information to arrive at the "One Logical Solution." It was a daunting challenge that I think I met only once or twice. Agatha Christie said she did her plotting while doing household chores. I'd like to see the banquets she prepared to come up with some of Poirot's herculean feats.

If you withhold the clues and pull them out at the end like a rabbit out of a top hat, readers accuse you of cheating. I still remember an Ellery Queen novel that solved the murder of a twin brother by revealing at the end that there were actually triplets. Tacky, tacky, tacky.

You need to put the information out there where readers can see it, but without making it too obvious.

Magicians accompany their sleight of hand with distractions: stage patter, light and smoke and mirrors, scantily clad assistants, and anything else that will make you look that way instead of at them while they palm the card or switch the glasses. And that's how you do it in mysteries, too.

There are a few standard tricks we all use over and over because they work.

The first is the "hiding the ball" trick I mentioned above. If you describe a parking lot with twelve red Toyotas, nobody will notice one with a dented fender or an out-of-state license plate. The B side of this is establishing a pattern, then breaking it. Often, the sleuth believes that oddball is a different culprit and not part of the same case, but he finally figures out that it's the only one that matters and the others were decoys.

You can also give people information in what retailers used to call a "bait and switch." Stores would advertise an item at a low price, then tell customers that item was already sold out and try to sell them a more expensive version. You can give readers information about a person or event, then tweak it later so it points somewhere else. The classic police procedural The Laughing Policeman hinges on a witness identifying an automobile parked at a scene...then years later realizing that a different car looks a lot like it. Oops.

You can give information and later show that the witness who mentioned it was lying. The trick here is to plant a reason for the witness to lie early in the story and leave the connection until later on. If the reader sees the reason with no context, he'll overlook it until you make it important again when you pull the bunny out of the derby. This is one of my favorites.

I also like to focus on a fact or circumstance that's irrelevant and keep coming back to it. Later in the story, your detective can figure out that it's meaningless...OR realize that he's look at it from the wrong angle. My recent story "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" has PI Woody Guthrie and his musician companion Megan Traine trying to clean up a music file so they can identify the voice that's talking underneath the singer. It's not until late in the story that Guthrie realizes the voice doesn't matter--at least, not the way he thought it did, because the speaker isn't the person everyone assumed it was. That story appears in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, along with stories by known accomplices John Floyd and O'Neil De Noux.

The "how could he know that?" clue gets lots of use, too. Someone makes a comment, suggestion, or observation and the sleuth doesn't realize until later that he couldn't have known the murder weapon or condition of the body unless he was there. If you haven't used this one at least once, raise your hand.

Its second cousin is the condition or event that didn't happen, the old case of the dog that didn't bark in the night, first used in "Silver Blaze," an early Sherlock Holmes story. Its fraternal twin, which makes a handy red herring in the age of technology, is a missing computer file. Since it's missing, we don't know what's on it...or if it's even important. The sleuth can spend pages or even entire chapters worrying about that missing file folder or computer. In The Kids Are All Right, I had two murder victims whose computers were found with the respective hard drives removed. The implication was that missing files would implicate the killer. But can we really be sure?

Now, what's your favorite way to deal off the bottom?

05 June 2017

Shirley, Birly, Mo Mirly

by Steve Liskow

If you write mystery, there's a good chance you write a series with a continuing character. People may even refer to your books by that character's name: Jack Reacher, Stephanie Plum, the Hardy Boys (Would that series have survived if they'd been called the Sickly Boys?).

Your character is your brand, so you have to give him, her, or them a memorable and evocative name to help readers remember it. Sometimes, I don't find the right name until I'm struggling with the fourth or fifth draft, and I may change it several times before I find the one that sticks.

Yes, you can be symbolic, like Faithful in The Pilgrim's Progress or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. For years, I've said the ultimate victim name, especially in a book about a con game, is Patsy. Allusions are good shorthand, too, like naming a lover Romeo or a martyred character Jesus or Santiago. But symbolism and allusion get pretentious quickly, and then you have to go for the ordinary without succumbing to the mundane.

Postcards of the Hanging, originally my sixth-year thesis/project at Wesleyan University under a different title, teems with symbolic names because I was using it to show that I'd read the classics along the way. I thought I was heavy-handed about it, but nobody--including my adviser--has ever mentioned them.

Maybe a lyrical or pretty name--I know, that's subjective--or very unpleasant. Flannery O'Connor's protagonist in "Good Country People" calls herself Hulga because she wants to sound ugly. The name almost rhymes with the adjective. And what does that tell us about her as a person? Naming dictionaries for babies abound, and some of them sort the names by gender, language of origin, culture, or meaning. Pay attention to sounds, too.

Many heroic characters have short names with strong consonants. Shane, Sam Spade, Shell Scott (Shell suggests a bullet or armor, too), Joe Pike or Carlotta Carlyle. Sara Paretsky's V.I.--Victoria Iphegenia--Warshawski gives us an interesting rhythm and a fully-realized symbolic and allusive name. Victory and a sacrifice in one person.

I keep a spreadsheet with all the names I've used for novels and short stories. It serves two purposes. First, if I want to return to a location in a later book, I can check on the characters who were there quickly (My fourth Zach Barnes novel returned to a setting from the second book, and several of the characters showed up again) and easily.

The second reason is to be sure I don't repeat a name or sound too often. Left to my own devices, most of my characters would have names starting with "M." Don't ask me why, but in various drafts of the Guthrie series, my main characters were Morley, Maxwell, and Megan Traine. I eventually changed Morley (My great aunt's married name and sounding like "morally") several times, and Maxwell became a supporting character who shows up less often now, replaced by Eleanor "Shoobie" Dube. Megan is still my female lead, and more about her later.

When I find the right name, I know how and why the character has it, too. Taliesyn Holroyd in Who Wrote the Book of Death? is a man writing romance under the pseudonym, and Taliesyn is an over-the-top romantic name. It's also originally King Arthur's male bard, so it suggests the gender, too, even though most people wouldn't notice that. It was my ninth choice for the character and occurred to me while I listened to an old Deep Purple CD in my car: The Book of Taliesyn...

Zach Barnes became the protagonist in the revised edition of that book and the ensuing series. I had him in an unsold Detroit series, too, and changed his name in that first book with a global edit to save time. He became Greg Nines, but I didn't like the softer consonants as well. Neither did readers who told me so on my website. Besides, spellcheck went crazy because it interpreted "Nines" as plural.

Blood On the Tracks introduces my Detroit PI Elwood Christopher Guthrie (My daughter pointed out that "Elwood" suggests the Blues Brothers and Guthrie does play guitar). Over the course of 115 rejections and subsequent revisions, he was Rob Daniels, Erik Morley, Zach Barnes (see above), and at least one other name I no longer remember. Now he goes by Chris, but everyone else calls him "Woody," which is fine because of the guitar-playing. Megan Traine, his companion, is smart, feisty and gorgeous, and her name rhymes with the name of my high school classmate, the female session musician in Detroit who inspired her character in the first place.

Zach Barnes got traded to my Connecticut series, and he often encounters two Hartford police officers. One is Tracy Hendrix. His grandfather admired actor Spencer Tracy, and his father liked Jimi Hendrix enough to change the spelling of his own last name. When he played high school basketball, Tracy had a bad mouth that led people to call him "Trash." His detective partner is Jimmy Byrne, and the other cops call the duo "Trash and Byrne."

Trash and Byrne star in The Whammer Jammers, a crime novel built around roller derby, in which I gave all the skaters a rink name that suggests what they do in the "real world." That got to be far more fun than it should have been.


Grace Anatomy is a physical therapist. Roxie Heartless is a divorce lawyer. Goldee Spawn is an OB/GYN. Tina G. Wasteland (Hendrix's girlfriend) is a social worker. Annabelle Lector is a nutritionist. The bank president from the Deep South is Denver Mint Julep.

That book's sequel is Hit Somebody, due out next week, and it continues the joke/conceit. The announcer at events is Lee Da Vocal.

I've added twin sisters who run a bake shop, and their names are Raisin Cain and Ginger Slap. The original Ginger Slap works out at my health club and gave me permission to use her name when I told her how much I liked it. There is even a data base of all roller derby names: duplicating a name is a serious no-no, akin to a circus clown copying another clown's make-up design.

My daughter, once the captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire, likes to bake. Roller Girl (check it out, it's terrific), skates on the West Coast as Winnie the Pow. Who says you can't make this stuff up?


Her rink name was Hazel Smut Crunch. And Victoria Jamieson, who wrote the Newbery Award YA graphic novel

My roller derby books have that Greg Nines problem again, too. Tina G. Wasteland's real name is Tori McDonald, and spellcheck thinks "Tori" is the plural of "Torus."

It could be worse. When I bought my first computer decades ago and worked on a mythology unit for my classes over the summer, that primitive spellcheck flagged the name Achilles and suggested the alternate: asshole.

How do you come up with names?

22 May 2017

You Come Here Often?

by Steve Liskow

Tell me what these sentences have in common:

Where have you been all my life?

What's a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?

If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?



You got it. They're all horrible opening lines. One of my favorite pieces of advice on openings is the tagline of the film Crossroads, from back in the eighties: Where second-best never gets a second chance.

More often than not, the opening is the last part of a story I polish. I need to get the rest of the story right (hysterical laughter from off-stage) and figure out where I'm going before I understand the best place to start. Three of my novels (four, if you count Hit Somebody, currently in final fixing) picked up a new opening along the way. In two, it was a completely new scene and in another it was a prologue--something editors tell you they hate--that also demanded an epilogue for a frame story. In the other case, I moved a different scene to the beginning.

Hallie Ephron offers solid advice for openings. Don't worry so much about a brilliant hook because that risks becoming a gimmick. Instead, try to present the idea that something is "wrong." It doesn't have to be huge, but suggest dissonance right away, sort of a "what's wrong with this picture?" ambiance.

Right now, my growing list of favorite openings/hooks stands at 34, and 26 are from novels. Others might qualify as novellas: Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," Cornell Woolrich's "Rear Window," and Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." Some other are comparatively old, like O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."

What should a good opening do? Well, let's look at some that work.

The Grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.

This is from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and right away we see that the story is in 3rd person POV, and the Grandmother, presumably an important character, has a conflict. Someone wants her to go to Florida against her wishes. Calling her "The Grandmother" makes her a specific grandmother, but not using her real name turns her into an archetype or symbol. The tone is detached. We get all this from eight words. It also makes us ask why she doesn't want to go, and O'Connor answers that in the following sentences. The early pay-off encourages us to keep reading until we reach the final pay-off, which, if you've never read the story, is worth it. The opening scene even sets up the ending, too.

That's a pretty good opening, wouldn't you agree? How about this one?

They throw him out when he falls off the bar stool.

That's from Laura Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing. These eleven words tell us the story (or at least part of it) is in present tense, detached third-person POV, and the unnamed male is probably drunk in a bar. This sets up many potential problems: drunks get into fights or accidents. Maybe he will have a black-out and not remember important details later. We don't know the man's name, but is a safe bet that he will be the protagonist or a victim, maybe even both. The lack of a name (again) adds distance and detachment. If you're like me, you want to read on to see what happens to this guy next. We're pretty sure it won't be good.

Let's try one more. In the spirit of blatant self-promotion, this is from my roller derby novel, The Whammer Jammers.                          

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

Hendrix, the protagonist, is (present tense again) wearing a bullet-proof vest, which suggests he's not going to a backyard barbecue. We can infer there may be shooting (which there is), and it will lead to further problems.

The first sentence is important, but most people will read beyond that. Even agents will give the MS a page, but they expect something in return. These openings all show us the story's essential style (vocabulary, point of view, tone or mood), the presumed protagonist, and some tension or conflict. All these elements draw the reader into the story.

If you're writing a novel, you have more time, but begin your story as close as possible to the important action (inciting incident ) as you can without any back-story. Get the ball rolling before you slow down to explain. If you need to explain something, do it through action, not exposition. Look at the first ten minutes of the James Cagney classic White Heat (1949) for a great demonstration of how to do it. It's all car chases and shooting, but we understand the relationships of major characters without a lot of chatter. If you can't begin with conflict, at the very least introduce the element that will cause it. O'Connor does that in the grandmother example above.

O'Connor's opening sets up her ending, too, another good trick if you can do it. Songs end on the tonic chord, and your story can repeat or refine an image from your opening. If you're writing a mystery, this can be as general as suggesting that there will be a solution, preferably not the one the reader sees coming, or the lovers with end up together...or not. But that's another reason to polish your opening in your final draft...when you know where you're going.