Showing posts with label Fact. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fact. Show all posts

07 November 2016

Fact or Fiction?


Sleuthsayers is delighted to welcome our newest member, Steve Liskow, an award-winning writer who has been a finalist for both the Shamus and the Edgar and has taken home the Black Orchid Prize. His short stories have appeared in Vengeance, the MWA anthology edited by Lee Child, and in Level Best Books’ anthologies.

A retired high school English teacher, Steve experienced what he terms a “horrible experience” with a traditional house. “I bailed as soon as I could without a financial penalty,” Steve says.

In addition to his writing, Steve is a keen guitar player with a special passion for early blues. A number of his mystery titles reflect his musical enthusiasms, including his newest, featuring Detroit PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here and the earlier novels, The Kids Are All Right and Cherry Bomb.

In addition to writing, Steve does editing and conducts fiction workshops. Check out his fine web site, www.SteveLiskow.com and his October 1st appearance on the Jungle Red Writers blog site, where he writes about music and his writing.

Welcome aboard, Steve!


— Janice Law

by Steve Liskow

First of all, let me thank Rob, Leigh, Janice and everyone else for making me feel so welcome here. I hope I don't embarrass them too much.

When I'm conducting a writing workshop or a signing, people often ask me where I get my ideas. I often start with an idea generated by a real event, but I seldom stay with that. Laura Lippman cites real incidents as the seed for several of her novels, including What the Dead Know and After I'm Gone. She stresses that once the original idea occurs, practically everything else changes.

Alafair Burke's The Ex uses a back-story that reminds me of Adam Lanza, who invaded a Connecticut elementary school in 2012 and killed twenty-six teachers and first-graders. Many other writers have used similar starting points, and there's a cottage industry in stories involving fictionalized visions of Jack the Ripper. My own novel Run Straight Down was inspired by teaching in an inner-city high school when one of my students was killed by a rival gang. Nothing in that novel resembles the real story. I even changed the name of the town.

Why?

I don't like to remember that the boy was shot directly below my classroom window. Many other people who were involved are still alive, and examining the case would be a horrible intrusion into their lives, too. In fact, when I was still considering writing the novel, I met attorney-turned-novelist William Landay at a conference, and as soon as he knew that people involved in the case still lived in the area, he said, "Fictionalize it." End of discussion.

Most horrific crimes don't shed much light on the human condition anyway. By and large, the perpetrators are bad people who have been in trouble because of their won stupidity or addiction or some other pathology for most of their lives. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, had been identified as unstable for years and his parents had not heeded warnings. The killer in the Cheshire (CT) home invasion in 2007 were career criminals who had spent major portions of their lives in jail, rehab, or both. Six people died in the Donna Lee Bakery massacre (New Britain, CT, 1974) because the killers planned to rob a liquor store, but the owner felt ill and closed early. The bakery was next door. Again, through my teaching job, I had a two-degree connection to three of those six victims...and the owner of the liquor store was the father of one of my students.

The only case I know that became a major literary event involves Amy Archer-Gilligan, who ran a nursing home about twenty miles from where I live now. She poisoned several residents and was eventually acquitted of murder by reason of insanity. Her story became the basis of the famous play Arsenic and Old Lace, which keeps nothing of the original story except the arsenic.

The only other "true" stories I think about at all are Capote's In Cold Blood, which is as much fiction as fact but invented an entire genre all by itself, and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Larson's research is staggering, but his story-telling skills are even better.

Basically, the problem with writing "true crime" is similar to writing a biography. No matter how much research you do, you're still guessing. WHY did this person do this NOW? Why THIS victim? Why did Mozart produce such beautiful music while we consider Salieri a musical joke and someone else with a similar background can't even whistle? Why could Shakespeare write nearly forty plays, the worst of which is still worth reading, while better-educated people with more leisure time can't fill a page? We don't know.

Facts are messy and may not prove anything, but when we move them around and sand down rough edges, we can create the characters and events that develop a logical or emotional point. That's why mysteries or crime fiction or detective stories or whatever you want to call them will always be popular. We want an answer that works. Whether it's Sherlock Holmes or Harry Bosch solving the crime, we want to believe things happen for a reason and the world makes sense.

It's fun to take a real case and fictionalize it to she what "might" have been. The Bobby Fuller killing (Remember "I Fought the Law and the Law Won" in 1966?) is still open 49 years later, but it inspired the film Eddie and the Cruisers. My own novel Blood On the Tracks used a cold case about a dead rock singer, too. I didn't even realize I was channeling the case until one of my guitar-playing friends asked me about it.

So, if you want to talk to me about a "true story," just give me a sentence or two and get out of the way. No, I won't split the profits (Profits, ha-ha-ha) because you may not even recognize your story when I finish with it.

Shakespeare's histories are anything but history, and while Macbeth really existed, little of the story is accurate. King James claimed he was descended from Banquo in the play, but my research never turned up anyone by that name. Shakespeare wrote the play to flatter his king. He was one of the first people to show us that facts can get in the way of a good story.

It's a lesson most writers take to heart.

18 November 2014

Postcards from the River


A couple of years ago, I was living in a city called Hamilton. It's one of New Zealand's few inland cities; New Zealand is a long, thin slice of country and the ocean (Pacific Ocean to the right, Tasman Sea to the left) is never more than an hour or two's drive away. Although inland, Hamilton is not without water frontage, as the Waikato River flows through the center of the city and effectively splits it into two.

I lived a couple of blocks from the river, and the office building I worked in downtown was located riverside on London Street. Naturally, I often walked to and from the office each day along the river, taking advantage of the excellent system of paved city walkways that hugged the river bank.

Given the remoteness of some parts of the track, and the signs of nocturnal delinquency (graffiti, condoms, needles, etc.), I expected most mornings to find a body. I did "find" a couple of drunks and several shifty teenagers, but thankfully never anyone dead. My mind had other ideas. Although I've never used the riverbank walkway specifically as a setting, it has inspired two short stories: Boundary Bridge (where an angry, American TV writer shoves a young man off one of Hamilton's five bridges into the river); and The Riverboat (which curiously ended up being set in the early 20th century, in the deep south of the US).

The Waikato River flows through the Waikato Plains region of the North Island of New Zealand, and at 425 kilometers (265 miles), it's the country's longest waterway. The Waikato Plains are one of the country's dairy heartlands, and Hamilton is the region's largest city (the fourth largest in the country). Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

One Monday morning, however, there was a dead body at the end of my walk. It was in the alleyway next to the front entrance of the office building I worked in (located about 20 yards from the river).

Actually, the body was no longer there; there wasn't even a chalk outline (they don't actually draw those). There was, however, a police line, a couple of dozen evidence markers, a frozen police officer, and a sea of fingerprint powder residue -- every inch of the alley and the building's entrance, every rock, every piece of litter, all of it caked in the stuff.

The police officer was frozen because he was dressed in his uniform of a blue shirt and dark slacks. I, by contrast, was dressed for an Antarctic expedition -- it was the middle of winter. It doesn't snow in Hamilton, but we were down to about 2°C that morning (that's less than 36°F).

According to the slowly-turning-blue representative of the thin blue line, the dead body of a man had been discovered in the early hours of the morning. The street had been closed off and a forensics team brought in to examine the scene. Yes, the man had been murdered.

The body had been taken away about 30 minutes before I arrived. The remaining officer was standing watch, preserving the scene (possibly forever) as the detective in charge hadn't given the all clear, which meant access to the building was a no go.

"You're not going in there, mate," said the officer, who must have been made out of concrete -- or was slowly turning into concrete.

"When can I go in? I work on the second floor of that building."

"I think you might be getting the day off, mate."

That was nice of him.

My boss (who arrived a few minutes later), when informed of this hindrance in our approach to our desks, and at our being given a day's holiday by the constabulary, said, "This is not good enough." Actually, he didn't say that, but that was the implication I could extract from the obscenities.

After about an hour, the all clear was finally given and we were allowed to enter the building -- to thaw out from the cold. It was a gloomy day at the office; not a joke was uttered. Bad taste took that offered day's holiday. The media had a vulture's picnic on the doorstep, and the scene of the crime became a tourist destination for Hamilton's lowlifes.

Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross "The Waikato River flowed through Hamilton like a dark freeway. I spent afternoons sitting at the table in the living room staring down at its cool, shady water. Any day, damn it, I was going to jump in and hitch a ride out of town."

BOUNDARY BRIDGE
Stephen Ross

In the afternoon, a friend said: "I suppose you'll use this murder in a story?"

My reply was "No".

I make a very clear separation in my mind between real murder and imaginary murder, and I don't have a lot to do with the real stuff. Sure, I read about such stories in the newspaper, but note them only in passing. I don't believe I've written any story inspired by real life events.

The thing about writing crime fiction (and the operative word here is fiction) is that I get to make it all up. And importantly, I get to serve up justice where and how I see fit. Murder in the real world isn't that neat and tidy, and most writers, I guess, write because we want to bring order to that chaos...  And I won't write anymore on that line of thought, as I'm sure there are at least 50,000 university papers already collecting dust.

Real murder is complicated. It's ugly and banal. The "wonderful" killers I get to write about don't exist in the real world (inventing "Moriarty" types is a big part of the fun of writing).

Hamilton, New Zealand, June 2010

The dead man in London Street was Donald Alfred Stewart. He was 74. Towards midnight on Sunday 27 June, he stopped his car to use a public restroom in the central city. He was murdered for his car keys. His killer, a boy aged 14, and his accomplices, aged 15 and 17, were caught within days. All three were tried, convicted, and jailed.

Click here for New Zealand Herald report
Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

Be seeing you…


https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

29 October 2011

Truth (?) in Fiction


Mystery author Lawrence Block has written, in addition to many novels and short stories, several extremely useful books on the craft of writing. In one of those he mentioned the fact that "fiction is just a pack of lies." But, as Block of course knows, there's more to it than that. Successful fiction--lies though it may be--must ring true to the reader. We have to believe this is happening.

And Sometimes We Don't

For today's column I've put together a couple dozen things that I've noticed on the page and on the screen that always stretch my believability. Or, I should say, these are things that limit my ability to suspend my disbelief. I don't mind being lied to, you see--it's just that I expect the writer to make me enjoy it, and not make me think more about the lie and the liar than about the story he or she is telling me.

NOTE 1: Both Leigh Lundin and I have written about this kind of thing over the past few years, but I'm going to dive again into that same pool and see if I can come up with something new. (If I do surface with a find I've already shown you before, please forgive me and mark it down to overenthusiasm. Or maybe senility.)

Note 2: Some of these observations were stolen and paraphrased from one of the chapters in Loren Estleman's outstanding book Writing the Popular Novel. It appears that Estleman is irritated by the same kinds of mistakes I am, which makes me like him even more.

Anyhow, here are some things that I believe to be true, as opposed to what I've seen as a reader and viewer.

I'll Take Bloopers for Five Hundred, Alex . . .

1. Cartridges are loaded into a gun; bullets come out the other end. You shouldn't dig a cartridge out of a victim or load a bullet into a clip.

2. People on foot being chased by cars probably don't always run down the exact center of the road.

3. There's no such thing as a town sheriff. Sheriffs are officials of the county.

4. Not all space aliens and ancient civilizations speak perfect English.

5. Witches aren't burned. They're hanged.

6. Cars don't always burst into flame as soon as they hit something or plunge over a cliff.

7. Some hotel rooms in the Old West were not located on the second floor, overlooking the street out front.

8. Most people don't usually say things like "periodically," "frankly," "perhaps," "how dare you," or even "whom" in casual conversation. Unless maybe they're English professors, or mildly constipated.

9. When someone is shot riding a horse, he falls down. The horse shouldn't fall down too.

10. A parking space directly in front of the hero's destination is not always available.

11. Some people actually say "goodbye" when they finish phone conversations.


12. Western streets were probably not spotlessly clean. It's hard to picture Ben Cartwright with a pooperscooper.

13. Gifts aren't usually wrapped such that the tops can easily be lifted off without first unwrapping the whole thing.

14. Your P.I. hero shouldn't get knocked unconscious from a blow to the back of the head in every single chapter or episode, the way Richard Diamond did in the late 50s. That causes a concussion each time, and . . . well, you get the picture.

15. There are very few mafia hit-women. Tony Soprano & Associates held political correctness in low regard.

16. Most drivers watch the road ahead (at least occasionally) while talking with passengers.

17. Not every character in a given town attends the same church.

18. Revolvers don't use silencers, and they don't automatically eject shells. They darn sure don't eject bullets.

19. People do confess to crimes--but it doesn't often happen in the courtroom.

20. It is theoretically possible to climb all the way to the top of a chain-link fence without being shot or dragged back down.

21. Chairs in saloons shouldn't always break apart when used to hit someone over the head.

22. Some travelers actually get on their plane/bus/train before the final boarding call.


23. Starships and space stations, when they're destroyed, don't explode in a thunderous fireball. If you boldly go where no man has gone, there's no oxygen there, so there's also no sound and no fire.

24. Most gunshot wounds don't instantly kill the shootee.

The Audacity of Untruth

To quote Mr. Estleman, "Suspension of disbelief is a high-wire act, requiring plausibility on one end of the balance pole to counter the pull of audacious invention on the other." It ain't as easy as it looks.

This also applies to incorrect locations or dates, in your story or novel or screenplay. Near the end of the film version of Forrest Gump, Forrest states that his wife Jenny died on a Saturday. But I read someplace on the Internet that the date on her tombstone was March 22, 1982, which apparently was a Monday. (The guy who posted that fact mentioned that he probably needs a hobby.) And when I think of funny mistakes, I'm always reminded of a movie I saw in college called Krakatoa: East of Java. Why? Because Krakatoa was west of Java.

A Burr Under My Blazing Saddle

Rob Lopresti is always kidding me about my fondness for making lists, and he probably has a point. (Maybe I'm the one who needs a hobby.) But whether they're in a list or not, these kinds of story misfires and inaccuracies are one of my pet peeves. Be honest: Have you ever seen a movie where a bartender actually made change, or a rope was hard to cut with a knife, or the good guy's dog didn't growl at the bad guy? Surely that should happen, now and then.

Can you think of anything you find particularly annoying, when you encounter it in your reading or movie-watching?

Except lists, I mean.

P.S. Since Rob's column about emailed rejections/acceptances the other day, I've received two: a rejection from Woman's World and an acceptance from AHMM. In terms of the music one hears in one's head, I went from Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again, Naturally" to John Williams's "Olympic Fanfare" in a very short time. Is this a crazy business, or what?