Showing posts with label Robert Lopresti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Lopresti. Show all posts

11 February 2020

Life of Crime Leads to Writing Crime Fiction



Several fellow crime fiction writers, including a handful of SleuthSayers, became crime fiction writers while working in, or after retiring from, law enforcement occupations. I approached my crime fiction writing career from the other direction.

I stole cars.

I don’t remember exactly how many I boosted during my relatively short career, but I would venture to guess at least a dozen, all different models from the same manufacturer.

These weren’t well-planned thefts; they were crimes of opportunity. Though I was too young to legally drive, that didn’t stop me. I saw cars I wanted, waited until the owners were distracted, and took them.

Back at my place, where I had the tools necessary to alter the vehicles’ appearances, I repainted them, and I turned at least two hardtops into convertibles. Then I wheeled them around for a few weeks until another opportunity presented itself.

And another opportunity always presented itself because the boys in my neighborhood were careless, always leaving their Matchbox cars unattended.

FROM CARS TO MOTORCYCLES

I came by my criminality honestly. My stepfather was an “Honorary Hell’s Angel.” At least, that’s what the card in his wallet said.

I don’t know if that’s a real thing or if it was some sort of gag, but my stepfather co-owned a service station, back when service stations did more than sell over-priced snacks and make you pump your own gas, and he actually employed Hell’s Angels as mechanics. Every time I visited the station, usually in the company of my mother, the bikers were there, sometimes working, sometimes not, and their choppers were parked behind the building along with several cars awaiting repair or awaiting pickup after being repaired.

The rest of this story may or may not be true, but this is the way I heard it, and there’s no one left to confirm or deny any part of it.

A group of Hell’s Angels lived in a house across the street from my stepfather’s service station. One night, one of them looked out the window, realized the service station was being robbed, and saw that the guy working that night was in trouble.

So, he shot the robber.

I don’t know if that event was the impetus, but shortly after that, my stepfather sold his part-ownership of the service station and we moved to another state.

FROM MOTORCYCLES TO BICYCLES

My junior high school was probably not as rough as I remember, but I wasn’t the only student who carried a knife for protection, and I once had a revolver shoved in my face while waiting at the bus stop after a school dance by a kid who wanted my bus money.

I was, by that point, building badass bicycles from parts I found in a ravine below a bridge a few miles from my home. I don’t remember what all I discovered during my initial visit, but I returned to the same spot several times and, over the following months, collected frames, handlebars, seats, wheels, and more.

I was much older before I realized I had probably stumbled on the dumping ground of a bicycle thief and that I might have been in possession of stolen goods.

FROM BICYCLES TO STORIES

I was going to wrap this up by suggesting my life of crime led me to write crime fiction, and then I remembered the story of my first professional fiction sale, which I wrote about in my initial post as an official SleuthSayers member. “Smooth Criminal” began “I wrote my first professionally published story when I was 17, sold it when I was 18, and saw it published when I was 19. That’s the story I tell, and the story I’ll continue to tell, but it isn’t the truth. The truth is more complex and involves my committing one of the worst crimes a writer can commit short of plagiarism.”

So maybe my life of crime didn’t actually end when I began writing. Maybe it was just the beginning.

Coming April 14: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street (Mysterious Press), edited by Josh Pachter and featuring “Rollicking new stories written especially for this collection by Michael Bracken and Robert Lopresti.”

18 December 2019

Breaking into Showbiz II


We did this back in 2017.  Here we are, back again, with all new entries.

Below is a list of characters from popular culture.  But how did they become popular? See the box on the right?  All the characters began life in one of those media.  See if you can match 'em up.  Be warned: there isn't a one-to-one match up, meaning exactly one character started in a TV show, etc.

Answers  below.

Bambi

The Lone Ranger
Radar O'Reilly

Jimmy Olsen

Raylan Givens

The Mighty Casey

Stuart (Stu) Bailey

Lamont Cranston

Mack the Knife

Alexander Waverly



Bambi.  Novel. Austrian novelist Felix Salten (an enthusiastic hunter, by the way) wrote Bambi: A Life in the Woods.  It was more or less what we would today call a Young Adult novel.   Published in 1922 and became an immediate success.  British novelist John Galsworthy called it  a "little masterpiece."  The Disney film version came out in 1942.  By the way, Thumper the Rabbit broke into show biz through the movies.  He is part of the Disneyfication  process, not appearing in the book.

The Lone Ranger. Radio. The mysterious masked man started life on the radio in 1933.  I bring him up because of a story that has spread in recent years that the character was inspired by Bass Reeves, a legendary (though very real)  hero, the first African-American U.S. Marshal in the west.  A biography of Reeves suggested that he inspired the Lone Ranger, but there is zero evidence that the creators of the show had ever heard of Reeves.

Radar O'Reilly.  Novel. The very first character to appear in the novel MASH by Richard Hooker (real name Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr.) is Radar O'Reilly of Ottumwa, Iowa.  In the movie he was played by Gary Burghoff, who went on to repeat the role in the TV series.  The only other actor I could think of who brought a character from the flicks to the small screen was Richard Widmark with Madigan, but it turns out there have been others.

Jimmy Olsen.  Radio. The eternal cub reporter, Superman's Pal, first appeared on The Adventures of Superman radio show in 1940.  He was created basically so the hero would have someone to talk to. We all need that from time to time, don't we?  Jimmy made it into the comics a year later.  Since then he has been in TV and movies as well as having his own comic book.

Raylan Givens.  Novel.  The Deputy U.S. Marshal first appeared as a supporting character in Elmore Leonard's Pronto.  He also showed up in Riding the Rap, before getting a starring role in the short story "Fire in the Hole."  This story, in which Givens is punished for an iffy killing by being assigned to his home state of Kentucky, inspired the TV series Justified.  The producers were so dedicated to making a work in the Elmore Leonard mold that they gave out bracelets to the crew that read What Would Elmore Do?  Most critics agreed that they succeeded and Leonard was inspired to write Raylan, supposedly a novel, but essentially designed to be broken up into three episodes of the series. In fact, two parts were used that way.

The Mighty Casey.  Newspaper.  Ernest L. Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat," first appeared in a San Francisco newspaper on June 8, 1888.  It happened to be read by Arch Gunter, a visiting novelist nd playwright.  He was so taken with the work that he clipped it out.  When he arrived in New York he shared it with a theatrical producer who asked his star comedian, DeWolf Hopper, to memorize it and recite it during that evening's performance.  Thus Hopper began a new career as the prime interpreter of the poem for forty years, on stage, radio, records, and movies.  It does make you wonder what minor masterpieces are buried in a century of newspapers....

Stuart (Stu) Bailey.  Novel.  Roy Huggins created private eye Stu Bailey in The Double Take.  He felt the character was so clearly a ripoff of Philip Marlowe that he sent a copy to Raymond Chandler with an apology.  Chandler apparently replied that he'd seen worse.  When Huggins moved to television Bailey became one of the P.I.'s who worked at 77 Sunset Strip.  Of course, Huggins also created Maverick, and The Rockford Files.

Lamont Cranston.  Magazine.  I just know I'm going to get an argument over this one.  Bear with me.  In 1930 the Street and Smith company decided to create a radio show to promote their Detective Story Magazine. The narrator was a mysterious character called The Shadow.

Pretty soon listeners were going to the newsstand and asking for "the Shadow magazine," which didn't exist.  There is a modern MBA rule that says: Let your customer tell you what business you are in.  Street and Smith tookthe hint.  They founded The Shadow Magazine and magician Walter B. Gibson filled it with a new novel twice a month (he had to be a magician, don't you think?), writing under the name Maxwell Grant.  He wrote 282 of the tales over 20 years.

In the pulp magazine the Shadow's real identity was Kent Allard but he sometimes pretended to be other people, including man-about-town Lamont Cranston, who was frequently out of the country.  In the radio version, the Allard name was dropped and the S-man was simply Cranston.  Simple, right?

Mack the Knife.  Opera. Yes, but which opera?  The popular song is a bowdlerized version of the song from Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht's Three Penny Opera.  But the song tells the story of Macheath, who first appeared in John Gay's Beggar's Opera, written two hundred years earlier (and inspired by an idea of Jonathan Swift's!).

Alexander Waverly.  Television. The regional head of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement was created for The Man From UNCLE, although some see a strong resemblance to the Professor, a spymaster who appears in North by Northwest.  Of course, both characters were played by the wonderful Leo G. Carroll.

Waverly and Carroll almost missed their big chance.  In the pilot for the series  the boss was Mr. Allison, played by Will Kuluva.  However, the network executives told the producers to get rid of the guy whose name began with K, so Kuluva was replaced by Carroll.  Turns out the network had really wanted to dump Russian spy Ilya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. Fortunately for the show (and thousands of adoring young women) Ilya dodged death, not for the last time.

Carroll, in his seventies. had health problems  during production.  When you see papers scattered across Waverly's desk, some of them are Carroll's script, available for easy reference.  At one point he told the producers that his grandchildren complained that Mr. Waverly never did anything but talk, so they created a scene in which he karate-chopped a bad guy.  When he nailed it the whole crew cheered.

Oh!  Here's a bonus question for you.  The star of The man From UNCLE was, of course, Robert Vaughn.  But do you know what he did in his spare time during production?  The astonishing answer is here.


06 March 2019

A Textbook Case: Advice For Fiction Writers


Courtesy Western Libraries

You can call this my good deed for the day, or an act of flagrant narcissism.  Possibly it is both.

A while back a friend asked if I had ever written any tips on writing short stories and I had to answer yes and no.  Or rather, no and yes.  I had never written any formal advice on that subject but in ten years of blogging I had covered a lot of related topics.

So here is my informal textbook, selected from several different blogs.  It leans heavily toward mystery fiction, naturally, and some of it is about novels rather than short stories.  But hey, you can't beat the price.  New pieces appear in red.

I hope some of you find it useful.  Enjoy.



CHAPTER 1: THE WRITER'S MIND

How It Works.  Creativity requires two parts of your brain.

How to Make It Work.  Getting the parts of your brain to cooperate.

From The Shiny New Desk.  Applying the thoughts above to some advice from Ken Rand.

The Four Seasons.  An author's mental year.


CHAPTER  2: THE WRITING HABIT

Dominating the Submission.  Five tips for people about to submit stories for the first time.

A Page A Day. Finding time to write.

Working Vacation.  Time off gives you a chance to think about your work habits.

Have Suitcase, Will Plot.  More about writing on the road.


CHAPTER 3: INSPIRATION

Time to Accessorize. Five sources for story ideas.

Missed Connections. Getting (or not) story ideas.

Seventeen Minutes.  Do something with that idea!

Light Bulbs, A Dime A Dozen.  A great idea is not enough.

Gutter Dwellers and Chair Thieves.  When is plagiarism legitimate?


CHAPTER 4: PLOTTING

The Hole Truth. Creating conflict.

Telling Fiction From Fact. Stories based on true events.

Two Plots, No Waiting. A complicated entwined plot.

The Rising Island Method.  Writing a long story out of order.

Unlikely Story.  The power of foreshadowing.



CHAPTER 5: PLOT PROBLEMS

New Choice! Avoiding plot cliches.

Get Off The Premises.  An unbelievable premise can kill your story.

Time Warp.  What year do you think you are writing about?

http://criminalbrief.com/?p=1061Refrigerator Questions.  Which plot problems don't need fixing?

Enter the Villain.  One way to ruin a mystery novel.

It's so Crazy it Might Just... be Crazy.  How to deal with an unlikely plot element.

How to Kill Your Story.  Some easy problems to solve.


CHAPTER 6: STYLE

Suddenly I Got A Buzz.  Words to avoid.

There's Only One Rule. How experimental or mainstream should you be?

See If I Care.  How do you make the reader care what happens?

Good Cop Story, Bad Cop Story.  The old rule: show, don't tell.

Would You Rather Be Framed or Flashed?  Structural devices.

Salute To The Unknown Narrator.  A method of creating suspense.

Filling In The Landscape.  Use a real place, make one up, or compromise?

The Pain of Others.  Great stories tend to have at least one of these three characteristics.  (I have since added a fourth.)


CHAPTER  7: CHARACTERS

The Motive Motif.  About characters and their motivation.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Want Something.  Every character needs a motive.

The First Two Pages: The Chair Thief.  Using dialog to establish personality.

Naming the Detectives.  Selecting names for your characters.

Backtalk.  Taking advice from your characters.

Necessary Evils.  Turn a plot necessity into a great character.

Who Do You Trust?  Unreliable narrators.


CHAPTER 8: TITLES

Insert Clever Title Here.  How to choose one.

Title Fight.  Examples of great titles and what makes them so.

Beat Cop.  A long title should scan.


CHAPTER 9: BEGINNINGS, ENDINGS

Opening Bottles and Books. The purpose of opening lines.

The First Two Pages: Greenfellas.  Introducing many characters early. (PDF)

With A Twist.  The power of twist endings.

Right Way To Do The Wrong Thing.  Good and bad endings.


CHAPTER 10: SERIES

The Story I Said I Would Never Write.  About writing a sequel to a (supposed) standalone.

But I've Told You This Before.  How to deal with backstory in a series.

Meeting Some Old Friends.  Keeping track of series characters.

A Plea For Unity.  In what ways do a series of stories need unity?


CHAPTER 11: EDITING

Get Me Rewrite! The joys and pains of editing.

Flunking the Oral Exam.  Why you should read your work out loud.

Send Me In, Coach!  Working with a first reader.

The Joy of Rewriting.  No, Revision.  No...  How to polish your work without killing it.

Last Rites.  The final edit.



CHAPTER 12: IF YOU CAN MEET WITH TRIUMPH AND DISASTER...

Ten Things I Learned Writing Short Stories:  Nine, actually.  See below.

The Last Lesson: Comparing Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines

 An Hour In Purgatory.  It can't be said too often.  It can't be said too often.

 Lost Weekend. The inevitable.

Beautiful Day.  The preferable.

Smile!  Your Story Has Been Rejected.  Ten doses of lemonade.

11 January 2019

Stick to the Path? Wander A Little? (On short stories, subplots, points of view, and more...)


By Art Taylor

In a little over a week, the new semester begins at George Mason University, and I’ll be leading an Advanced Fiction Workshop for the first time—emphasis on Advanced. I’ve taught Intro to Creative Writing in years past, and more often now I’m teaching the standard Fiction Workshop—each of those courses focused on building the skills and honing the tools for students beginning to write short stories: crafting character, shaping scenes, navigating a plot through conflict, climax, and resolution. Stepping stones, each course. Walk before you run, as a friend of mine recently told me.

So how to put the Advanced into the Advanced Workshop? beyond simply admitting students who are already bringing as much skill as enthusiasm to their work?

Back over the holidays—just before Christmas, then just after the new year—a couple of questions online got me thinking about specific aspects of short story writing, how I teach students to write them, and how I write them myself. First, Amy Denton posted a question on the Sisters in Crime Guppies message board: “Depending on the length, is there enough room in a short story for a subplot?” Responses ranged widely, and the discussion was extensive, but with no clear consensus.

Then, reviewing a couple of short stories from a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Catherine Dilts wrote, “A rule beginning writers encounter is that multiple points of view can't be used effectively in short stories…. How does telling a tale through more than one narrator work?” A story by fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti, “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” offered Dilts one example of how well that approach can succeed.

Another of our SleuthSayers family—Barb Goffman, a master of the short story herself—has a great piece of advice for writers: namely that the short story is about “one thing.” (I’ve heard other writers repeat her words and I've repeated them myself down the line.) And our good friend and former SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens and I were both big fans of Poe’s ideas about the “single effect” in the short story, that everything in a tale should be focused toward one goal, toward having one effect on the reader: "In the whole composition," Poe wrote, "there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

When I’ve taught workshops on short story writing, I often put Poe’s words and Barb’s on back-to-back PowerPoint slides, emphasizing the resonance between the two points. (Both authors are in good company!) And several assignments in my classes are geared toward these ends. I have students write a six-sentence story as a first day exercise, for example. When they turn in their full drafts, class discussion begins with charting out the escalation of rising conflicts (Freytag’s Triangle, not to be too academic!) and ferreting out anything that doesn’t fit. And as we move toward revision, I have them reduce those drafts down to three sentences (three sentences of three words each!) to crystallize their understanding of the story’s purpose and arc.

Focus on the “one thing” is always the goal. Efficiency along the way, that’s key. “A short story is about subtraction,” I tell them. “Cut away anything that doesn’t belong.”

And yet…

Many of the stories that have stuck with me most vividly over the years are those that maintain that focus on “one thing” and yet also stretch further beyond it too: multiple points of view, intricate time shifts, a braiding together of several other elements in addition to whatever the central plotline might be. Here’s a sample of some favorites just off the top of my head:


  • “All Through the House” by Christophe Coake, with multiple points of view and a reverse chronology
  • “Ibrahim’s Eyes” by David Dean (one more SleuthSayer!), balancing two time frames with storylines that each inform the other
  • “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover, a wild story in so many ways, veering off into fantasies, desires, and what-ifs while still circling back to what actually happened (I think)
  • “Billy Goats” by Jill McCorkle, which is more like an essay at times, drifting and contemplative—in fact, I’ve passed it off as nonfiction in another of my classes
  • How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates (full title of that one is “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House Of Correction and Began My Life Over Again—Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; a Revelation of the Meaning of Life; a Happy Ending” so you can see how plot and structure might be going in several directions)

(All of these are about crimes—though some of them would more likely be classified mysteries than others. (Don’t make me bring up that “L” word.)) 


Even looking at my own fiction, I find that I’ve often tried to push some boundaries. My story “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” for example, alternates three different points of view, three characters bringing their own pasts and problems to bear on a single dinner party—with a couple of secrets hidden from the others, of course. Another recent story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop”—one I’ve talked about on SleuthSayers before—layers several kinds of storytelling, centered around a university-level writing workshop, with a variety of voices and tones in the mix. (The full title of the story makes a small nod toward Oates in fact: “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More.”) And a story I just finished revising earlier this week, “Loose Strands,” also has three narrators, an older man and two middle school boys, their stories coming together around a schoolyard fight, colliding, combining, and ultimately (at least I’m aiming for this) inseparable.

As I commented in the discussion forum in response to Amy Denton’s question: “I often try to think about how the characters involved each have their own storyline—the storylines of their lives—and how the interactions between characters are the intersections of those storylines. And I challenge myself to try to navigate a couple of those storylines as their own interweaving narrative arcs, each with its own resolution, where somehow the end of the story ties up each thread.”  
Maybe the idea of multiple points of view and subplots collapse together in several ways, thinking again of Catherine Dilts’ review of Rob’s story and of another, “Manitoba Postmortem” by S. L. Franklin. And in my workshops at Mason, I’ve used Madison Smartt Bell’s terrific book, Narrative Design, to explore modular storytelling, experimenting with shifts in chronology and points of view, layering several strands of story together. Some students catch on quickly, love the opportunities provided by this kind of storytelling. (But as beginning writers, it’s important—as I stressed—for them to build a firm foundation first in storytelling elements, techniques, and more straightforward structures. Walk those stepping stones first.) 

So in thinking about the discussion Amy’s question sparked and the review Catherine wrote and my teaching and my writing, I find myself pulled in a couple of different directions: committed to Barb’s (and Poe’s!) ideas about the short story, always striving to stick as close to the core armature of a story as I can, but also occasionally testing those boundaries, pushing them to see what happens.

So… some questions for readers here and for my SleuthSayer buddies as well: How would you answer the questions above about subplots and multiple points of view? How closely do yourself stick to the idea of the single-effect in the short story—to the story being about one thing? How do you balance those demands of the form with interests or ambitions in other directions?

As for my advanced fiction workshop ahead… I’m still going to keep the students concentrating on the “one thing” that’s the core of their stories—focus and efficiency always, and credit again to Barb. But as much as a workshop should be about learning the rules and following best practices, it should equally be a place to take some risks and have some fun. And so I also want them to play with structure and storytelling, to stretch their talents wherever they want, and to see where it takes them.

Any suggestions for the course—those are welcome too!



14 December 2018

Fleshing Out The Past


Ladies and gents, we are delighted to introduce our newest SleuthSayer. Lawrence Maddox will be appearing every third Friday, and we are delighted.

I met Lawrence at Bouchercon in Long Beach years ago and we hit it off. His gripping and eccentric stories have appeared in 44 Caliber FunkandOrange County Noir. He scripted the Hong Kong kickboxing flick RAW TARGET andthe indie musical OPEN HOUSE (and how often have you read about those two genres in the same sentence?). PUBLISHERS WEEKLY called his FAST BANG BOOZE (published earlier this year by Shotgun Honey),"offbeat noir." I called it "a wild ride."Please give Larry a warm SleuthSayers welcome! - Robert Lopresti

FLESHING OUT THE PAST

by Lawrence Maddox


Ian Fleming once surprised a Polynesian dancer by reaching out and touching her while she was performing. It’s not noted where, exactly, he touched her. As for why: he was doing research. Through travel, research, and first-hand knowledge, Fleming loaded his Bond novels with sumptuous detail. He was one of the first authors to use actual product names in his fiction. Fleming was a master at describing the world he lived in, but what are the tools an author uses to flesh out the past when, unlike Fleming’s dancer, it’s no longer there for one to touch? I asked crime fiction authors Christa Faust, Robert Lopresti and Paul D. Marks how they brought the once-was into the right-now.

Before New York’s Times Square was cleaned up in the 1990s, it was a sleazy and dangerous place. Travis Bickle’s “All the animals come out at night” monologue from Taxi Driver sums it up. Christa Faust, Gary Phillips (and artist Andrea Camerini) faithfully recreate Times Square, circa 1986, in their thrilling graphic crime comic Peepland (Titan Comics, collected as a paperback, 2017). Roxy Bell is a Times Square peepshow worker, performing one-woman sex shows behind a glass window. Powerful forces will stop at nothing to retrieve a criminally incriminating VHS tape that has fallen into her hands.


“Peepland is based on my own lived experience as a kid growing up in Hell's Kitchen and as a young woman working in the Times Square peep booths,” Christa says. I consider the rich and authentic rendering of Times Square, and ask Christa if she needed to do any research for Peepland. “No research was necessary, just memories.” In an interview with Crime Fiction Lover, Christa explained that “all of the characters are based on real people I met while working in the peep booths. The central main character Roxy Bell is definitely semi-autobiographical.” In the same interview, Christa succinctly said why memories of Times Square were all she needed to create Peepland: “It’s in my blood.”

Roughly two miles away and two decades earlier, Greenwich Village was the epicenter of American folk music, a movement in sound that put political dissent on the airwaves. In Robert Lopresti’s evocative murder mystery Such a Killing Crime (Kearney Street Books, 2005), coffeehouse manager and war vet Joe Talley sifts through the many characters circling the folk revival scene in search of the murderer of his friend, an up-and-coming folk singer. Robert gives a sightseeing tour down MacDougal Street, detailing the people and points of interest along the way. Folksinger Tom Paxton, who makes a cameo, said of Robert’s writing, “If I'd known he was watching us all so carefully, I'd have behaved much better.”


I ask Robert how he brought 1963 Greenwich Village back to life. “Since I’m a librarian the obvious answer was research. That was more challenging than I expected because all the New York City newspapers were on strike that spring. The Village Voice was the main source of information.” Robert says he also spent hours at the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library scouring the main folk rags of ‘63, Sing Out! and Broadside. Robert was after more than just facts in his research. “I got to interview several people I knew who lived in that time and place. That was partly to get facts but mostly to get feelings. What was it like? What did they remember the most vividly about that time? Then there was the matter of trying to think like an early sixties person. Women were ‘girls,’ whatever their age. Smoking in a hospital was perfectly normal.” I ask Robert if his research forced him to rethink past assumptions. “I was well into editing before an article in a recent newspaper pointed out that back in 1963 women were not allowed to drink in most bars in the city! After confirming that with a woman I know who went to school there I had to rewrite a whole lot of scenes. But part of the fun of the book is showing you this strange and distant culture.”


Paul D. Marks explores early 1990s Los Angeles in his two Duke Rogers private eye novels White Heat (Down & Out Books, re-issued 2018) and Broken Windows (Down & Out Books, 2018). In White Heat, Duke finds himself in the heart of the 1992 LA riots while investigating the death of an actress. Broken Windows, occurring two years later, has the Prop 187 battle over illegal immigration as the backdrop. Marks grew up in Los Angeles, and his Duke Rogers books explore how myth and memory are at odds with the often violent, seedy and corrupt LA that Duke encounters while plying his trade.

“The Internet, as well as memory, comes into play to try to get the reality of that time, but even with a good memory it’s wise to verify with multiple sources.” I ask him if there were any challenges recreating the not-so distant past. "In some ways it’s
almost harder to write that than something set in the more distant past.” Earlier in the 20th century “there were no cell phones, personal computers, answering machines or televisions at home. But all of that stuff existed in the ’90s, but in very different form than we have today. So, while someone might have had a cell phone it looked different and worked differently – some of the early ones were as big as walkie-talkies. Same with computers. So you have to be careful if you lived through that era not to transpose modern versions of the technology onto the tech of that day.”

I had similar issues with my novel Fast Bang Booze (Shotgun Honey, 2018), which takes place in the early 1990s as well. I had to rethink a lot of what I thought I remembered about cell phones from that period. A fun cell phone fact: the first commercially available handheld cell phone (made by Motorola) was nicknamed “The Brick,” and cell phones pretty much kept that design until smaller flip phones came along in the mid-nineties.


Paul D. Marks and I are both native multigenerational Angelenos, and we’ve had that “Do you remember” conversation a few times. LA, as well as being a sprawl, is also the kind of city that lets a legendary place like Schwab’s get torn down and be replaced by a Crunch Gym, so sometimes the landscape of our memories doesn’t overlap. When I’ve met fellow Angelenos and we realize that we’ve both been to the same forgotten dive bar or long-gone taco truck, there’s a bond. We belong to a dwindling club, and when the last of us shuffles off, it will be like a point in time and place has been wiped off the map.

When I wrote Fast Bang Booze, I wanted to impart what it felt like to be young, barhopping, and maybe a little out of control in the early ‘90s in LA. I just couldn’t do it all from memory, because my protagonist (a grungy twenty-something with a fantastically souped-up nervous system) is a fictional construct, and my tale is pure pulp. I had to do my research, which included buying old issues of LA Weekly and re-reading old diaries. Like Robert Lopresti, I even interviewed people. I wanted the facts and the feel.

I drove to Salt Lake City some years ago for a job. When I unlocked the door to my hotel room and stepped in, I was hit with the odor of cigarettes and Glade air freshener. It struck me in a way I still marvel at today. I would walk to my Grandmother’s house everyday from elementary school, and that was exactly how her place smelled. I swear for a moment I could picture all the objects in her living room, down to the glass fish statuette with the green tint. However briefly, I could feel the past. A piece of writing that can accomplish what Glade and cigarettes did for me, bringing the past alive, is powerful indeed.

16 October 2018

The Obstacle Ahead is a Mirror


Michael Bracken and Josh Pachter
celebrate September birthdays
while at Bouchercon.
I’ve been writing long enough to recognize many of the obstacles that interfere with productivity. I’ve experienced the death of a parent, the death of a spouse, two divorces, four marriages, multiple job changes and relocations, heart surgery, and any number of other consequential life events. Yet, I can’t recall ever facing the obstacle that blocked my writing path throughout the middle half of this year.

During 2016 and 2017 my writing took a great leap forward, and my work was recognized in unexpected ways—leading to a lifetime achievement award in 2016; having a story included in The Best American Mystery Stories in 2018; placing stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and several new publications; and having other mystery writing opportunities fall into my lap. Unfortunately, sometime this spring all that good news overwhelmed me.

For many years, my schtick was to tout my productivity. I was the back-of-the-magazine, middle-of-the-anthology guy, the writer editors relied on to fill pages because they knew I was likely to turn in something on time and on theme that required little or no editorial sweat to make publishable.

For years I pounded out stories because writing was fun, and my head was (and is) filled with more stories than I will ever put on paper.

And then I stopped being that guy.

PLAY BECOMES WORK

I don’t know exactly when things changed, but I began to view my writing through a different lens. Instead of asking myself, “Is this fun?” I began asking myself, “Is this important? Is this significant? Is this noteworthy?”

And the answer, too often, was “no.”

I didn’t stop writing, but I set stories aside because they weren’t important, significant, or noteworthy. Then stories I did think were important, significant, and noteworthy—stories I felt confident would sell the first time out because I knew my markets—bounced back from editors with form rejections.

My mojo was no mo’.

WORK BECOMES PLAY

I did not have writer’s block. I didn’t stop writing but writing became a job I didn’t want to go to and didn’t want to do when I got there because it had stopped being fun.

This is how I felt in early September when Temple and I left home for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida. Unlike New Orleans, where Temple and I spent almost as much time wandering around the French Quarter as we spent at the convention, and Toronto, where I participated in numerous events, St. Petersburg was more about hanging out.

Like many attendees, too many interactions with fellow writers were little more than “how ya doin’?” as we crossed paths on our way from one place to another. I did manage some interesting conversations about writing with Barb Goffman and Art Taylor, had some long conversations with Josh Pachter about all manner of things, and spent time with Trey R. Barker, both alone and in the company of our wives.

Michael Bracken, Frank Zafiro, and
Trey R. Barker bond over a mutual love
of taco truck cuisine.
I also spent a great deal of time hanging out on the veranda with a revolving group of editors and writers affiliated with Down & Out Books. Over the course of the convention, a joke Trey and I shared expanded into a project that we pitched to D&O Publisher Eric Campbell on that veranda. As we did, Frank Zafiro and other writers made suggestions that expanded the scope of our idea into something Eric liked so much he asked for a formal proposal.

By the time Temple and I reached the airport to leave St. Petersburg on the last day of Bouchercon, Frank Zafiro had already written several thousand words for the project, and within a week of returning home Trey and I put the formal proposal in Eric’s hands and began work on our own contributions.

As I write this, we have not yet received the go-ahead from Eric, but it doesn’t matter. I’m about 9,000 words into a 15,000+ word novella that isn’t important, significant, or noteworthy.

And writing it is damned fun.

“Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile” appears in Shhhh…Murder! (Darkhouse Books, edited by Andrew MacRae), and it’s the fifth story of mine to be included in Robert Lopresti’s list of best stories he’s “read this week” at Little Big Crimes.

25 September 2018

Not a Dry Eye in the House


by Michael Bracken

I cried.

I screamed loud enough to be heard on the far side of the house. Then I cried.

My reaction to the email from Otto Penzler notifying me that my story “Smoked” had been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018 was not the reaction I would have anticipated had I ever thought inclusion was a real possibility. I screamed across the house for my wife, and, by the time she arrived in my office, I was crying. All I could do was point at the computer screen and let Temple read the email herself.

I’ve had many reactions to acceptances and publications, but crying has never been one of them.

DREAM

Having a story selected for The Best American Mystery Stories is a dream that began when I read The Best American Mystery Stories 1998, the second edition of the now long-running series, and I own and have read every edition since.

As an editor, two stories I first published made the 2002 “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” list (“The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women” by Michael Collins and “Teed Off” by Mark Troy, Fedora), and one of my stories made the 2005 list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” (“Dreams Unborn,” Small Crimes).

But actual publication in the anthology? I never thought it was a possibility.

DREAM COME TRUE

Each time my wife and I visit her family, we spend much of the three-hour drive brainstorming story ideas while Temple notes them on a legal pad. Shortly before one such trip, I read the submission call for Level Best Books’ Noir at the Salad Bar, which sought stories that featured “food or drink, restaurants, bars or the culinary arts,” and during that trip my wife filled two handwritten pages with every food-related story idea we could imagine.

Then she suggested barbecue.

By the time we arrived at her family’s home, I knew the story’s setting and primary characters. While Temple visited with family, I filled several more pages of the legal pad with notes, and I created a rough outline. But after inspiration comes perspiration, and the story required several drafts before becoming “Smoked,” the story of an ex-biker in the Witness Security Program after turning state’s evidence against his former gang members. Relocated to a small Texas town, Beau James has opened Quarryville Smokehouse. Then his cover is blown when a magazine food critic names his smokehouse the “best-kept secret in West Texas” and his photo accompanies the review.

Shortly after publication, Robert Lopresti reviewed “Smoked” at Little Big Crimes, and he described the story better than I ever have: “The story takes place in modern Texas, but it has the feeling of an old-fashioned Western, with the bad guys getting closer and the townsfolk having to decide where they stand.”

LIVING THE DREAM

My wife insists “Smoked” is one of my best stories (and believes it would make an excellent movie for Amazon or Netflix!), but she’s obviously biased, and I learned long ago never to trust my own judgment.

So, I had no reason to think “Smoked” had any more of a chance to be selected than any of the many other stories I’ve sent Penzler over the years.

That I was emotionally overwhelmed when Penzler’s email popped up in my inbox is an understatement. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I’m not: I cried with joy.

In addition to “Smoked” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2018, my story “Texas Hot Flash” appears in the first print edition of Tough and my story “Mr. Sugarman Visits the Bookmobile appears in Shhh...Murder!

01 August 2018

When 18,000 Librarians Attack


by Robert Lopresti

Two weeks ago I wrote about visiting New Orleans.  This time I am going to explain why I was there.  The American Library Association holds its annual conference in late June and this year it was in the Big Easy.

Truth to tell, the main reason I went was that the Government Documents Round Table of ALA was giving me the Lane/Saunders Memorial Research Award for When Women Didn't Count.  But I went to a bunch of professional meetings too.

I am not going to tell you what I learned about the current research on reference work and the shocking changes in Canadian government information trends (email me if you are dying to know), but will stick to things more relevant to SleuthSayers.

Believe it or not, there was a panel of mystery writers, and none of them were librarians.  Here's what I remember about them:

Robert Olen Butler is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and a collector of old postcards.  The latter is relevant because he wrote a book called Had A Good Time, in which each story was inspired by a postcard, and told in the voice of the person who wrote the message.


The great editor Otto Penzler read the book and promptly offered him a contract for two mysteries about one of those characters, an early twentieth century reporter named Christopher Marlowe Cobb.    

"Being of a literary turn of mind, I believe my exact words were 'Oh boy, you betcha!'"  There are four books in the series so far.

Ellen Byron writes "Cajun country mysteries," complete with recipes.  She
says she is so afraid of writing sex scenes that she won't even read the book on how to write sex scenes.

"I have a scar on my forehead where I walked into a tree because I was reading.  I was 25 at the time."

 
Jude Deveraux  has written dozens of popular romances but her new agent wanted her to try something different.  He proposed vampires or zombies; she countered with mysteries. He asked for outlines for three books; she replied with nine outlines, one of them 20,000 words long.  (That's not an outline; that's a novella.)

"I'm always writing about 23-year-old semi-virgins."

Debra LeBlanc writes horror - see her many books with Witch in the title -  but her Nonie Broussard novels are about an amateur sleuth who gets (annoying) help from the occasional ghost.

"I am to literature what Walmart is to department stores."

Amy Stewart has written several quirky nonfiction books.  While researching The Drunken Botanist, about the blessed plants that give us booze, she stumbled on the true story of the Kopp sisters who, in 1915, got into a feud with a drunken mill owner in Paterson, New Jersey.  The eldest, Constance Kopp, became the first female deputy in the state.  All four novels are based on her actual adventures.  The title of the first, Girl Waits With Gun, was an actual newspaper headline.  I can testify the book is a lot of fun.

"My characters are all six feet underground.  I'm like, 'Could y'all wake up for five minutes?  I've got some questions.'"


But there are more reasons to attend ALA than the panels, wonderful as they are.  Above you see a picture of the exhibitor's room.  There is no way I could capture more than a sliver of this joint, which had roughly 700 vendors in it.  That included everything from an author with a card table hawking a single title, to most of the major American publishers with displays the size of a grocery store aisle, to companies trying to sell computer systems, furniture, etc.

It is stunning and bewildering.

One company brought in an espresso cart and had a professional barista mixing up free lattes for the crowd.  "I like Baker and Taylor a lot more than I did an hour ago," said one happy imbiber.

Oh, one big exhibitor was the Library of Congress.  Besides giving away coffee cups they had had an hour when you could have your picture taken with Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.  Dr. Hayden is triply unique being 1) the first female, 2) the first African-American, and 3) the first librarian to hold the office.  There was a very long line so I passed up the opportunity for the pic.

Now, I have a crazy suggestion.  If the ALA conference is ever held near you, you might want to attend.  (Midwinter will be held in Seattle this January.  The bigger summer conference will be in Washington, D.C. in June.)


No, I'm not suggesting you shell out hundreds of bucks to attend panels on cataloging and the learning commons.  But for a lot less ($75 in New Orleans) you can get access to the exhibitor's hall.  And the seven book covers you see here?  They are advance reader copies I picked up for free.  They are just the mysteries; we took home at least as many other titles of different types.  The only limits were our interests and what we wanted to ship them home.

Speaking of which, the photo below shows the post office branch in the exhibitor's hall where librarians were packing up swag to mail home.  We shipped home two boxes.  How many  advance copies would you consider worth the entrance fee?

Enough talk.  I have books to read.


10 April 2018

Epiphany of a Blue-Collar Writer


Art Taylor and me trying to out-charm one another.
At the 2017 Bouchercon in Toronto, Art Taylor and I were paired for Speed Dating, an event in which pairs of authors move from table to table around a room and spend a shared two minutes at each table introducing ourselves and our work to mystery fans. The instructions were to speak for one minute each, the beginning, mid-point, and end time of our two minutes announced by the ringing of a bell. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, authors were expected to respond to the neutral stimulus of the bell by launching immediately into a conditioned response: blatant self-promotion. The premise seemed a bit automatonic to me.

I “knew” Art prior to this pairing because we occasionally crossed paths on the Internet and spoke for a few minutes at the Short Mystery Fiction Society lunch at the New Orleans Bouchercon in 2016. So, I asked, via email, if he might be interested in spicing things up. Art may look like a mild-mannered English professor, but deep down he’s quite the radical, and we kicked around several ideas.

We didn’t have an opportunity to test drive our ideas before Speed Dating began Thursday morning, so Robert and Terri Lopresti had the misfortune of being first to witness our unrehearsed song-and-dance. Art and I soon fell into a groove, though, and by the time we presented at our last table we had perfected a Broadway-worthy performance.

Rather than each of us filling a minute talking about our work and ourselves, I introduced Art and he talked about “Parallel Play” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning), a 2017 Anthony Award nominee. Then he introduced me and I discussed “Dixie Quickies” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine #1). We wrapped things up by suggesting that readers interested in learning more about our work purchase Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books) because they could easily compare and contrast how we took the same assignment and created radically different stories. (Art’s “A Necessary Ingredient” is nominated for an Agatha; my “Mr. Private Eye Behind the Motel with a .38” may only be eligible for an honorary Harlan Ellison longest title award.)

And here’s where this incredibly long anecdote is leading: While preparing our introductions, we needed, given the time constraints, to focus on one key aspect of the other’s writing career that would be memorable and easy to relate to listeners who might know nothing about us. In my introduction of Art, I focused on the number of awards and award nominations he’s received. In his introduction of me, Art focused on the number of short stories I’ve written.

In our emails leading up to this decision, I compared us to Walmart and Tiffany. (To stretch this analogy to the absurd: I have a store on every corner, filled with mass-produced goods suitable for every consumer; Art has only a few locations, each offering polished jewels to those with refined taste.) Art was polite enough not to agree with my self-assessment.

I long ago accepted my place in the writing hierarchy: I am a blue-collar writer, the type of grunt who gets up each morning, puts on his writer pants, and produces words.

Day in. Day out.

I do my best, my work gets published, and I’ve established myself as a solid middle-of-the-anthology, back-of-the-magazine writer who rarely misses deadlines. When I was younger, I bemoaned my place in the literary universe. I was dismayed by the world’s failure to recognize my genius (a common ailment among the young who feel the world owes them something just for participating) and was frustrated when I attended conventions and sat on panels with writers who had produced a mere handful of stories yet had somehow captured the zeitgeist of the moment.

That changed about ten years ago.

There’s nothing like heart surgery to refocus your attention on what’s important, but my epiphany, such as it was, didn’t arrive in a flash; it developed slowly. After quadruple heart bypass surgery in September 2008, three days after turning 51, I realized I was a grouchy old writer, complaining about the new-fangled publishing world and the writers who inhabit it. I also realized I had accomplished what many writers of my generation had not: I had survived—not just literally, thanks to surgery, but literarily as well. Many of the writers who captured the zeitgeist of their time were of their time and have since burned out, stopped writing, and turned to other things. By plodding along as a blue-collar writer, producing words day in and day out, I created, and continue to create, a substantial body of work.

On a personal level, I learned be happy, to enjoy what I have rather than stress about what I haven’t. On a professional level, that meant a return to writing for the joy of writing, a refocus on the creative act rather than on the end goal of publication, fame, and fortune. Surprisingly, or perhaps not to those who’ve experienced something similar, I not only enjoy the act of writing more than ever before, but I am reaping unexpected benefits.

Because I now realize the publishing world owes me nothing—that there are no prizes just for participating—I enjoy seeing my name on the cover of a magazine, I appreciate the kind words of a reader, and I share the joy of other writers’ achievements.

And if we’re ever paired up for Speed Dating, let’s try to make it fun!

Interested in playing compare and contrast? Art Taylor and I have stories in the current issue of Down & Out: The Magazine. Later this month, I will read my D&O story, “Texas Sundown,” at Noir at the Bar Dallas. Join us, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 18, at The Wild Detectives, 314 W. 8th St., Dallas, Texas. In other news: “My Stripper Past” appears in Pulp Adventures #28 and “One Last Job,” wherein I discuss the genesis of my recent Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine story “The Mourning Man,” is a guest post at Trace Evidence.

20 March 2018

Dubious Writing Advice


by Michael Bracken

My story “Montezuma’s Revenge” appears in Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), the Bouchercon 2017 anthology edited by John McFetridge, and I participated in the convention’s group signing. As author of the second story in the anthology, I sat at a long table sandwiched between Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings (author of the first story) and Hilary Davidson (author of the third). Hilary was quite the draw, and adoring fans wanting to spend extra time with her caused the line to back up in front of Janet and me. At some point one of the autograph seekers, whether truly interested or just trying to kill time before talking to Hilary, asked about writing short stories. I said I always start with apostrophes.

Knowing whether you want to use many apostrophes or only a few has a significant impact on your writing. If you choose to use many apostrophes, your work will be filled with contractions, an informal style best suited to first-person narration. If you desire few apostrophes, you will write in a formal style best suited to third person.

That’s one of the many tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve stumbled across during my long literary adventure. Much of my formal education came erratically—a class here, a semester there—and I did not graduate college until I was 48. Though my B.A. is in professional writing, I was writing professionally long before graduation, and most of what I know are things I taught myself along the way.

GOT IT?

I agreed to join SleuthSayers shortly before the Toronto Bouchercon, and during the convention, Robert Lopresti suggested I use this forum to discuss my loathing for a particular overused word, a tirade he’s witnessed and written about in Criminal Brief (January 9, 2008):
“Michael hates got with a passion and while I don’t feel that strongly about it, I agree it needs to be considered carefully.”
Got is a lazy word used by lazy writers, and it can almost always be replaced by a better, more descriptive word or phrase. Without context, it has so many possible meanings that it has no meaning at all.

For example: “Bob got to his feet” could mean “Bob stood” or it could mean “Bob rolled out of bed and dragged himself across the floor to where he’d left his prosthetic limbs the night before.”

How about “Bob got his new T-shirt dirty,” which could mean “Bob received his new T-shirt dirty” or “he dirtied his new T-shirt while dragging himself across the floor.”

Or, “Bob got his revolver,” which could mean “Bob comprehended the philosophical and moral implications of his reliance on weaponry to mask his underlying fear of diminished masculinity following prostate surgery” or “Bob retrieved his revolver from the nightstand.”

IT WAS, WAS IT?

It was may be the worst two words with which to begin a sentence, and is an even less desirable way to begin a story. Sure, Charles Dickens did it, but few of us are Charles Dickens. It was adds nothing to a sentence, delays getting to the meat of the matter, and is the literary equivalent of a math problem, where “It was a dark and stormy night” translated into a simple math problem becomes:

It = a dark and stormy night.
Solve for It.

Almost every sentence that begins with It was can be revised into a more active, more powerful sentence. Thus, “It was a dark and stormy night when Bob shot the neighbor” could easily become “On a dark and stormy night, Bob shot the neighbor” or “Bob shot the neighbor on a dark and stormy night.”

“It was blood” could become “Blood oozed from the gunshot wound” or “Blood stained his neighbor’s shirt.”

THAT THEN?

Two t words continue to vex me: that and then.

That is sentence filler, often unnecessary for comprehension.

Remove that and “Bob knew that his neighbor was dead” becomes “Bob knew his neighbor was dead,” an ever-so-slightly better sentence.

Then is more a personal bugaboo than something I see other writers use and abuse. My characters tend to do something and then do something else. Thus: “Bob dropped the gun and then hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet,” which is better written as “Bob dropped the gun and hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet.”

HAD ENOUGH?

I picked up my newest trick from Marvin Kaye, fiction editor of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, who writes about had in the magazine’s submission guidelines:
“I have a special problem with the word ‘had,’” he writes. “Boiled down, here is what’s wrong with some (not all) compound past tenses—except for fiction written in present tense, our convention is to put things in the simple past. The reader, of course, translates the action into it ‘just happening.’ But as soon as a compound verb is introduced, such as ‘she had already bought the book,’ the action is shoved a little into the past [...]. Thus, in this magazine, unnecessary ‘hads’ are deleted, so that the above would be rendered as ‘she already bought the book,’ which now seems to be ‘just happening.’”
Remove had and “Bob had shot his neighbor and had fled the scene” becomes “Bob shot his neighbor and fled the scene.”

THEN IT WAS THAT WHAT HE HAD GOT

Don’t be Bob. Don’t shoot the neighbor on a dark and storm night, especially if your prosthetics will slow your escape.

Eliminate six simple words from your literary vocabulary (or significantly reduce their use)—got, it was, had, that, and then—and you’ll see a significant improvement in your writing. Your stories will be cleaner and your pacing faster.

Oh, and count your apostrophes to determine if your writing is formal or informal.

For more dubious writing advice, join me and several hundred other writers and fans at Malice Domestic, April 27-29. I’ll be moderating “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” where I’ll be trying to ferret out how and why Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor wrote their Agatha-nominated short stories. I will also be a panelist for “Precise Prose: Short Crime Fiction” and will be signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Geographical, which contains my story “Arroyo.”