Showing posts with label Ross Macdonald. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ross Macdonald. Show all posts

24 February 2015

Adventures in La La Land

Introducing Paul D. Marks:

Today I have the honor of introducing our newest SleuthSayer.  Usually when there is an opening Leigh and I join forces to come up with suitable candidates.  This time it so happened we each came up with the same name: Paul D. Marks.  And to our delight, he said yes.

I had met him in November when we served on a panel on Bouchercon.  He was funny, thoughtful, generous, and he cleans up nice.

So, who is this dude?  Only a Shamus-Award winner for the novel White Heat, which received praise from Publisher's Weekly and made some best of the year lists.  It was set in southern California, as is, not surprisingly, Paul D. Marks.

Paul has had more than thirty stories published, including "Howling at the Moon," in EQMM last year.  He has been published and praised in literary journals as well.  You can find several of his stories in his collection  L.A. Late @ Night.

According to Steven Bingen, author of MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, Paul also has the distinction, dubious though it might be, of having been the last person to shoot on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for housing.

You can read more about him at PaulDMarks.com  Or right here every other Tuesday.  Over to you, Paul!

Rob
***
Adventures in La La Land

by Paul D. Marks

Thank you, Rob, for the great intro. And thanks for saying I “clean up nice.” My mom would be glad to hear that.

Before I get into my first post for Sleuth Sayers, I’d like to thank Velma Negotiable , oh, and Rob Lopresti and Leigh Lundin and the other Sleuth Sayers, for asking me to come aboard.

Since this is my first post, I thought I’d write about two things I know pretty well, Los Angeles and me. Sort of an introduction to my writing and me, my influences, especially my inspiration for setting. And since it is an intro it might be a little longer than a normal post...

I’m old enough to have grown up in Los Angeles when both Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and Chandler himself were still around. When I was a kid L.A. still resembled the city of Chandler's "mean streets," Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer and Cain's Double Indemnity. In fact, I grew up in a Spanish-style house very much like the one that Barbara Stanwyck lives in in the movie version of Double Indemnity.

L.A. was a film noir town for a film noir kid. And that certainly had an influence on me and my writing. And a lot of my writing involves L.A., not just as a location but almost as a character in its own right. Of course, we’re all influenced by our childhoods, where we grew up and the people we knew. And those things, whether conscious or unconscious, tend to bubble to the surface in our writing like the black pitch bubbling up from the La Brea tar pits.

* * *

Two things that Los Angeles means to me are movies and noir, oh, and palm trees, of course. Movie studios and backlots were everywhere in this city. You couldn’t help but see the studios, feel their presence and be influenced by “the movies” one way or another. Many of the studios and backlots are gone now, but almost everywhere you go in this city is a movie memory and often a noir memory. L.A. is Hollywood’s backlot and many films, including many noirs, were filmed throughout the city.

As a kid, a teenager and even a young adult, I experienced many of the places I read about in books and saw in the movies, once the movies got out of the backlot and onto those mean L.A. streets. Not as a tourist, but as part of my “backyard.”

So Los Angeles has insinuated itself into my writing. Here’s some examples of how it might have gotten there and how it reflects my view of the ironically named City of Angels.

Angels Flight
photo credit: Angels Flight via photopin (license)
Angels Flight is a funicular railway in downtown Los Angeles. Star of many films and many noirs, including Kiss Me, Deadly, Criss Cross and others. Chandler visits it in The High Window and The King in Yellow. As a young boy, my dad took me to the original Angels Flight (now moved down the road and since closed). And though I may not have known about noir films and hardboiled novels then, it was an experience I’ve always remembered. Such a cool little pair of trains going up and down that hill, the tracks splitting in the middle just as each car approaches the other and you think they’re going to smash into each other head on. Angels Flight slams back to me in memory every now and then and makes its way into my writing, most notably in the eponymous story Angels Flight, which I must say came out before Michael Connelly’s novel of the same name.

That story, about a cop whose time has come and gone, is still pretty relevant today. The world is changing and he’s having one hell of a time catching up, if he even wants to. He’s a dinosaur. And he knows that Angels Flight is an anachronism, just like he is. He says to the other main character:
  October_2,_1960_LOWER_STATION_-_NORTHEAST_ELEVATION_-_-Angels_Flight-,_Third_and_Hill_Streets,_Los_Angeles,_Los_Angeles_County,_CA_HABS_CAL,19-LOSAN,13-1
“Will Angels Flight bring back the glamour of the old days? Hollywood’s lost its tinsel. Venice’s lost its pier. And there are no angels in the City of Angels. What can Angels Flight do to bring that back?”

“Sometimes you need something for the soul,” the other person says.

I think that sums up a lot of my attitude not only toward Angels Flight but to the City of Angels as well. 

In Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, Tod Hackett comes to L.A. thinking he’s an artist. And like so many others he gets trampled by that dream. Not much has changed all these decades later in my story Endless Vacation, when a young woman comes to Hollywood with big dreams and a bigger heroin habit. The narrator tries to help but he also knows:

Who the hell am I to talk? I came to L.A. looking for a Hollywood that died before I was born. A glamorous town of movie stars and studios and backlots. A studio system that nurtured talent, whatever you say about how it also might have stifled it with the other hand. A town that made movies in black and white but whose streets were, indeed, paved with gold. Yeah, I bought it – hook, line and clapboard.

Luis Valdez examines the Zoot Suit Riots that took place in L.A. during World War II in his play Zoot Suit. I remember my grandfather, who lived through that time, talking about “pachucos” when I was a kid. In my story Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, set during the war, I take a stab at dealing with the racial tension of that era.

Hot jazz—swing music—boogied, bopped and jived. And Bobby Saxon was one of those who made it happen. Bobby banged the eighty-eights with the Booker “Boom-Boom” Taylor Orchestra in the Club Alabam down on Central Avenue. It was the heppest place for whites to come slumming and mix with the coloreds. That’s just the way it was in those days, Los Angeles in the 1940s during the war.

Venice Beach and boardwalk is the number one tourist destination in Los Angeles.Venice-CA-Canal-1921 People think it’s cool and flock to see the “freaks,” and maybe the nearby Venice Canals. Developer Abbott Kinney wanted to recreate Italy’s Venice in L.A., and he did, to some extent. But it didn’t quite work out. Many of the canals were drained and filled in, though some remain. They can be seen in several movies, too numerous to name. And, because they were another place I’d done time at, they pop up in my short story Santa Claus Blues, which opens with a bunch of kids playing along the canals and coming across a dead Santa floating in one of them.

Staring at the canal, Bobby thought about Abbott Kinney's dream for a high culture theme park, with concerts, theatre and lectures on various subjects. Kinney even imported Italian gondoliers to sing to visitors as they were propelled along the canals. When no one seemed to care about the highbrow culture he offered he switched gears and turned Venice into a popular amusement area. And finally the people came.

My grandparents always referred to MacArthur Park, on Wilshire Boulevard on the way to downtown, as Westlake Park, its original name. It was renamed for General Douglas MacArthur after World War II. But for my grandparents it was always Westlake. When I was a kid it was the place they took me to have a picnic and rent a boat and paddle around the lake. A nice outing. In the movies it’s the scene of a murder in one of my favorite obscure noirs, Too Late for Tears. By the time of my novel White Heat, set during the 1992 “Rodney King” riots, the nature of the park had changed from when I was a kid:

MacArthur Park is midway between Hancock Park, not a park, but an upper class neighborhood, and downtown L.A., a neighborhood in search of an identity. When I was a boy, my grandparents used to take me to the park. We’d rent rowboats and paddle through the lake, tossing bread crumbs to the birds. The park is a different place today. You can still rent paddle boats – if you want to paddle across the lake while talking to your dealer. Sometimes on Saturdays or Sundays immigrant families still try to use it as a park. Most of the time, it’s a haven for pushers, crack addicts, hookers and worse. Even the police don’t like treading there. If they were scared, who was I to play Rambo?

Even if someone’s never been to Los Angeles, most people know Sunset Boulevard and the Sunset Strip. Sunset begins or ends, depending on how you look at it, at Pacific Coast Highway on the west and continues to Union Station in downtown L.A., though recently the last part of the jog has been renamed. It goes from wealthy homes in Santa Monica and the West Side, into Beverly Hills, through the Strip in West Hollywood, where hippies back in the day and hipsters today hang out. Into Hollywood and on to downtown. It’s a microcosm of Los Angeles. Of course, both Union Station and Sunset have made multiple appearances in movies and novels and have made several appearances in my writing. Sunset was a major artery in my life as well as in the city. One time I walked almost the entire length of Sunset on a weekend day with my dad, ending up at Union Station. Later, I hung on the Strip. I drove it to the beach. I slammed through the road’s Dead Man’s Curve, made famous in the Jan and Dean song. Sunset appears in my stories Born Under a Bad Sign, Dead Man’s Curve, L.A. Late @ Night and more. In the latter, Sunset is as much of a character in the story as any of the human characters.

She'd only noticed the mansion. Not long after that, her parents had taken her to the beach. They had driven Sunset all the way from Chavez Ravine to the ocean. She had seen houses like the one in the movie. Houses she vowed she'd live in some day.

What she hadn't realized at the time was that there was a price to pay to be able to live in such a house. Sometimes that price was hanging from a tag that everyone can see. Sometimes it was hidden inside.

And who doesn’t know the famous—or infamous—Hollywood Sign? Something I sawHollywood_Sign almost every day as a kid, and which a friend of mine and I hiked up to many, many years ago, before it was all fenced in and touristy. In Free Fall, originally published in Gary Lovisi’s Hardboiled magazine, a man recently separated from the service, heads west, as far west as he can go until he comes to the terminus of Route 66 in Santa Monica, near the Santa Monica Pier. This is the end of the road for him in more ways than one.

I kept looking at the Hollywood Sign, wondering about all the people down below, pretending to be in its glow. Where do they go after L.A.? There is nowhere, the land ends and they just tumble into the arroyos and ravines, never to be heard from again.

So this is a sampling of my writing and my relationship to L.A., La La Land, the City of the Angels, the Big Orange. Could I have written about these places without experiencing them? Sure. We can’t experience everything we write about. But hopefully it has made my writing more authentic.
Maybe there are other cities less well traveled that would be ripe for exploration in movies and books. Maybe L.A. is overworked and overdone. But Los Angeles is part of me. Part of who I am. So it’s not only a recurring locale in my writing, it’s a recurring theme. And I’ve only just touched the surface here of Los Angeles, the city, its various landmarks and neighborhoods and my relationship to it.

So that’s part of what shaped me and makes me who I am. And some of my L.A. story. You can take the boy out of L.A., but you can’t take L.A. out of the boy. Oh, and here’s an L.A. story for you (a true one): I’m one of the few people who pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about. But that’s for another time.

06 January 2015

What's in a (Place) Name?

by Jim Winter

Once upon a time, I had a friend from New York who insisted on pronouncing everything with a French name in French. Never mind that the closest she had come to Paris was growing up about 200 miles from the border with Quebec. When she lived in Cincinnati, it deeply offended her that nearby town of Versailles, Indiana was called "Ver-Sales."

"It's pronounced vayr-SIGH!"

"Yes," I said. "In France, it is. In Indiana, it's pronounced 'ver-sales."

"Well, that's ignorant. It should be pronounced in its native tongue."

"OK. From now on, you have to call the town in Clermont County 'Moskva.'"

She wasn't down with that. Russian, to her, was too ugly. So even the Russian capital, in her reckoning, was called "Moscow."

But this has long been on my mind since childhood. I grew up in a town called Lodi. Most people can pronounce it since we've all heard, sooner or later, the Creedence song "Lodi" at least once. This song ended up being massively overplayed on Cleveland's WMMS and even CKLW out of Windsor. All because there was a town in the Cleveland area called Lodi.

Growing up, we were told the town changed its name from the original Harrisville, named for the town's founder, to Lodi in honor of Napoleon's first battle. Why? Well, Americans hated the British and liked Napoleon. By the time yours truly emerged from Lodi Hospital, the town square had a fountain with the village mascot, Chief Lodi. Nobody ever told us there had been a real Chief Lodi. And yet for a time, the Wikipedia article stated that Chief Lodi was a real person. Never mind what tribe or where he lived. The reference is gone now, but methinks a local had a little fun with the article before it was corrected.

But what goes into those names? Why do we call them what we call them? A small industrial city near where I grew up is named "Wooster," as in Jeeves & Wooster. However, the settlers hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts. Only it's pronounced "Wooster." The Massachusetts town is named for Worcestershire. Yes, that's where the sauce was invented. In true English fashion, that town is called "Woostersher," a concept I still have trouble with these days.

But what of fictional towns? Ross MacDonald loved Santa Barbara so much that he modeled Santa Teresa on it instead of using the real Santa Barbara. Sue Grafton picked up on this and based her career on this fictionalized version of her home.

Ed McBain, in turning New York into his fictional five-borough city, named the main borough "Isola," Italian for "island." I even got in on the act with the city in my current work in process called "Monticello" after the city on Edge of Night. The original had the Cincinnati skyline in the credits. My version probably looks more like Cleveland with the bluffs over the Ohio River flanking it.

I've found when creating or reading about a fictional place, it's good to embed common family names to streets and neighborhoods, corrupt the names of European cities for the names of towns and sections of a city, and reference events in history. It's good if the writer knows that history and how everything came to be, but the reader does not need to know. Done properly, it gives a place that may have been invented only a couple of years before publication an illusion of reality.

15 October 2013

The Big Moving Sleep Target

by Terence Faherty

This time last year I was serving as the program chair for a great mystery conference we have here in Indiana, Magna Cum Murder.  (This year's conference is being held in Indianapolis on October 25, 26, and 27, and there's still time to register.)  At Magna, they often pick a classic mystery as the conference book.  All attendees are encouraged to read it, at least one panel is devoted to it, and the movie version is shown, if one exists.  I chose The Moving Target, the first Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald.  (Yes, it does say "John Macdonald" on the first edition cover.  Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, didn't settle on Ross for his pen name until the fifth or six book.)  I selected that early book, rather than one of Macdonald's later classics, because there is a movie version, 1966's Harper, starring Paul Newman.
 
After making my decision, I reread The Moving Target for the first time in perhaps thirty years.  The first few chapters made me glad I'd picked it, the last few less so.  But what struck me most about the novel was its close relationship with another first number in a famous series, The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler's first Philip Marlowe novel.  It's so close, in fact, that I'm convinced Macdonald reread The Big Sleep before laying out The Moving Target, if he didn't have a copy open on his lap as he wrote.

I'm not going to summarize the two plots here.  I'll save that arduous task for when I expand this post into my doctoral dissertation (later to be an Edgar-nominated critical work and, later still, a direct-to-DVD cartoon).  I'll confine myself to citing ten examples to support my contention that, in many ways, The Moving Target (TMT) is a play on and an inversion of The Big Sleep (TBS).

- 1 -

In both books, the PI is called in to straighten out a problem for a wealthy family whose senior representative is an invalid:  General Sternwood in TBS and Elaine Sampson in TMT. Both these characters are heartsick over the loss of a pseudo son, the general's runaway drinking buddy and Elaine's killed-in-action stepson.

- 2 -

The characters of the fathers of these two families and their respective daughters is an example of Macdonald's inversion of Chandler's plot.  In TBS, General Sternwood is wise and his daughter is wild.  In TMT, Ralph Sampson (Elaine's missing husband) is wild and his daughter is wise beyond her years.

- 3 -

Both plots feature rackets complicated by and eventually undone by other crimes.  In TBS, a smut book racket is undone by a blackmail play.  In TMT, a smuggling racket is undone by a kidnapping.

- 4 -

In both books, the initial crime seems vague and phony:  the too polite blackmail of the Sternwoods and the kidnapping of Ralph Sampson that might not be one. 

- 5 -

In both cases, a shadowy underworld figure appears to be pulling the strings.  Each has a last name that's a vague classical allusion, Eddie Mars in TBS and Dwight Troy in TMT.  Both own or have owned a gambling joint, and both are gray-haired.

- 6 - 

Both books feature dens of iniquity:  the house where the wild Sternwood daughter does drugs in TBS becomes the red, zodiac-themed bedroom of the wild father in TMT.

- 7 -

Both the Sternwoods and the Sampsons employ a lovesick young man whose infatuation with a drug user will get him killed (and, again, the names are similar):  Owen Taylor, a chauffeur, in TBS and Alan Taggert, a pilot, in TMT.   Here, Macdonald's inversion of the Chandler model is again apparent.  Taylor chases a Sternwood daughter while Taggert is chased by Sampson's.

- 8 -

The supporting casts have other parallel characters, including two hard luck little men with criminal pasts whose devotion to the wrong women will end them:  Harry Jones in TBS and Eddie Lassiter in TMT.

- 9 -

And in both novels, the PI has a friend with either a current or past connection to the local district attorney's office, and, yet again, the names are similar:  Bernie Ohls (TBS) and Albert "Bertie" Graves (TMT). 

- 10 -

The final link is another name clue, in some respects the most obvious one Macdonald planted.  The wild daughter from TBS is named Carmen.  The not-so-wild daughter from TMT is named Miranda.  Get it? 



Carmen Miranda!

A coincidence?  I think not.  In fact, I rest my case.

23 July 2013

Who's On First

by Terence Faherty

Last Tuesday, Dale Andrews published a thought-provoking piece in this space about the first and third person points of view.  In it, he listed some innovative things recent writers have done with the first person, which I found especially encouraging.  In my own writing, I've always favored the first person point of view, and it rankles to occasionally hear it dismissed as simplistic, as a stage a beginning writer works through on his or her way to more mature narrative techniques.  As Dale's examples demonstrated, first person can be pretty complex.


Marlowe and (Almost Certainly) Treacherous Client
And it's the point of view used by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, writers who made me love the private eye subgenre.  First person is part of the traditional private eye story's deceptively straightforward structure:  a problem is posed and a hero sets out to find a solution.  It's like some ancient epic, except that the challenge isn't being set for the hero by some god or demigod, who may be treacherous, but by some client, who is almost certainly treacherous.  Chandler and Macdonald's take on this simple formula required that the private eye also serve as bard.


Covers Held at Bay

Unfortunately, even a simple formula can lead to some hard work for the writer of book-length mysteries.  Think of the challenge like this.  Your job as a mystery novelist if to hold the front and back covers of your published book about three quarters of an inch apart.  That may not seem too hard.  What, after all, is three quarters of an inch?  But the only thing you can use to get that job done are sheets of paper, none much wider on edge than a human hair.  And you can't scrunch the pages up, either.  (Leave that to reviewers.)  You have to lay them perfectly flat.  You'll need hundreds of them, about three hundred, in fact, to keep those covers at a safe distance.  Start writing.


Waiting for Godot
If you start writing in the first person, you've made the challenge even harder for yourself.  Everything that happens in those three hundred pages has to happen to or be witnessed by one person, the narrator.  The exceptions are stories told to the narrator by other characters, and you'll get a few of those in a mystery novel, as witnesses come forward and suspects try to clear themselves.  You can't overdo that, though, or your readers will start to feel like spectators at a play in which the only thing that happens on stage is talk.  Waiting for Godot, perhaps.   A less esoteric example is the Sherlock Holmes story "The Copper Beeches," which features not one but two long recountings by the client, Violet Hunter, and almost no on-stage action until the closing pages, when Watson shoots a dog.  (The doctor was provoked, but he was also probably tired of listening to Violet prattle.)


To keep the action on stage, you have to twist the plot and twist it again, because holding your covers apart isn't the only challenge you face.  You also have to fool your protagonist (and hopefully your readers) for three hundred pages.  The result can be a very complex plot, the kind Chandler and Macdonald were known for.  (One of my plots was called "labyrinthine" by a reviewer.  I didn't mind the adjective, but not being able to pronounce it still embarrasses me.)  After all, your detective hero is no dummy--it would be another turnoff for your readers if they were always way ahead of your Holmes, waiting for him to catch up.  So you'd better have convolutions within your convolutions.


It's no wonder that many writers relieve the pressure by filling their mystery novels with non-mystery material, like bread crumbs in the meatloaf.  The bread crumbs can take the form of romantic subplots, comic subplots, and updates on an extended cast of supporting characters that can start to read like a Christmas letter.  ("A funny thing happened last fall to Uncle Ollie at the state fair. . . .")



Another pressure relief valve that's been popular for a while is for the writer to slip out of first person to write passages or chapters or every other chapter in third person, often from the killer's point of view.  This approach offers the writer the chance to have it both ways, to have the distinctive voice and convincing inner life of first person and the fly-on-the-wall aspects of third.  For me, though, this technique "breaks the fourth wall," to borrow a motion picture term.  That's when Groucho Marx or some other comedian directly addresses the
Groucho, Breaking the Fourth Wall

camera to get a laugh.  ("I have to stay through this, but there's no reason you folks shouldn't leave.")  Breaking the fourth wall reminds the paying customers that they're watching a movie--or in the case of a mystery novel, that they're reading a book.  It can wake the reader up from the continuous dream that the writer works so hard to create.  And this is an even bigger sacrifice in a first person story, since this point-of-view shift can shatter the illusion that a Marlowe is sitting next to you at the bar, telling you his story himself.
 
 
 
And that's the great thing about first person, the thing that makes it worth all the effort it takes to stay in character for three hundred pages:  its intimacy.  And it's also the best answer to the charge that first is simplistic.  Creating a character like Marlowe from the inside out, who's familiar to the reader not because of some external trappings but because his inner voice is recognizable and believable and, on some level, not unlike our own, is anything but a simple job.  But if you pull it off, the reward is immortality.


Actually, it isn't.  But you do get to feel like you've done a day's work when you knock off for your martini.  Cheers.

21 March 2013

Setting as Character

by Brian Thornton

Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trenchcoats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.
—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Or this one from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poisettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and more steeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.
— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.
  1. While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.
  2. I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.
  3. Imagination!
An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.
  1. I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.
  2. I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.
  3. Imagination!
Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it!