Showing posts with label characterization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characterization. Show all posts

21 November 2021

Character References


Queen's Gambit, girl and chessboard

The Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit led me to check out the novel from my local library. I was charmed. Walter Tevis chronicles the professional life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, an orphan who rises above her expectations.

Her journey reminds me of the vicissitudes of Bobby Fischer, America’s erratic genius. When Fischer faced off against his friend and relentless Russian competitor Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, for the first time the US saw Fischer and Spassky’s battle televised move for move. Those of us with an interest in chess enjoyed the showdown.

When Queen’s Gambit appeared on Netflix, those days came back to me. I was immediately captivated. I’m going to preach heresy– I liked the series slightly better than the novel.

Film has advantages over words on a page and one here was the portrayal of chess on the ceiling. (You have to see it to get what I mean.) Beyond that, the miniseries offered a few subtle enhancements. For example, Beth learns Russian and happens to overhear an opinion about her… a critical opinion that gives her a chance to assess the destructive path she’s taking.

Top chess players often suffer a touch of madness, Fischer among them. The great Paul Morphy committed suicide. Few women play. It might be sexism or women may be too smart to pursue chess. The actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, perfectly portrays that touch of something not-quite-right and does it in an endearing way.

In both book and on screen, the players (her competitors), her mentors, and especially her step-mother are well drawn. Unfortunately, the novel’s sketch of her primary Soviet opponent reminds one of a boar-like Leonid Brezhnev. The movie version opted for a sophisticated, elegantly dressed family man, which carries much better.

The series outlines that male habit of being cautious of interlopers until they prove themselves. Beth’s biggest fans become those she defeats. She earns their respect, unstinting admiration and, in one case even love.

The ending of the miniseries is well done, a fitting ending to a poignant story.

But…

In both book and film, I level a criticism about a small but important lost opportunity. The story opens with Beth’s mother crashing her car into a steel bridge. Later, her childhood friend Jolene asks, “What’s the last thing your mother said to you?”

Beth answers, “Close your eyes.”

Absolutely chilling, or it would have been except both the book and the film felt they had to add background, diluting that simple answer down to nothing. Therein, I thought, lay a lesson.

Oh, the cover, Queen’s Gambit… sheer genius.

chessboard with bottles of booze and pills

28 October 2021

Setting As Character: Coda


Two rounds back in the rotation, I trotted out some notions about "setting as character," and shared a few examples of my personal favorites from the writing of writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

This time around I'm including other examples, suggestions from writer friends which have struck me as wonderfully diverse in their collective approach. I'm posting them here in hopes of giving tangible examples of the ways in which setting is all too infrequently employed to do some of the heavy lifting of getting the author's story out there.

So read on. Hope you enjoy them!

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“Living in Seattle is like being married to a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.” 

— G. M. Ford, Thicker Than Water

"The blacktop road stretched empty in either direction, the sky hazy and the air heavy as a sodden sponge. The heat of the late-morning sun amplified the autumn scent of drying cornstalks, the putrid sweetness of persimmons rotting in the ditch. Insects swarmed the fermenting fruit, buzzing like an unholy plague. Sarabeth brushed away a sweat bee. She walked the long, twisting path from the house to the roadside stand alone, pulling a wagon with one bad wheel, her legs sweating beneath her heavy ankle-length skirt.

"Her little sister, Sylvie, sometimes worked the family's produce stand with her, but today she was home in bed with a fever and vicious sore throat. Their mother had spent the early-morning hours praying over Sylvie and coaxing her to swallow a concoction of garlic, cider vinegar, and honey. Mama was piling more quilts on the bed when Sarabeth left, aiming to sweat out the sickness, shushing Sylvie when she cried that she was too hot. Mama said fever was nothing compared to the fires of Hell, and maybe God liked to remind us. She said to Sylvie, but Sarabeth knew it was meant for her."

— Laura McHugh, What's Done in Darkness

"Dust when it was dry. Mud when it was rainy. Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, bellowing, cheating, the carny went its way. It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns—lights and noise and the chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the ferris wheel, to see the wild man who fondles those rep-tiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been."

— William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley

"When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio's on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off. One his wife had given him for Christmas a year ago, before they moved down here.

— Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty

''I stared at the plaster Negro and felt a little embarrassed....Even in Cincinnati, that sort of thing had gone out with the Civil Rights Act, although I'd have been willing to bet that there were thirty thousand little Negro jockeys sitting in dark basement corners from Delhi to Indian Hill, like a race of imprisoned elves, waiting to be returned to daylight. . . . Racial prejudice didn't die in this city; it just got stored in the basement.''

— Jonathan Valin, Day of Wrath


''There's Treasure Street, and Abundance and Benefit....Humanity, Industry, and Pleasure Streets - all these in the midst of hopelessness and squalor and stone meanness....Maybe some fool put names like that on those miserable streets to give us black folks inspiration. Or to make fun of us.''

— John W. Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington (writing about New Orleans in) A Project Named Desire


"The wetlands dedication ceremony was a resounding success until the gunman showed. Alex Carter had felt happy, blinking in the bright sunlight, gazing out over the green marshy area. The gold and scarlet of fall touched a handful of trees. Where the blue sky reflected in patches of visible water, a great blue heron stood vigil, gazing down for a glimpse of fish. It was sunny now, but huge cumulus clouds were building on the horizon, and she knew that a thunderstorm would descend over the city before the day was out."

— Alice Henderson, A Solitude of Wolverines

"The sky had gone black at sunset, and the storm had churned inland from the Gulf and drenched New Iberia and littered East Main with leaves and tree branches from the long canopy of oaks that covered the street from the old brick post office to the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at the edge of town. The air was cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night-blooming jasmine, roses, and new bamboo."

— James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead


"The sun on the grass was dry and hot. So in plunging into the wood they had a cool shock of shadow, as of divers who plunge into a dim pool. The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows. They made a sort of shuddering veil, almost recalling the dizziness of a cinematograph. Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them. Now a man's head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a negro. The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers. The fancy tinted Syme's overwhelming sense of wonder. Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything? This wood of witchery, in which men's faces turned black and white by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people. That tragic self-confidence which he had felt when he believed that the Marquis was a devil had strangely disappeared now that he knew that the Marquis was a friend. He felt almost inclined to ask after all these bewilderments what was a friend and what an enemy. Was there anything that was apart from what it seemed? The Marquis had taken off his nose and turned out to be a detective. Might he not just as well take off his head and turn out to be a hobgoblin? Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe."

— G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

"I parked the Charger in the first available space, halfway down the block from the house. Roy Street was steep, like every other street running east-west this side of the hill. Before I got out, I turned the wheel so that the tires were wedged against the curb on the steep grade. Habit.

"I looked at my old neighborhood for the first time in over a decade. Unlike downtown, it didn't seem to have changed much. Two-story homes packed close together on small lots. Most of the cars were a few years old, but none of them showed signs of being permanent fixtures along the curb.

"It was cold enough that the dew had turned to frost on the thicker lawns, and condensation formed on my lips and jaw as I walked up the hill. Damp leaves made the sidewalk slick."

— Glen Erik Hamilton, Past Crimes

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And that's it for this round! There are lots more wonderful examples out there. If you have a particular favorite, please share it in the comments.

See you in two weeks!

14 October 2021

A Very Special Character Study


Dear Readers:

As you may recall, last time around I dropped some thoughts on "Setting as Character," and promised to expand on them this go-round. I'm going to make good on that in two weeks, because I've got the perfect idea for this current turn at the wheel. So instead of talking about "Setting as Character," Let's talk about "character."

******

Sooooo....character.  It's not plot. It's the only other thing aside from plot that can drive a story. And what makes for interesting characters?

Realistic (and often contradictory) personality traits.

I've been thinking about this very thing quite a bit lately, as I wrap the final draft of a long-delayed novel that will be finished and off to my agent before the end of this year!

Of all things, it was a vacuum cleaner commercial that gave me my own particular epiphany about how to write great, interesting, realistic characters. This one, to be exact:

Smoothies!

A biker who's a neat freak? Another who does needlepoint?

Interesting characters because they subvert expectations. Just like real life.

I have a cousin who is outdoorsy as hell: hunting, fishing. Sells cars for a living. A real man's man.

And for relaxation, he taught himself to crochet.

Interesting, right? Unexpected?

And even better because it's real life.

The best fictional characters mirror real life. Let's talk about one.

A woman, mid-seventies, married over fifty years, outgoing, friendly, caring, compassionate. A good friend, great sister, terrific mother and grandmother. Unironically loved Barry Manilow back in the '70s.

Once won enough money playing the slots on a visit to Vegas that she was able to buy herself a new floor for her kitchen (Including what it cost to have it installed). Not an isolated occurrence. This woman has a system. Every time she goes to Vegas, she wins thousands.

Enjoys gardening. LOVES Bruce Springsteen's music.

Was the queen of her high school's "Senior/Junior Ball" during her senior year.

Is strictly a social drinker. And yet, once, as a young woman, she stayed up late with her in-laws, drinking. By morning she had matched her father-in-law drink for drink, and the two of them had drunk every other adult member of the family under the table.

Slipped on the ice getting the morning paper one New Year's Day, and broke her ankle. Was able to laugh about it that same day (there's a "great pain meds" joke in there, somewhere!).

While in her thirties, once drove across the Columbia Basin from Yakima to Spokane with her eldest son, then in his teens. Drove for an hour shortly after sunset with the domelight in her car on so her son could finish a book he was reading.

Loves the color yellow. Hates surprises. Has a very close relationship with her daughter-in-law.

Started taking piano lessons last year. (That's all you get on this one. There's a ton of backstory there that the reader doesn't need to know for this tidbit to work, especially with the writer keeping it in mind while writing about it).

Possesses one of the most subversively bawdy sense of humor you'll ever encounter.

Is one of the kindliest souls I've ever known.

Okay: confession time. This character is a real person. My mother, Berniece. And it's her birthday tomorrow. Please join me in wishing her a happy one!

Love you, Mom! Hope this is pleasant surprise!






01 August 2021

Sports Build Character


women's soccer

Why yes, I watch women’s soccer. No, I don’t watch men’s. Why do you ask?

I started watching women’s soccer (‘futbol’ in other parts of the world) three or four years ago. Women’s bodies in motion… What’s not to like? it’s wonderful. Except for Sweden in the Olympics opening game.

Lord Jesus

If you’ve seen international men’s soccer, you’ve met the drama queens, that star player from Italy or India or Indonesia who collapses on the field (the pitch), gasping, groaning, giving a grand performance as he prays to Saint Sebastian he may walk again. Once the referee flashes a yellow or red card, suddenly he hops to his feet, all fit and well once again. Lord Jesus, it’s a miracle.

When one of the women is knocked down, she gets up, perhaps given a hand by an opponent, and keeps  on playing. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but I’ve never yet seen a drama play.

US-UK soccer

Meanwhile on ESPN…

Yes, I know the rumors (definitely exaggerated) that the majority audience ‘plays for the other team’, but it doesn’t matter. When buying season tickets for the Orlando Magic, my friend Thrush also bought season tickets for the Orlando Miracles, the women’s counterpart of the Magic. At some WNBA games, we were about the only guys present, but no one cared. We weren’t looking for dates.

Ted Lasso
Ted Lasso

Now, Back to the Game

I have a reason for bringing up soccer. Apple TV offers an original comedy series that improbably grew out of adverts for NBC Sports.

Check out Ted Lasso. Two Americans are hired to coach a British football club, a sport they know nothing about. We’ve seen the fish-out-of-water premise before– mix-ups, screw-ups, bust-ups, dust-ups, and usually happy fix-ups. This show delivers more than you expect.

Ted Lasso is not about the sport, but about the people. It’s funny– Melodie Campbell funny– but the best aspect is the characterization. Several cast members carve out three-dimensional spaces for themselves. It keeps heart, a big heart. And characterization… Did I mention characterization?

It doesn’t matter if you’re not a soccer/football fan or don't like sports at all. Athletics doesn’t matter because the action occurs in the boss’s office, in the locker room, in the showers, in restaurants, and especially the local pub. A few moments happen in bed. The first season took ten episodes before we saw a play on the pitch (field). That was simply a build-up for an easy-to-miss key moment between egotistical player Jamie Tartt and…

You had to be there. It’s about characterization. We can learn from it.

Apple TV. Season 2 commences now.

Coaches Beard and Lasso
Coach Beard — Coach Lasso

04 February 2021

Setting as Character


In my previous Sleuthsayers post I promised that with this post I would leave off talking about politics and get back to talking about the craft of fiction writing. I'm returning to this topic by dusting off one of my first posts on this blog, wherein I explore the use of setting as another character in your story. This originally ran in 2013. I think it holds up, and hope you get something out of it.



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.

Employed 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 poinsettias 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 dimly 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!

23 January 2021

How to Write a True Italian Character (and not get taken out by the Family...)


Apparently, I have been too serious on here lately. There have been complaints.  So in an effort to lighten things up, I'm settling into a literary pet peeve.

Too often in popular fiction, I find Italian characters who don't make the grade. They seem a little cartoonish, as their creators probably aren't Italian, and don't have a true insight into the Italian nature.  So I'm here as a public service, to rectify that.  (Okay, because my Uncle Vince told me to.)

Yes, I'm Italian.  Yes, I've been a Goddaughter, like the heroine of THE GODDAUGHTER.  Okay, maybe not exactly like.  But close enough that I can easily imagine what it would be like to be a mob goddaughter.  The Christmas presents would be pretty decent, for one thing. Not to mention, I can get my salami and mortadella wholesale in any deli in the Hammer (Hamilton.)

So as I turn in my 17th novel which may or may not feature the Italian mob, I offer this help to all authors everywhere.

Melodia's rules on how to write an Italian Character:

  1. She absolutely cannot talk with her hands held down.  Okay, not entirely true.  She can scream if they try to hold down her hands.  And kick.
  2. He has at least 2 cousins named Tony.  And one uncle.
  3. She considers Pasta a vegetable.  (It's good for you!  Really.  Ask any Italian grandmother.)
  4. He can listen to five conversations at once, in at least two languages, and answer back.
  5. She has four first names (Melodie Lynn Theresa Anne…)
  6. For the Pros. Your Italian character should:

  7. Cry when Pavorotti sings the FIFA soccer anthem.
  8. Ask for Brio and Orangina in restaurants. Gasp loudly if they don't have it.
  9. Kiss everybody all the time.  Left cheek, right cheek (THEIR left cheek, right cheek.)
  10. Always wear designer shoes.  Especially when shopping for shoes.  If you don't have a special wardrobe just for shopping, you are not Italian.
  11. And finally:

  12. Long hair only, ladies.  At least until sixty.
  13. Wine is a major food group.  Like cannoli.
  14. Okay, it gets a little tougher now, but weaving in background is important.  So to really give your character some punch, add the following:

  15. She regularly faked a long penance after confession just so the boys would think she was way hot.  (I hardly ever did this.)
  16. His family does not consider a 'heater' something you turn on in winter.

I hate to end a list at 13.  We Sicilians are suspicious.  So here's one last way you can tell if a character is really Italian:

Bling.  Lots of it.  Last trip back from Rome, the plane nearly came down with the weight of newly purchased gold my aunts were wearing.  Heard in all lines at Customs:  "What, this old thing?"

Melodie Campbell writes mob comedies and other loopy books while avoiding family somewhere south of Toronto.  THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS, finalist for the Canadian Crime Writing Awards of Excellence, is the latest in the series.  Standard warning:  Pee before you read it.

https://www.amazon.com/Goddaughter-Does-Vegas-Melodie-Campbell-ebook/dp/B07N8FBLJ4/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+goddaughter+does+vegas&qid=1610989262&sr=8-1

16 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue II: Dialogue and Character


Last time, we talked about linking dialogue so the characters interact with each other, and that's especially important in drama because it helps actors remember their lines. But dialogue isn't just "people talking." It enhances your story-telling by deepening your characters and enriching your plot.

Today, we'll look at characterization.

Screenwriter Tom Sawyer, who oversaw Murder, She Wrote among other projects, says that if you can give a line of dialogue to a different character without rewriting it, it was badly written anyway.

I use what I call the CAWS test (Hey, everybody's got to have a gimmick):

Would this CHARACTER, speaking to this AUDIENCE, say these WORDS in this SITUATION?
If the answer to any part of the question is "NO," you need to rewrite the line.

Each character talks like himself or herself, which enables readers to "hear" them. Think of old radio plays, where an actor may have been chosen to play a role because his voice sounded appropriate for the character.

That means each CHARACTER needs specific images, rhythms and vocabulary (Another good reason to keep your cast in a play as small as possible) to create his or her voice.

If you treat the person as an archetype (Hero, Warrior, Magician, Temptress, Mentor, Lover, etc.), his purpose in the story will help you find his speaking style. Reformers want to improve things, so they often give advice. Leaders want to appear strong and self-reliant, so they give orders. Mentors/Coaches/Teachers usually start with the good news and move to the problems that need to be addressed.

Shakespeare demonstrates this for us. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice uses more aggressive verbs than other characters, and Portia and Nerissa discuss marriage in terms we might use for a business deal.

Romeo & Juliet presents five teen-aged males. Tybalt always has the subtext, "Wanna fight?" Mercutio is funny and often bawdy. Benvolio reports and tattles. Paris is polite and courtly, the kid moms all wish their daughter would bring home. Romeo constantly moans about love, so over-the-top you want to smack him until Juliet makes him grow up.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Nobles (Blank verse and very logical), Mechanicals (Prose, except for the hilarious Pyramus & Thisbe farce), Lovers (Rhymed couplets and cliches about love), and Fairies (Blank verse with images of power [Oberon] or nurturing [Titania]) all have different speaking styles.

Think about your character's goal, too. If you understand what she or he wants--money, power, love, answers--that can help you decide the tactics she will use, such as demanding, pleading, lying manipulating, or threatening.

Now think about the AUDIENCE. Maybe your character will curse or discuss sex, but not in front of his grandmother. Maybe a child won't understand the issue so he has to simplify his language. Maybe the stockholders want the bad news delivered in a positive way.

WORDS are all we have, and we need to get them right. A character's vocabulary shows his education level, religion, family, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, occupation, and maybe biases.

Many people have favorite expressions or jargon from their jobs: computer, sports, medical, business.
Think of regionalisms. Margaret Maron's Knott family often uses the expression "might could," which has a rhythm that slows the pace and captures their Southern drawl.

Be careful with dialects or accents, though. Most editors tell you to avoid phonetic spelling and think what you're doing. I encountered "oncet" in a speech and it stopped me cold. The better spelling would have been "wunst." I grew up in an area where under-educated people referred to their relative as a cousint, with an audible final "T." Your best bet is to use a few key words to suggest everything, or mention that your character has a French accent and go on about your business.
To Kill A Mockingbird needs the accent and mind-set of the characters

You can give the impression of an accent by avoiding contractions or changing word order, too. American English is all about rhythm, so putting an adjective after a noun or using a participle instead of the verb makes the sentence sound foreign, like Yoda. I have an Eastern European character in one series, and I compare her consonants to scissors snipping paper. Blue Song Riley in my Woody Guthrie series is half-Asian, and when she uses a long word, all her syllables have equal stress. I only mention this once or twice in her first scene and let people fill in the blanks.

Maybe your character has a speech problem. A stutter, lisp, or spoonerism is fun, but don't over-do it. Ellery Queen wrote a short story decades ago ("My Queer Dean," if you can find it) in which the solution depends on the victim inverting initial consonants ("My Dear Queen").

Maybe the character has favorite expressions or cliches, or mispronounces words. I grew up struggling with "Refriger-E-ator," and my cousin (No "T") called those things with two slices of bread "Smitches."

Mangling cliches can be fun, too.

A few novelists and playwrights use profanity well. Years ago, my local theater presented Glengarry Glen Ross and referred to the writer as "David Effing Mamet," minus the euphemism. If you're not comfortable with cursing yourself, don't try it. It will sound fake. If you have to use it, emphasize the NOUN, not the participle. It's an effing FORK, not an EFFING fork.

Remember your SITUATION or setting, too. People talk differently at a funeral, job interview, a first date, or in a bar. Are there props at hand: a pool cue, salad bar, golf club, or AK-47? Setting involves mood, too. Someone might be excited, remorseful, sad, jealous, terrified, or confused. Let their words convey this. Situation or setting involves time, too, so beware of anachronisms. Servants in Regency England did NOT say "No problem."

Lastly, dialogue can help you show how a character grows or changes. This is common late in a story, maybe in one long scene. If you want to show it with minimal narration, try having your character paraphrase, change, or even contradict something he said earlier in the story. If her opinion has changed, she has, too. Louise Penny does this in her Inspector Gamache novels, where certain characters will repeat a line, often a literary allusion, that gathers or changes implications throughout the story.

Next time, we'll look at how dialogue can advance your plot.

29 April 2019

The Way We Talk, etc.


Back in the early eighties, I dated a social worker who worked at a clinic dealing with hardcore juvenile offenders. Her colleagues regarded her as a walking miracle for her ability to connect with kids who had severe issues of all kinds: emotional, behavioral, learning, you name it. She could get them to talk to her and reveal information they wouldn't tell anyone else, and she often put them on the path to recovery.
I taught at an inner-city school where a lot of my students had the same problems, albeit to a lesser degree, and I asked her how she could do what she did. She told me about a book by Bandler and Grinder called The Magic of Rapport. I find that title by Jerry Richardson on Amazon now, and other books by Bandler and Grinder, but the book I read forty years ago seems to be out of print. I'm sure Richardson's book covers the same material.

Briefly, people process information in one of three ways, and they prefer one over the others.

Roughly 75% of all people are VISUAL, which means they learn by "seeing" or "watching." Show them a diagram or picture, act something out, and they will grasp and retain what you what them to know. This is why teacher write on the board and why PowerPoint has become so popular.







Another 10 to 15% are AUDITORY. These people understand what they are told and can process verbal instructions well. Unfortunately, even though it's a small portion of the population, it's an overwhelming majority of TEACHERS, which is why you may have sat through classes with instructors who lectured you to death.




The rest of us are KINESTHETIC. They learn a skill by practicing it over and over and handling the objects in question, literal "hands-on" teaching. They may retain information by remembering the sensations during an activity: temperature, smell, or even their emotional response to what happened.

Thanks to that girlfriend whom I haven't seen in decades, I started experimenting with this information. Professional development workshops on the concept, called "Perceptual Modes," began to appear in my school system in the mid to late 1990s--fifteen years later.

You can see why the concept could be important in the classroom, but I use them in writing, too.

"How?" you ask with bated breath (I get this reaction a lot. I put it down to my dynamic presentations).

Well, people tell or show their preferred mode through their behavior. They way they talk, stand, or move all give you clues, and you can use the traits to make your fictional characters more varied and specific. The concept helps you create more personalized dialogue, too.

Let me SHOW you how (see the visual cue there?).

VISUAL people tend to dress neatly and have good posture. They look at you when you speak.
When they talk, they tend to use visual metaphors, too. They'll say "That LOOKS like a good idea."

Auditory people often tilt their head when they listen to you. They may speak more softly and they would state the idea above as "That SOUNDS good," or maybe even refer to music or harmony. These people gravitate to professions where listening is a valued skill: teaching, translating, sound recording, social work.

KINESTHETIC people are at home with their bodies. They may (not always) appear a little heavy, but they move gracefully. They value comfort and often dress more casually (I, for example, almost always have my sleeves rolled up). Many of them are dancers, athletes, or actors. They are empathetic (care-givers) and may touch you while they talk. Many of them hold an object to ground themselves. Remember Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny? I often unconsciously twirled my wedding ring or a ballpoint pen during class discussions.

Kinesthetic people can sense the atmosphere and moods of other people in a room. They're aware of senses beyond sight, often noticing the temperature or a smell that nobody else does. They will say "That FEELS like a good idea" and learn quickly from mistakes. They seldom read instructions, but they are the actors who can use "Sense Memory" and "Emotional Recall" to rehearse a scene or develop a character in a play.

Beth Shepard, Zach Barnes's girlfriend in my Connecticut series, is kinesthetic. She's gorgeous but prefers to dress casually. She's a former dancer and high school majorette, very in touch with her body. I gave her contact lenses because she's legally blind without them. Someday, I may let her have lasik surgery.

Zach Barnes is auditory. We know that because he's a good listener. One of my books hinges on his hearing a clue in conversation that nobody else "heard."

Zach's friend and and researcher, Svetlana Melanova Thirst, is kinesthetic, too. She's sinfully sybaritic, and a self-taught computer hacker. She learned by doing.

I also use this information in my dialogue workshops. If you have five people in a scene and they all are visual (the most common perceptual mode), you need more speech tags to help the reader keep track of who's speaking. On the other hand, if a man and a woman are visual, another man is auditory, and the last man and woman are kinesthetic, their speaking styles may be all you need.

"It looks to me like the butler did it." Tome leered at Pam's perfect latex ensemble.

"It seems that way, doesn't it?" Pam admired the cut of Tom's jodhpurs and winked back. ("Seems" is the passive version of "look," too)

"Sounds wrong to me," Walt said, leaning toward the window where he thought the butler and maid were eavesdropping.

"It doesn't feel right to me, either." Jack rubbed his fingers over the blood-stained carpet.

"Something smells fishy to me, too." Patty scratched her nose and walked around the room, picking up the various heavy objects that might have bludgeoned Mr. Corpus to death.

A few years later, I stumbled on The Art of the Possible by Dawna Markova, which expands the original concept to show how people use all three modes, but in different combinations. The writing is less than lyrical, but it can help you understand how different types of thought processes will develop an idea or behavior. That book was the first one that proved many of my apparent inconsistencies really make sense.

My wife still doesn't think that's true.

Now for the BSP: My story "Par for the Corpse" appears in the first April issue of Tough.

And congratulations to Art Taylor, who won the Edgar Award last Thursday for best short story.


17 July 2017

Cats and Gats


by Steve Liskow   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 July 2015

Techno-dull


Mr Robot
Edgy. It’s what a new USA Network television, Mr Robot, is trying for, so edgy that producers are getting ulcers trying to make it happen. And cyberpunk. It’s oh, so cyberpunk, rebel without a clause, pass the opiates please. It’s new, it’s now, it’s different, and it's supposed to be ultra-tech-savvy. It has exciting technology working for it… or does it?
One of Dorothy Sayers' novels, The Nine Tailors, is noted for its portrayal of campanology– professional bell-ringing. Sayers was largely complimented for her accuracy of detail. In a small way, she created kind of a techno-novel. Since then, many authors have created stories detailing technology of one kind or another– military, espionage, aerospace, medical, or computing.

Bluffing computer experts is tricky, especially the ‘leet’, the priesthood as it were, the 1% of 1%, the dei ex machina, code-slingers, bit busters, programmers of the programs that run programs. Rendering a story about computers takes more than networking verbiage and Unix gibberish. Bear with me as I wade into technical detail.

Going Viral

John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider introduced the concept of viruses, but most novels and virtually all movies get the technology wrong. That doesn’t mean a reader can’t enjoy some stories. Thomas Joseph Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 was a good read. 2001 A Space Odyssey was smart, the letters HAL being one displaced from IBM. And for hopeless romantics, Electric Dreams gave movie-goers a Cyrano de Bergerac love triangle featuring a computer named Edgar.

But a story shouldn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. An Amazon review about a computer novel by a top-rated mystery writer said the commenter got laughs reading aloud excerpts to employees in the company lunchroom. That’s not the kind of critique anyone wants.

Dennis Nedry
Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park
Casting Stones

Casting is another problem with computer shows. Techno-geeks’ IQs typically run high, but that’s seldom how computer experts appear on the screen. One example of awful rôle selection occurred in Jurassic Park, that of an unlikely computer sysadmin, the oafish and creepy Dennis Nedry. We’re going to talk about lack of subtlety: Nedry / nerdy, get it?.

If Hollywood doesn’t stereotype a sallow, shallow wimp with taped glasses, they opt for the opposite, a busty beauty in a skin-tight action figure costume. Movie makers think an eye on the décolletage prevents audiences noticing thin characterization.

When I think of actual top geeks (someone without my movie star looks– stop laughing), I think of colleagues like my friend Thrush, programmer Bill Gorham, software architect Steve O’Donnell, or a handful of others. These ordinary guys possess the extraordinary ability to make machines dance to their own tune.

Robin Hoodie

The show’s idea of characterization appears twofold. First, dress the part: Make the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, sullen, slurring, antisocial, slouch through life in his hoodie. Have ruthless, junior exec Tyrell Wellick wear designer ties and suits. Decorate drug dealers with lots of tats. Mission accomplished.

The other part of the simplistic characterization is the creation of a polarized ‘them versus us’ atmosphere: hoodies v suits, punks v preppies, young v old, crackers v hackers, morphine users v tweakers v coke-heads, Anonymous v the establishment, bad guys v the other bad guys, capitalists v socialists v nihilists v anarchists… which might be interesting if someone had bothered to delineate a bit.

Elliot, the main character, is a morphine-addicted presumed programmer– he once mentions source code. The guy is a pathological liar who lies even to himself, then follows up by telling people in slurred speech, “I’m just being honest.” He drinks ‘appletinis’ and tells his shrink he’s not a junkie, even as he snorts his drug of choice. Supposedly this doesn’t impair his ability to dig into the bowels of computer networks.

A major problem here is that mainly druggies find drug users entertaining. One shouldn’t have to be stoned to appreciate a television show, but drug use and overuse underlies a major theme of Mr Robot. Elliot’s Asperger’s syndrome one can deal with, but his continuous mumbling is hard to stomach.

Of all the cast, only the female characters appear likable and worthwhile, Elliot’s shrink, Gloria, and his childhood friend and co-worker, Angela. Elliot and Angela telegraph to the audience their unrealized attraction as in a third-rate romance novel.

Tyrell Wellick represents the only alpha male in that universe, a ruthless junior exec but one who keeps his eye on the prize. As the best drawn character, he’s a sadomasochistic and exploitative bisexual who goes all out for what he wants. The actor speaks fluent Swedish but god-awful French, more than once butchering the word ‘bonjour’. Wellick does win on other points: When his pregnant wife asks for a bondage session, he’s reluctant to proceed, trying to be gentle.

Anonymous

A major factor– or malefactor– in the series is Mr Robot, a sociopathic anarchist played by Christian Slater looking exceedingly bored throughout. ‘Mr Robot’ is the name of a tech support company, passed on to Slater.

He’s formed ‘fsociety’, a squad of hackers patterned after the group Anonymous. Instead of Guy Fawkes masks, fsociety uses the likeness of that Parker Brothers’ mustached tycoon, Rich Uncle Pennybags aka Mr Monopoly.

Uncle Pennybags © Parker Bros.
In reality, fsociety is disappointingly unlike Anonymous. The latter is focused on justice and exposing inequity and corruption, not anarchy for its own sake. Anonymous gives an impression it values human life, unlike the show's producers who suck hours out of your life never to be returned.

Unsubtle

Those of us in the US tend to confuse and conflate capitalism with a free market economy; Mr Robot drops any distinction at all. Fsociety is dedicated to gutting Evil Corp (which deserves it) within a larger goal of bringing down the economy.
  • E: Evil Corp– that’s its unimaginative nickname– is the company that Elliot, Angela, and Tyrell work for. Obviously, subtlety isn’t held in high regard among the writers. The company’s E logo simultaneously hints at an actual secretive government provider and evokes ‘E for everyone’ entertainment ratings.

  • F: Two guesses what the F in fsociety stands for, subtle like a sledgehammer.

I tried to imagine the original cocaine-fueled pitch for the series. I think it went something like this:
“Like okay, man… (sniffff) There’s this guy, hacker dude, we’ll dress him in a hoodie so everyone thinks Robin Hood, see. (sniffff) And there’s this evil corp, we’ll call it Evil Corp so the audience can’t miss it. (sniffff) Listen, I confuse free markets and capitalism, but let’s say we burn down the economy… What do you mean, how would I cash my paycheck? What does that have to do with anything? Oh, irony, I get it. That’s good, that’s good. We’ll include irony.”

Verisimilitude

The series makes a stab at hi-tech realism, not particularly savvy, better than some shows, not as good as others. Writers drop a few Unix buzzwords (Gnome, KDE, TOR) and gloss over how their network was penetrated.

Elliot identifies a supposedly infected file that fsociety wants him not to open: fsociety00.dat. Amusingly, the IP address associated with the bogus file is 218.108.149.373, an impossible address like movies using 555-1234 as a phone number. (Geekology trivia: An IP address resolves to four bytes in binary, so each number of the group must be less than 256.) Mr Robot offers no specifics how Elliot tracked down the file in error, but the date and a bogus IP address should have clued in even a noob, never mind our ersatz hero.

Elliot passes the file on to a colleague, saying he’s done the hard work and ‘all’ that’s left is the encryption, as if that’s nothing. *bzzz* Wrong answer.

The program promulgates the notion that if someone has a root kit or hacker tools, they’re somehow an ultra-savvy user instead of being like any other mechanic with the right toolbox. The real guys with the smarts are the black hats who write the hacker tools and the white hats who find ways to combat them.

The show also advances the prejudice that ‘old people’ (presumably over 25) can’t deal with technology. A little reflection would have shown that the very systems Elliot and his hacker friends are using were designed by the old guys who themselves built on the shoulders of greater giants. (Articles on Anonymous have shown that the inner core of the organization isn’t strictly young guys as popularly imagined, but largely socially conscious programmers from the late 1960s and early 1970s who range upwards in age into their 50s and 60s.)

Elliot sneers at the CEO of E-Corp for carrying a Blackberry, ignoring the fact that an executive can run a company or tinker with technology, but probably not both, not at the same time. The US State Department deliberately uses Blackberries because they’re less susceptible to hacking… but that sort of realism would cut the series short.

Later, Elliot denigrates a hospital IT manager, William Highsmith, but even as he’s disparaging the IT guy, Elliot uses his supposed superior hacking skills to type the word NEGATIVE into his drug screen. Nothing screams phony like spelling out a presumed binary value instead of clicking the bit setting like true experts and their grandmothers would have done.

In the third episode, Elliot gives a stoned soliloquy on debugging. He’s correct in that finding a bug is usually the hardest part of the problem, but then he awkwardly extends an analogy of bugs into the real world of people and society.

Commodore 64
Halt and Catch Fire

Based on a single episode, a competing series Halt and Catch Fire has a much better and more realistic grip on technology and story-telling. Their team planned how to fake an AT&T computer by kludging together parts from a Commodore 64. Unlike the vague buzzword-dropping, watch-the-other-hand unexplained ‘magic’ in Mr Robot, the HCF scheme could actually work.

From both a writing standpoint and a hi-tech background, Mr Robot disappoints. I expect more… more characterization, more plot, more realistic tech. And less morphine, please, much less. I’m a minority, but my tech-savvy friend and colleague Thrush, who still keeps his hand in the land of Unix, also expressed dismay, finding the show dark and dismal with a poor handle on technology.

Mr Robot is like a 1960’s drug culture anti-establishment film, entirely unentertaining. But that’s my take. What is yours?

16 April 2015

Author Interview: David Corbett


One of the benefits of working in crime fiction is that you get to meet a variety of true "characters". Most of them are terrific people, generous with their time and free with their advice. None more so than critically acclaimed author and writing guru David Corbett.

 David has graciously agreed to sit for an interview about both his newest book and his career in general, beginning with his work as a private investigator. First a bit more about David:

David Corbett is a recovering Catholic, ex-PI and onetime bar band gypsy who’s written five novels, numerous stories, multiple scripts, and far too many poems. One novel was a New York Times Notable Book, another an Edgar Nominee. The latest, The Mercy of the Night, was published in April, 2015. Two of his stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories and his book on craft, The Art of Character, has been called, “A writer’s bible.” He lives with his adorable wife and insane dog in Vallejo, California, which really, truly isn’t the hellhole it’s cracked up to be. You can learn more at: www.davidcorbett.com

And now to the interview:

David, you're an experienced private investigator. Did you get into that line of work with an eye toward one day using it to inform your work in crime fiction, or were the two career choices made relatively independently?

I’ve often said I’m not a PI who became a writer, but a writer who became a PI. Actually, it’s a bit more involved than that.

In my late twenties I was studying acting and writing short stories, with about the same success in both fields: getting some nice attention, but nothing to crow about. I was realizing I needed to pick a lane, and went back and forth as to whether I should pursue writing or acting.


As it turned out, two of my friends in acting school were working for Palladino & Sutherland, a high-profile husband/wife PI firm that was beginning to attract attention because of its work on two Hells Angels cases and the DeLorean case, among other matters. (They also got a lot of press because they were the real-world equivalents of McMillan & Wife, a popular PI TV series during the mid-seventies.) My friends – who were working as a stringer and a receptionist, respectively – suggested that, if I wanted to write, I try to get a job at the firm. “You can’t beat this place for material.” This proved, as you can imagine, an understatement.

It took me nine months to land the job, and one of the reasons they ultimately hired me was because I was the most persistent applicant they’d ever had. I realized my work for the firm would be my “years at sea,” giving me the experience and worldview that would inform all of my writing. I didn’t specifically foresee a career as a crime writer, and I’ve always considered myself more concerned with character than crime per se, but the justice system and its inhabitants – both domesticated and otherwise – have provided me with my subject matter ever since.

How does your experience as a PI inform your work as in fiction?

Beyond the obvious element of subject matter, I learned several things that continue to serve me well.

First, since we often worked criminal defense I gained an intimate knowledge of the types of people who are accused of crimes – not just them, but their families, their friends, their classmates, their pet-sitters, their gardeners, etc. This helped me move beyond the usual “bad guy” clichés and see the people we call criminals as fully realized human beings.

Expanding that observation, I saw firsthand how everything in the justice system isn’t the result of abstract rules and ironclad principles: “the law.” It’s driven by people pursuing their self-interest and trying to serve the interest of their principles: their clients or the public.

Second, I worked with a lot of very tough, very smart lawyers, and I learned what it means to fight for someone’s freedom, livelihood – even his life in death penalty cases. This isn’t hypothetical to me. I’ve lived it, and that responsibility shaped me both as a writer and a person.

I also gained a profound appreciation for the criminal defense bar. I’ve remarked elsewhere that, contrary to popular opinion, many of the criminal defense lawyers I’ve known are some of the most decent, honest, committed men and women I’ve ever known. It’s a shame they’re almost always portrayed as scumbags and weaklings in film and TV. I’m hoping, with the new series, to rectify some of that. (I love Mike Connelly’s Mickey Haller series for this same reason.)


So tell us about the new series, and about your new protagonist, Phelan Tierney. Where did the idea for the series come from, and what was Phelan’s genesis like?

Wow. Well, that’s a lot of ground to cover, but I’ll try to be brief.

Despite my background, I had no interest whatsoever in writing a PI novel until recently. From what I could tell, readers expected their PI protagonists to be something akin to the plains gunmen in an urban setting, and that was as far from my own experience as imaginable.

For the most part – the part that would best lend itself to a crime novel – I was a cog in the justice system, a “people’s pig” who tracked down witnesses, debunked prosecution theories, and sifted through evidence on behalf of criminal defendants. And it became pretty clear in my reading through the genre (and listening to agents, editors, and readers) that when it came to crime no one much cared to hear from the defense table.

But then in conversations with Charlie Huston and Michael Koryta, I began to reconsider my anti-PI-novel agenda.

When I told Charlie my job hadn’t been that dramatic, he asked me to describe an average day. I said I was the guy who had to go the door of the family of a murder victim and try to find someone in the house who didn’t want the killer – my client – executed. Charlie replied simply, “I think that’s interesting. You should write about that.”

Michael, a former PI himself, thought I was turning my back on a goldmine of material. When I told him the rough idea I had for the next book (which would ultimately become The Mercy of the Night), he expressed genuine enthusiasm for the idea.

Also, by this time I’d read more in the genre and realized I’d given short-shrift to the suspense inherent in a good investigation – finding the truth is a tricky business, regardless which side you’re tracking – and I trusted my own instincts as a writer a bit more. I felt, at least, up to the task of trying.

But my first attempt at writing a PI faltered because I didn’t take the time I usually do with a character to flesh out the unique details of his life. I just assumed I knew the guy, which turned out to be a mistake. He came out flat on the page, and I realized I had to go back and start over, make my hero someone I recognized but didn’t fully understand, so I would have to discover him.
"You come at the king..."

And so I conjured Phelan Tierney – the oddity of the name alone made me wonder about him.

I made him a lawyer, not a PI, which also required me to raise my game. I’ve known a number of lawyers who’ve traded their bar card for a PI license, and most of them have done so for the simple reason they preferred interacting with people to shuffling paper.

But my own experience with lawyers (including my marriage to one) also made me aware of the distinct habits of mind they acquire. The best combine a bare-knuckle pragmatism with a capacity for abstraction that an algebraist would envy. That too engaged me in a way my bland cipher of a PI hadn’t, and it helped me avoid some of the classic tough-guy clichés that afflict too much PI fiction.

I also wanted to make him more of a helper and healer than a hunter or a fighter, though he can handle himself (he’s a former high-school and college wrestler). I just had an idea of him as a man who, after failing in a brief stint as a prosecutor (he “lacked a killer instinct when it came to putting poor people in jail”), then spending twenty years as a hotshot litigator specializing in construction defects, he wants to do something nobler with his life.

He’s a widower, and has had to put his life back together after some serious wreckage related to his wife’s death. He’s financially set, so he decides to walk away from being a hired gun. He wants to care for the wounded.

He carves out a unique niche for himself in the justice system. He knows what it takes to help people in trouble, and the unsparing honesty required from all concerned, even himself (especially himself). He has a special devotion to those who hope to turn their lives around, and for those who, for whatever reason, find they’ve become invisible, or voiceless.

That’s my take on a man who can walk the mean streets who is not himself mean.

Anyone familiar with your work, from The Devil's Redhead to The Mercy of the Night, knows you write about outsiders and underdogs, be they ex-cons, cops, Latino teenagers, or... musicians. What is it about these types of characters that causes you to gravitate toward them?

Damned if I know. Sometimes I think you just come hard-wired with certain themes ingrained in you before you’re even aware of them.

That said, I was the youngest of four brothers, which pretty much sealed the underdog thing. And I was raised in a family where there was a “company line” that I never really bought into. I was also raised Catholic and pretty early on realized that word and deed often resided in parallel universes.

I had to fight my way home sometimes and developed a profound contempt for bullies (and I’ve experienced way too many people in positions of authority who qualify). I also had friends who got targeted by the nuns unfairly (one of those friends had a dad who was connected, which I didn’t know at the time – he was always great to me), and I just seemed to gravitate to “lost dog” stories.

Your novels have garnered all manner of awards/nominations/ critical acclaim, but what many people might not realize is that you're also an accomplished short story writer. (Full disclosure: David's short story "Returning to the Knife," a stream-of-consciousness take on a stabbing, appears in a crime fiction anthology I collected and edited a few years back) You've even published a collection of them. What do you enjoy most about writing shorter pieces? Is there anything different about your preparation/process when "writing short" as opposed to "writing long"?

I think of novels as being about a journey, whereas stories are about an epiphany. Short stories typically revolve around a potentially life-altering moment of awareness: What was I thinking? What have I done? What does this mean? So in staging a story I need to know what’s kept the character from the moment of awareness before, then break down whatever walls have kept him inside that box. The story ends when he sees the way out. In a novel, I’d let him leave, and wander around until he finds where he’s supposed to be headed. Or doesn’t.

A couple of years back you published The Art of Character, "a unique and indispensable toolkit for creating characters that come vividly to life on the page and linger in memory." Now, there are plenty of great writers out there who can no more explain their process upon request than a chicken can do long division, and yet you manage it nicely. That doesn't just "happen." Can you lay out for us some of the challenges in writing a "how-to," as opposed to "just doing it"?

I forget which writer friend it was that I had this conversation with, but after I mentioned I was writing a book on character, he asked why. I said it’s the thing I think I do best. He was dumbfounded. He said you never teach what you do well – because the fact you do it well means it’s probably instinctive. And the fact you do it instinctively means you’ll have a hard time analyzing what others need to do to get it right. And the process of analyzing it will gum up your own intuitive process.

Fortunately this didn’t prove to be the case, though I got his point. A lot of what I do in my character work I learned in acting school, so there was already a process to rely upon. And as I thought more carefully and deeply about the various problems we get into with our characters, I began to recognize what I was doing to solve those problems, even when I wasn’t fully aware of it. So the book in a lot of ways was just the result of my becoming aware of what I was already doing.


Now, like my friend said, that can be dangerous. Best way to fall off a bicycle is to pay too much attention to the pedals. Again, I’ve been fortunate that this isn’t the case. In fact I now look at character much more deliberately, and craft my characters in a more detailed, extensive way, precisely because of my own analysis as I wrote the book. And it’s paying dividends. I’ve had readers tell me that both the characters and the dialogue in The Mercy of the Night are the best I’ve written.

Well, I know a lot of teachers (go figure) and a solid majority of them would fundamentally disagree with the notion expressed by that friend whose identity has receded into the great beyond. Most teachers go with their strengths. I did encounter a guy once, a math teacher, who purposely chose math because he struggled with it in school, and when he did try to get help from his teachers, they were unable to assist him, because they had never struggled with math. The guy was a great teacher. That said, we’ve all struggled at something, and extrapolation from our experiences is something we as writers must practice on a fairly consistent basis. How do you square that with your statement above about your “years at sea.” Obviously there are some things you can’t fake, and so you must take the time and trouble to research/master them. Do you have a hard and fast rule when it comes to what you’ll BS on, and what is too important to leave to invention/extrapolation?

I generally try to avoid rules, because they’re almost always designed to protect you from something you’re scared of. I try to play to my strengths, but if you’re not risking anything in a book the reader will feel it.

I talk to a lot of people (one benefit of having been a PI, I’m not afraid to ask anyone anything) and do a lot of research so I can write with authority even about things I initially know little about. But in the end writing is a lot like a magic act – you’re creating an illusion, and indirection is often required, getting the reader to focus on what you do know so they don’t notice you’re bluffing your way through what you don’t.




 With your statement above you’ve proven all over again the old teaching axiom, “If you want to really master a subject, try to teach it.” That’s clearly what you’re doing with THE ART OF CHARACTER. It’s teaching. Any chance we’ll get more from you on this subject? And lastly, what’s next on the drawing board for you?

Anne Perry wants me to write a book on plot, because she liked The Art of Character so much. She’s an amazing woman, insatiably curious.

Actually, what I’d like is for The Art of Character to sell well enough we go into a second edition, because there are some sections I’d rework now that I’ve been teaching with the book as a guide.

But the most immediate task at hand is the next Phelan Tierney novel, which I’m currently researching and plotting. Beyond that, I’ll say no more. I never like talking about works in progress, because it tends to take away from the sense of urgency required to get the story down.

And that is a great note on which to wrap things up. Thanks so much for sharing your time and insight with us, David. As always, it's been a real pleasure!

Thanks for having me here, Brian. You’re a mensch.

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If you'd like to read David Corbett's stuff (and I STRONGLY suggest you do!), why not just click here and let Amazon do the rest!