Showing posts with label mysteries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mysteries. Show all posts

04 August 2020

I Write Therefore I Am


Walking the dogs. Buster above.
 Pepper (left) and Buster below.
Sometimes—often—I get tired of the writing grind. A lot of blood, sweat, tears and toil for very little reward, or so it seems. I’ll complain to my wife that I want to quit. I’ll think about doing just that. But then I think about what I would do with all that extra time. Garden? Watch TV? Read? Do hobbies? Spend even more time walking the dog.

Who would I be? My whole identity is wrapped up in being a writer and has been almost my whole adult life. I don’t think I’d recognize myself anymore if I wasn’t writing. One hears about people who retire and have these great expectations of playing golf all the time or doing whatever their fancy is and then getting bored awfully damn quick. But also losing their identity because so much of it was wrapped up in their work.

Writing is more than a job. It’s a calling. I’ve sacrificed a lot over the years to work at being a writer, so obviously it was something that was worth making sacrifices for.

And I like the process of creating something out of nothing, yet it’s too late for me to be a molecular physicist, if that’s the right terminology. Writing fiction is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle (something I don’t have the patience for). But like a jigsaw puzzle in writing you have to find all the right pieces and put them in all the right places or it just doesn’t fit.

I write, therefore I am. With my assistant, Curley.

Red Smith famously said: "There's nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."  Even when you open a vein for the Red Cross and donate blood they give you juice and cookies.



Most people don't have an appreciation for what we go through as writers.  The hours spent alone, no one to talk to over the water cooler (though that's changed somewhat with the internet, which is a surrogate water cooler).  The opening of our veins to get to the good stuff.

Like I said, it’s a calling. And it called me very young. When I was a kid I used to set up my army men on the bedroom floor.  But often, instead of moving them around pretending they were on a real battlefield I would pretend that they were on a movie set. I was lucky enough to have one little plastic figure of a cameraman and I'd even set up my TinkerToys in such a way to mimic Klieg lights. I'd move the men around the floor, putting words in their mouths, the good guys and the bad. Making sounds of gunfire and other sound effects. That, coupled with having been born in Hollywood, literally, made me want to do something in the movies. So today when I write something I figure I'm just doing on paper what I used to do on the floor of my room, moving around letters and sentences the way I used to move "armies" across the floor. And it really all amounts to the same thing. On the other hand, I am really still playing with (and collecting) toy soldiers. See pic.

Still playing with toy soldiers.

And, when I started out as a writer I had romantic notions of what being a writer meant. Images of Hemingway sipping absinthe on the Left Bank. And though Hollywood ain't no left bank it did have Joe Allen's at the time, so I went there for drinks. Or I'd sip some whiskey while writing in my little office. But I found that if I drank while writing—or trying to write—I didn't want to write. I wanted to play. So those romantic visions of the drinking writer (at least while writing) vanished quickly as did the bottle. I also thought writers should hang out at bars and dives and soak up atmosphere or thrown beer. My first adventure out was to a well-known sleazy eatery. I sat at the counter listening for tidbits of dialogue, insights into lives. What I got was a shirt full of beer when two guys playing pool a few feet away got into a fight. Free beer, who could ask for more?  If a cop had stopped me on the way home my shirt-alcohol level would surely have been over the legal limit.  Would they have arrested me or just my shirt?
Cafétafel met absint by Vincent Van Gogh
So, though it can get tedious, though the rewards might not always come, I don’t think I could or would ever give up on writing. Ultimately, we write because we have to. We open those veins because we have no choice. And anything’s better than sitting around watching TV all day, even that vein opening.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

"I hate saying a book transcends the genre and I honestly usually don't like books that do. This one however does and might win some awards because of it."
                                                                          —Jochem Vandersteen, Sons of Spade
                           



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

16 May 2020

Let's Get Cozy


Welcoming Kate Fellowes…
I'm pleased today to welcome my friend Kate Fellowes as a guest blogger. Kate is the author of six mysteries, most recently A Menacing Brew. Her short stories and essays have appeared in several anthologies, as well as Victoria, Woman's World, Brides, Romantic Homes, and other periodicals. She recently won the San Diego Public Library's Matchbook Short Story contest, meeting the challenge to craft a story only 50 words long. (I mentioned this in my column Super-Short Stories a couple of months ago.) A member of the national organization Sisters in Crime, Kate is a founding member of the Wisconsin Chapter. Her working life has revolved around words--editor of the student newspaper, reporter for the local press, cataloger in her hometown library. A graduate of Alverno College in Milwaukee, she blogs about work and life here and shares her home with a variety of companion animals. Kate, it's great to have you here at SleuthSayers!

— John M. Floyd

Let's Get Cozy

by Kate Fellowes

Working in a public library is the best day job for a writer, if you ask me. Every hour of every day, I'm surrounded by inspiration, in the form of successful authors, past and present. Each writer offers me a lesson on craft, character, and structure, and I'm an eager student.

When our book deliveries arrive and I slit the tape on each box, I wonder what new treasures I'll find to add to my to-be-read list. What have our patrons requested? What's on the bestseller list? Or the Book Club's?

Only one thing is guaranteed.

Every fiction order will contain a host of cozy mysteries.

Time was these were usually paperbacks but more and more authors are being published in hardcover now, a permanent commitment to life on the public library shelves. And almost always the books are part of a series. Indeed, publisher and distributor catalogs sometimes have multiple pages filled with nothing but listings for the newest installments in cozy series. I've dried up more than one yellow highlighter circling selections, especially wanting to try the entries that say "first in a series."

What was it, I wonder, about the manuscript that made an agent take on the author? What made a publisher extend a contract? What brought the book to the marketplace?

And will it be a hit with readers?

From my years at the Reference Desk, I know mystery readers are a loyal bunch when they find a favorite author. Thanks to authors' newsletters, patrons frequently know the next title and release date before I do. Their requests help us determine what to purchase, and their desire to read series books in chronological order helps point out holes in our collection.

A year ago, my library won the Sisters in Crime "We Love Libraries" contest and received $1,000 to put toward the purchase of books. We bought cozy mysteries and plenty of them, including many new-to-us authors and firsts in series. They made a dazzling display with their colorful spines and intriguing covers. It was an interesting exercise to see which authors took off and which languished on the shelf. Some authors who might write multiple series had one series prove popular while another did not. This phenomenon especially interested me.

Cozies have specific hooks related to the story's geographical location, main character's occupation or hobby, presence of cats and/or dogs. Which of these most influence readers? I will always reach for the book with a cat or dog. If it's set on an island or seashore, even better. Add a bookstore or a library to the mix and that title goes to the top of my stack. Every reader has a similar list of requirements, I'm sure.

I can only hope I manage to tick off a few of their boxes when my own first cozy mystery joins the new bookshelf in May. There's a library, but no bookstore, a river but no island, and the cat won't show up until Book #2.

A Menacing Brew (Fire Star Press, May 2020) introduces Barbara York and her daughter Amy, the most amateur of sleuths. If Barbara hadn't found her old friend from college dead when she and Amy arrive at his house upstate for a visit, these two women as different as chalk-and-cheese would never have relied on or trusted one another. But knowing the police think the death is murder and that Barbara, the heir to the estate, is in the picture as prime suspect, they set aside their differences and work together to solve the mystery.

During their investigation, they meet many residents of the small town, Kirkwood. (Small towns are a cozy staple, of course.) Some of the citizens are happy to talk, while others remain tight-lipped.

Does the mysterious death of a student decades ago factor in to this latest crime? Does another death a century ago also play a part? And will Amy's parents, divorced for years, reunite in their grief over their lost friend?

Eventually, all these questions have answers, and finding my way to those answers was a joy.

I have sometimes read irritating articles about authors who have had plots spring to them complete, in a dream. Why does this never happen to me? I always think.

It still hasn't, but with A Menacing Brew, I can honestly say both Barbara and Amy showed up fully formed. They are so different from each other and so different from me that every writing session was an entertaining revelation. Having finally overcome my pantser instincts, I had actually made an outline. Even so, we were soon off track, and I was reduced to watching the action unfold while I took dictation.

Does writing get any better than that? Those magical, aha moments when some incidental little something added on a whim is revealed thousands of words later as a linchpin. The twists in a plot I swear my conscious mind never produced. The spark of life created by characters interacting in genuine ways, like real people I know. This is why I write, and why I always will.

I'm looking forward to seeing more of Barbara and Amy as I give them a second puzzle to solve. It will be fun to see who joins them, there on the shores of Pulaski Lake, and how their lives unfold in their new hometown.

When I began my job at the library, newly graduated from college with a degree in English and several failed novels in a box under my bed, I dreamt of the day the library shelves would hold my own work.

A Menacing Brew is my sixth novel, following five romantic suspense titles, so my books have actually been in our stacks for a while now. But to me, every book feels like the first one. In a way, this one really is. My first cozy will be there beside those of my own favorite authors on the new book display!

Then, before we know it, the publishers' catalogs will arrive, full of fall releases, ready for librarians to order and patrons to read. I'll wear out another highlighter circling titles of cozy adventures, wishing I had time to read them all. Could there ever be such a thing?

12 May 2020

Location Location Location – In “The Blues Don’t Care”


In front of Club Alabam
Every time I have a novel come out I do a post about some of the locations in it. I try to set most scenes in the real world and give that world a sense of verisimilitude (remember, don’t use a small word when you can use a six syllable one). Much, though not all, of what I write is set in Los Angeles. As is The Blues Don’t Care (dropping on 6/1/20, and available now for pre-order)…but with a twist this time. Instead of being set in the modern L.A. of White Heat, Broken Windows and Vortex this one is set in 1940s L.A., with World War II raging in the background.

Bobby Saxon is a young white piano player whose ambition is to get a spot with the all-black Booker ‘Boom Boom’ Taylor Orchestra (big band) at L.A.’s famous Club Alabam. He gets his wish but at the price of having to help investigate a murder that one of the band members is accused of.

Like Randy Newman said, I love L.A. (well, more like love-hate, but overall love) and I really loved researching the locations and history of 1940s L.A. Bobby’s adventures take him on a wild ride through mid-century Los Angeles, from the swanky Sunset Tower apartments in West Hollywood to seedy pool rooms near downtown and the vibrant jazz scene of Central Avenue.

So here are some of the stops on Bobby’s journey:

The Club Alabam and The Dunbar Hotel: In the days when African-Americans couldn’t stay at most hotels and couldn’t go to just any “white” nightclubs—or other establishments—they formed their own businesses. In L.A. the heart of the black community during the mid-twentieth century was Central Avenue. Clothing stores, barbershops, restaurants, doctors, dentists and pretty much anything one could want could be found there. And the heart of Central was the Dunbar Hotel (formerly Hotel Sumerville), which featured an elegant lobby with arched windows and entry ways and Art Deco chandeliers. The Dunbar was where the cream of black society, entertainers, politicians, et al., stayed when they were in town. Duke Ellington kept a suite there. Right next door to the Dunbar was the most famous of the nightclubs (of which there were many) on Central, the Club Alabam. Bobby spends a lot of time at both the Alabam and the Dunbar. And it’s said that one night when W.C. Fields got drunk at the Alabam he stayed overnight at the Dunbar, accidentally integrating it.

Two shots of the Dunbar Hotel, interior & exterior.
It was formerly the Hotel Somerville.

Famous couple at Musso & Frank.

Musso & Frank: Has been a Hollywood watering hole for decades, since the 1920s. There was a back room bar where famous writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Fante, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner hung out. Movies stars like Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Betty Davis, Ginger Rogers, Greta Garbo and Edward G. Robinson all dined there. It’s known for its red-coated waiters, many of whom have worked there for decades, probably since the time of the story (maybe?). In Blues, Bobby plays piano in exchange for a free meal, but pays dearly for that meal when he’s ambushed outside of the restaurant. Here’s a recent pic of Amy and me there. We didn’t get ambushed that night, but anything’s possible on Hollywood Boulevard.

Another famous couple at Musso & Frank ;-)

The La Brea Tar Pits: Located on Rancho La Brea lands, the tar pits were a major excavation site in the 1910s for paleontologists from all over the world. In the 1920s ranch owner, Hancock, donated the land to Los Angeles County with the stipulation that the tar pits be designated as a protected park and that the fossils found there be retained and exhibited. When I was a kid we’d go on picnics at the park surrounding the tar pits and I have fond memories of them, including the acrid smell of the tar. Since those days the George C. Page Museum was built and fossil excavation continues to this day. Bobby visits the tar pits in a scene in the book, and let’s just say not all the bones in the tar pits are that old….but you’ll have to read the book to find out what really happens there.

La Brea Tar Pits (photo by Kimon Berlin)

The Long Beach Pike: In the novel, Bobby and his “partner” Sam Wilde head down to the Pike in Long Beach, while looking for clues. For decades the Pike was an amusement park by the sea. It featured a wooden roller coast, The Cyclone, with two tracks so cars could “race” each other. Bobby and Sam ride the coaster in one of the scenes at the Pike.

Long Beach Pike

There was also a midway with arcade games, shooting galleries, fortune tellers and assorted shops. And because it was situated near Naval shipyards, it earned a reputation for being a hangout for rowdy sailors looking for girls. That’s the atmosphere that appealed to me as a setting for some of the scenes in Blues.

In the 1970s it fell on hard times, got seedy and eventually closed.

One of the challenges writing Blues was figuring out how Bobby and Sam got down to Long Beach in the 1940s, before freeways. I turned to the usual sources for help, the internet, books, etc. But the best source was buying old Los Angeles area street maps from eBay. They really helped in this regard and were just plain fascinating in general. My mom also helped with her memories of how to get from “here” to “there.”

Here’s a short excerpt of Bobby and Sam heading to the Pike. When Bobby first meets Sam it’s not exactly under pleasant circumstances and Bobby isn’t sure if Sam is on his side or not, so the long ride to Long Beach is a little tense to say the least:

Long Beach was a navy town south of Los Angeles, the Pike its oceanside amusement quarter. Bobby knew there’d be lots of sailors around, if they ever actually made it to the Pike. They’d have to pass through the Wilmington oil fields on the way and that was as good a place as any to dispose of a body. The oil fields were a well-known dumping ground. Bodies were always bobbing up through the greasy black muck that leached to the surface.

Bobby white-knuckled the steering wheel, gripping as hard as he could, mostly so Wilde wouldn’t notice his shaking hands. They passed through the oil field, with its forests of towering derricks—supplicants reaching for the sky. Safely past the dumping grounds, he loosened his grip on the wheel.



Pickwick Books (in case the sign didn't give it away :-) )
Pickwick Bookshop: I loved this place, which is, unfortunately, gone now. It was an institution on Hollywood Boulevard for decades. Three stories of books, books and more books. There was a time when there were a ton of bookstores on Hollywood Boulevard, most of them used or antiquarian. I think most are gone today, replaced by electronic stores and gimcrack souvenir shops in large part. And people running around dressed up like super heroes who, if you take their picture without paying some ridiculous fee will chase you down and… Bobby has occasion to go there in the story, but my favorite part of the scene there was cut. Supposedly this is a true story that actually happened there, but fictionalized to include Bobby. So here it is:

Bobby looked away.
“There are no second acts in American life,” the salesman said, as Bobby handed him a five dollar bill.
“No, I guess not.”
“Know who said that?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“F. Scott Fitzgerald, the famous writer.”
“I like his books,” Bobby said. “But I don’t know the quote.”
“A man came in here one day looking for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. You know our store here’s on three floors, the first is current titles, the second level is for rare and unusual books. The third floor is for used books, bargains and the like.”
Why was the salesman telling him all this?
“So anyway, this man comes in and asks for Gatsby. The salesman tells him, ‘We don’t stock the work of dead authors on this floor. You’ll have to try upstairs.’”
“So did he find the book upstairs?”
“He did. And do you know what his name was?”
“No.”
Pickwick Books (interior)
“F. Scott Fitzgerald. I didn’t even recognize him and it’s been making me sick ever since. Especially since he died shortly after that. Another customer who knew him told me my not recognizing him and thinking he was dead had a catastrophic effect on him.” The clerk looked at the book Bobby had set on the counter. “Thomas Wolfe. No, you certainly can’t go home again.”
“Neither you nor me.”

The clerk finished wrapping Bobby’s book in brown paper, tied it with string. He handed it to Bobby with a wink. “Here’s your change.”

Max Factor Building: Bobby has occasion to go to the Max Factor building in Hollywood on Highland near Hollywood Boulevard. Max Factor is the famous Hollywood makeup artist, who branched out into a line of cosmetics that I think you can still buy today. He also had a salon where anyone could make an appointment and you might run into someone rich or famous while there. Bobby goes there on business, but feels a little funny, and maybe not for the obvious reasons. Today it’s the Hollywood Museum, so luckily here’s one building the Powers That Be didn’t tear down as happens so often in the City of Angels.
Max Factor building (the pic doesn't do it justice)

Cocoanut Grove: The Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire was one of the premier, if not the premier nightclub in L.A. for ages. On a darker note, the Ambassador is also where RFK was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in 1968. Bobby takes Margaret, a woman he’s interested in and someone who might know more than she’s saying about the murder, on a date there. It might not have worked out so well for him…

Cocoanut Grove

Clover Field (A.K.A. The Santa Monica Airport): Douglas Aircraft worked out of Clover Field in the heart of Santa Monica. As such, during the war Warner Brothers technicians and artists came out from Burbank to camouflage the airfield so it couldn’t be seen from the air. Movie magic applied to real life. Bobby, his pal Sam Wilde, and Margaret wind up there when they’re chased by a mysterious car and end up almost breaching the base’s security, not something that is taken lightly by the MPs on duty. But what happens after that makes Bobby wish they’d been arrested by the MPs.


Clover Field: the center/bottom half of the pic is the concealed Douglas Aircraft
Cars parked under the camouflage tarp

Bradbury Building (photo by Jay Walsh)
The Bradbury Building: With its atrium, caged wrought iron elevator and marble and brick is one of my favorite places in Los Angeles. I’m sure you’ve seen it ’cause it’s been in many movies, especially the interior. Generally, one can’t go above the mezzanine as it’s still a functioning office building. I had a meeting there one time and felt special to be able to go up the elevator and walk the upper hall. Someone Bobby has an interest in has an office here, too. I don’t think his visit was as pleasant as mine… I did a whole SleuthSayers post on it some time back so if you want to check that out: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2016/05/the-bradbury-building-screen-star.html .

These are a few of the places Bobby visits. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour of 1940s Los Angeles. Stay tuned for more when the book comes out on June 1st. It’s available for pre-order now at Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com and iTunes.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My short story "Fade-Out On Bunker Hill" came in 2nd place in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Poll. In lieu of the pre-Edgars cocktail party, we had a virtual awards ceremony. You can see the whole thing (including my bookshelves) on YouTube. I want to thank Janet Hutchings and Jackie Sherbow of Ellery Queen and, of course, everyone who voted for it!



Coming June 1st from Down & Out Books – The Blues Don't Care:

 “Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40s’ L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. He is one helluva writer.”
                                                               —Michael Sears, author of the Jason Stafford series



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

20 April 2020

The Starless Sea



Although most of my writing has been mystery novels and short stories, I have also published a number of contemporary novels, as well as short stories in other genres. For this reason, I am always interested in novels that combine genres or generally break the usual compositional rules.
Erin Morgenstern's The Starless Sea, a love letter to reading, books, and stories of all types, is a fine example. Distinguished by an intricate plot that mixes myth, fable, adventure, and mystery, its greatest strength turns out to be an incredibly detailed and imaginative setting.

That's right, setting.

We like to say that character and plot are absolute keys to success and normally they are. In the case of The Starless Sea, however, while the plot is effective and the protagonists, likable enough, what one is apt to remember is the creation of an alternate world, dominated by books and stories, far beneath our feet.

Clearly this world, without sun or visible means of ventilation or food production has many, many implausibilities, not to mention the sea of honey, the bees, the Owl King, the seemingly wise cats, and the immortal Keeper. But never doubt the power of a good storyteller. The Harbor where Zachery Ezra Rawlins enters (via an elevator in New York's Central Park) is described with such precision and such a wealth of detail, that it is easy to suspend disbelief. And well worthwhile, too, because that alternate world is where the various stories, some no more than a page or two, some newly-invented fairy tales, and some full-fledged adventures, all come together.

Zachery is a graduate student in Emerging Media, who finds that all he really wants to do is read after a romance goes sour. Scanning his university library's bookshelves, he chances upon Sweet Sorrows, an anonymous volume from a mysterious donor, that recounts an incident in his own life. This triggers a bibliographic mystery, which, in turn, leads him to adventures with members of a mysterious society and their enemies; to Dorian, to whom he will lose his heart, and to Mirabel who may be human or may be a metaphor, but who knows her way around the starless sea and its harbors.

Zachery winds up below ground, while in the upper world, life goes on for people like his friend Kat, an aspiring game designer also enthralled by fiction. At the same time, in another dimension, one of fables and myths, various stories unfold, interesting oddities what will all be eventually pulled into the overall narrative. This complicated structure must have presented many challenges for the author, but the breaks have a useful function. They interrupt what might have become an overly claustrophobic and precious atmosphere of the vast libraries of the starless sea venues, whose very physical structures are sometimes devised from stories on paper.

The narrative spine is provided by Zachery's adventures, interwoven with the experiences of the heroic Dorian; of Eleanor, who literally fell into the Harbor as a young child and of Simon, later her lover and man lost out of time, along with appearances by the enigmatic Mirabel and her antagonist Allegra, the Painter, who wants to preserve a world that both Mirabel and the Keeper know is in decline.

Erin Morgenstern
The line of the novel only becomes clear in its closing stages, but the adventures of the main characters prove strong enough to support the weight of fantasy and myth and, yes, the many metaphors, that fill the book. A clue to the author's ambitions comes when Kat reflects on the type of game she would like to construct: " Part spy movie, part fairy tale, part choose your own adventure. Epic branching story that doesn't stick to a single genre or one set path..." She concludes, "A book is made of paper but a story is a tree."

So speaks the video gamer.

But in The Starless Sea Erin Morgenstern has done something similar the old fashioned way with print on paper.

03 January 2020

What I Really Think About Sensitivity Reading


I've been a mental health professional and psychotherapist for 35 years, a published writer of novels and short stories for 13. I live in New York with its kaleidoscopic population. For almost 20 years, I've conducted my therapy practice in cyberspace, ie all over the world. Either personally or in one role or another, I've known a vast variety of people intimately. I've heard the secrets and the candid thoughts and feelings of people of every race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, from homeless to celebrity, from nun to murderer, from serving military to self-proclaimed anarchist, from survivor of child molestation to convicted pedophile. I've worked with prostitutes and flashers and gamblers as well as the whole spectrum of sex and gender. I've heard from dozens of cops how 911 really felt to them. I've helped hundreds of alcoholics and drug addicts get clean and sober.

Empathy and imagination are the tools of my trade-—or let's call them my superpowers. My body of work attests to my high degree of competence at my trade, indeed, both my trades. If I were a surgeon setting your broken leg, would you insist I couldn't do it without instruction from you because I'd never had a broken leg myself? If you don't like that analogy, consider this: I've spent my whole personal and professional life living with, interacting with, working with, treating, writing about, loving, and in one case raising successfully the ultimate aliens: men. And male writers have been doing the same with women, with varying success. [Pause while I resist the temptation to name names.]

How those who haven't walked the walk, especially of the marginalized, can possibly write authentically about such characters has become one of the burning questions of our time. I don't think censorship by the thought police, aka sensitivity reading, is the answer. Redaction in the name of reverence is the enemy of creativity and pure poison to art itself.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I worked as a clinical social worker in and later directed alcoholism treatment programs in New York, many staff were recovering alcoholics who used their own experience as an integral part of their treatment technique, much like sponsorship in AA. Credentialing for counselors was in its youth. Many clients in treatment also went to AA, where they were told that "only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic." (At the time of AA's founding, no effective treatment for alcoholism existed.)

I made a conscious decision not to "confirm or deny" when asked if I was an alcoholic myself. Rather than using that stuffy expression, I told them they would have to find another way to decide whether or not to trust me. My professional experience taught me that some clients wanted to hear I was just like them, but others wanted to be assured I wasn't as damaged as they were. Some of my clients were the deeply hurt or angry partners and family members of alcoholics, who wanted to hear I was not another alcoholic. And how about the bipolar clients, the ex-prostitutes, the survivors of child abuse and sexual trauma I treated? Did every one of them need to hear I was like them-—or not like them? Once I lost control of disclosure about myself, it would be gone forever. The only solution was not to disclose anything about my personal experience.

When my first novel about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler was published, I knew that I'd be asked the same question: "Are you an alcoholic?" I made the same decision again. By then, 2008, readers were looking authors up on the Internet and so were potential clients for the online therapy practice I was now engaged in. One mention on Facebook of what I was or wasn't, and once again, I'd lose control over who knew what about me. And it would unquestionably affect people's judgment about whether I was qualified to write what I wrote, treat whom I treated, or know what I knew I knew. As I've learned over and over, people believe what they want to believe. So I had and have no intention of making myself vulnerable to their judgment.

It's not only online that people continually try to break the boundaries I've set for myself. I wish they wouldn't, although I'm no longer amazed at the way people think they have a right to personal information about someone they don't know. Unfortunately, one of the "family rules" of our society is that it's okay. I've had AA members who've read and enjoyed my book tell me so on the street, which is lovely, and then ask if I'm in the program myself-—demonstrating their imperfect grasp of the concept of anonymity. I've given a reading from my story in Me Too Short Stories and had someone come up, tell me it was wonderful and they're going to buy the anthology, then say, "Was it based on personal experience?"-—oblivious to the fact that they've just asked a perfect stranger in a crowded public place, "Were you molested as a child?"

I'm no longer flustered by such questions. I have a standard way of dealing with them firmly but kindly. I say, "I don't disclose that information." If more is needed, I say it's a policy that I apply to everyone. I may even explain it as a matter of my being a mental health professional. But it's really about my right to myself as my own intellectual property, which is akin to my integrity as a therapist and my creative material as a writer. Only I control what anyone knows about my personal experience. Anonymity means that a person in 12-step recovery has the sole right to share that information outside a meeting room. Confidentiality means that only the client has the right to decide who knows what he or she tells a therapist. And intellectual freedom mean that only I as a writer have the right to decide what I write. Short of hate speech, anything else would be kowtowing to the thought police. I'd give up writing rather than settle for appeasement to such an Orwellian distortion of the concept of freedom of speech and creativity.

Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries, the Mendoza Family Saga, and three dozen short stories. Most recently, she edited the anthology Me Too Short Stories. Liz's stories have been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha Awards and appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. In 2020 so far, her stories will be published in AHMM and Jewish Noir 2.

17 December 2019

Merry Movie Mayhem


With Christmas and Hanukkah only a few days away, here’s some last minute Merry Mayhem stocking stuffers. As of the time of this writing, a few days before its posting, most were still available and some are available streaming. The movies aren’t necessarily Christmas-related, just good stocking stuffers for those who like to read, write and watch crime fiction. And I’ve tossed in a bunch of non-crime-related movies at the end. All in no particular order. So, roll film:


The Godfather and its two sequels: Godfather I is one of the greatest movies ever made. And Godfather II is even better. Three isn’t as bad as I first thought it was and if one can get around Sofia Coppola’s Valley Girl Mafia chic it’s pretty good actually. You can get them individually, in a set or as the Godfather Saga where they’ve been cut together chronologically. I’ll take my Godfather any way I can get it.

Chinatown and Two Jakes: At the risk of being repetitive, Chinatown is one of the greatest movies ever made. And one of the best and most perfect screenplays I’ve ever read. When task master Amy was trying to get me to pare down on things, she “made” me get rid of a ton of screenplays I had – lots of good ones, too. But one of the few that I kept was Chinatown, which still sits on a shelf in my office for inspiration. Some people don’t like the subject matter, they find it repulsive. But it’s still a terrific movie. And the sequel, Two Jakes, also isn’t as bad as I first thought it was. But it’s best to watch it right after you view Chinatown so everything that it refers to is fresh in your mind. That will enhance your enjoyment of it.

In a Lonely Place: Tied for my second favorite movie of all time (see towards the end for the other second fave). And yes, I like the movie better than the book it’s based on. It resonates with me on so many levels. Back in the day, the Smithereens did a song called In a Lonely Place, inspired by the movie. It even has some lines from the movie. I really like this song. I got a poster of the movie from Pat DiNizio, the lead singer/guitarist/songwriter of the Smithereens. And when I look at the poster I like to think that DiNizio was also looking at that very poster when he wrote that song.

Film Noir 10-Movie Spotlight Collection: Okay, even if you don’t have anyone to get this for, get it for yourself. It’s one of the best collections of noir I’ve seen. It includes: This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, Double Indemnity, Phantom Lady, The Blue Dahlia, Black Angel, The Killers (1946 version), The Big Clock, Criss Cross, Touch of Evil. There’s not a bad movie in the bunch. And it includes the ultimate film noir imo, Double Indemnity. Plus Blue Dahlia, which Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay for. But they’re all good to great. Some have commentaries and other features. I’ve given this as gifts to a few people and I’m always envious when I do. I have all the movies, but in other versions, but somehow I still want this set for me. One great set.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection: If you like Hitchcock and you don’t already have these or know someone who might enjoy them it’s a great Hitch starter set. I say ‘starter’ because there’s so many more. But this includes one of my two fave Hitchcock movies, Vertigo (the other being The Lady Vanishes). And most of the movies here are terrific, though there’s some I’m not all that fond of. Plus there’s lots of extra features. Movies in the set are: Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot.

Pulp Fiction: Everybody knows this one. It’s a terrific movie. And would make a great stocking stuffer, along with Reservoir Dogs.

Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile: Two movies based on Stephen King stories. Not horror tales, like he’s generally known for. And I tend to like his non-horror stories – like these and Stand by Me – much more than the horror ones. You can get these two in a set, both directed by Frank Darabont. A terrific two-fer.

Thin Man Boxed Set: Unfortunately, I think I was wrong about this one still being available. Well, it is still available but it’s over 200 bucks. So maybe another time when it’s reissued. We all know the Thin Man movies. The playful banter and plentiful drink. One of my film school teachers wrote one of them – I always thought that was so cool. There’s other good William Powell Myrna Loy movies as well, especially Libeled Lady and Love Crazy.

LA Confidential: I’m a James Ellroy fan, though not as much as I used to be. This is one hell of a good movie based on his book. And, though I loved the book, after watching the movie about 500 times, I reread it and think I actually like the movie better.

Here’s some non-crime movies that might work, too:

Reuben Reuben: A minor gem and a great satire. Here’s a couple quotes from the movie:

“There's nothing I cherish more than the truth. I don't practice it, but I cherish it.”

And later:

“That’s where they live. (Points to sign that says “Birch Hills”.) And in other subdivisions with names like Orchard View and Vineyard Haven. All of them named, God help us, for the woods and the vineyards and the apple trees they bulldozed out of existence to make way for the new culture.”

After Hours: Something a little different from Martin Scorsese.  The Grateful Dead sang, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” They might have been writing about Griffin Dunne’s very long, odd night in this movie.

Casablanca: Number 1 fave movie, bar none. Do I really need to say anything about this?

Beatles on Ed Sullivan: What can I say about this? They changed the world – at least they changed my world.

Uncle Buck: One of two John Candy/John Hughes movies on this list. Uncle Buck doesn’t always get great reviews, but I like it. I think it’s funny and warm.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: The other John Candy/John Hughes film on this list. Also funny with a warm heart.

My Cousin Vinny: I’ve seen this in whole or in part about 1,000,000 times. And I always laugh. It never gets old.

Can’t Buy Me Love: Patrick Dempsey as a high school student who finds out the real price of being popular. And the title is from a Beatle song that’s played in the movie. How can you go wrong?

It’s Alive: Ramones concert footage. Great stuff from a terrific, punchy band. Gabba Gabba Hey! Johnny Ramone came in #28 on Rolling Stone’s list of top 100 guitar players. See why on this 2 DVD set. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/100-greatest-guitarists-153675/johnny-ramone-154110/

They Might Be Giants: A man (George C. Scott) thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. His psychiatrist, Dr. Watson (Joanne Woodward), might think so, too…sooner or later.

Soldier in the Rain: A special movie, starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen. If it doesn’t touch your heart you don’t have one.

Fred and Ginger movies, individually or boxed: always good for the holiday spirit

Ghost World: My other second favorite movie, along with In a Lonely Place. I’m not a teenage girl, but I totally relate to the alienation these characters, played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson, feel. And for those who haven’t seen it it’s not a horror movie despite the title. (Also w/ Steve Buscemi.)

Sideways: a wonderful movie for writers, even more than for people who hate Merlot.

I don’t think he’s really talking about wine here:

Miles (Paul Giamatti): “Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.”

Here’s a link to another SleuthSayers piece I did on Christmas movies with both a Christmas and crime element. Some movies you might think are missing from today’s list might be found here: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/12/have-holly-jolly-crime-season.html

I could keep going, but all good things must come to an end and maybe crime doesn’t pay but it pays to watch these movies.

So have yourself a Merry Little Mayhem Murderous Christmas. Happy Holidays Everyone!

~.~.~

BSP: Oh, and maybe a couple stocking stuffer books:



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09 November 2019

My Rules of Mystery


Many writers have drafted up a set of "rules" for how to write and, specifically, how to write mysteries. I thought now would be a nice time to toss in my five cents on the matter. And the following list can equally apply to short stories or novels.


1.   First rule of mystery writing: There MUST be a mystery.

Readers KEEP reading, page after page, because they want to know the answer/solution/explanation of that mystery.

2.   Does a mystery always need a dead body?

No. But the "crime" needs to be significant, e.g., a serious physical assault, the robbery of a valuable jewel, a threat to kill.

An empty chocolate wrapper (and Who ate the candy?) is a children's mystery. A severed head is an adult mystery.

3.   The mystery must be solved at the END of the story.

Ask a question very near the beginning, e.g., Who murdered Roger Ackroyd? Answer this question very near the end.

If you don't answer the question, and the mystery remains a mystery, the reader will throw your book at the wall.

You could answer the question in the middle, but you better have another good question to ask at that point to lead the reader through to the end; and there needs to be a good, justifiable reason for doing this.

4.   There is a difference between mystery and suspense.

A bomb that brings down an aircraft is a mystery. A passenger on a plane thinking the guy two rows ahead may have a bomb in his overhead luggage is suspense.

5.   Be aware that “Mystery” is a broad church.

There are many sub categories (or genres) to mysteries, e.g., noir, cozy, police procedural, private eye, locked room. And feel free to mix these up.

6.   Genres have rules.

If you’re writing in one of the genres (99% likely), be aware there are conventions and reader expectations for each.

Unless you truly are one of the masters of literature, mess with reader expectations at your peril.

7.   You are unlikely to be one of the masters of literature.


8.   Write what you know. If you don’t know, find out.

Don’t write a story about a private eye, or a kindergarten teacher, if you have no idea at all what is involved in those professions. Don't set a story in Latvia if you don't, at least, know the country's capitol or what language the people speak (Riga, Latvian/Russian). Don't write about Euclidean geometry, if you haven't any idea what that is. Don’t guess; research (libraries, Google, talk to people).

A good writer is a good researcher.

9.   Clichés

Avoid these like the plague.

There are countless websites that list clichés and common and overused tropes.

10.  Conflict is your friend.

Conflict, at its simplest, is the "disagreement" between a person and another (person, external force/creature). It's between protagonist and antagonist; or to put it another way:

Main Character vs. ________________

Every work of fiction (mystery, or other) that’s ever been sold to a publisher has had conflict in it (literary fiction excluded). Conflict invites drama; it is the fuel of a story. If your story has no conflict, there will be little to engage the reader.

A scene where a married couple eats dinner and discuss what color to paint their bathroom is not drama. If one of the diners suspects the other of sleeping around, you have conflict (and they can still be discussing what color to paint the bathroom (see next)).

11.  Subtext is your friend.

Subtext is not written, it is implied. It is the underneath; the feelings and intuition, the unspoken meaning.

Even a shopping list can have subtext.
  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Hammer
  • Shovel
  • Bag of quicklime
  • Bottle of champagne 
Subtext is one of the writer's tools of magic.

12.  Plants are your friends.

Don’t have the hero pull out a gun and shoot the bad guy on the last page, if there’s been no mention (or any kind of reasonable expectation) that the hero is carrying a gun. Plant it. Remember your Chekhov: Gun on wall in first act. Gun fired in third act.

And plants apply to everything, not just guns. Bad guy's sneeze gives away his position in the shadows; plant his allergy earlier. Hero must rescue cat from tree, but he can't; plant his fear of heights earlier.

Without planting, events and actions will appear implausible, and your book will meet the wall.

A good writer is a good gardener.

Note: Yes, I know I'm retooling Chekhov's meaning (he was more concerned with the relevance of things in a story, i.e., don't include something, if it isn't needed later).

13.  Red herrings vs. Playing fair

Feel free to mislead and misdirect your readers (let them reel in many red herrings), but always play fair. Give your readers some real "clues" as to what is going on; so, at the end of the story, they'll slap their heads and sigh, "Oh, but of course!" Give them enough clues so that they "almost" might be able to work out what is going on, before you yank the curtain back and startle the snot out of them.

Never try to "trick" your reader; your book will be thrown at the wall.

And if you end your story with: it was all just a dream, you'll hit the wall before your book does.

14.  MacGuffins are a thing.

Many mysteries make use of a MacGuffin. A microfilm that everyone wants, and will kill for, is a MacGuffin. The Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin. The object of a quest: a diamond mine, an unknown Beethoven Symphony, the Holy Grail, can all be MacGuffins. MacGuffins give the characters something to do.

Wikipedia sums it up best: "In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself."

The shark in Jaws IS NOT a MacGuffin.

15.  Impose a deadline

Deadlines work well in suspense (We have to find the bomb, it explodes at midnight!!!), and they also work in mystery. A deadline focuses a story on its end/outcome and creates urgency. Think of a story as a tunnel. The deadline is the light at the end.

The detective on board the train must identify the killer before the train arrives at its destination and all the passengers disembark. An unknown man who smokes Gauloises has threatened to hijack a school bus, and it's two hours until school's out.

16.  Twists are good. (there be spoilers here)

A TWIST ENDING is not a prerequisite for a mystery, but if you can write an unexpected and satisfying twist into your story's end, it will certainly make it more memorable; it will add another layer of icing to the cake. A twist ending completely upends and rearranges the facts and events of what's come before it.

The Sixth Sense: The child psychologist IS one of the dead people the kid is seeing. Psycho: Norman Bates IS his mother.

Pro tip: Twist endings are never arbitrarily dreamed up at the end of writing a story. They are written in right from the very beginning. Robert Bloch knew on page one of Psycho that Norman Bates' mother was dead and that Norman was the killer, and Bloch carefully hid this in the fabric of the storytelling. He didn't let the reader in on the truth until the end.

PLOT TWISTS can appear anywhere in a story and are different to the "twist ending." Plot twists change something significant about the story and/or the characters, but don't rewrite the whole thing.

Star Wars: Luke, I am your father. The Shining: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

An excellent, legendary plot twist appears in Psycho, about one third of the way in. Mary Crane, the book's main character (the one we've been following and who we care about), is murdered. She's gone for good. Never comes back. Bloch was one of the masters of literature; he could get away with that kind of thing.

17.  Last rule of mystery writing: Ignore all the rules at your pleasure. Except for the first one.


So, do you have any "rules of mystery" that you live and write by?



stephenross.live/
Twitter: @_StephenRoss/

27 July 2019

Themes in Novels (in which Bad Girl discovers she’s not so flaky after all…)


One of the great discussions in the author world is whether your book should have a theme or not. Of course it’s going to have a plot. (Protagonist with a problem or goal and obstacles to that goal – real obstacles that matter - which are resolved by the end.) But does a book always have a theme?
Usually when we’re talking ‘theme’, we’re putting the story into a more serious category. Margaret Atwood (another Canadian – smile) tells a ripping good story in The Handmaid’s Tale. But readers would agree there is a serious theme underlying it, a warning, in effect.

Now, I write comedies. Crime heists and romantic comedies, most recently. They are meant to be fun and entertaining. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that all of my books have rather serious themes behind them.

Last Friday, I was interviewed for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) mini-documentary featuring female Canadian crime writers. During this, the producer got me talking about the background to my most awarded series, The Goddaughter. This crime caper series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one, but keeps getting dragged back to bail out her inept mob family.

I know what it’s like to be a part of an Italian family that may have had ties to the mob. (In the past. My generation is squeaky clean.) The producer asked me If that informed my writing. Of course it did. But in our discussion, she stopped me when I said: “You are supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is *this* one?”

Voila. There it was: a theme. All throughout the Goddaughter series, Gina Gallo grapples with this internal struggle.
So then I decided to look at my other books. The B-team is a spin-off from The Goddaughter series. It’s a funny take on The A-team television series. A group of well-meaning vigilantes set out to do good, but as this is comedy, things go awry. In fact, the tag-line is: “They do wrong for all the right reasons…and sometimes it even works.”

Was there a theme behind this premise? Was there a *question asked*? And yes, to me, it was clear.

In The B-Team, I play with the concept: Is it ever all right to do illegal things to right a wrong?

Back up to the beginning. My first series was fantasy. Humorous fantasy, of course. Rowena Through the Wall basically is a spoof of Outlander type books. Rowena falls through a portal into a dark ages world, and has wild and funny adventures. I wrote it strictly to entertain…didn’t I? And yet, the plot revolves around the fact that women are scarce in this time. They’ve been killed off by war. I got the idea from countries where women were scarce due to one-child policies. So what would happen…I mused…if women were scarce? Would they have more power in their communities? Or would the opposite happen. Would they have even less control of their destinies, as I posited?

A very strong, serious theme underlying a noted “hilarious” book. Most readers would never notice it. But some do, and have commented. That gets this old gal very excited.
I’ve come to the conclusion that writers – even comedy writers – strive to say something about our world. Yes, I write to entertain. But the life questions I grapple with find their way into my novels, by way of underlying themes. I’m not into preaching. That’s for non-fiction. But If I work them in well, a reader may not notice there is an author viewpoint behind the work.

Yes, I write to entertain. But I’ve come to the conclusion that behind every novel is an author with something to say. Apparently, I’m not as flaky as I thought.

What about you? Do you look for a theme in novels? Or if a writer, do you find your work conforms to specific themes?



Got teen readers in your family? Here's the latest crime comedy, out this month:

On AMAZON

26 March 2019

Can You Hear Me Now?


Thanks to the fine folks at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a recording of me reading my Agatha Award-nominated short story "Bug Appétit" will be available online at the EQMM website beginning April 1st. (It's true. No April Fool's here.) When they asked me to make the recording, my biggest concern was technical. How could I get a good version of me reading my story in Virginia up to New York, from where it would get uploaded to the EQMM podcast site? That may sound like a no-brainer to many of you, but for me, well, let's just say I'm not really great with new technology. I'm still waiting for someone to teach me how to use the Bluetooth in my car.
Eventually things got worked out technologically speaking (thank you, Jackie Sherbow), so I was able to focus on my next worry: I have five speaking characters in my story. How was I going to make them sound different enough that the listener would be able to tell them apart? If you're reading the story on paper (or on a screen), you can see when a speaker changes, even without a dialogue tag, because you'll see a closing quotation mark, then a change in paragraph, and the next line of dialogue opens with an open quotation mark. You're not going to have those visual signals with audio. My friends told me not to worry--ha!--and said that surely it would all be fine.

"Bug Appétit" was in the
Nov./Dec. 2018 issue
Skeptical, I realized procrastinating was doing me no good. So I put those worries aside and moved on to the next ones: Was I properly pronouncing all the words in the story? Would I talk too quickly?--something I've been accused of in the past. Would I insert verbal tics (umms, etc.) without realizing it? To address these concerns I looked up the words I was unsure of, including researching regional pronunciations, and practiced reading out loud. Then I recorded the story, sent it off to New York, and now I wait anxiously for April 1st to arrive for the recording to be posted so I can see (or more precisely, hear) if I did an okay job.

In the meanwhile, here are some things I've learned from this experience:

(1) Even if you think you've written a funny story, you can't laugh at your own jokes while you read the story aloud. This is tougher than you'd think when you're a hoot. (Just saying.)

(2) While Alexa may be good at a lot of things, pronunciation isn't one of them. When I asked her how to pronounce "sago" (as in sago grubs), which I spelled out for her, she pronounced it for me--the same way I would have said it instinctively. Woo-hoo! But then she said that she's not often good at pronouncing things and while she's always improving, maybe I shouldn't rely on her. So much for technology.

(3) "Pecan pie" is one of those terms that is pronounced differently in various parts of the United States. Where I grew up on Long Island, it's pronounced PEE-can pie. (Every time I say it or think it, I can hear Billy Crystal saying it over and over in When Harry Met Sally. "Pee-can pie. Pee-can pie. Pee-can piiiiie." But on the West Coast, where my story is set, many people pronounce it pih-KHAN  pie. I had to practice to say it right.





(4) Practice doesn't always make perfect. When you read aloud, you instinctively say a word the way you've always said it, no matter how much you practice. Or at least that's what happened to me, which is why I had to stop and re-read that part for the recording. Twice. That pih-KHAN pie was hard fought.

(5) No matter how hard you try to remove background noise, when you're recording something, there will always be a plane flying overhead.

(6) And when you have a dog named Jingle, he will become velcro right when you want to start recording and then he will live up to his name, moving and scratching and jingling over and over and over, so you have to stop and restart the recording over and over and over. And over.

(7) Eventually you'll get so frustrated you'll tug his collar off and tell him to be quiet (perhaps with some expletives mixed in). When he finally does it and falls asleep, you'll sigh in relief, but beware: your bliss will be short-lived. Because within a few minutes the dog will start to snore. Of course he will.

(8) Effecting five different voices plus the one saying the internal monologue is not easy. I found that I physically tried to embody each character, stretching tall with my nose raised whenever the mother spoke, tilting my head sideways to get the amused dad's voice right, and internalizing the narrator's voice from season two of Fargo when I read the exposition. The only voice that came really easily was the grandma's--a woman who spoke her mind. Go figure.

(9) Reading a story aloud takes much longer than you'd expect. Much longer than reading it silently. Let's hope that means I read it slowly enough without any verbal tics. And, um, if I, um, included some tics, um, please don't tell me.

(10) If the fine folks at EQMM ever ask you to record one of your stories for their podcast, jump at the chance. It was a lot of fun. But first, arrange for your dog to go on a long walk before you hit record. The last thing you want listeners to hear while you're reading your story is someone snoring in the background.