04 April 2013

My Interview With Crime Fiction Author James R. Winter

by Brian Thornton

"Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game."

                                                                                                                                  - North Dallas Forty

Writing is a funny business- erm- game.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this business/game is the networking, and the connections that result from same. One of the first I made when I first ventured out in search writing success was with a funny guy from Cincinnati named Jim Winter. Here are his basics:

Jim Winter was born near Cleveland in 1966. In 1991, he moved to Cincinnati marry the love of his life. He finally met her in 2008 and married her before she could change her mind.  Jim is the author of Road Rules, Northcoast Shakedown, Second Hand Goods, and The Compleat Kepler. He has previously reviewed for Crimespree, January Magazine, and Mystery Scene. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Nita, and stepson, AJ. Visit him at http://www.jamesrwinter.net.

I first met Jim nearly a decade ago through the Short Mystery Fiction Society's email list. We met up in person for the first time a couple of years later at the Toronto Bouchercon. Toronto was also where we both met crime fiction icon Ken Bruen for the first time, camping out for hours in an Irish pub across the street from the downtown convention center, an encounter later immortalized (fictitiously) by our mutual friend Steve Hockensmith in a short story called "Envy," which later made it into one of the annual Mystery Writers of America anthologies (Still waiting for my cut on that one, Steve...)

 Anyway Jim is a real mensch, and if you haven't stopped in at his blog and given it a read (especially his hilarious take on politics and his deep thoughts on music), you're missing out. Many of his novels and short stories feature a smart-ass P.I. based in Cleveland named Nick Kepler, and each of them is worth a look. I was so impressed by his work that I made a point of inviting him to contribute to West Coast Crime Wave, an anthology I collected and edited a couple of years back. The resulting story ("Bad History") is one of my favorites.

 And so for my third outing as a Sleuthsayer, I figured a guy this interesting was worth an interview. It's transcribed below.

Many authors have interesting paths to publication. None less-so than yours. Tell us about it.

Well, I did, in fact, play in someone else’s sandbox through most of the nineties. Probably a bad thing, since it absolved me of having to deal with rejection slips and editing and so on. But it was a good experience to use a prefab world and focus on building plots and characters on my own. By the time I rid myself of that habit, I realized a lot of the characters I’d created would have been better off in something original. Too late. By then, I was creating Nick Kepler’s world and leaving the land of space battles and lumpy-headed aliens behind for the real world, and a version of the real world of my own making.

And yet you wound up writing crime fiction. What is it about crime fiction that motivates you enough that you chose it as the genre in which to express yourself?

I thought it was easier for people to relate to someone’s seemingly normal life disrupted by a man-made catastrophe, like murder or theft or an accident. Also, I didn’t have to spend three paragraphs explaining that this takes place on another planet in low gravity where the trees all have feathers and two moons hang in the sky. Crime sort of demands tighter writing. To me that was a challenge. The first Kepler short I ever wrote went almost 8,000 words. Now I can usually wrap up a story in about 3000-4000 words.

As I stated in my intro to this piece I'm familiar with your work having edited one of your stories for an anthology I worked on. I see a whole lot of the likes of Mark Twain and his spiritual descendants in your work, with more than a dash of Ed McBain and others from the no-frills, straight narrative school in your writing. Do you agree with this assessment? Why do you consider your greatest influences as a writer, and why?

It's funny you should mention McBain because the 87th Precinct was an inspiration for (his latest project) Holland Bay. But yes, there's definitely a little Twain in there. I love how he's able to say something uncomfortable and call everyone out on it for not questioning things around them. He is a master of sarcasm.

Stephen King is probably my earliest influence. I try not to be as long-winded as he's become over the years, but King had a certain talent for making a fictional place as real as anything out there. I love that he blends the real world with fictional places so that you're almost convinced that Castle Rock really is about 40 miles from Portland, Maine.

Getting into crime, I picked up on Robert Parker when he was at his peak. He had this ability to hang a one-word description on a nameless character and give him or her a personality without having to stop and go through half a page of backstory. I also was a student of Chandler early on. He taught me about dialog and made me comfortable with being a smart ass in my narratives.

Your back catalog includes some stuff that really makes your hometown (Cleveland) come alive for the reader, yet the city that's the setting for your latest work (the eponymous "Holland Bay") is at least as fictional as Ross MacDonald's "Santa Teresa" and Raymond Chandler's "Bay City." These fictional cities were thinly disguised doppelgangers for actual one ("Santa Teresa" for Santa Barbara and "Bay City" for Santa Monica). Is "Holland Bay" cut from whole cloth, or is based all or in part, on cities you've experienced over the course of your life?

Well, Monticello as a whole started out as a way to avoid having to go back to Cleveland or bug people in Cleveland about details. It’s a five-hour drive, after all, and the people I know up there have busy lives that don’t allow for running downtown and checking out if a certain restaurant is on still on Fourth Street or who owns what hotel and so on. So it does have its genesis in Cleveland. That’s what some of its culture is based on. Then I hit on the idea that it Monticello might be split up into boroughs, like New York, with each borough similar to its New York counterpart and the southern one that tapers off into suburbs kind of like Long Island. That plays well with Holland Island, which has become, over time, about as un-Staten Island-like as you can get. On top of that, each borough has taken on the flavor of yet another city I’ve been to. For instance, Holland Bay is part of Harbortown, where downtown is located, which looks a lot like Chicago. And yet Harbortown corresponds with Manhattan as well. All built over an analog of Cleveland. So it’s alternate reality Cleveland, which incidentally, exists in this story.

Take us through the process outlined above. How do you balance research and invention?

Well, a fictional city still has to look real, so I do have to look things up and ask questions. At the same time, fiction gives me the option to fudge things, put geographic features wherever I want, and indulge in a bit of history to make the city seem real. Like the city sits in Musgrave County, Ohio, which, of course, is not on any maps. But there’s a whole backstory as to how it got that name and why a bunch of other names and places around the city are what they are.

OK so you can't really expect to say something like: "But there’s a whole backstory as to how it got that name and why a bunch of other names and places around the city are what they are," and not get a follow-up on that. Can you give us an example?  

Well, for the county name, I came up with a founding father of sorts, a British colonel in the Revolutionary War who defected and wound up with a land grant in the area where the city sits now.

On the other hand, when I was writing some back history for the city, I decided I wanted it to have one of those wars between two sides of the river you hear about from the pre-Civil War days. Cleveland had one over bridge tolls around that time. So I had a neighboring city (now part of Monticello) take up arms over where these newfangled railroad thangies would go. Since the war was over "where the choo choo go," I stuck the name "Rock Ridge" on the western side of the city as a joke from Blazing Saddles. Only I never bothered to change it. So now we have a whole borough named for a Mel Brooks comedy.

Any plans to genre hop again? Maybe a detour back into spec-fiction, or some sort of cross-genre project, a la Kat Richardson's work?

I have something in the works, but I’m going to keep it quiet for now.

03 April 2013

The Rising Island Method

by Robert Lopresti

I have chatted here before about the novel I am writing.  I am most of the way through draft 2 with many more in front of me, and I just got to the first sticky point. And to explain my problem it might help to explain how I go about writing a long piece - including the novella I expect to be talking about two weeks from now.

I use what I call the Rising Island Method.  You could call it the Sinking Ocean Method, but that sounds gloomier somehow.

So: picture a long mountain range stretching for many miles, but all of it underwater.  Got it?  Now the mountains start to rise or the ocean starts to sink, as you choose.  A few mountain peaks start breaking the surface, forming a few isolated islands.  As time goes by more islands appear, and they start to link together, until finally, the entire mountain range is visible.

This is what we in the lit biz call a metaphor.  The mountain range is the novel.  The highest peaks are the parts I know the most about.  Rather than starting at one end and writing straight through I start with the high points (ha ha), because they are the parts I know best (and usually the parts that inspired me to write the darned thing in the first place).

I usually know the first and last chapters very well, but I have no idea how many will fit between them so when I write them I label them Chapters 1 and 1000.  That gives me plenty of room to maneuver.  Now I know what happens close to midpoint so I write that up and call it Chapter 500.   But writing that part teaches me that my hero needs to know something before that point, so I scribble down Chapter 400: Sal finds out X.  I'll fill it in later.

And so it goes.  Each chapter I write teaches me about other sections I need to write.  The islands slowly start to show their shapes.

So why do I find myself in trouble now?  Because I have my characters at Point P, and then at Point R, with no explanation of how they got through or around Point Q.

It's not a structural flaw, thank heavens.  Just a few chapters that need to be written, and maybe some rearranging.  You might call it building a bridge between islands.  Or terraforming, if you prefer.

Not to worry.  No one will drown in the process.  Although a few of the characters do suffer tragic -- well, some other time.

02 April 2013

My Non-series Series

by Terence Faherty

I'm going to follow the recent example of my blogging mentor Robert Lopresti and use the publication of a short story as a jumping-off point for a column. The June 2013 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, which, in direct defiance of the calendar, is now available, leads off with my story "The Mayan Rite." It's the latest in my short-story series that isn't a series. That is, it's only a series from my perspective, from the inside looking out.

The Alfred Hitchcock stories, five of which have appeared so far, share no characters or settings. But the stories do have a few things in common besides my credit under the title. Those common features come from the challenge I set myself when I began writing them, which was to try something new.

I'd published short tales before my first Hitchcock appearance, but they were almost all related to my two book series, the Owen Keane metaphysical detective books and the Scott Elliott Hollywood private eye books. It was fun to write about those two characters in a shorter form, but it was also a very comfortable and familiar exercise. For Alfred Hitchcock, I decided to move a baby step or two outside of that comfort zone. So I tried female protagonists and I gave up the first-person point of view. That second change is still such a sacrifice for me that I could use it during Lent. I love first person for the detective story and have ever since discovering Raymond Chandler. There's something about a beaten-up, lone-wolf detective telling me his or her story one-on-one that I find irresistible. Not that the first-person point of view doesn't also have disadvantages, as anyone who has written a first-person whodunit at novel length can tell you. Being limited to one thread of action, the writer has to come up with a pretty convoluted plot to keep the detective and the reader guessing, another Chandler characteristic.

But then, the whodunit structure was another security blanket I opted to set aside for the Hitchcock stories. Instead, I decided to try my hand at suspense, as a nod to the man who had lent his name to the magazine. On the advice of Peter Lovesey, a writer whose advice is well worth taking, I read Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. That book's title suggests that it's a textbook, a how-to-do-it guide, but it's really a how-I-did-it reminiscence, a fascinating glimpse into one writer's writing decisions. Highsmith defined the suspense story as one "in which the possibility of violent action, even death, is close at all times." A "Sword of Damocles" story, in other words, though in a modern take, the sword may only be a paranoid imagining--in the character's head rather than suspended above it. Going with suspense was another potential Lenten sacrifice for me, as it meant giving up one of the compensations of the whodunit: its underlying theme of order restored. So, for example, in "The Mayan Rite," unease and disorder are created but not resolved. The comforting "all questions answered in the end" quality of the traditional mystery is distinctly lacking. In fact, the question of what really happened is one of the unresolved issues of the story.

I said before that my Hitchcock stories don't have a setting in common. But they do have unusual settings in common. Unusual for me, I mean. Owen Keane is a New Jersey guy, like me, and Scott Elliott works in postwar Hollywood, a place I researched and imagined until I felt comfortable there. For this new series that isn't a series, I decided to use a different setting for each story, some spot my wife and I had visited as tourists. So far, I've used Scotland, Wyoming, Cancun, and two islands: St. Simon, in Georgia, and Mackinaw, in Michigan. Setting stories in each of these places was more than a way of putting my vacation photos to work. It was a new (for me) answer to a dreaded but inevitable question: "Where do you get your ideas?"

Brian Thornton posted a great column in this space last week about setting as character. Setting can also function as muse. I decided to let each setting suggest a story to me--or at least suggest the premise of a story. St. Simon Island, where my wife and I stayed in a creaky old carriage house, suggested that I write a ghost story. Scotland prompted me to use Mary, Queen of Scots, who seems to have been a resident or guest at every old pile of stones we visited. Mackinaw Island boasted of its connection to a crazy, not-quite-old movie called Somewhere in Time, and I can never resist a movie tie-in. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where one of my favorite movies, Shane, was filmed, called for a western--of sorts. I worked in a Colt .45, at least.

I found Cancun, the setting of "The Mayan Rite," to be very evocative, especially our arrival there. Our airliner did a low, leisurely approach over miles and miles of jungle. Then suddenly, right along the water's edge, was a strip of beautiful hotels and their supporting community. It seemed to cry out for a story about how thin the veneer of civilization is, not just in Mexico, of course, but everywhere, and about the danger of straying from a safe, routine life.