24 February 2015

Adventures in La La Land


Introducing Paul D Marks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Rob
***
Adventures in La La Land

by Paul D. Marks

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 February 2015

Lessons Learned


By Fran Rizer



Hopefully, all of you remember Christa McAuliffe.

My sons and I remember her for personal reasons.  As a recently divorced public school teacher in 1984, I was excited when I found a stack of blank applications on the table in the faculty lounge at the school where I taught. They were for the NASA Teacher in Space Project for educators to apply to become the first teacher in space. I took one home and filled it out. My son found and read it.  That night at the dinner table, he enlisted his younger brother's help in convincing Mom not to submit that application.
Christa McAuliffe

"We don't want you to go away, even for a few days," they protested.

"If I'm chosen, you can stay with your father while I'm gone," I said.

The matter was discussed frequently right up until the dead-line to submit the application.  Their final plea was, "Please don't go.  You might get hurt."

I thought that was completely ridiculous, but I caved and trashed the application the day after the submission deadline. When Christa McAuliffe was announced as the teacher chosen to participate, I confess I was happy for her, but just a little jealous. I read every article and watched every news broadcast about the coming Challenger expedition.

Would I have been selected from the more than 11,000 applicants if my application had been submitted?  I'll never know, but my sons were positive that McAuliffe would not have had a chance if I'd applied.

By January 28, 1986, teachers had stopped suspending classes for students to watch launches.  I was the only teacher in the building with the classroom TV on for the launch.  We were the exception because that discarded application gave me a special, personal interest.  Seventy-three seconds after launch, the shuttle broke apart right before our eyes.

I sent a student runner to the office to have the principal announce that history was being made and teachers should turn on their classroom televisions.  The events of that day were totally shocking, but at home that evening, my sons, though saddened at the loss of the astronauts and Christa McAuliffe, were just happy that I wasn't the teacher in the Challenger.

I learned a lesson on January 28, 1986.

Fast forward to August 23, 1996. I'd left my classroom ready for school to begin the following Monday. On my desk, lesson plans for the week; on students' desks, name tags and their books stacked neatly with their names entered and serial numbers recorded.  

My sons were young adults by then.  One of them was home between semesters at Furman University.  The other was at work tending bar to help finance his studies at USC.  I
My car the morning of August 24, 1996
spent the evening at a recording studio where we were cutting a demo of a song.  I left the studio and drove thirty miles back to Columbia.  Half a mile from my home, I was playing a cassette tape of the song we'd just recorded and singing along.  The title of the song was "I Ain't Scared of Nothin'".  It was country music, of course, and described how the singer, who'd never been afraid of anything, was shaking in his boots at the thought of losing his girlfriend.

The next thing I knew, I heard someone say, "She's not dead. She moved just a little bit."

"Doesn't mean anything.  Could have been a spasm."

It turned out that I wasn't dead, and I won't tell you all about the flashing lights, sirens, and being cut out of the car, nor the panic that set in every time I rode in a car for the next several years. Suffice it to say that I didn't get back to my classroom for almost a year.  According to a witness, I had been rear-ended by a driver who hit me again trying to leave the scene of the accident. That second blow threw my car into the air and against a telephone pole. The witness followed the car that hit me as others gathered around my wrecked vehicle with an unconscious me inside.

Later, I actually watched a video of the other driver's arrest when the officer asked the driver, "Why didn't you stop to help that woman?"

His reply was, "I thought she was dead."

That taught me a lot in August, 1996, too.

Last week, I had a very bad day, but it ended with an offer of a contract to produce three books in the next twelve months. Immediately, I began to worry about the wisdom of accepting that deal.  I'm getting older.  My health is declining.  I enjoy my social life.  Would I be able to fulfill this agreement?

After much thought and recalling those two significant events in my life, I remembered what I learned on those two days: there are no guarantees. It seemed Christa McAuliffe's dreams were coming true, but it ended suddenly and  tragically for her family and our country.  No amount of schools named in her honor could make up for her loss.  August 23rd taught me again that there are no guarantees.  I can't guarantee that I am still able to produce three books in a year, but I've done it before and there are no guarantees that I can't do it, either.

Much of what I put on my bucket list when I retired has come true, but am I healthy enough (or young enough?) to write three books in the next twelve months?

I don't know for sure, but I do know that I'm signing that contract and I'm going to try.  I've been thinking a lot about the demands on my time, and though I've enjoyed my years with SleuthSayers and made some wonderful friends, this will be my last appearance here.  I'll continue to read SS and hope to comment at times, but I've gotta write three books, and as Tennessee Linda says, "Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do."

Until we meet again . . .


22 February 2015

Songs of the South


Please not yet. Those are the three eternal words. Please not yet.
                                                John D. MacDonald
                                                A Deadly Shade of Gold

       As usual the month of February finds me on the gulf shore of Alabama, making a good on a promise my wife and I made to ourselves back when we were still in the work-a-day world: once we retired February would never again find us in Washington, D.C. So we have again traveled south to a rental on the shore. Not the tropics, but also not the frozen east coast of the past several weeks.

Harper Lee
     Alabama is a sort of exciting place for anyone interested in literature to find themselves this February. Only a few weeks ago, and a scant 100 miles north, Harper Lee, the now 88 year old author of the American Classic To Kill a Mockingbird announced to a stunned world that, after 55 years of literary silence, this summer a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning story of Scout, Atticus and the travails of small town life in Alabama will be published.

       Whether we should feel some trepidation as we await the return of Atticus and Scout in the long-withheld Go Set a Watchman has already been the subject of numerous articles. Far be it from me to add another. But aside from such speculations concerning the ultimate merit of the Mockingbird sequel, an interesting sidelight to the pending publication of Harper Lee’s second novel is the reaction of the reading public, which had become resigned to Lee’s oft-articulated position that she would never publish a second work. This had been both accepted and hard to get over -- we had fallen in love with Mockingbird -- and Lee’s resolve to leave it at that had left us feeling a bit like a child allowed but one toy. The anticipation has been overwhelming with the possibility of another now on the horizon. 

Arthur Conan Doyle
       A writer’s decision to not follow up on a popular book, or to end a popular series of books, often invites a public outcry. Famously, Arthur Conan Doyle found himself unable, in the face of such clamor, to leave Sherlock Holmes sprawled at the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle (and now Lee) ultimately bent, in some degree, to the clamor. Doyle took up the pen again, and Lee's attorney discovered that previous manuscript. And just yesterday Arthur Conan Doyle had his own last laugh -- a similarly "lost" Sherlock Holmes story was discovered in an attic after lying there unnoticed for the past 111 years.

       But what happens when the series ends for reasons beyond the author’s ability to remedy; when the author is gone but nothing is left behind?  Since, as noted, I am gazing out toward the Gulf as I type, what could be more natural than to allow my gaze to linger off toward the east, where 17 miles away Florida beckons? And what is more “Florida” than John D. MacDonald and his iconic literary sidekick Travis McGee?

John D. MacDonald
       Okay, okay. I know there what you may be thinking. Does he intend to offer up as a premise a column that lumps Harper Lee -- a Pulitzer Prize winning (and beloved) artist -- with John D. MacDonald, the erstwhile paperback king who wrote almost 80 books over the course of a career that began in pulp fiction?  In a word:  Yep. But I'm not the only one who places MacDonald on a pretty high pedestal.  Back in 2003 Jonathan Yardley, literary critic for the Washington Post, went back to re-read MacDonald and came away incredulous, concluding that the body of work revealed the author as "one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period."  Yardley went on to explain:
This man whom I'd snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was -- no other word will do -- breathtaking.
       This is not the first time that I have offered up thoughts on MacDonald and McGee in this space. Unlike Harper Lee, who wrote but one book (now, two), John D. MacDonald (like Doyle) was prolific. He wrote almost 80 works of fiction and nonfiction, and 21 McGee novels before his sudden death in 1986. But he still left us hanging.  In the last of the Travis McGee series, The Lonely Silver Rain, McGee is confronted with several revelations (no further spoilers here!) but then, given MacDonald’s demise two years later, McGee’s fans are ultimately left to ponder where these revelations might have led.

       Like Harper Lee, whose sequel to Mockingbird was known by some friends to have existed, at least at one time, MacDonald, too, was rumored to have a final Travis McGee novel under lock and key.  I remember reading as much in a 1975 interview with MacDonald, and Stephen King has stated that before MacDonald's death he had discussed with King the backbone of what would be the final McGee adventure.  But all rumors of that final work, usually conjectured to bear the title A Black Border for McGee, were apparently baseless. MacDonald’s heirs have asserted that no such work exists, and have steadfastly refused all requests by other authors -- most notably one from Stephen King -- to continue (and properly end) the series. One caveat, here:  there is a little-known novel, The Black Squall, by Lori Stone, which sneaks around the heirs' prohibition by offering a final adventure clearly addressing what might have happened to Travis McGee and his friend Meyer, but doing so without ever using their actual names. But other than that, barring a Harper Lee, or Arthur Conan Doyle-like denouement -- a final work miraculously discovered -- that is it for McGee.

       So aside from The Black Squall (which, I admit, I have not read) the many fans of Travis McGee have had to look elsewhere over the last thirty years for a fix. And that has sparked a bit of a literary cottage industry among authors seeking to re-capture, and then offer to the reading public, the essence of McGee. 

       So, pause with me here. What, at base, is the Travis McGee formula?  What do readers look for in a Travis McGee novel?  The series evolved over time, but viewed in its entirety it seems to me MacDonald's McGee adventures are comprised of the following base elements: 

The Busted Flush, as imagined
       First, the series is centered around an “off the grid” protagonist with an off-beat lifestyle and home. McGee is a self-described beach bum who occasionally comes out of his “installment” retirement to take cases as a “salvage consultant,” working for 50 percent of the value of the property recovered. He lives in his 52 foot cabin cruiser, The Busted Flush, won in a poker game. His detached and unburdened lifestyle, and his luxury to observe the world around him as an objective critic, captures the reader. He narrates his own stories with spot-on observations and critiques of the world in which we live. We, as readers, nod in agreement and become wannabes. 

       Second, there is the “best friend” buddy who provides an intellectual counterpoint, someone with whom the protagonist can spar during the course of the narrative. This companion must be colorful in his own right, intelligent, and equally detached, but must in some respects stand in independent contrast to the protagonist. McGee’s “buddy” is Meyer, an erstwhile economist, who lives on his nearby book-packed ship, initially The John Maynard Keynes, later (after The Keynes fails to survive an adventure) The Thorstein Veblen. 

     Third, the stories, at their heart, focus on the strengths, and the largely man-made weaknesses, of the state of Florida. Even when they do not take place there, each Travis McGee adventure displays a love of the natural Florida ecosystems, a disgruntled horror as to what is happening to them, and a matching disdain for those who are “developing” the state out of existence. A kind word is never said about a double wide, a condominium, a jet ski or a Hawaiian shirt.  As Florida author Carl Hiassen has written: "Most readers loved MacDonald's work because he told a rip-roaring yarn. I loved it because he was the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise, and breath-grabbing beauty." 

       Fourth, the adventures must be well written.  MacDonald often criticized what he viewed as "hack" writing, and his own works set a high bar with his clean and spare prose, his eye for detail, and his ear for dialog.  

       With these elements in mind, for those craving a Florida fix, or, more specifically, a Travis McGee fix, there are at least two series that work pretty hard to deliver: The Doc Ford series written by Randy Wayne White, and the Thorn series written by James W. Hall. 

       Doc Ford, a retired NSA agent and marine biologist, has been the hero of 21 mysteries written by Randy Lee White, with a 22nd, Cuba Straits, due out this March. The similarities to the McGee stories are striking. Ford is decidedly “off the grid,” living in a stilt house above the water on the gulf coast of Florida and ostensibly making his living by peddling marine specimens to collectors and scientists. His best friend and sidekick (like Meyer, always referred to by a single name) is Tomlinson, a frequently stoned philosopher who lives nearby on a Morgan sailboat (also, in a direct nod to MacDonald, named The Thorstein Veblen).  And the Doc Ford stories invariably contain impassioned takes on the delicate Florida eco structure and the angry rants of a frustrated environmentalist protagonist as he witnesses what is happening to it. 

       Another take on the formula is James W. Hall’s series, featuring the loner Thorn. Thorn is also an environmentally-aware protagonist who lives in a Florida shack built above the water and makes his living tying fishing lures. He is an orphan and a maverick, and is usually aided by his (again, one-name) sidekick Sugarman, a Florida policeman (and, eventually, ex-policeman) who serves as Thorn's verbal sparring partner as they fight various injustices, including the abuses rendered to the Floridian land and sea. 

       Each of these series has its faithful followers, and each is well written. Randy Wayne White has authored over fifty books, fiction and non-fiction, under his own name and several aliases. James W. Hall is both a novelist and an accomplished poet. The reader expects well written prose from these gentlemen and the authors deliver. But having read most of White’s series and the first third of Hall’s, there is still something missing for a reader, such as myself, in search of Travis McGee. Maybe it is the fact that Doc Ford, and (I suspect) Randy Wayne White, at least for me, is a little too right wing for a steady diet. Maybe it’s the fact that entirely too many of the characters in Hall’s series end up dying, and in gratuitous ways unnecessary to the logical progression of the story. 

       But lets face it: criticism is easy. And, by the same token, concocting a riveting tale and telling the tale as well as MacDonald, by contrast, is hard.  It takes a real hand to pull off a Florida series that can be read as a steady diet.  I can’t even do that with Carl Hiaasen's novels. When I have read a few I feel the need to come up for air.  These books, and other Florida capers, are fine as far as they go, but they still pale when compared to the works of John D. MacDonald, in the words of Stephen King “the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.” 

The last Travis McGee novel
        It looks like those of us who wondered what ever happened to Scout and Atticus will get our answer this summer, fifty five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. And now we also have a new Sherlock Holmes story, thanks to that lost Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript.  MacDonald’s fans, of course, arguably have little to grouse about by contrast. The available MacDonald library is far greater than Harper Lee's two books, and McGee, on his own, weighs in with 21 installments. But, still, that has not stopped fans from wishing, and from searching out and then gobbling up similar Florida adventures.    

       For fans of these authors it is not so much how many books were written as it is facing the prospect that there will be no more.  It is that prospect that leaves us overjoyed at the unexpected promise of Go Set a Watchman or that final Sherlock Holmes story, and despairing over the fact that McGee's tale is apparently done.  The response of many of us to the fact that it is all over is a rift on McDonald’s three eternal words:

       “Please, not yet.”

21 February 2015

Impersonation


Writers, like actors, spend a lot of time imagining that we are other people. That's how we make our characters real, and believable, and interesting. But if we want to be good writers, it also pays off to do some roleplaying outside the lives of our characters. What do I mean?

I mean we need to think like a reader when we write, and think like a writer when we read. This is nothing new--I've heard it many times, and you probably have also. But it does make sense.

Through the eyes of a reader

Oddly enough, thinking like a reader while you're in the process of writing can be one of those things that's more fun than work. You as a fiction writer are a manipulator; your job is to pull the reader into your story and make him believe, at least for that period of time, the world you've created. For that reason, you have to eventually develop the ability to see the flow of the plot and the actions of the characters in the mind of the reader. If you don't, your readers won't follow the story at the intensity level or the rate that you want them to. They'll either (1) fail to understand what you're saying, (2) figure things out before they're supposed to, or (3) become bored with the whole matter. In any of these cases, and certainly number (3), they probably won't even be readers anymore--at least not your readers. 

I have tried, over the years, to develop the knack of rereading what I've written in an earlier draft and seeing it as a first-time reader would see it. In other words, to make myself effectively ignore what I know is coming later and to picture the story only as a reader would at that point, page by page and paragraph by paragraph. I want to feel the anticipation generated in a proper opening, or the sudden threat of an evil reversal, or the joy of a positive twist, or the pure satisfaction of an "inevitable but unexpected" ending. I'm not always successful, but at least that's my goal.

If you can become successful at this kind of out-of-body evaluation of your work-in-progress, it can reveal plenty of things that you need to change or at least tweak in order to make your next draft more logical, believable, and suspenseful. If what happens in the story surprises and thrills you, it'll probably surprise and thrill the reader. And again, if it doesn't--well, you can catch it and fix it.

Through the eyes of a writer

Just as important, I think, is to be able to read the work of others as a writer as well as a reader. The next time you pick up a novel or a short story or sit down in front of a movie, try to put yourself in the mind of the writer. Why does he or she start things out that way? How did he choose his POV character? What does he do to draw you into the world--and the dilemma--of the protagonist? How does he make you feel such dislike for the villain(s)? How does he make you so interested in what will happen next?

I believe we should also watch for things we don't like in a piece of fiction. If something doesn't work, why doesn't it? I see that as a way to turn the mistakes of others into a learning exercise. If you hate the way such-and-such was handled in the story you're reading, analyze it and resolve not to make that error in your own fiction. (As I've said in earlier columns, I don't encourage writers to seek out substandard novels or movies--but if you happen to find yourself in the middle of one, try to figure out why it's so bad.) In the words of the wise doctor, "If that hurts, don't do it."

Funny thing: Finding and taking note of mistakes in a story is often easier than taking note of the positives. Why? Because if a book or short story or film is well done, we as readers or viewers are drawn so completely into its fantasy world that we don't notice the process. We get to the end, catch our breath as if we've been on a rollercoaster, and think Whoa, that was fun! In those cases, consider rereading parts of the story, or at least think back over the plotline to try to recall the details. If it was a movie, rent or replay the DVD. The truth is, the more you keep this evaluation process in mind, the more you'll eventually get to the point of studying all stories, well-done or poorly-done, even as you read or watch them. And--this is comforting to know--it doesn't lessen the enjoyment of the experience. I loved Stephen King's recent novel Mr. Mercedes, and while reading it I was aware at every moment of WHY this story was working as well as it was, for me. Will I now be able to write as well as the King? Of course not. But I might've learned things that'll make me a better writer than I was before.

Questions:

Do you find yourself consciously using either of these two "approaches" to better writing? Do you write with the reader always in mind? Do you look for the good and bad points in the work of others, and try to learn from them?

I hope I do. I try to.

Now I need to go read some more stories…

20 February 2015

He done her wrong


Well, Valentine's Day has come and gone. I hope you remembered your significant other with at least a card on this special day which is designated for love and lovers. This particular day was also my… uh, let me do some quick math here… oh yeah, my 34th wedding anniversary. I was smart enough to deliberately pick Valentine's Day, a nationally advertised event to assist me in not forgetting when I had to come up with something for my wife in order to show that yes, I did recognize a very important date in our ongoing union.

Relationships between two people are important. And while it is difficult enough to maintain a loving and stable relationship between two people, once you add in a third or a suspected third person, the situation is apt to become deadly serious. No, don't look at me, I'm referring to that old-time, St. Louis couple, Frankie and Johnny. You've all heard the song.

     Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts
     They had a quarrel one day
     Johnny he vowed that he would leave her
     Said he was going away
     He's never coming home,
     etc.

Okay, that's probably not the version you heard; there're several versions out there. Which leads us to the point that the only things to be agreed on by historians is that a man died and he was killed by his significant other. I reiterate my statement about remembering your significant other.

Anyway, if you believe the St. Louis Ledger, Frankie was Frankie Baker, a 22 year-old single female, and Johnny was actually Albert Britt, a 17 year-old youth who sometimes resided with Frankie in her second floor apartment in a boarding house. Well, I could see right off the bat that something was wrong with the situation if Albert was using an alias. I don't know if Albert felt the need to carry a second name because of his secret life on the side, or if it was a ruse to mislead Frankie's landlord that she was keeping house with a juvenile. Love will get you into situations.

The song goes on to say that Johnny was going to leave Frankie after an argument, or that Frankie went out for a beer and caught him with another woman, or that she looked over a transom and saw him loving up the other woman. Pick your version. Other accounts say young Albert was returning from a "cakewalk" where he and a young lady had just won a slow-dancing contest. The other woman in all these scenarios could have been Alice Pryor, or she could have been Nellie Bly. So much for the reliability of witnesses in these matters. However, I do remember the excitement of slow-dancing in my hey-day and I'm sure this would have upset Frankie. Not my slow-dancing, you understand, but rather that done by her man Johnny, or Albert, or whatever his name was, when he was doing it with that other woman whoever she was.

Moving on, the song says Frankie pulled her .44 and shot him five times...or it could have been three times. One sometimes get confused with all the noise and adrenalin. Which brings us back to them reliable witnesses. In the newspaper article, Frankie goes on record as a case of domestic violence, saying that Johnny cut her with his folding knife during their little dust up, so she slid her hand under her pillow, drew out her gun and shot him ONCE with her shiny, silver-plated .32. Okay, while I was admittedly not at the scene on October 15, 1899 at 3:30 AM, I'm gonna jump in here anyway. I've seen a photo of Frankie and she is not a muscle-bound female, so if she's pulling the trigger on a .44 revolver, then the recoil is going to knock her hand back and up after every shot, requiring a certain amount of time to reacquire the target before her next shot. There would not be any of that alleged "root-e-toot-toot" shooting going on. Not three times, and surely not five times. Besides, there was an alleged eye-witness, Pansy Marvin, who claimed to have seen the whole thing, thus backing up Frankie's version of the situation.

Johnny said to roll him over, and then died on the spot, whereas Albert took one round to the abdomen, said, "You have me," whatever the hell that meant, went to the hospital and expired four days later. Frankie beat the rap at trial, spent the rest of her life being pointed out in public as "that woman," even though she changed cities several times. She filed a defamation suit against Republic Pictures for their 1938 movie Frankie and Johnny, was unsuccessful in the lawsuit, and later died in a state hospital for the insane on January 19, 1950, in Pendleton, Oregon.

So what did we learn from all this?

First, don't be caught out with any hot young thing going by the name of Alice Pryor or Nellie Bly. Second, you may have a sweet tooth for cake, but slow-dancing with another woman at a cakewalk could be hazardous to your health. But mainly, I would say that you should be sure to remember your significant other at all times. Especially if that significant other keeps a shiny pistol under her pillow.

I remembered. How about you?

19 February 2015

The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury
Part III: the Killing


by Brian Thornton

(This is the final installment of a three-part series on a notorious murder during the reign of King James I of England [James VI of Scotland]. For the first part of this post, with general historical background as well as a fair bit about the victim, click here. For the second part, which deals mostly with the conspirators, click here.)

When is an "honor" not really an honor?

Everyone knows that sometimes an "honor" is precisely that. A great occasion for the honoree, and the sort of thing to be welcomed–if not outright eagerly anticipated– when it comes your way. Oscar nominations. Getting named to the board of a prosperous Fortune 500 company. Making the New York Times Bestseller list (I should live so long!).

Not always easy to quantify, but like the late, great Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography, "I know it when I see it." The same is also true of the kind of thing frequently called an "honor" when it really isn't.

Here's one example


And even worse than this type of infamous "non-honor honor" is the sort of honor that could be
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw:
Dead Honoree
hazardous to your health. In an example from American history, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, first black regiment in the United States Army, received the "honor" of leading the charge during an attack on rebel fortifications at Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

Led by their heroic commander, one Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th did itself proud, spearheading the Union charge into the teeth of murderous cannon fire, in an attempt to take the strategically important fort situated on an island in Charleston Harbor.

But the net result? The 54th Massachusetts Infantry numbered six hundred men at the time of the charge. The regiment suffered nearly a fifty percent casualty rate in this single action alone (two hundred seventy-two killed, wounded or missing)! Among the dead was Shaw, the colonel who led the way.


When it's an offer to serve as ambassador to Russia!

While not necessarily a death sentence, a 17th century example of an "honor" along these lines was
This guy. Nice boots, huh?
serving as an ambassador to Russia. Especially during the early part of the century, when Russia was pretty much the "Wild West" (without the "West" part) of Europe. Anarchy. Lawlessness. A devastating famine that began in 1601 and lasted for years afterward. Invasion and extended occupation by Polish armies, culminating in a teen-aged Polish-Swedish nobleman briefly taking the throne in 1610!

By February of 1613, things had gotten a little better, with the Russians kicking the Poles out and electing a new (Russian-born) tsar, Mikhail, who established the Romanov dynasty. Barely twenty, Mikhail faced a long, grinding battle getting Russia's nobility to mind their manners and unite behind him in anything other than name. So even though there was a new sheriff in the Kremlin (and if his coronation portrait is any indicator, one with superb taste in spiffy red boots!), there was still plenty of lawlessness, crime, war, famine and pestilence to go around.

Even with the Poles gone, Russia was an impoverished, backward country on the periphery of what most Europeans considered civilization. For government functionaries such as Overbury, it was the type of diplomatic posting where careers went to die.

So how did he come to be the recipient of such a signal "honor"?

What's left of Red Square and Kremlin when the Poles turned Moscow back to the Russians,
August 1612
What happens when you piss off a rival and that rival has the queen's ear.

As mentioned previously, Overbury seems to have consistently overestimated his own cleverness, and systematically underestimated that of nearly everyone around him. He had expended a great deal of time and effort steering his pretty boy puppet Robert Carr into King James' orbit so as to profit by a successful pulling of Carr's strings. When the king began to entrust Carr with a number of duties involving fat salaries attached to a slew of confusing paperwork (Carr was pretty but not too bright), of course Carr relied heavily on his friend and mentor Overbury to help out with the details. Overbury in turn took his own considerable cut. Pretty standard stuff, where court preferment was concerned.

James I
All that changed when the king's favorite minister Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury died, and a power vacuum opened close to the throne. Salisbury oversaw James' foreign policy, and with his death the king saw an opportunity to begin to set that policy himself, as long as he had someone along for the ride who could handle the intricacies of diplomatic language (and paperwork). He decided that his favorite Robert Carr was perfect for the gig.

Of course Carr was not remotely suited for such work. But his mentor Overbury was.

The bed-hopper
With Carr's elevation to his new role there were people lining up to try to win influence with him, and through him, with the king. This included members of the already powerful and well-connected Howard family. Namely Henry Howard, earl of Northampton and his niece, Lady Frances Howard, already married in a teen-aged and allegedly never-consummated hate-match with the young earl of Essex.

As Overbury had done with Carr, placing him in King James' path, now Northampton did to Carr, placing his still-married and barely into her teens niece in Carr's. Her tender years notwithstanding, Lady Frances had already acquired a reputation for bed-hopping, and while Carr seemed capable of wrapping a king around his little finger, he seems to have been no match for Frances' feminine wiles.

The two were soon openly consorting, and there was talk of marriage after first seeking an annulment of Frances' marriage to Essex, on the grounds of non consummation. (The earl detested his new bride nearly from the moment he met her and fled on a tour of the continent rather than sleep with her. And he stayed away for a good long while afterward!).

Overbury was furious at being frozen out of the lucrative gig of pulling Carr's strings, and published a  widely-read poem pretty effectively slandering Lady Frances. He had made a powerful enemy.

Lady Frances' catspaw: Queen Anne
What's more, this enemy was a favorite of the queen. She managed to prevail on Queen Anne to convince her husband the king to offer Overbury the "honor" of serving as His Majesty's man in Moscow.

Now Overbury found himself outfoxed. If he accepted the posting, he'd be away from court, with no influence and no money. To the people of Jacobean England, Russia was only slightly closer to home than the New World, which was to say one step closer than the moon!

However, to refuse such an offer of appointment was flat-out dangerous. Such refusal could be taken as an insult, and history is replete with examples of how well royals tend to take insults from those ostensibly in their service. (Newsflash: it ain't lying down!)

Overbury's thoughts along these lines are not recorded. And there's no way of knowing whether he seriously considered the possibility that the choice before him could possibly wind up being between a trip to Russia or a trip to the Bloody Tower. Regardless, he chose to refuse the "honor" of serving as English ambassador to Russia, and apparently managed to come off as so high-handed that in April 1613 an infuriated King James had him tossed into the Tower for his trouble.

Yep, same tower was the one where Richard III killed his princely nephews. Same room, too, apparently.
By September, Overbury was dead.

Ten days later Lady Essex received her wished-for annulment, over Essex's protestations that he was
Robert Carr
later in life and no longer pretty.
not, in fact, impotent, as the papers requesting the annulment claimed. Within a couple of months, Lady Frances and Robert Carr, now no longer earl of Rochester, but "promoted" to an even more plumb title with vastly more substantial holdings as earl of Somerset, were married.

That might well have been the end of the story. But Robert Carr was an idiot, and it quickly became clear that he was now as much the Howards' puppet as he had earlier been Overbury's. Plus, the king was fickle in his affections where his favorites were concerned, and apparently within a year or so, Carr began to lose his hair and his looks. James soon tired of his pet earl, and let it be known to certain influential members of his inner circle that he would welcome an excuse to be shut of him, so he could focus his attentions elsewhere (namely George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham).

And that was when rumors began to surface about Carr's frequent visits to the Tower to see his erstwhile friend and mentor Overbury in the months preceding his death. And of Carr's possible connection with the gifts of possibly tainted food and drink a certain jailer pressed upon the unfortunate man.

The Investigation

Whispers of "poison" were nothing new during the reign of James I. Invariably when anyone of any importance died quickly and without violence, some gossip, somewhere began to murmur in the ears of friends that the circumstances certainly seemed suspicious. And as much as James wanted to be rid of Carr, the last thing he wanted was a scandal. So he set his two brightest advisors to work on the investigation, ensuring it was handled right from the start.

These two were none other than the greatest legal minds of the age. Two great names that survive even today: Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Edward Coke.

The first thing they did was have Overbury's corpse exhumed and subjected to an autopsy. He was indeed found to have been poisoned. Not by food, or drink, it turns out, but by a combination of emetics and enemas.

Overbury's jailer and the lord lieutenant of the Tower were immediately confined and questioned. It all came out in their confessions and the confessions of those they named as co-conspirators.

Apparently Lady Frances and her uncle the earl of Northampton dreamed up the scheme to have Overbury dispatched in a manner which might not look suspicious, and pressed her dupe of a husband into service, getting him to visit his "friend" Overbury regularly, and impress upon him the only way out of the Tower was through touching the heart of the king and moving him to pity at Overbury's lowly state.

Ann Turner: Poisoner by enema
Confinement did not agree with Overbury, and he was already ill. But a combination of emetics and enemas would help make him seem even more piteous and enfeebled, certain to prod James into an act of clemency, Carr argued. Overbury, desperate to escape the Tower, agreed to this course of action.

In furtherance of the Howards' plan, the Tower's lord lieutenant (the government official overseeing the operation of the Tower) was removed in favor of a notably corrupt one named Helwys (recommended by none other than the earl of Northampton, to whom he paid a customarily hefty finder's fee), who in turn assured that a jailer named Weston agreeable to Lady Frances' plan was placed in position to oversee Overbury's "treatments."

Lady Frances' connection to the plot was laid bare by the confession eventually wrung from her "companion," a seemingly respectable physician's widow named Anne Turner. In reality Turner was anything but.

While her husband was still alive Anne Turner carried on a prolonged affair with a wealthy gentleman, and bore him a child out of wedlock. After her husband's demise she "made ends meet" in part by running a secret red light establishment where couples not married to each other could go to have sex. She had also served as her deceased husband's assistant on many occasions and possessed some skill with chemicals–especially poisons. She quickly developed a black market business selling them to many of the "wrong people."

So when her employer Lady Frances came to her seeking help, Anne Turner was more than willing to assist. Together with an apothecary she knew and worked with, Turner came up with several doses of emetics and enemas laced with sulfuric acid. Weston in turn administered these to an unsuspecting Overbury, who soon died.

The Outcome

Possessing not much in the way of either money or influence, the quartet of Turner, Weston, Helwys and the apothecary (whose name was Franklin) were quickly tried, convicted, condemned and hanged.
Henry Howard, the well-timed earl of Northampton

The earl and countess of Somerset, who did possess both money and influence, were immediately arrested and thrown into the Tower. The earl of Northampton only escaped a similar fate by having had the good timing to die the previous year.

The resulting scandal, far from merely ridding the king of a tiresome former favorite, caused James no end of embarrassment. He repeatedly offered to pardon Carr in exchange for a confession to the charge of murder.

For her part, Lady Frances quickly admitted her part in Overbury's murder. Carr, however, insisted ever afterward that he knew nothing of the plot (given his demonstrated lack of smarts, hardly difficult to believe that he was little more than the dupe of his extremely cunning wife). The earl and his wife were tried and eventually convicted on charges of murder and treason. Obviously concerned that Carr might implicate him in the murder and no doubt also nervous about what Carr might say about the nature of their personal relationship, James let them languish in prison for seven years, eventually quietly pardoning both the earl and the countess, and equally quietly banishing them from court.

Apparently the bloom came off the rose for this star-crossed couple during their long confinement, and their burning passion cooled into a dull hatred. If Carr's protestations of innocence are true, it stands to reason that the revelation of the part she played in killing his friend and mentor Overbury may have had something to do with his seeing her in a different light.

The next ten years after they were pardoned in 1622 were spent quietly loathing each other on Carr's estate in Dorset, far from the pomp of James' court in London. Lady Frances died aged 42 of cancer in 1632. Carr followed her to the grave in 1645.

18 February 2015

Our dirty little but highly efficient secret



(Bcon photo by Diane Vallere, by permission.  Craig Faustus Buck, Travis Richardson, Barb Goffman, Robert Lopresti, Paul D. Marks, and Art Taylor discuss short stories with ruthless efficiency.)
 
One of the highlights of the recent Bouchercon, as fas I am concerned, was getting to meet Thomas Perry  Actually meet is probably too strong a word,.  In reality I shook his hand while gushing a lot of very sincere compliments.  He's probably my favorite living mystery writer with whom I had never before had personal contact.

And if you look at the compilation I did here of wisdom from the conference you will see that I
quoted him frequently.  But there was one lovely line which I set aside in my notebook in order to give it its own consideration.  And that time has come.

On one panel Perry reported that a reviewer had described his novel The Butcher Boy as "competence porn."
  That struck me as perfect.  The Butcher's Boy is the first of three novels about a hitman known only by that nickname. And BB, if I may be overly familiar, is staggeringly competent at his job, the kind of guy who can kill a motel full of mob leaders one by one without being noticed.

It struck me that there is a lot of competence porn out there, so there must be a market for it.  Another example is Perry's books about Jane Whitefield, who is a sort of anti-detective.  (Instead of finding criminals, she helps them disappear… but only if their crime is small compared to the danger they face.) And while Jane does make mistakes (my favorite book in the series begins with her falling into a trap that gets two colleagues killed) the major fascination in the books is her training her "runners" in the minutiae they need to keep in mind to avoid the bad guys who want them dead.


I am halfway through the latest Whitefield book, A String of Beads, in which she tells a  construction worker, wanted for a murder he didn't commit, to dress and think like a businessman, and to go back to college, because no one would look for a runaway there.  Those are just a couple of details out of a thousand.

Another example of competence porn: the Parker novels by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake).  Parker the thief is always the best crook in the string, and better at what he does than the cops are at theirs.  The reason he gets in trouble (so that the books don't end around chapter 4) is that he has to work with people who are not as competent nor as ethical (in terms of treating their partners) as he is.  I tried to think of mistakes he made and came up with two; in both cases the goof was not killing someone.  Welcome to Parker's world.


I suspect that a lot of the books called techno-thrillers are competence porn, but I don't read them, so I wouldn't know.  Your thoughts on all this are most welcome.

And that brings me to another related subject.  A few weeks ago someone on FaceBook was complaining about the use of "porn" to describe something, well, attractive but bad for you.  Like competence porn, for example, or as they describe musical instrument catalogs in my crowd, guitar porn.  The complainer was tired of the phrase and I think didn't appreciate associating pornography with these other interests.


And that reminds me of the recent pieces by Melodie and Fran in which they each used the term "literary sluts" to describe themselves, because they write in several fields.  One of the commentators, Anonymous, said:  

This really shows me how different writing is as a profession from the sciences. (Not that you asked.) I am a woman scientist and we are constantly fighting NOT to be thought of as sluts of any kind, especially not in a supposedly joking manner (which is what our male colleagues say, is that they are just joking around). If you read the way Watson and Crick talk about Rosalind Franklin in "The Double Helix" you will see what I mean -- and things have NOT changed since then. Some of our younger woman scientists have tried to adopt this playful language, which embeds a sort of alternative approach to being a woman in science the way that they do it, and it's destroyed their careers. So the idea that women are so well-established in the writing profession that you all can afford to use this kind of language is just mind-blowing to me.

 Of course, mystery writing has had issues with sexual discrimination (look up the origin of Sisters in Crime), but is Everything Just Fine now?  I'm not the person to judge.

So, how do you feel about the term "slut" in this case?  Is it "taking back the word" as some marginalized groups have said about their use of epithets? Or a harmful dead end?  

While you debate this I am going to go finish reading A String of Beads.

17 February 2015

Who Are These People In Our Heads?


When Northcoast Shakedown originally came out, I got accused by a coworker of basing most of my characters on people in the company where we worked. We worked at an insurance company. Nick Kepler scored free office space from an insurance company, and both were big property/casualty companies. However, I would be a little disturbed if the executives at TTG Insurance bore any resemblance to the ones at the company I discreetly refer to as BigHugeCo. The truth is the two executives who make Nick's life difficult in that story started out as stock bad bosses. That's how they got into trouble. Elaine, the secretary? She started out as someone for Nick to vent to while having a beer next door to TTG's offices.
The trouble with basing a character on an actual person too closely is that the writer then starts trying to bend a character to the real person, which makes for stilted, dull writing and poor dialog. A person may inspire a character, but if a writer is skilled or, at least, has good instincts, the character will take on a life of its own.

Sometimes, a central character is the author himself or herself. Sue Grafton has admitted as much about Kinsey Milhonne. She has stated that Kinsey is her if her life had taken another turn. Ditto for Spenser and Robert B. Parker. The darker tone of the earlier novels reflect a lot of the personal struggles Parker himself spoke of in that period of his life while later, when he was in a better place, the novels took on a lighter, clearly amused tone.

(Incidentally, I am not Nick Kepler. He's not as technically savvy, and I never had as many girlfriends as Nick. Though I think I had better luck with them.)

A clich├ęd piece of advice I used to get when I first started was to base a character on an actor. (Early on, I envisioned John Cusack as Kepler, though that faded away after a couple of stories.) Sometimes, that works as long as it's not someone over the top like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel. The trick here is to use the actor's persona as a jumping off point. Let's say you love Kaley Cuoco Sweeting from Big Bang Theory and want to drop her into your novel. Well, I'm sure Kaley will be flattered, but most likely, you really like how she plays Penny on the show. But if that combination of appearance and personality works for you in a tough-as-nail lady sheriff in rural Wisconsin, knock yourself out. Just know that a woman who has managed to get elected or appointed sheriff of a Midwestern county is going to already have a different background from an aspiring actress and waitress at a California Cheesecake Factory, particularly if there are no nerdy scientists around to color her life. (You might get away with a Sheldonesque coroner, but that's pushing it.)

Often, for me, characters just arise. They are functions of the story. Take a guy, put him in a situation, and ask yourself who he is and why he's there. More often than not, that's the first scene of a story as well as the birth of a story. It's not creating a role and then building a story around him. It's all about finding this imaginary person and creating a story to find out who he is. Nick Kepler is a function of a rainy night and having walked down at least two or three semi-rural highways in my time.

Sometimes, it really is a real person who inspires a character. Sherlock Holmes, probably the ultimate crime fiction protagonist in the English language, came from a rather quirky and highly intelligent doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew or knew about. A more extreme example comes from the 1990's. Mike Judge, the mind behind Office Space and King of the Hill, actually based the dimwitted, gravel-voiced Beavis on a guy he used to know (though I'm assuming the real Beavis was nowhere near as... um... intellectually challenged.  Heh-heh. Heh hmm heh. Fire!)

And sometimes, a character just demands to be written. You get a character like Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones whose personality is so clear that one has to write a story or three about him.