Monday, October 5, 2015
by Meredith Cole
But I do take exception to one rule: Write what you know. People throw this one around quite liberally and I think it's mostly bunk. Writer's lives are often quite mundane. We hunch over a computer most of the day until someone tells us we really must eat or go outside. We read books. We walk around muttering to ourselves. Of course, we might have had more interesting lives before we became writers--but maybe not. You need to be pretty disciplined to write. Unstable people don't often finish novels (there are of course many exceptions to this rule. But maybe they weren't as undisciplined or unstable as we thought?). And disciplined and consistent people can be, sadly, a little dull.
If I took the write what you know literally, I would have to ask why should I try to write mysteries. I've never killed anyone. I've never found a body. So how do I know what to do?
A better interpretation of this rule, and one I can live with, is to write your truth about the world. Don't copy anyone else. Experience life fully and write what you feel and know. Describe everything as accurately and specifically and develop your own voice. And when you need to write about killing someone, do some research and talk to professionals who know all about it. Please do not try it at home.
I'm off to Bouchercon this weekend in Raleigh, and I'm looking forward to seeing all the Criminal Minds (past and present) who are coming this year! I'm a panel called "Does the character's profession shape the sleuthing?" on Sunday at 8:30 AM in State AB with Rosemary Harris, Sasscer Hill, and Sandra Brannan. Simon Wood will be our moderator. Hope to see you there!
Friday, October 2, 2015
by Paul D. Marks
These days my go-to research tool is the internet, what else? It’s close at hand. It’s easy. It has “everything” on it. And it’s right all the time. Well, most of the time. I mean much of the time. Yeah.
In the olden days, BI—Before Internet—one had to go to the library or the bookstore. But if you’re a night owl like me you’d be hard pressed to find a library or bookstore open at 3am, my prime time. Not impossible, but also maybe not close by. And much as I love browsing both of those places, I’d rather do it in the middle of the night, but I guess they want to sleep and I curse them for it.
Then, of course, there’s first hand research, going to the location/s in your story or to primary source people. For example, if you’re writing about the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles and you live in Los Angeles you can drive up there, annoy the people who live in the neighborhood, duck potshots from them, get close to the sign and, after running the gauntlet of angry residents, find out it’s fenced off so you can’t get there anyway, at least not right there. But you used to be able to go there. I hiked up there with a friend one time when we were doing research on a screenplay. It was fun and exciting and before the neighbors were perpetually upset—and before it was fenced off. But today it’s hard to get to, at least to get right up close to it, because it is fenced off. So what do you do? You turn to the internet or books. Or people who’ve been there or you watch through binocs or you beg everyone you know to find someone who knows someone who can get you inside the fence. And when that fails you hit the books again or the internet.
I recently sold a story to Ellery Queen that takes place on and around Bunker Hill, no not that Bunker Hill in Massachusetts. The one in downtown L.A. L.A.’s Bunker Hill of today and the Bunker Hill of 30-40 years ago are two vastly different places. When it began in the late 1800s, Bunker Hill was a neighborhood of fancy Victorian homes for the wealthy near downtown. Over time the swells moved west and Bunker Hill became run down and the elaborate houses were turned into rooming houses. In the late 60s, redevelopment began. The people were kicked out. Some of the houses were torn down and others were packed up and moved to other locations. So, though my story takes place today it deals with elements of the long-lost and lamented Bunker Hill of yesterday. How did I research that? Well, the usual, the internet, books, etc. Watching old movies shot there—many film noirs were shot on and around Bunker Hill. But I had also spent time there as a young man, exploring the houses, getting into some, riding the original Angels Flight funicular railway. Going through the Grand Central Market that John Fante talks about in Ask the Dust, before it was remodeled. And I still have the top of a newell stairway post I liberated from one of those old Victorian houses—a memento both to L.A.’s and my own past. I’m also old enough to remember L.A. as Raymond Chandler describes it and before it started to change and “grow up”. And I remember it pretty well—first-hand research you might say.
My novel White Heat takes place mostly in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots of 1992. I lived through that and used both personal experience and recollections of others, both civilians and cops that I know who were there to add flavor to the story. But parts of the story also take place in Calexico, California and Sparks and Reno, Nevada. I have recollections of both places, but it’s been a long time since I was there, so again I turned to the internet to be my researcher’s best friend.
But what if you’re writing something that’s set where you’ve never been. I’ve never been to the Amazon, though it’s one of my dreams. Pre-internet, I was working on a screenplay set there, so I researched it in books, etc. But I also drew on personal experiences of being in other riverine environs, transposing some of those experiences and adventures to the Amazon.
What if it’s a time you’ve never lived in or experienced firsthand? I have a character named Bobby Saxon who’s been in three published stories. I wrote a novel with Bobby that should be done soon. Those stories all take place during World War II on the L.A. homefront. Well, that’s before my time. But I know L.A. pretty well and I know a lot of its history. So I had a good foundation to start with. But I also turned to primary resources: my mom and her friends. My family goes back here a long way and my mom was an L.A. native, so she and her friends could tell me first-hand things about L.A. during the war. I supplemented that with—what else? —the internet and books. But also with maps. I wanted to know how people got from point A to point B in a time before freeways. So I bought several period street maps on eBay, as well as looking things up on the net. And, aside from the good research the maps gave me for the story, I just love looking at them and seeing how things change over time. I also got some of the flavor of the era from old movies and music of the time, both of which I love.
When I was working on a script set in New Orleans...I had to go research it in person. Had to. Wouldn’t you? I wanted it to be real and how could I make it real without actually tasting the food at Commander’s Palace?
But what about writing about professions or places that I have no first-hand contact with, well, it’s research and again you go to primary sources when you can. Example: I’m not a doctor so I ask doctors how certain symptoms might be treated, what meds would be used, etc. As for places I haven’t been, well, sometimes I try to go, but if I can’t it’s back to the internet drawing board.
So if I had to pick one winner, it would be the internet. The world is at your fingertips.
*** *** ***
The five Anthony nominees in the Short Story category are Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, John Shepphird, our own Art Taylor...and me, Paul D. Marks. I’m honored to be among these people and their terrific stories.
I hope you’ll take the time to read all five of the stories and vote. All are available free here – just click the link and scroll down to the short story links: http://bouchercon2015.org/2015-anthony-award-nominees/
But even if you’re not eligible to vote, I hope you’ll take the time to read the stories. I think you’ll enjoy them and maybe get turned onto some new writers.
NEW from Down & Out Books – Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea – an anthology of short mystery stories, chocked full of major award-winning authors, edited by Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks (Me!)
Released on 10/1 (that’s yesterday for those without a calendar, so hot off the presses)
“Envelope-pushers! A truly WOW collection by the best mystery writers out there – full of surprises only they can pull off.”
—Thomas B. Sawyer, Bestselling author of Cross Purposes, Head-Writer of Murder, She Wrote
With a Killer Cast Including:
4 Time Edgar Winner William Link • Grand Master Bill Pronzini • Scribner Crime Novel Winner William G. Tapply • Shamus Winner Paul D. Marks • EQMM Readers Award Winner Robert S. Levinson • Al Blanchard Award Winner James T. Shannon • Derringer Award Winner Stephen D. Rogers • Sherlock Holmes Bowl Winner Andrew McAleer and other poisoned-pen professionals like Judy Copek • Sheila Lowe • G. B. Pool • Thomas Donahue
Available in paperback and Kindle e-book on Amazon. Click here to go to Amazon.
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Thursday, October 1, 2015
The last time I read a reference book for research was three of my own books back. I read No Mean City, the classic expos-ay (can't find the e-acute symbol) of (some say hatchet job on) 1930s Glasgow, for Dandy Gilver and The Unpleasantness in The Ballroom.
Since then I've written Quiet Neighbors (May 2016), Dandy Gilver and Some Nuns (working title) and am halfway through The New Book (barely working title) without cracking a single volume.
What I have done - and this answers the other half of the question - is trumph about and stare at stuff, sniffing the air and listening to the birdsong. Quiet Neighbors is set in Wigtown - Scotland's book town - and I spent four days down there last summer, during the annual book festival. A casual observer might have thought I was stoned, or trying to remember if I'd turned the oven off, as I dawdled up and down the streets of the town, sat on benches, looked out from the harbourside and watched the clouds roll by.
|Douglas Water, Lanarkshire|
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
THE BONUS OF GETTING IT RIGHTby Clare O'Donohue
Q: What is the research tool you turn to most often? How important is visiting the site of your story to your research?
Writers don't just write what we know, we write what we want to know. At least I do. Often I'll use the premise of my story as an excuse to learn about something that's always made me curious.
So in my Someday Quilts books my main character went to art school, because I've always loved drawing and painting. I took several art classes as research for the second book in the series. Those classes added a lot of detail my imagination alone wouldn't have been able to manage, and (bonus!) I fulfilled a desire to indulge a life-long hobby.
In an upcoming story I sent my characters to Ireland. So I went there first. I traveled to Ireland twice in the last year for research. (And family. And a little bit because the Guinness is better over there.) Even though I know the country well, being there while I was writing was essential to my telling the story authentically. I needed to walk the streets they would walk, and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of a place that I would later write about.
And, you know, I wanted to spend some time there, so - again - bonus!
...But I did drink this.
What I especially love is that "research" is the ultimate excuse to (forgive me Nike) Just Do It. Take the class, learn the skill, face the fear... You might make an idiot out of yourself but who cares? It's all fodder for some book. Because while research is looking up stuff on the internet, and talking to experts in a particular field - it's also living and learning, and then writing it down.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Question of the Week: What is the research tool you turn to most often? How important is visiting the site of your story to your research?
My favorite research tool is Google. This morning I was writing a scene inside the US Senate. I had a senator racing to make it into the chamber for a vote, but I wasn't sure how the Senate calls its members or when and if they lock the doors. I typed something into Google and followed my fingers to find a government page that explained in micro detail how the vote happens, as well as the potential variations of voting format, that helped me give the scene the credibility I was looking for.
But while I've visited enough political arenas to feel like I have a realistic feel for the energy inside the building, I haven't written any scenes outside in DC. The senator lives in Miami, visits Boston, Paris and London. All of these places have city scenes because I've been there. But since I've never visited DC, I stick to the inside of offices and buildings - and even that as little as possible.
I've used Google Earth street view to refresh my memory, or to browse an area to figure out where a sniper might hide. But Google Earth, or even excellent travel writing, won't give me the feel of a place, the taste in the air, the quirky ways of the people who live and work there.
Another awesome research tool is the yahoo group "crimescenewriter". Anyone can join, so if you're writing crime, I highly recommend it. I've asked questions about US law enforcement and received helpful answers from police officers, FBI agents and lawyers, some of whom are writers now and some who just follow the thread and help out. I also like to read their daily digest, because sometimes I'll learn something that can help me down the road.
Monday, September 28, 2015
- from Susan
(Note: The real college pictured here is Curry College - nice photo!)
Friday, September 25, 2015
I'll admit, straight from the start, that I have no idea how to answer this week's question: "After the excitement and controversy of Go Set A Watchman: what would be your dream rediscovered-lost-work? And your nightmare?"
It's been interesting to read the various approaches by my fellow panelists here at Criminal Minds—occasionally talking about their own early drafts or failed efforts potentially being made public someday, elsewhere surveying the trends (and travesties) of posthumous releases and/or works written by other authors building on legacies, and then Alan yesterday talking about a book that wasn't rediscovered after having been lost but just a failed book in a series (though he puts a clever spin on that: It couldn't have been the author himself who wrote it).
But none of that quite gets to the question here, as I see it: Is there an author—presumably dead or at least no longer writing—from whom I'd want more? an unknown manuscript discovered in some corner of a relative's attic or unearthed from a basement—jewels from junk?
Well, I've rummaged around the attic and the basement of my own imagination (and then the very real bookshelves surrounding me at work and at home), and no author has jumped to mind.
Maybe readers here will fault my own speculative abilities—some dearth of interest on my part, some lack of passion. I can't blame them, entirely, though I wouldn't necessarily agree. I would indeed be interested if, say, an unknown story by Edgar Allan Poe or Flannery O'Connor or Stanley Ellin were to suddenly surface—but at the same time, I'm more than content with reading and re-reading the existing work by these and many other authors. And let's face it, all of us already have more to read than we'll ever finish in a lifetime—I still haven't read all of Poe, so why would I need more?
Are there authors whose works I can honestly say I've fully, completely exhausted my time with and need more? That's what I'm struggling to think of—because even then, my instinct would be simply to reread, a process which has so many pleasures and, sadly, too few proponents sometimes.
And maybe it's that last point I want to leave folks with—questions stemming from that: Which authors can you just never get enough of? Which authors, which books, do you find yourself REreading time and again? And what is it that you get out of that kind of immersion and reimmersion?
Thursday, September 24, 2015
After the excitement and controversy of Go Set A Watchman: what would be your dream rediscovered-lost-work? And your nightmare?
I’m a big fan of Robert B. Parker, so I guess I would love to see his Spenser series and his Jesse Stone series continue. If only someone would discover some of his lost work, then I <BREAKING NEWS>Two excellent crime writers, Ace Atkins and Reed Farrel Coleman, already are continuing those series <END BREAKING NEWS>
Um, never mind.
Let me regroup.
I would like to see the lost sequel to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS discovered in Thomas Harris’s basement. I loved that book (and RED DRAGON before it) and would eagerly devour another one featuring Clarice Starling facing off against Hannibal Lecter.
I don’t think so.
There’s no way that Thomas Harris, a fine suspense writer, would COMPLETELY CHANGE the incontrovertible core beliefs of one of the main characters he created. No way.
How could he?
No, I think HANNIBAL must have been written by an imposter, one who had absolutely no knowledge about what made Clarice Starling tick, because the REAL Clarice Starling would never (Never in a million, trillion years! Never, never, never!) act like the Starling depicted in HANNIBAL. (It was the only book I’ve ever thrown against the wall in disgust, with the clear intention of causing it damage—the book, not the wall.)
And I’m not the only one who felt betrayed by that book—it garnered 702 one-star reviews on Amazon. (If you think my mini-rant is pointed, try reading some of those reviews!)*
I mean, turning Starling into a character who would act like she does in this book would be like turning Atticus Finch into a racist!**
*I don’t usually bad-mouth an author’s work, but in this case, I’m justified. I felt betrayed, I tell you, betrayed!
**I haven’t actually read GO SET A WATCHMAN
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Monday, September 21, 2015
Like every reader, I always want more books by my favorite authors. I would love, of course, to hear that they had found more books by Dorothy Sayers and Jane Austen. But at the same time, the whole Go Set A Watchman controversy (plus Jane's juvenile works) makes me wonder about this impulse. I don't really want to read the work they never finished and never intended for outside eyes. I want to read more of their polished wonderful books. And if that isn't available, then so be it.
I have plenty of ridiculous unfinished writing projects that I've never thrown away. A gothic romance I started when I was twelve with a friend (believe me, you don't want to read it). Screenplays. The first 60 pages of novels that didn't have the legs to go any further. And my nightmare would be for someone to expose it to the light of day and publish it as my work. It's enough to make me go back and burn it all.
And yet... I like to save unfinished projects to read over, if only to see how far I've come. I've turned one screenplay (and may turn more) into novels. So I will just have to leave careful instructions to my family (and lots of threatening notes in the file folders) that they are not to do publish any of it. Oh--that and a link to this blog.
Friday, September 18, 2015
by Paul D. Marks
Well, if you answer yes to the first question, the answer to the second is ipso facto yes too.
My answer is yes.
I understand what Susan said earlier in the week about the cardinal rule of not killing animals in crime fiction stories. And what RJ said in one of the comments, adding children to that. Also how agents, fans and readers will come down on you for killing an animal. It’s one of those unwritten rules. SPOILER ALERT: But my novel White Heat (which has been out long enough that I’m okay with giving it away here) is a very tough noir-thriller and in the parameters of that genre I think it works. At least I think it worked in that story. Still, if I recall correctly, when I was writing White Heat I debated a long time as to whether or not to make that happen. But ultimately it’s what I thought the story called for, so it went in. That book has a bunch of controversial elements. And deals with a lot of sensitive issues, of which that is a small part.
I did hear from people about it. It upset them, but not in a way to make them not like the book or not want to read other things from me. It just upset them the way the death of any innocent would, but they still liked the book. Whether people I didn’t hear from had an issue with it, I can’t say, of course.
That said, it’s hard for me to read or think about killing an animal. We have a contingent of four animals at most times, two dogs and two cats. Though, unfortunately, they’re not always the same four. So we are definitely animal people. I’ve seen enough death in my life, both human and animal, that at this point when we’ve had to put animals to sleep I won’t be in the room. And when our vet wanted to put Curley, one of our cats, to sleep, I said no. And here, almost two years later, he’s still going strong, and will hopefully continue to do so.
I also love the movies Old Yeller, My Dog Skip and Marley & Me...but so far I can’t bring myself to watch them again, though I’m sure I will. I still can’t read The Art of Racing in the Rain.
But none of that stopped me from “killing” a dog in White Heat – because that’s what the plot required. Like Robin said it shouldn’t be gratuitous. And I do have limits. As I mentioned in a previous post, in the distant past I wouldn’t do things that I thought would give terrorists ideas. But they seem to have plenty of their own and I doubt anything I could come up with would be something they haven’t already thought of. I also wouldn’t want to be very specific about building a bomb or some such. Sure that info’s out there on the web, but I don’t want to be the one to tell someone how to do it.
Will I kill another animal in a story? If the plot calls for it, I guess I will. But I won’t enjoy doing it. And here’s to you, Baron – the real Baron, one of the greatest dogs that ever lived! See you, buddy—hopefully not too soon.
“...a nonstop staccato action noir... Vortex lives up to its name, quickly creating a maelstrom of action and purpose to draw readers into a whirlpool of intrigue and mystery... but be forewarned: once picked up, it's nearly impossible to put down before the end.” —D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
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Wednesday, September 16, 2015
|No Cereal! No Justice!|