Monday, May 25, 2015
Friday, May 22, 2015
by Paul D. Marks
Oh boy! Well, aside from the seven banks I robbed and my days as a benevolent hitman, sure. But I was disappointed never to make it onto the FBI’s Top Ten.
And while the romance of being an outlaw is tempting, I think my temperament is better suited to that of “crime fighter” and crime writer. And not just because they rhyme.
I have a bit of a different take on how I came to be a crime writer. I was influenced by film noir and crime movies and later by the great writers from Hammett and Chandler on up. But because of certain things in my checkered past I think I’ve always had a strong sense of justice. And, while not getting involved in marches or crusades, I’ve tried in my own way to bring a little justice to this world on a micro level.
Someone who knew me well told me a long time ago that he thought I was like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but I’ll take it as one. As I tell my wife, who would rather avoid confrontation than fight, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but at least you have to stand up for yourself or others. And I don’t do this as much anymore. I guess I’ve mellowed with age and the sage advice of my wife. And also knowing that I can’t fight every battle.
At some point, I figured out one way that I could make justice prevail was to write about it. I think the below stories illustrate what I mean when I say I think I was born to be a crime fighter-writer.
Everything below has been abbreviated and abridged. Names changed to protect the innocent and guilty.
La Barbera’s/West LA:
Many years ago (decades), my mother, grandmother and two brothers and I went to La Barbera’s (sadly no longer there) on Wilshire for dinner. Dad was out of town. We were seated in a booth. My youngest brother and me on one side of the booth. Mother, grandmother and middle brother on the other. The younger one was, well, young, squirming a little in the seat. The man in the next booth could feel him squirm through the seatbacks. He turned around and started yelling at my brother. Yelling and nasty! He finally turned around back to his companion. I didn’t like what he’d done so I started to mimic everything he said so he could hear it. I also started jamming my elbow into the back of the seat, so he could feel it on his side—yeah, I’m a little nuts, or used to be.
So he turned around, started yelling at my brother again. I said “I did it.” He didn’t respond, just turned away. But I couldn’t stop mimicking him. Well, to make a long story short, after some more back and forth, he ended up at our booth—pulling a knife on me. I had long hair and at that time it wasn’t cool with some people. And I thought everyone in the restaurant would de facto be on his side, especially the UCLA jocks sitting nearby on one side and a Marine in dress blues on another. But the jocks were on my side. One stood up and said, “I saw it, the guy pulled a knife on him [me].” And the Marine kept to himself. Eventually, we were moved to another side of the restaurant. Our original waitress came over to us, put her hand on my shoulder and thanked me for putting the guy in his place since he lived near the restaurant and came in every week with his sister causing trouble. But they couldn’t say anything since he was a customer. A couple other waitresses did the same. That made me feel good. But my mom and grandmother almost had heart attacks...
Once again out to eat. With grandmother again and whole immediate family this time, dad included. Man in the next booth was yelling at his kid. Nasty. Deriding him for everything. Humiliating. Young kid, maybe around 5, 6, 7. As I say, because of my background things like this get my back up. “Why don’t you leave him alone?” I said. Uh oh! Paul’s at it again, the family thinks. Tell me to shut up. Nobody pulled a knife this time and the man’s wife finally got him to shut up. But I couldn’t help myself. And when it was over, nobody at my table said anything to me for some time. I guess they thought here goes crazy Paul again.
A friend of mine and I were in Westwood which, at the time was a hub of activity. Crowded sidewalks. Lots of street traffic. A bus pulled up to a bus stop. An old man was running for it—“running” as best as he could. The bus driver saw him but didn’t wait. I was pissed. So I ran down to the next bus stop a block or two away, beating the bus by seconds—he was in traffic. When the driver opened the door I said “Why didn’t you wait for that old man?” The driver told me to “&#%*#@$ off” and drove off. I didn’t win that one, but maybe the next time the driver saw an old man running for his bus he would wait for him. Nah, not that guy. —And, of course, I’m abbreviating our conversation, but that’s what it amounted to.
The LAPD/West LA
I can honestly say that I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. After all, here I am.
According to some people, if the LAPD is known for one thing it's for being trigger happy, ready to bust people up. Well, I'm happy to be able to say that I'm one of the few people to have pulled a gun on two cops and lived to tell about.
The first time it happened, I was in my apartment (the only upstairs unit in a four unit building) and heard yelling and screaming. I went outside. Sally’s (name changed) boyfriend said something about her being attacked and the guy was in the alley. Her boyfriend and I chased him down the alley. The police came out in force, including choppers that lit up the alley like daylight. But they didn’t’ catch the guy.
Every night after the first I would search her apartment for her when she came home from work, if her boyfriend wasn’t there. I'd let her sleep on my couch. And then she started staying at her boyfriend’s place off and on, so I asked her to let me know if the cops were going to stake out her apartment. She said she would.
Then, one night I’m watching “In a Lonely Place” on the tube (one of my favorite movies) when I heard helicopter noises. I grabbed my politically incorrect pistol, headed to my front door. I opened the door slowly and headed out to the landing at the top of my stairs. I watched a chopper circle above. Then, two scuzzballs came out of Sally's apartment at the bottom of the stairs. Greasy long hair. Big mustaches. Dirty clothes. The bad guy and a friend?
This was one of those situations where you don't have time to think. You have to act.
"Hold it," I said, aiming near-point blank at them only a few yards below. I could have dropped them both before they had a chance to turn around. "Turn around, slowly."
It was just like in the movies.
They did as ordered. Turned s-l-o-w-l-y.
"We're the police," the scuzzier of the two said. "Put the gun away and go inside."
I asked for ID and he badged me, cautiously. That was good enough for me. I went inside. So much for a trigger happy LAPD, though I wouldn’t try this today. It’s a whole different world.
Back in my apartment, “In a Lonely Place” was still on. And then the reality hit. Jesus, they were cops. And I had pulled a gun on them. The movie droned in the background. It could have been anything as far as I was concerned. I was freaking out. Visions of SWAT teams surrounding my apartment flashed through my mind.
The thoughts grew larger. What should I do? Sally hadn’t told me the police were staking out her place, as she’d promised. Now I’d pulled a gun on two cops. I called her apartment. One of the cops answered.
"Are you the guy from upstairs with the gun?" he said.
"Yes," I said.
"Man, you really made me nervous."
Not as nervous as I was when I found out you were the cops, I thought, but didn't say. He was cool. They weren't going to bust me. I had, indeed, pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it.
Sally moved out not too long after that. And, shortly after that the Westside Rapist was caught a block away. Not sure if it was the same guy who attacked Sally, but I tend to think it was.
So there you have it. My crazy adventures seeking truth, justice and the American Way...and there’s more. But I guess that’s for another time. So when I started writing I naturally gravitated towards telling stories where the bad guys would get punished. What better genre to do that than crime writing. Of course, sometimes, especially in the noir genre, the bad guys don’t get caught, but then there is always the great hand of fate that I can bring down on them as I sit at my computer screen in my captain’s chair and steer my boat to exact revenge and justice in the world. …Okay, so I’m a little over the top but you get the idea.
I don’t do this much anymore – after all, someone might pull a gun on me. And I don’t think the bullets would bounce off my chest.
(http://ccwconference.org/ ). June 6th and 7th. I’ll be on the Thrills and Chills (Crafting the Thriller and Suspense Novel) panel, Saturday at 10:30am, along with Laurie Stevens (M), Doug Lyle, Diana Gould and Craig Buck.
Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my soon-to-be-updated website www.PaulDMarks.com
Subscribe to my Newsletter: http://www.pauldmarks.com/subscribe.htm
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Not only did I devour The Famous Five, The Five Find-outers, The Put 'em Rights, The Secret Seven and my absolute favourite - The Treasure Hunters (secret passageways! treasure maps! can't say more without spoilers!) - all from the Olivetti of Enid Blyton:
but I did my best to surround myself with drama and intrigue from the off. I was the fourth sister; maybe I reckoned the only way to get any attention was to raise the stakes and keep my big sisters and parents on the edge of their seats. A man followed me home! (He didn't.) There's a rattlesnake in my bed! (There wasn't. Blame Bonanza.) I've gone blind! (I hadn't.)
By the time I had graduated onto Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, I had learned to keep my melodramatic daydreams to myself. It took a surprisingly long time to learn the next step - write them down. But I'm glad it finally occurred to me.
The first full-length book I ever wrote was the equal of any blind bonanza rattlesnake mash-up as far as implausibility and peril went. But, coming out of almost fifteen years of academia, it had zero playfulness in the writing. I put it in a drawer and moved on to Dandy Gilver (with no great increase in gritty realism). But I never forgot it and never fell out of love with some of the core characters.
A couple of years ago I returned to the imaginary town, renamed it, dusted off some characters, dreamed up more, and wrote what became COME TO HARM. It came out two weeks ago.
It's a bit surreal suddenly having other people know this story that's lived in my head since 2001 and I'm blaming that experience for me sharing, here on Criminal Minds, the fact that I once pretended a strange man had followed me home. To me, it was a tall tale no different from the rattlesnake and the loss of vision. It's only now I get what my parents must have gone through. Sorry, Mum and Dad. Next strange man - I promise, I'll write it down.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
The Mystery of Why I Write Mysteries...by Clare O'Donohue
Q: Looking back over your life, can you see the early clues that you were going to be a crime writer one day?
You mean, when - barely out of diapers - I killed a guy in Reno, just to watch him die? Or was that Johnny Cash (minus the diapers)?
I was not a kid caught up in murder mysteries. I didn't read Nancy Drew mainly because no one introduced me to her until I was well past Nancy Drew reading age. My mother was an English teacher, and Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Shakespeare were already in the house waiting to be plucked from a bookshelf. I read those books and loved the words and characters and how each author had his own voice, distinct from everyone else. But the truth is that long before then, I knew I wanted to be a writer.
I loved stories - the ones my parents told me as they tucked me in, and the ones I told my older sister when we couldn't sleep at night. My parent's stories were about Cinderella and Goldilocks. Mine were about the evil people who lived in the closet, who would escape under the door at night to attack us. Our only protection was the loyal, loving help from the people who lived under the bed - who fought to keep us safe and always succeeded. I was about five when I would tell these stories. I look back now and wonder if having two older brothers and one television set prompted me to be subconsciously influenced by superhero cartoons.
But mystery writing came later. At age 15 I wrote an 80-page novella about a college student flunking history who digs into an unsolved crime in the town's past in order to get extra credit. Pretty decent plot line if I do say so. Sadly the book itself, done on a typewriter, has been lost to history. But I remember the details even now. I don't know that I thought of it as a mystery. I just liked the idea and wanted to see what happened.
I hadn't read any mysteries at that time - and I wouldn't until James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss, plucked from an airport bookstore about ten years later.
I was a writer by then, a newspaper reporter on a small, weekly paper near Joliet Illinois. Writing mysteries was far from my mind. But reading them became a passion. Having discovered Crumley, I moved forward to Westlake, Paretsky, Grafton, Hammett, and anyone else I could find.
But it would be years later before I decided to write a mystery. And that was as much a matter of practicality (mysteries take up lots of room in a bookstore, so I figured people must buy them) as a matter of interest.
So here I am. And in truth, I still don't think of myself as a mystery writer, but just a writer who has written mysteries. I like to think that I'll always do what I did as a kid - like an idea and want to see what happens.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Monday, May 18, 2015
Friday, May 15, 2015
Yesterday, Alan Orloff offered the post "Down with Description" in response to this week's question: "What's easiest and hardest to write: action, description, dialogue, or something else?"
Ironically perhaps, description is the thing I most enjoy writing—though that's not to insist that it's the thing my readers might most enjoy reading. Elmore Leonard's writing rules have persisted in popular culture for some very basic reasons. But as a short story writer, I have to point out that there may be a difference in descriptive passages in a novel versus in a story. Leonard wrote that "you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill"—and that's likely good advice. But in a short story, where there's little room for excess at all, everything has to serve more than one purpose. Description isn't just description; it's also character or plot or theme or some combination of those folded into what looks on the surface like scene setting.
I had the great fortune a few weeks ago of being one of the first authors to contribute to B.K. Stevens' new blog "The First Two Pages," in which authors reflect on craft choices in the opening passages of their novels or short stories, and I ended up doing a big of reflecting on a long descriptive passage at the start of my story "The Odds Are Against Us"—with my own nod to Leonard's words. Here's an excerpt from my commentary on Stevens' blog—discussing how a description of the bar provides a portrait of both the bartender Terry and of the narrator, who's not only his current patron but also a friend:
Throughout the story, I wanted Terry to seem not just earnest but genuine in his friendship—guileless, generous, handing across that perfectly mixed gimlet with pride. I recognize (oh, how I do) that the long description of the bar is likely too much for a short story. Why not just sketch out the scene quickly? Why all that description? Isn’t this the very thing that Elmore Leonard’s Rule #9 warned all of us not to do? But I wasn’t intending to so much sketch out the place as to explain something fuller about Terry himself: more about that pride (“Murphy’s oil”), that attention to detail of his (“wiping everything clean, dusting and polishing the glasses, checking the fittings on the taps”), the desire to create a sense of hominess (“some coal… on a winter's night”). I also intended the description to echo in a different way the whole idea of what’s real and what’s not (and maybe what’s lasting and what’s momentary): “The bar was old school—not the slick mahogany and fresh brass and fancy martinis of some of those steakhouses that were cropping up downtown, trying to look like somebody. No, this was the real deal.” I hope there’s also a hint that experience has left scars, and that those experiences and those scars have a realness and a weight and a persistence too: “Black walnut bar top dinged and scratched over the years. Parts of it so sticky from spilt beer and liquor that they could hardly be cleaned….”
The full column can be found here.
In short, I love to write a detailed description—but I also try to have such passages serve a number of purposes.
As for what's hardest to write...well, that could be any of it at one time or another. I struggle at each stage of the process sometimes—inevitably. These days, I feel like I'm struggling with all of them.
In other news, I want to say how thrilled I am to have won the Agatha Award two weeks back for the short story I've been talking about here and how thrilled I am that both "The Odds Are Against Us" and my fellow Criminal Minds panelist Paul D. Marks' story "Howling at the Moon" have been named as finalists for this year's Anthony Awards, to be presented at Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, NC. (All the finalists can be found here, along with links to each of our stories.) Paul already gave a shout-out about this news in his column last Friday, but just wanted to add my congratulations to him here as well.
Thursday, May 14, 2015
What's easiest and hardest to write: action, description, dialogue, or something else?
For me, dialogue seems to be the easiest to write. I just picture two (or more) people talking, and the words just seem to flow. Which I guess makes sense, because in real life, I prefer to sit on the outskirts of a conversation and listen to what other people have to say.
What’s hardest for me to write?
Elmore Leonard famously said (or wrote):
Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
Good advice. I know that, as a reader, I tend to skip over descriptions. Give me pages and pages of dialogue or action, and I’ll happily, hungrily read every word. Give me anything more than a sentence or two of description, and my mind has a tendency to wander, along with my eyes.
Because I don’t like to read about description, I don’t like to write about description. (Plus, I stink at it.)
But I understand that you have to have some description. (I also understand that many readers love description, and many authors love writing description. More power to them. In all honesty, I wish I felt more comfortable writing description.)
Here’s a typical exchange between me and my internal editor about my WIP, Bubba Makes Friends:
Bubba walked up to the man and punched him in the face.
Editor: You need some description, for context. And for, you know, better writing.
Bubba walked past a tree, up to the man, and punched him in the face.
Editor: More, please.
Bubba walked past a big tree, up to the little man, and punched him in his stupid, weasely face.
The only thing I like less than writing description is writing about writing description.
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
by Tracy Kiely