One Bite at a Time

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bouchercon 2017: Thursday

This year’s Bouchercon in Toronto wasn’t just a conference for The Beloved Spouse™ and I; it was an adventure. The road trip we took merits at least one blog post of its own. First we’ll cut to the chase.

Thursday, October 13

10:00 Heroes and Antiheroes: Are heroes possible even in fiction? Do we need them?
I don’t have a lot to say about this panel, largely because I was in it. That’s not due to any false modesty on my part; it kicked ass. The problem is that I couldn’t very well take notes while on the dais, and there are no recordings this year. My mind fully occupied, I can barely remember what I said, let alone everyone else. Suffice to say J. Kent Messum led a star-studded cast of Eric Campbell, Allison Gaylin, Stuart Neville, and David Swinson through a thought-provoking and fast-paced hour while I tried to keep up.

2:30 Adapted For…About books made into movies or TV shows
Watching the audience file in for this one it occurred to me how many people with infirmities attend Bouchercon. It makes sense. Those with physical infirmities often find reading a recreational activity they can continue to enjoy without an ability to move around as freely as they’d like. Those with mental infirmities become writers.

Our friend Sam Wiebe was unable to attend Bouchercon this year due to jury duty. We learned right before the panel his book, Invisible Dead, was nominated for the City of Vancouver Book Award. Guess now we know which jury he was on.

The panel was worth getting good seats for, as Shawn Reilly Simmons led an all-star crew through a discussion of both sides of the process of moving a book to the screen. Here are some highlights:

Yrsa Sigurdardottir: The book is like your child; the movie is a grandchild. It’s not appropriate for the grandparents to be too involved in its creation.

Lou Berney: It’s tricky to collaborate with too protective an author.
Maureen Jennings: “Collaboration” means “interference.”

David Morell: When selling rights, insist on print control of the characters. (He got to write the novelizations for the Rambo sequels and change not only the themes, but the plots.)

David Morell: Tracing the historical antecedents of books showed the evolution of British thrillers and, by extension, how all books stand on the shoulders of their predecessors.

Ann Cleeves: Once you send a book out to the public, it’s not really yours anymore. It belongs to the reader’s imagination. A TV/movie adaptation is another step down that road, as they’re entirely different storytelling media.

Lou Berney: Adapting a novel into a screenplay is like distilling a haiku out of an epic poem.

There were more panels I could have gone to, but the adventure in getting to Canada and the rush from the anti-hero panel wore me out. Come back next week for a look at what transpired on Friday. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

On the Road Again

No blog posts this week while The Beloved Spouse and I are away at Bouchercon. 

I’ll be back with Part I of this year’s wrap-up on Wednesday, October 18.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Conversation With Dietrich Kalteis

Dietrich Kalteis is unique. I can’t remember the last time he and I didn’t get together at Bouchercon, except this year it’s in Toronto and he won’t be there even though for once he won’t need a passport. (I will, but not to get into Canada. I’m an American citizen and need one to come back. Go figure.) Well, okay, the reason he can’t go is because his latest book, Zero Avenue, launched yesterday, so he has promotional stuff to do. To me, what better way to promote a new work of crime fiction than to go to the largest gathering of crime fiction devotees in the world—where, among other promotional opportunities, he could buy me a drink—but I guess not everyone has the marketing chops I have. (Amazon didn’t just give me that $7.52 I made last month, you know.)

Dieter has like no biographical information online, so suffice to say he’s a disarmingly charming guy whose serene demeanor in no way reflects the content of his books. I could go on, but it’s better if we let him do it. He’s good with words. Very good.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Zero Avenue.
Dietrich Kalteis: Zero Avenue is set during the early days of Vancouver’s punk rock scene.
It follows Frankie del Rey, who aspires to launch her music career and raise enough money to cut a demo record and take her band Waves of Nausea on the road. To make ends meet she mules drugs for a powerful dealer named Marty Sayles. Things are going well when she gets in a relationship with a Johnny Falco, owner of a struggling club on the Downtown Eastside. That is, until Johnny decides to raid one of Marty Sayles’ pot fields. When he gets away with it, Frankie’s bass player finds out about it and figures that was easy enough and rips off another one of Sayles’ fields. When he goes missing, Johnnie and Frankie try to find out what happened. Meanwhile Marty Sayles comes looking for who ripped him off the first time — a trail that leads straight to Johnny and Frankie.

This is the first novel where I tried writing a female lead character, and at first I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but once I got going I had fun with it, and it worked out well.

OBAAT: You hooked me with the name of the band. Waves of Nausea sounds like something Carl Hiaasen would come up with. You must have been but a child when punk cut its teeth in Vancouver. What made you pick that period and how did you research it?
DK: I wasn’t in Vancouver during early those punk days, but I was around. Jesus, I remember when Brian Jones was in the Stones. And the setting seemed perfect for a crime story because the punk scene was so raw and angry, and Vancouver was such a polite, sleepy backwater town back then, so there’s this natural tension. It was also a time before Google Earth, Google Maps, and satellite imagery, back when pot fields were a lot easier to hide.

As far as research, there are some great books that helped with the details: Guilty of Everything by John Armstrong, Perfect Youth by Sam Sutherland, I, Shithead and Talk-Action=Zero, both by Joe Keithley. And there was Bloodied but Unbowed, a documentary by Susanne Tabata that’s jam-packed with clips and tales from Vancouver’s early punk scene.

OBAAT: You’re a Vancouver guy, so you sit perilously close to the border with Baja Canada, or what many here refer to as the United States. With a country that close ten times the size of Canada, who do you feel is your audience? Or do you have a single reader in mind? Or just don’t give a fuck and write what you like and hope for the best?
DK: I do give a fuck, and I write the kind of stories that I would personally like to read. And they tend to be crime stories that end up on the gritty side with a little dark humor tossed in. I’ve used settings on either side of the border, so I hope the stories appeal to readers who like that type of story too. 

OBAAT: You’re one of the few people I know who diched his day job and jumped feet first into writing. Did things go about as you expected, or did you find a lot of surprises once you made the leap?
DK: When I ditched the day job about ten years ago, I wasn’t sure how far the jump was. I just knew if I was ever going to do it, I had to take that leap. And there were some surprises along the way, although most of them have been good ones — like getting that first novel accepted. Signing that deal was a rush, one which never gets old from one novel to the next. And like you, Dana, I’m blessed with a beloved spouse who is totally supportive; and without that, I might still just be talking about taking the jump.

OBAAT: You’ve said before that tone is what keeps you reading a book, by which you meant voice and pace. What is it about the tone of a book—or an author—that makes it the key element for you? We agree on this by the way. I’m just wondering how you came to that point.
DK: The voice is the personality of the writing, it’s what makes each author sound unique. It’s the way a writer combines syntax, pace, character, dialog, and all the story elements to pull the whole thing off and come up with an individual style.

When I read a book where the author’s voice resonates with me, I often find it’s hard to put it down, and that’s like magic. And when I find an author that I really connect with like that, I just want to read everything they’ve ever written, and then reread it all.

OBAAT: I know a lot of writers who don’t read fiction when they’re working on a book because they’re afraid it will influence their work in progress. As someone so closely attuned to voice and style, do you cut yourself off from such potential influences, or do you not worry about that?
DK: I always read while I’m working on a novel, which for me is most of the time. If I didn’t read when I was writing I’d never get to read. I think reading something well written not only entertains but inspires me to write. 

OBAAT: The “inspires [you] to write” comment hits home with me on multiple levels. Sometimes other fiction doesn’t just inspire me, it suggests things. For example, reminders of what someone else does well can trigger a thought that I’ve become a little lazy in some way. Even more, I’ve picked up plot suggestions from other books in the nick of time. Not that I plagiarize anyone, but some trick or twist I’ve read somewhere can be adapted to my situation and become useful to me. The climax of my first Nick Forte novel, A Small Sacrifice, was inspired by the ending of the film Three Days of the Condor, though the situations are so different one could hardly call it a copy. Have you ever had that happen?
DK: I get what you mean. What inspires me can spark my own ideas. Sometimes it comes from something I read, but also from something I see or hear, anything around me really. It might send me thinking, well, what if this happens … And it’s partly why I don’t plot a story in advance. These sparks might come along when I’m working on a story, as the whole thing’s taking shape, and it might give birth to a new idea or a twist. And that’s probably better than anything I would have come up with if I just sat down and outlined the whole story before I started writing. I mean, it’s just so organic, and that’s just something that works for me.

OBAAT: When we chatted in 2014 the question arose “Does writing ever seem like work to you?” Your reply:  The only time writing ever seemed like work was when I gave myself a crash course in grammar back when I started out five years ago. I studied a half dozen grammar texts and kept a notebook which I still refer to from time to time. I thought since I was working with words and called myself a writer, I ought to at least know where to put the commas and stuff.

This put me in mind of what I consider the greatest bit of dialog ever written to describe the public’s perception of writers, Bo Catlett explaining to Chili Palmer how easy it is to write a screenplay:

“You asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you write down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page you write in ‘Fade out’ and that’s the end, you’re done.”
Chili said, “That’s all there is to it?”
“That’s all.”
Chili said, “Then what do I need you for?”

(Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard. Page 143.)

That’s a long way to go to get to this question: Do you ever find bits of your stories showing up in your life? When I was working on Wild Bill, The Beloved Spouse™ said she could tell who that day’s POV character was by the way I talked when I came downstairs.
DK: That’s funny about your wife being able to tell the day’s POV character by the way you talk when you come downstairs. I think I get that. When I finish writing for the day, I sometimes feel like I’m in a fog, like I’m waking up from the story and coming back down to earth. 

And sometimes I stick bits of my real life in my stories — like something I experienced or just heard or read, with some fiction thrown in. I often jot little notes, like when somebody says something that I can use in a story I’m working on. Little bits drift in all the time, and I don’t want to miss them, so I write them down.

And you’re right about that scene from Get Shorty and the great dialog. What works is how simple and real it sounds. It’s a great example of how Elmore Leonard was just a master of the game.

OBAAT: You and I are both strongly influenced by Elmore Leonard, who once said he strove to get out of the way so the reader is unaware Leonard is writing at all, yet few writers are as easily identifiable as he. Why do you think that is?
DK: He just had this amazing voice, and he said if his writing sounded like writing, he rewrote it. He wanted to let the point of view of his characters come through, so he got out of their way so they could plot their own course and make their own decisions, good or bad. Doing that really let their cleverness or dumbness show through. And I think that’s one of the great lessons one can take away from Elmore Leonard.

OBAAT: Thanks for a great time, Dieter. I’m looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon in Toronto. (You will be there, right?) Till then, what’s on the agenda for you writing-wise?
DK: After Zero Avenue comes Poughkeepsie Shuffle which takes place in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy just released from the infamous Don Jail. He lands himself a job at a used-car lot and finds himself mixed up in a smuggling ring bringing guns in from Upstate New York. Jeff’s a guy who’s willing to break a few rules on the road to riches, living by the motto, “why let the mistakes of the past get in the way of a good score in the future.”

I won’t make it to Bouchercon this year, I’ll be on the West Coast promoting the new book, but hopefully we’ll be able to catch up at next year’s Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. And thanks very much, Dana, for having me on One Bite at a Time. It was a lot of fun.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Upping My Game?

Maybe it was The Summer of Western Research. Or maybe it was what spurred the idea to write a Western. More likely it was some of the things TSoWR made me think of. How to build the world. What to include. What to leave out. Building a cast of characters, but now how to build the story. I’d taken some of that for granted in the past. Once my universes were set up for Nick Forte and Penns River it became easy to think of stories that fit them. This would have to be different.

Summer’s over. I’m back to work on what I hope will be the penultimate draft of the fifth Penns River novel. The vague image of the form of the sixth started to take shape during the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference a few weeks ago, but there’s no story. That’s unusual. I usually have the germ of the story first then mold it into a shape that will suit my setting and characters.

It bothered me. An itch I could scratch, but scratching didn’t provide relief. After a week or so it occurred to me I was looking for ways to become a better writer. The reason I like Nick Forte and Penns River so much is the abundance stories available in that universe. (For those who don’t know, Forte is a Chicago PI and first cousin of the main character in the Penns River novels, which take place in Western Pennsylvania. The two series cross over from time to time, most notably in Grind Joint.) The books are good, but I don’t know that they’re getting any better. I had a philosophy in my musical days that kept me practicing: You can never stay the same. You either get better, or you get worse. I didn’t feel I was getting better.

This week I interviewed John McNally for a December blog post. John is the only actual writing teacher I ever had—no, I’m not blaming him—and I’m always interested in what he has to say. It’s a great interview, as good as any that ever graced this blog. (Editor’s Note: He’s not kidding. You’re going to want to read it.) Here’s part of one response: I had a teacher who once posed this question to the class: "What's at stake for you in this?" That's probably become the single most important piece of writing advice I've received. Not what's at stake for the character but what's at stake for you?

That’s what’s missing. I know I can tell a good story and I can tell it well. What I need now is to maintain those qualities and go a little deeper. Invest more of myself in the book. The catch is I don’t know how to do it. I mean, if it were easy I’d have done it already. So I’m shifting my reading for a while, not looking for anything new, but for things from favorite authors that might mean more to me now than they did before. Some books will be re-read. Some will be books I haven’t read yet by favorite authors.

I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I’m not even sure I’ll know it when I see it. Maybe the best I can hope for is that cruising through my betters will rub off on me. All I know for sure is I want this next book to be something different, something better, without losing any of the things that I do well already. We’ll see how it goes. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Summer of Western Research

The Summer of Western Research™ is over. There are still wispy remnants floating around like steam dissipating in a breeze, but the heavy lifting is over. I found what I needed.

The primary purpose of dedicating three months of reading and viewing to Westerns was to tie together my understanding of the canon enough to see if I could write a book in the genre without embarrassing myself. I’d read very little, and, while I’ve always been a fan of Western movies, I watched them for entertainment value. My understanding of what made them work was superficial.

Among the chores I set myself was to get a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and to see how well the fiction served the reality on which it was based. The point was to see how much additional research I’d need to do justice to the project, and would it require more time than I was willing to take away from my other projects. I needed enough of a basis in fact to make the story more than a second-rate horse opera, but I didn’t want to make it my mission in life, either.

For a while I played with the idea of a fictionalized account of true events. Nothing as obvious as The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Probably not even a Wyatt Earp anecdote. A fictional story about Bat Masterson and his brothers came to mind. I dismissed it because a “brothers as lawmen” story was already strong in the popular culture from the movie Tombstone and no way did I want to compete against that, nor be too strongly influenced.

A story near the end of Six Years with the Texas Rangers by James B. Gillett showed promise as something I could run with—and I may some day—but ultimately seemed too narrow a scope. If I’m only going to write Western—also a distinct possibility—I wanted to cover some ground.

And there, my friends, was the rub. As most author friends are already aware, the trick when writing a book is rarely what to include; it’s what to leave out. Every good plot point or character development touches on something that deserves exploration itself in order to do it justice. To touch even half the bases well would take a book of Michener-esque length, and I wouldn’t read another Michener novel if you tied me to an anthill and cut off my eyelids.

Decisions got made. The book will take place in Wyoming Territory circa 1885. Two experienced lawmen will butt heads while pursuing common goals, not the least of which is setting a teenage boy on the right path. The town marshal is a father figure. The U.S. marshal is a minor celebrity, happy to tell stories of the times he spent with the Earps and Masterson and their kind. The core of the story is who wants the best for the boy, and which he follows. I’ll tell that through the evolution of a new city ostensibly created so the local ranches wouldn’t have to be so self-sufficient. Unlike Deadwood, Necessity is a planned town as much as one could be in those days, but once the blacksmith and grocer and service providers arrive the saloons and prostitutes and gamblers can’t be far behind, not so long as there are cowboys with money to be taken.

No plot yet, and only the most amorphous ideas of action scenes. I have the characters, though, and that’s the key thing I learned from this summer’s research. The core of a successful Western is the same as the core of a successful crime story. Doesn’t matter if it’s John Russell or Bat Masterson or Virgil Cole or Jimmy McNulty or Popeye Doyle. The story will come now that I know what it’s about.

Many thanks to all those who have encouraged me, and to those who provided the source materials—both fictional and non-fiction—that I drew upon. There’s no way to know how the book will turn out, but I had more fun this summer, and learned more about my subject, than I’ve ever had researching a book. It’s worth it just for that.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

2017 Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference, Part II

Today we resume my wrap-up of this year’s Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference, beginning with Saturday’s after-lunch session.

The Insider’s View of the Submission and Acquisition process at Kensington press
Michaela Hamilton

I almost didn’t go, as I have a publisher, but I’m glad I did. Michaela had a metric tonne of insights about how business is conducted that were worth hearing for anyone involved. Well worth anyone’s time.

Passive Voice, Exposition, or Dark and Stormy Nights: The Nitty-Gritty of Prose
John Gilstrap, Peter Blauner, John Wren, Penny Clover Petersen (Moderator)

A truly outstanding discussion of craft, in which Penny Clover Petersen did a fine job of putting the topic out there and letting a formidable panel have at it. The highlights are too many t mention here, so I’ll limit it to several of the best.

Blauner and Gilstrap agreed that it’s best to ground exposition in the voice of a character. Filter description through the sensitivities of the character. Tell the reader as much as he needs to know, when he needs to know it.

Blauner said the initial scene should give an idea of what the book is about, which Gilstrap followed up with his idea of the greatest opening line in modern literary history: Well, I’m pretty much fucked. (From The Martian.)

Blauner likes to set a mood or increase tension through the use of ordinary things, such as a pause in an argument with the tension brought out by the sound of the ice maker dropping cubes.

Gilstrap said a subtle way to ratchet up tension is for something not to work. Example: If someone needs to sign a document he doesn’t want to sign, the pen can run out of ink.

If I could have a recording of any one panel, this might be the one.

The Difference Between Writing for the Screen and Writing for the Page
Peter Blauner

Or maybe this one. Peter started with lessons learned in undergraduate school and on, spicing things up with anecdotes from other sources from time to time. A few highlights:

  • It’s not about the best writing or telling the best story. It’s about meeting the requirements of the show.
  • The most interesting stories aren’t ripped from the headlines. They’re on Page 7.
  • Not even the best TV can replicate the intimacy of reading.
  • He takes time off from TV when he wants to write a novel. Can’t switch back and forth.

Tools in the Investigator’s Kit
Karl Braungart, David Swinson, Lanny Larcinese, Bernard Shaffer (Moderator), and me, once again lowering the level of discourse.

Hard to take notes when you’re on the panel. What I remember most, selfishly, is how good it felt when two serious business and experienced cops validated much of what I’ve based my books on. This would have been worth the price of the conference all by itself.

Keynote address by Jonathan Maberry
There’s no way I can do Maberry’s story justice in the space I have here. I’m not even gpoing to try. Suffice to say that if there was anyone in the world who could describe himself as overcoming difficult circumstances to succeed in his chosen field, it’s him. Yet, as do so many who actually have done this—especially, I’ve noticed, writers—he spent much of his talk noting how lucky he’s been that people along the way took an interest in him and helped without any expectation of return other than to do the right thing. His grandmother, a librarian, and famous writers such as Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury. A humbling experience to listen to someone at the top of his profession, and a talk all those born on third who think they hit triples would do well to take to heart.

I think Friday’s bar session took a little out of some folks, as things were quitter on Saturday. I personally limited myself to Arnold Palmers for the evening. (I think the bartender assumed I was a designated driver, as he never charged me.) A wide-ranging and pleasant conversation until the final conference attendees left the bar.

Sunday, September 10
Keeping Readers up all Night
John Gilstrap, Ilene Schneider, Bill Rapp, Belinda Gordon (Moderator)

Lots of good back-and-forth on the benefits of cliffhangers, leading the reader into the next scene, or knowing the exit line is good enough by itself. John may have had the money quote of the conference here when he said, “Resolutions are boring. Questions are interesting.”

911: What’s the Emergency?
Peter Blauner, Bernard Shaffer, Michael Black, Lanny Larchinese, Denise Camacho (Moderator)

This panel also got into some fascinating tangential discussions. Everyone on it had unique perspectives on emergency calls to make this a panel that could have gone twice as long and no one would have minded.

Bernard Shaffer set the tone when he said that not only do the 911 operators have to get all the necessary information, they have techniques to work with panicky callers, and may have to give emergency instructions in the case of choking or bleeding until help arrives. They also never get closure, as they never see the outcome like the cops do. It leads to PTSD issues on their own.

Peter Blauner extolled the virtues of subtlety in creating tension, that not every such scene has to be a gun to the head. Bernard followed up with a reminder that The Sopranos was the master of this, how any little thing could set Tony off and you never knew which ones would.

Bernard also had the perfect exit line for the conference as a whole when he said that the real heroes—more than the cops and other first responders—are the victims (kinds, rape victims, elderly) who have to sit in open court a few yards away from the attacker and tell their story.

C3 is a rising event on the annual conference tour, and one that’s footprint increases a little every year. I have no financial interest in the con, so I have a clear conscience when I say writers, aspiring writers, and readers who want to get up close and personal with each other in an intimate setting should take a look into attending in 2018. I know I’ll be there. I already signed up.

Friday, September 15, 2017

2017 Creature, Crimes, and Creativity Conference, Part I

The 2017 Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference in Columbia MD is history. The fifth C3 continued the progress of its predecessors and raised the bar even higher for next year’s. As with any event where multiple sessions are always underway, all I can do is to judge highlights from my perspective, but that’s okay. My perspective is the one I care about.

One caveat in advance: I took notes the best I could, but I am not a stenographer. Nor does my handwriting become more legible as I hurry. Apologies in advance for missed quotes, misquotes, and misattributions.

Friday September 8
Jason Bourse, Lara Croft, or Bruce Lee: Getting Fight Scenes Right
Moderated by yours truly with panelists David Swinson, Michael Black, Jonathan Maberry.

I hit the ground running with this high-profile panel. We covered plenty of tips, advice, pet peeves, dos, and don’ts, including:
  • Cops are always aware of what is behind the target when they’re thinking of shooting.
  • Many martial arts are sports, not self-defense techniques.
  • Street fights are different and tougher than a competition or practice.
  • How to look for possible weapons in any situation.
Oh, and Jonathan showed us how beat hell out of someone with a shot glass.

High Tech, Hunches, or Shoe Leather?
John Gilstrap, Bernard Shaffer, Rick Ollerman, Walter Curran (Moderator)

This panel looked not only at some techniques, but examined truths we should all think about when discussing law enforcement, whether fictional or real. John Gilstrap pointed out the author doesn’t have to know what the character knows; he just has to convince the reader that the character does. He also noted that if you took sirens off firetrucks you’d have 25% as many firefighters.

Bernard Shaffer followed up with a point that cops’ personalities are pretty much the same around the world.

Both agreed that cops, firefighters, and other first responders have to walk into the worst moments of people’s lives and bring order. Bernard added that we don’t do a very good job of keeping the wrong people out of the jobs.

Seducing Your Readers in Chapter One.
John Gilstrap, Sandra Campbell, Bill Rapp, Denise Camacho (Moderator)

A lively panel that discussed how to hook readers early, though not necessarily in the first paragraph or sentence as some would argue. The two money quotes were both Gilstrap’s, who said the key to any story is interesting people doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting places, and reminded us all that the beginning of the book is not the beginning of the story, using Harry Potter as an example. The story begins with Harry’s parents and Snape at Hogwarts. The book begins substantially later.

Booze, Unemployment, or Drugs: Developing Flawed Characters
Peter Blauner, Chris Bauer, Jeff Markowitz, Eric Gardner (Moderator)

Jeff Markowitz believes there’s one thing he needs to know when creating a character. It can be just about anything, but it’s the hook on which he’ll hang the characterization.

Peter Blauner spent six months with probation officers researching his first book. They’re as much social worker as cop and get into the job to help people. Quote from a PO: First you want to help them, then you find they can’t change and you end up hating them.

Keynote address by Peter Blauner
The after-dinner address was entertaining and educational. It’s always fun to learn how top professionals’ careers end up not at all where they have begun, and to hear the twists and turns that brought them to where they are. Blauner is a rare combination, a writer who’s successful both as a novelist and in television. I believe his experiences in each taught everyone there something, regardless of their own experience level.

Well, yeah, then I went to the bar. A C3 bar hits the sweet spot. True, there aren’t as many people there as at Bouchercon, but that means you can actually talk to those you want to talk to, be heard, and you can get a frigging drink. Thanks to Bill Rapp, David and Catherine Swinson, Bernard Shaffer, Peter Blauner, Jeffery Deaver, and at least one other person whose names I’d remember had not I had that one last beer for what I think is the best discussion of craft I’ve ever had at a conference.

Saturday September 9
How to do a Great Book Signing
Austin Camacho, Jeff Markowitz, Patricia Hale (Moderator), and me.

Once again they put me to work first thing. I knew in advance this would be a lot of fun. Patricia set us up well, and Austin, Jeff, and I have been friends for a while now and had a ball playing off each other.

Bringing it all Together: An Example of Writing a Thriller
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver took his time to walk us through his 13 Rules of Writing. I’m not going through them all—you want to know, get off your ass and go to a conference—but highlights included:
1. Define your goal as a writer.
2. Understand that your mission is to tell the most emotionally engaging story you can.
3. Writing fiction is a business, not an art.
8. Re-write, re-write, re-write. (See? I said I wouldn’t tell them all.)
10. Writer’s block does not exist.
And my personal favorite:
13. Be happy.

Jeffery was informative and entertaining and made the 45 minutes fly by. It was also gratifying to see Peter Blauner, David Swinson, and other established writers in the audience, still looking to learn.

Saturday’s lunch included me interviewing David Swinson, which was a treat in every way. Many thanks to organizer Austin Camacho and to David for allowing me to share the dais with a good friend and rapidly rising writer who truly does not appreciate how good he is.

We’ll have more on this year’s conference next week.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

The Summer of Western Research™ begins to wrap up with a few oldies but goodies.

Gone Baby Gone (2007) Dennis Lehane has the gift of knowing exactly who to sell his
books to in order to have the best movie made. Ben Affleck directed and co-wrote the screenplay from what Lehane says is the best of the Kenzie-Gennaro novels. Affleck stays true to the source material in tone and uses as much of Lehane’s sterling dialog as he can afford to without making a mini-series. No one thought Casey Affleck could pull Patrick Kenzie off, but he did so admirably. Amy Ryan is beyond good in an Oscar-nominated performance. (Tilda Swinton won for Michael Clayton.) The supporting cast of Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Michele Monahan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver, and John Ashton is as good as you’d expect from that crew, which is to say excellent. As successful an adaptation of a book as one is going to find, and from an excellent book, no less. Highest recommendation.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) Stupid fun that knew
it was stupid fun, and that made all the difference. Unlike a lot of more recent movies—a lot—that present impossible acts in impossible situations way too seriously, Buckaroo Banzai makes no excuses: None of this has ever happened, nor will it ever. Just embrace the craziness and have fun. I did.

The Professionals (1966) I saw this one in a theater instead of watching the first Super
Bowl, which shows a lot less about how bad I wanted to see it than how little respect the Super Bowl had in those days. Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, and Robert Ryan play guns for hire who contract out to a railroad magnate (Ralph Bellamy) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) from the Mexican bandit who kidnapped her (Jack Palance). Great action, just the right amount of fun, and, of course, things aren’t what they looked to be at the beginning. The film’s attitude is summed up in the final lines, after Bellamy calls Marvin a bastard. Marvin’s reply: “In my case an accident of birth. You, sir, are a self-made man.”

Valdez is Coming (1971) Part Two of a Burt Lancaster double feature. This time Lancaster
plays Bob Valdez, a constable on a border town who has to kill a black soldier he finds out later was not the one who allegedly killed a white man. Bob wants the man responsible for the mistake to pay $100—which the town’s other businessmen will match—to aid the dead man’s woman. What follows is a little like a Western version of Richard Stark’s The Hunter, as Bob wreaks havoc across the desert, never asking for more than the hundred bucks. Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, this is a fine example of an early post-Wild Bunch Western.

Wyatt Earp (1994) I liked this better while watching it than I did a few days later. Lawrence
Kasdan does a nice job of capturing a pretty close account of Wyatt Earp’s (Kevin Costner) life up through the O.K. Corral and the subsequent Earp Vengeance Ride. The authenticity is good and Dennis Quaid—of whom I’m not a big fan—was surprisingly good as Doc Holliday. (Not Val Kilmer good, but Val set the standard. Quaid took the part a different direction.) Looking back, though, it’s too long and tries to cover too much ground. I’m not sorry I watched it, but now that I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. Next time I get a Wyatt Earp hankering, I’ll watch Tombstone.

Blazing Saddles (1974) Maybe the greatest comedy ever, due to its success on so many
Hold it, men. He's not bluffing.
different levels. The first of Mel Brooks’s satires on established genres, no holds are barred in this examination of Westerns and racial prejudice. I can’t imagine how large the protests would be if Blazing Saddles had been made this year. Truth is, it would never have been released. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve seen it—this is another one I first saw in a theater on its initial release—and I still get tears of laughter five minutes in just because I know what’s going to happen. Genius.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


My Summer of Western Research™ has provided me a couple of opportunities to read books in conjunction with their film interpretations. Both examples were worthy adaptations. We’ll start with Hombre. (Novel by Elmore Leonard. Screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. Director Martin Ritt.) I wrote about both the book and the movie individually over the past few weeks. Today I’ll do the compare and contrast.

As I’ve said before, Hombre may be Leonard’s best novel. The story is tight and the
characters are a diverse mix. He also shows the dialog traits that would serve him so well in his crime fiction, with undertones of smart-assery throughout. The movie does well to keep all those and uses them to good effect.

There are two key differences that may have had more to do with the facts of moviemaking in 1967 than any artistic choices. In the movie, John Russell (Paul Newman) visits the boarding house he has inherited and meets Jessie Brown, the woman who runs it. (Diane Cilento.) She learns Russell plans to sell the house and decides to make her exit on the same mud wagon he’s leaving on.

None of this is in the book, including her. Instead of both Jessie and Doris Lee Blake, the book has a woman referred to throughout as “The McLaren Girl.” She’s apparently a teenager taken by the Apaches and later rescued by the Army, on her way back to her parents. She serves the role of conscience played by Jessie in the movie. All Doris Lee did was whine and stand in to show what a bastard Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone) is. (In another interesting change, the heavy in the book is named Frank Braden, which is the name of the lawman gone bad in the movie, who also does not appear in the book.)

This is all frosting on a delicious cake compared to the core change made for the film. In the climactic scene, Newman’s Russell gives everyone a chance to carry the bag of money down the hill, which is what Grimes says it will take to save Mrs. Favor from dying of dehydration. Everyone passes until it comes Jessie’s turn. When she says she’ll go, Russell decides he will. The strong implication is that he just wanted to see if anyone else would do it.

In the book, everyone passes and Russell goes anyway, pretty much throwing it in their faces that for all the shit they talked about him, he’s the only stand-up one in the bunch. He and the McLaren girl bond a little before he leave, which shows a little more of his humanity.

I have to wonder if the reason for this key change might have been a perception that the audience wasn’t ready to see everyone bail on a woman in need, redeeming Russell’s sometimes questionable character when he won’t allow Jessie to go to her death. In the book, he makes them all understand they’re nothing but talk. They can plead all they want that the Favor woman can’t be left there to die, but no one will do anything about it but him. Either way, Russell gets his pound of flesh for the shabby treatment he’s been afforded. Only he, who freely admits he doesn’t care about the woman one way or the other after what she said about “those dirty Indians eat dogs,” has the humanity to save her. That’s quite a difference.

That’s not to say it makes the movie any less wonderful; its interpretation of Russell’s character is just as valid. If any of my film student friends has any thoughts on why these changes were made, I’d love to hear them.

Friday, September 1, 2017

August's Best Reads

The Summer of Western Research™ draws to a close. It’s been a rousing success, not only committing me to writing the Western (though not immediately), but giving me a multitude of ideas and broadening my reading horizons. 

Here are the August highlights:

Hombre, Elmore Leonard. Quite possibly Leonard’s finest novel. Not a wasted word, but nothing left out, either. The decision to tell the story through a single set of eyes other than the main character’s was inspired. If you haven’t read it, you ought to. It’s a clinic. (I’ll have more to say about this and the movie next week.)

Appaloosa, Robert B. Parker. First of the series featuring itinerant lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch and the best of the four. (I’ll have more on that soon, too.) The sparse style and clipped dialog that Parker settled into late in the Spenser novels serves him much better here and the relationship between Cole and Hitch is fascinating and expertly done in this story about what is in essence a very strange love triangle.

Down & Out: The Magazine. Volume 1 Rick Ollerman, editor. I’m not a huge short story guy and anthologies are always iffy due to their unevenness, but Ollerman hit it out of the park in his first at bat for Down & Out. Not a weak story in the bunch and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Reed Farrel Coleman’s entry get notice during next year’s awards season. If you’re into digests of short crime, you should get on the bandwagon. Even if you’re not.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Picked this up in an airport waiting for a delayed flight. It’s exactly what it claims to be, as I started reading in the lounge and finished before the plane landed. Loaded with insights and tidbits not a lot of people are aware of with Tyson’s easy style and wit evident throughout. (“Yes, Einstein was a badass.”) An entertaining and enlightening read.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Conversation with Terrence McCauley

I discovered Terrence McCauley and his writing when we shared a panel at Bouchercon Albany on noir vs. hard-boiled fiction. We hit it off right away and I quickly discovered he’s a great foil for discussing a wide range of literary topics, as he someone who actually thinks about the things his books are about instead of settling for a good story well told. (Not that I’m implying a good story well told isn’t important. It’s the most important thing, but it’s also just the entry point. Readers should expect/demand that just to buy the book.)

Terrence is the author of the University series of novels featuring James Hicks. Of his new book, A Conspiracy of Ravens, no less than Reed Farrell Coleman says, "In our new reality, Terrence McCauley’s A Conspiracy of Ravens is not far from the realm of possibility. He hits all the right notes while creating a simultaneously entertaining and frightening scenario. Read it." (A Conspiracy of Ravens is the third book in the University series, to be released by Polis Books September 19.) He also writes a series of books set in Prohibition-era New York that includes Prohibition, Slow Burn, and the upcoming The Fairfax Incident.

Terrence started an enthusiastic discussion in Facebook a few weeks ago about heroes and villains, right about the time I got word I’ll be on a panel covering heroes and anti-heroes at Bouchercon in Toronto. One thing led to another and here we are, chatting about exactly those subjects.

One Bite at a Time: In your mind, what’s the difference between a hero and an anti-hero?
This man is NOT an asshole.
Terrence McCauley: To me, the anti-hero is the character that does what he or she is going to do anyway to serve their own purposes. They just happen to be for good. A hero, often in my opinion misdiagnosed as the protagonist, seeks to do the right thing for the cause which he or she serves.

OBAAT: You write the much-acclaimed University series of thrillers. Where does your main character, James Hicks, fall in this spectrum?
TM: In Hicks, I sought to create the anti-Bond. Hicks and the University do what they feel they need to do to protect the interests of the West. Sometimes that puts them in direct conflict with their own government who isn't sure of what the University is or what it's trying to accomplish. He spends a good amount of time in Sympathy for the Devil and A Murder of Crows combating his own government as much as the terrorists seeking to attack the country. This is why I would call Hicks an anti-hero.

OBAAT: We had an interesting conversation on Facebook a few weeks ago about Vic Mackey from The Shield. Vic trod a very thin line between anti-hero and villain for the show’s entire run. You know what he’s willing to do when he shoots a cop in the pilot, yet by the time Forrest Whitaker tries to take him down you can’t help but root for Vic. How does he managed to do this, and what is it about him that makes him a villain in the end?
TM: Secretly, everyone likes a bad guy. Who would you rather hang out with in Deadwood? Dudley Do Right or Al Swearengen? Vic Mackey is compelling because he does a lot of good while he's doing so much bad. He's a conflicted character and therefore believable. We can relate to him in a way we can't really relate to a hero like Superman. We're not perfect, hence the reason why so many people like Batman. To borrow from another medium, people related to Oprah because she faced a lot of the same struggles her viewers had faced. Poverty, weight problems, professional problems and, finally, success. Megyn Kelly has said she wants to be the next Oprah. A thin, blonde white woman who looks like a model? I don't think that'll go over so well because her audience can’t relate to her. In many ways, she is what many of her audience will never be. In Vic Mackey, we could relate because he was as flawed as the rest of us. We knew he was bad, but he was relatable.

OBAAT: You have a way with anti-heroes. Both your Prohibition Era novels, Prohibition and Slow Burn, are filled with characters who embody many admirable traits but are by no means heroes. Charlie Doherty from Slow Burn is a particular favorite. Truly a corrupt cop, he still does the job so it comes out right. Terry Quinn in Prohibition is a mob guy through and through, but his loyalty to Archie Doyle is moving, and reminds me in some ways of Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key. You mentioned a minute at what attracts you to such characters. What makes you so good at writing them?
TM: I always try to create believable characters, whether they're anti-heroes or villains or heroes. I make them believable by not allowing myself to write cookie-cutter characters. In my University series, Roger Cobb does horrible things to people, yet my readers tend to like him because they can relate to him. Same thing with Doherty and Quinn. They're products of their respective times and have their own motivations for doing what they do. Quinn has no problem murdering someone, but he's loyal to Archie. Doherty went into the Van Dorn case looking for blackmail money, but he gets won over by the family and the case. James Hicks is cold-blooded and distant, but he acts in what he feels are the best interests of his country and our way of life. They're complicated characters who aren't perfect and aren't flawed in the ways readers have come to expect in literature. My characters are all perfectly flawed and I wouldn't want them to be any other way.

OBAAT: I’ll tell you why I’m asking this in a minute, but can a hero become an anti-hero?
TM: Spoiler alert here, but Vic Mackey went from being hero to anti-hero to villain. The reason why it worked was because of consistent, strong writing. The seeds for his evil turn were planted from the very first episodes of the series and came to bloom in the final two episodes of the show. He was always the villain. We just never saw it. That's why I consider the ending to be the best ending of a series I've ever seen. It fit perfectly. It took a stand. It was believable.

Circumstances in a story can change so that a hero can become an anti-hero, but it has to be done well and it has to be done over time lest the writer be accused of jumping the shark. It can't be sudden and it can't be contrived. But if it's planned for over time, then I think it can be achieved. To use the comparison with another TV show, I think you're starting to see that in Homeland.

OBAAT: The reason I asked—and the reason I’m so glad to hear your answer—is that’s what happened to my PI character, Nick Forte. He starts out as a Chandlerian hero, doing the right things and trying to do them in the right way. Each book wore him down as things didn’t work out the way he wanted them to until now he’s reached the point where if he decides someone has to go, they go. Period. The thing about Forte that’s completely different from Vic Mackey is that I didn’t realize what I’d done until I was four books in and took a few years off to work on another series. Have you ever had a character evolve on you like that, even within the course of a book?
TM: Sure. Doherty evolves big time in Slow Burn and even more so in the upcoming The Fairfax Incident. James Hicks, over the course of three books, evolves into a character the reader can understand. With Hicks, that was by design. In Sympathy, I spend a lot of time introducing the reader to the world and technology I've created. I show who the protagonists and antagonists are and kept the backstory and motivations to a minimum. In Crows, the reader learns more about the University and sees a more human side of Hicks. I folded it into the plot of the book, rather than blatantly show you who he is and where he's coming from. In Ravens, readers will see a much more personal side of Hicks than they've ever seen before. My beta readers have all given me wonderful feedback on Ravens because they feel the evolution is believable and fits with the story. My goal is to continue this evolution in future novels and I hope to have the opportunity to keep the University Series going both during the current day and in the University's past with Charlie Doherty.

OBAAT: I know you’re a fan of the TV show Justified. Where did Raylan Givens fall on your personal hero/anti-hero scale?
TM: I love Raylan, but I'd classify him as a hero. Sure, he broke the rules, but not enough to make him a criminal. He was good with a gun, maybe too good, but all of his shootings were, indeed, Justified. Great character. Great performance and skillful writing made the show one of my favorites. But Vic Mackey is in a class by himself.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Movies Since Last Time

I am enjoying this Summer of Western Research™ even more than I thought I would.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) A disappointment. I’d seen it before but didn’t remember
anything beyond the early sequence where Billy (a miscast Kris Kristofferson) escapes from jail. There’s a reason for that. The film lacks any definite narrative direction, a pursuit story that meanders through episodes alternating between Garrett (James Coburn) and Billy until they end up at the same place. I’ve read that director Sam Peckinpah was pretty much incoherent drunk through most of the production. It shows. (In case you’re wondering, we saw the 2005 Special Edition Blu-Ray, so the cuts that ruined the film’s original release should not have been a problem. It’s just not very good.)

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Shows its age a little, but once it gets going it’s still as
entertaining a Western as you’ll find. It likely begins the turning away from the idealized horse operas with its frank examination of a gunman’s life, a movement that picks up speed with Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and the spaghetti Westerns until Peckinpah breaks the mold forever with The Wild Bunch. Good as it is, it has what has to be the single worst cut for time of any movie I’ve ever seen, when The Seven start to work their way into the hills to take out three snipers then magically appear in town with the snipers’ guns. The entire missing scene is explained away with “You got them?” I don’t know if the sequence was never filmed or cut for length. Either way, it should have been handled better. Still, among the Top Ten Westerns ever.

Hombre (1967) A masterpiece, based on what might well be Elmore Leonard’s best book. I don’t just mean his best Western; his best book, period. (If you haven’t read it, get busy. It’s
as fine a piece of taut storytelling as you’ll ever read, with nary a wasted word.) I was struck this time by how close this falls in Paul Newman’s body of work to 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and how there can’t be two characters more different than Butch and John Russell. Newman’s gift as an actor was how he never seemed to be acting. The entire cast provides outstanding work, and this may be Richard Boone’s best performance. Screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. kept much of Leonard’s dialog and captured the tone perfectly. Hombre never tries to be more than it is, and it’s a lot. There have been Westerns as good, but I can’t think of any better.

The Long Riders (1980) Never seen this one before, in part because I thought it was a
Hollywood gimmick to have sets of brothers (Keach, Carradine, Quaid, Guest) play brothers (James, Younger, Miller, Ford). I should have paid better attention. The casting was organic, stemming from the Keach brothers wanting to play the Jameses, talking to David Carradine about it and him thinking his bros could play the Youngers and it grew from there. An outstanding example of minimalist storytelling as Bill Bryden and Steven Smith team with Stacy and James Keach plus director Walter Hill to tell you everything you need to know without wasting time on exposition. The action scenes ring true and the violence appears as painful as it must have been. Well worth the time as an entertainment, and just as much as a way for storytellers to see how to get in and out quickly without leaving anything behind.

Open Range (2003) Hard to believe people were once worried whether Robert Duvall could play a cowboy. Here he’s Boss Spearman, one of the last of the free range cattlemen, who
grazes his herd over unclaimed ground across the West with the help of his small crew led by Charlie Waite (Kevin Costner). Costner was the driving force, producing, directing, and even putting up his own money, though he insisted Duvall get top billing and says the film might not have been made had Duval not agreed to do it. Pitch perfect from stem to stern, including outstanding performances by Annette Bening as Charlie’s awkward love interest and a pre-Dumbledore Michael Gambon as the evil cattle baron who runs the town. I don’t see it often listed as among the great Westerns, but it should be.

Appaloosa (2008) Here’s another one that should be right up there, Ed Harris’s adaptation
of Robert B. Parker’s first Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch Western. Harris directed and co-wrote the screenplay in a faithful adaptation of Parker’s book, about which I’ll have more to say in a couple of weeks. Harris and Viggo Mortensen play a pair of traveling lawmen who will go to any town that wants to clean itself up so long as the town agrees to their conditions. The basic story is a clever variation of a love triangle, with Harris’s Cole becoming enamored of newly-arrived widow Allie French (Renee Zellweger), whose efforts to play Cole and Hitch against each other spur the core friction in the story. Well told, well acted, faithful to the original material as well as the period in history, this is another that deserves more attention than it seems to get.