Wednesday, October 17, 2018

August and September's Favorite Reads


It’s been busy here, so much so that I was unable to get my favorite August reads posted, Now I’m late for the September and both were banner months. No offense intended toward the authors noted here. Your books kicked ass, but I need to condense the comments in the interest of time. I owe you one, if only because of how much I enjoyed your books. (Except for those of you who are dead. You’re on your own.)

Bye, Bye, Baby, Alan Guthrie. Guthrie is one of the writers who compels me to keep an OCD-quality list of authors to keep up with. His name doesn’t pass before as often as some others, but I’ve never read one of his books that didn’t knock me on my ass. This is no exception.

Sick Puppy, Carl Hiaasen. This is the book that introduced me to Hiaasen over fifteen years ago and it was just as good this time. Maybe even better, as I’m better able to get into Hiaasen’s state of mind.

The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis. No one is better able to make arcane topics relatable. Here he examines the inherent flaws in how humans think. Got me so interested I bought a book by one of the guys this book is about. We’ll see how that goes. The subject is fascinating, but few can make the complex as understandable as Lewis.

Good Behavior, Donald Westlake. A Dortmunder caper that begins when Westlake’s smart yet unlucky thief falls into a convent during an escape. Hilarity ensures. Literally. The Beloved Spouse™ kept asking me to read to her whatever it was that had me breaking up in the hotel room. (Read on the road to and from Bouchercon.)

Tricks, Ed McBain. Nothing extraordinary by McBain’s standards. Just a good, solid 87th Precinct story. There isn’t much higher praise than that.

101, Tom Pitts. I used to have a policy of holding off on noting which ARCs made this list on the premise the books weren’t available yet. That’s a stupid policy. Often I forgot to make a fuss when the book did finally come out. I’m not making this mistake again, and I apologize to all those I may have slighted in the past. Few can keep disparate story lines all moving in the same direction with perfect pacing as well as Pitts. This is a good one, even by his high standards.

The Backlist, Frank Zafiro and Eric Beetner. Dueling—competing?—hitters written by two writers with similar enough styles to make the book read seamlessly. I’ve been in the bag for Beetner for a long time and just met Zafiro at Bouchercon, so I figured this had sat on my TBR stack long enough. Now I’m going to have to read the whole goddamn series.

Plaster City, Johnny Shaw. Shaw is a master of one of the hardest things to do: write a serious book with laugh out loud comedy in it that doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the violence or drama. It’s not like he got lucky, either. Dove Season is just as good.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity 2018

The sixth annual Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference happened last weekend in Columbia. There are bigger conferences, better known conferences, but I’ve never attended a conference that is more fun or has a better vibe than C3. I missed the first due to a scheduling conflict; now I schedule around it.

It’s much more compact than Bouchercon so my review won’t be as sprawling, but it’s definitely worth recapping. The panels are a little shorter, the schedule is condensed, and the meals are communal to allow writers of different levels to mingle with readers before heading off to the bar. I’m not going to break things out by panel, but by days.

Friday
John DeDakis’s current work of fiction has the working title of “Fake.” It’s about the concept of fake news. He has to keep rewriting large sections as he can’t stay ahead of actual events. 

David Swinson has great faith in his agent. He once showed her a book. She read it and asked, “Are you sure you’re done?” He said yes. She sent it out. No sale. He has not again questioned her judgment.

No matter what you see on TV, cops shooting at moving vehicles is frowned upon unless the danger is greater to let the car go.

David Swinson was taken for a ride in a paddy wagon as a kid to put the fear of God into him after he was caught placing cherry bombs in trees. He later became a decorated cop himself. Chauffeuring a miscreant like that today is a firing offense.

Swinson and Bernard Schaffer agree that Internal Affairs cops are just doing a job and are not as vilified as fiction often depicts them. True, some are pricks. But cops like dirty cops even less than the public does, so the job is necessary.

Jamie Freveletti thinks the Netflix concept of binge-watching is trickling down to reading. If you’re thinking of releasing a series of short stories or novellas in sequence, get them out quick.

Friday’s after-dinner speaker was Keith R.A. DeCandido, writer of comic books, novels, role-playing video games, and tie-in books for properties ranging from Supernatural to Star Trek and Dr. Who to X-Men to…I was going to insert something really off-the-wall here but I can’t be sure Keith didn’t write something for it while I was busy elsewhere. The theme of his talk was “You are responsible for your career,” and he made sure everyone understood he wasn’t just running his mouth. I can’t do his points justice, but Keith was kind enough to post his remarks on his blog for everyone to read.

Keith was a tough act to follow, but E.A. “Call me Ed” Aymar put together the first (hopefully annual) C3 Noir at the Bar. Ten readers in a venue where everyone could actually every nuance of the stories brought out the best in the competitors. That’s right. Competitors. the audience favorite won an engraved buck knife to commemorate the occasion, and John Gilstrap’s epic poem and dramatic reading richly deserved the award. Note to anyone thinking of reading at a subsequent C3 event: Bring your A game. The bar has been set.

Saturday
The only down side to participating in a panel is I can’t take notes for these recaps. Saturday morning’s discussion of villains had several lines worth repeating but I was too in the moment to memorialize them properly. The one that stuck out was when I asked Michael A. Black for the ultimate villain and he said, “Maybe Satan.” That’s badass, people, when someone will only go as far as saying Satan “might” be the ultimate villain.

Lunch dessert was an interview with the aforementioned Ed Aymar who gave us many insights under skillful prodding from Austin Camacho. We learned how long it took Ed to become an overnight success, the other writing-related ventures he’s involved in, and mostly, that he needs either adult supervision or medication. Both, to be safe.

Jamie Freveletti reminded us there are no INTERPOL agents who run around the world chasing criminals. INTERPOL issues warrants, usually for war criminals, It’s up to the participating governments to make the arrests.

Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are overrated. They can’t be enforced when the signer is answering a subpoena and whistleblowers statutes likely protect…uh,,,whistleblowers.

John DeDakis condensed a class he teaches to fit the time allotted and squeezed in enough worthwhile information for me to come away with several pages of notes even after having half a dozen novels published. Among the prime morsels:
Procrastination is not always a bad thing. Rumination is part of the process.
Some sort of organization system is important, but don’t let it be the tail that wags the dog.
“Go all the way through your first draft without your internal editor. You’ve written a book! It sucks, but it’s a book!” Then the real work of re-writing begins.
Cowardice is fearful inaction. You know what you have to do and don’t do it. Courage is action in the face of fear

Shawn A. Cosby referred to what are commonly referred to as “psycho sidekicks” as “benevolent sociopaths.”

Ed Aymar, pretentious as ever, quoted de Maupassant with, “Everyone leads three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.” He then tried to claim credit for himself when the audience made approving noises.

The after-dinner speaker was Jamie Freveletti, who went over her career, and, like most of the successful writers I’ve heard speak, was quick to credit good fortune in her success, not that she hasn’t earned it. Her talk covered a range of topics from her own career and included her new venture, a publishing imprint of her own.

Sunday
We had breakfast dessert on Sunday, as Austin interviewed John DeDakis about his career at CNN and his subsequent work as a novelist. I frankly wasn’t as aware of John as I should have been before last weekend, but after seeing him on a couple of panels, sitting in on his class, and soaking up his interview, that is an oversight quickly rectified.

If you’ve never seen John Gilstrap give a talk, make time to do so. John spoke for 45 minutes on POV in writing and not only gave everyone plenty to think of when writing their own stuff, kept them in stitches throughout.

There was one more thing for The Beloved Spouse™ and I to take care of before heading out: signing up for next year. September 13 – 15, 2019 at the Sheraton Columbia (MD). We’ll keep an eye out for you.

Monday, October 8, 2018

J. L. Abramo, Author of American History


While I was, of course, acquainted with the name, I first met J. L. Abramo at the Shamus banquet in New Orleans a couple of years ago when we both sat at the Down & Out Books table, where we were both nominated for the same award; he won. While I am in full agreement with those who say there is no nicer or more welcoming group of people than crime fiction writers, even in that group there is a small cadre who stick out as true gentlemen in the traditional sense of the word. Joe is one of them. It’s always a treat when he stops by the blog because I know he’ll give thoughtful, well-reasoned, and honest answers to anything I ask.

One Bite at a Time: Your new book is titled American History. It’s the story of a feud between two Sicilian families that is carried to the United States prior to the First World War and ultimately spans the American continent. Give us a little taste of what to expect.

J.L. Abramo: The families of Salvatore Leone and Luigi Agnello had already been long-time bitter enemies in Sicily by the turn of the twentieth century.


In 1913, Vincenzo Leone, Salvatore’s oldest son, emigrates to Philadelphia to start a new life for himself and his family in the promised land. Several years later, Giuseppe Agnello, Luigi’s eldest, secretly marries Francesca Leone, Vincenzo’s sister, and the couple escape to New York City. Giuseppe leaves to serve his new country during the First World War.  Francesca, alone and in need of support for herself and their infant son, Louis, travels to Philadelphia to live with her brother, his wife, and his two daughters. The Spanish Flu takes the lives of Vincenzo’s wife and sister in 1918, and Leone moves with his daughters and Francesca’s son to San Francisco. Vincenzo decides to raise his nephew, Louis Agnello, as his own child.

When Giuseppe returns from the war, he finds his wife and son gone. It takes more than five years for Agnello to learn the whereabouts of his family. Giuseppe travels to San Francisco with hopes of a reunion with Francesca and Louis, and becomes a victim of the animosity between the two families—hatred recently transplanted in America by Vincenzo Leone’s younger brother, Roberto. 

American History is the epic, generational saga of the Agnellos and the Leones (in the Italian language, lambs and lions)—a one-hundred-year conflict between Giuseppe’s descendants in New York, law enforcers, and Vincenzo’s descendants in San Francisco, lawbreakers.

OBAAT: You’re best known for your Jake Diamond PI series—Circling the Runway won the Shamus Award in 2016 for Best Paperback Original. (I’ll always remember that because you beat me. Not that I’m bitter.) You built a solid reputation on the Diamond books and contemporary Brooklyn-based police procedurals Coney Island Avenue and Gravesend. American History is a much different book, with a far broader scope. What drew you to the idea?

JLA:  I am a first generation American.  My mother and her family emigrated to New York from Stalinist Russia in the 1920s.

My paternal grandfather, Giuseppe, emigrated from Naro, Sicily in 1909.  He left behind a pregnant wife and two children.  After five years of manual labor, he had earned enough to send for his family.  My father turned five years old on his ocean journey to America in 1914, and upon arrival in New York met his father for the first time. 

Gravesend and Coney Island Avenue were personal journeys back to my native land, Brooklyn.  American History was, in the writing, a trip further back in my heritage—an exploration of the immigrant experience.  I have always considered the courage of those who came to America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—facing alien customs, a foreign language and, in many cases, ethnic prejudice and persecution—to be remarkable. I recognized that adapting to these new circumstances took different paths, some outside the law, although the motivations were the same—to insure the safety and honor of the family. With those thoughts in mind, the idea for a generational family saga took hold.

OBAAT: How long does it take you to write, say, a Jake Diamond novel, and how long did it take to write American History?

JLA:  That is a question with no clear answer.  There are many mitigating circumstances.

I wrote Catching Water in a Net in less than a month, to satisfy a submission deadline.  The book miraculously captured the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel. Working with my editor to clean up a very convoluted plot took longer than writing the book did originally.

Gravesend, from inception through many transformations and ultimate publication, was a twelve-year process.

Brooklyn Justice came out of the gate full-speed and quickly raced to the finish line.

American History was started and then set aside for some time before it dawned on me what the novel was meant to be about.

OBAAT: American History takes place over a period of a hundred years across a significant geographic expanse. What kinds of research did you do?

JLA:  Research is always an important element of my work, particularly with respect to setting.  I consider the location of a story, cities in particular, to be a critical component—and I work diligently to get even the basics like street intersections correct.

Time period also requires accuracy and adequate research.  Chasing Charlie Chan is set in 1994—which was nearly twenty years before I wrote the book—and also deals with events from the 40s.  A great deal of research was necessary and, at the same time, enjoyable.
American History, because of the period of time it covers, was even more demanding.  It was important to me to follow the generations of these two families within the context of some of the major events in America during those ninety years.  I wanted the history of the Agnellos and the Leones to be worthy of the designation American history.

OBAAT: Looking back through your two previous visits here to OBAAT, I see what became American History had at least bits of your attention while you worked on multiple other projects. You also mentioned you start with a situation and go where it takes you. Was it hard to hold that together through periods of working on something else?

JLA:  This book also began with a situation, a visualized scene, almost cinematic, involving a man being released from prison with the strong sense that he may have been safer inside than out.  The question then became why.  It took a while (during which I worked on other projects) before I saw his situation as a result of a conflict that went back to his great-grandparents a century earlier—and decided the novel would, in the end, concern family honor and survival and the assimilation to new environments and changing times.

OBAAT: Who are your primary influences on your writing? Not necessarily writers. Could be filmmakers or musicians. Have those influencers changed over time?

JLA:  Although I am considered a crime novelist, my work is most often concerned with how people deal with adversity—positively or negatively. And family—its importance, and the constant incentive for family respectability and loyalty, are also common themes in my novels. These themes are inspired by personal experiences and everything I see and hear about such concerns and store away to be tapped later, consciously or otherwise. I often create characters who are as courageous and as loyal as I would hope to be.  An artistic work which illuminate these sorts of themes—be a John Irving novel, a Sidney Lumet film, or a Bruce Springsteen song—influence me in that direction.

OBAAT: Writers are great readers. What do you look for in a book that makes it rise above the rest? On the flip side, is there anything that will cause you to put a book down? I’m asking not so much about the absence of what you like, but the presence of something you actively dislike.

JLA:  Of late, I have been reading more non-fiction.  At this stage of my life, I feel it is a better use of my time to examine the events of the near and distant past because it helps me better understand how we’ve arrived where we are and inspires me to write more informed and hopefully more relevant work. 

For example, I have very recently read The Fifties by David Halberstam.  It was enlightening and has provided me with a great deal of solid information which is assisting me in writing about a series of events which occurred during that period.  I am presently reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Its depiction of Berlin in 1933, all of the clear warnings ignored, illuminates those dangerously ignored today.
  
In regard to the flip side there is a lot out there that I find derivative, gratuitously dark—as evidenced, for example, by the recent preponderance of noir by writers who, in many cases, seem to pay more attention to the level of depravity than to an adherence to the strict qualifications of the sub-genre.
 
It has almost become a fad.  It feels too much like noir for noir’s sake. I have participated in several Noir at the Bar events where very little that was read, including my own work, was what I would consider noir fiction.  When James M. Cain wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice, considered a definitive example of the genre, I don’t believe he set out with the goal of writing noir. Rather—when as a journalist covering the Snyder-Gray murder trial in 1927, where Ruth Snyder and her lover Henry Gray were accused of killing Snyder’s husband for the insurance money—I suggest he simply came up with a good idea from people who had a bad idea.

If I get the impression that an artistic endeavor is motivated by what is the flavor of the day—rather than by the need to set free authentic feelings and desires—I tend to pass.

There is so much excellent writing out there, particularly in television, it is humbling. The only way I can personally justify my efforts is if the work is a journey that is surprising and revealing to me and—subsequently, perhaps—for a fellow traveler, a.k.a. the reader.

OBAAT: The inevitable final question: What are you working on now?

JLA:  I have just completed a new Jake Diamond novel which, if meant to be, could hit the streets in 2019.

Ironically, I have been invited to contribute a short story for a noir anthology and I have a decision to make.  Pass, with the justification that it’s just not my thing—or give it a shot as an intellectual exercise.  Que sera, sera.

I am working on a few other projects, both quite different from any of my previous efforts.  Once I figure out what they are supposed to be, I will be able to tell you more.


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Conversation with Frank Zafiro


Frank Zafiro is a name I’ve been familiar with for a while, tied into the crime fiction community as I am, but I’d never met him until this year’s Bouchercon in St. Petersburg. Raconteur, bon vivant, man about town, former military and retired cop, Frank’s the good when looking for an authentic voice in crime. Unlike many with that pedigree, Frank’s writing is highly entertaining and reads like butter.

Frank has written at least half of 26 novels and contributed to many short story collections. For a complete listing, head on over to his web site, which also contains lots of other educational and entertaining stuff. Bonus info: “Zafiro” is a pen name. I’m not going to tell what his real name is, but “Azfori” is an anagram. Draw your own conclusions.

One Bite at a Time: First off, it was a real treat, one of my personal Bouchercon highlights in St. Petersburg, to get to meet and spend some time with you. I write police procedurals and have received comments about how I get most things right, but you write police procedurals drawing on your history as a cop. Fill us in on your law enforcement background.
Frank Zafiro: It was a definite highlight of Bouchercon to meet you and get to hang out. It was a blog post that you wrote that really made me feel more comfortable about going to the conference in the first place, and then as serendipity would have it, you were one of the first people I met, so that was cool.

I spent twenty years and a day as a cop in Spokane, Washington (River City is a thinly veiled version of this burg), retiring in 2013 as a captain. I was fortunate enough in my career to do a lot of different jobs and see many different aspects of the department, whether as an officer or detective, or later as a leader. As a result, I experienced Patrol, Investigations, K-9, SWAT, Hostage, volunteers, Dispatch…pretty much every part of the agency. In my leadership role, I got to see beyond even the PD, interacting with other agencies, other departments within the city, and various elements within the community. I had good experiences and bad ones, and (although I didn’t look at this way at the time) all of those were valuable to me as a writer.

OBAAT: I was familiar with your name more than your work when we met and my ears perked right up when I learned you write a series of police procedurals set in River City, as one might expect for an author who writes a series of police procedurals set in a town called Penns River. What’s the scoop on River City?
FZ: Well, as I mentioned, it’s a thinly veiled Spokane. In fact, the more I write in River City, the less I change about geography or other aspects from the real city it is based upon. The series itself is a police procedural with an ensemble cast. The first book, Under a Raging Moon, was purely patrol level (which is fairly uncommon in the genre), but the net has since widened as the series has progressed, first to include detectives and some mid-level brass, and now the entire breadth and width of the agency from the chief’s office on down.

That said, there are a few characters that have primacy, and the core character of the series for me has become Officer Katie MacLeod. She definitely has a supporting cast who play large secondary roles, but since book #3 she’s definitely who I’d say is the main character. Other big players include the veteran patrol officer Thomas Chisolm, Detective John Tower, and Lieutenant (spoiler alert:  he is promoted in book #5) Robert Saylor, among a host of others.

Since these are written in third person with multiple viewpoints, the reader gets to see what is happening from a variety of perspectives. As the series progresses, the reader also gets to see the development and changes these characters go through, and to share their history.

Essentially, I want the reader to feel like s/he has had a career at RCPD, and has seen all that has happened around them.

OBAAT: There definitely ain’t no flies on you. Your web site lists 26 novels and 18 anthologies contributed to. In the past three weeks alone, Book 5 of the River City series (The Menace of the Years) dropped, Book 3 of your Ania series was re-released (Closing the Circle) and a new series of novella was announced. Plus you do monthly podcasts. How do you balance all of this?
FZ: Meth.

No, not really. Coffee, though.

After I retired from law enforcement, I spent about four years teaching leadership in a national program that took me all over the US and Canada (including your old stomping grounds). This was great for both personal and professional reasons, but it did take its toll on my productivity. I hung up my PowerPoint clicker for good back in December of 2017, which allowed me to write full time. With that being my primary focus, I’ve been able to get a lot more work done.

Also, my first novel was published in 2006, so some of those numbers have been accomplished more though longevity than rapid writing.

Sometimes I do have to take a step back, however. I put my podcast on hiatus during the summer months in order to spend more time with my wife (she’s a teacher).

I guess the simplest answer to your question about balance is simply to be aware, and to manage my time.

OBAAT: You’ve worked on several collaborations with other authors, so you must enjoy the process. Tell us a little of how that works, how the process differs from partner to partner, and what you like best about it.
FZ: You’ve exposed another reason for the number of books I’ve written – I cheated. Eleven of my books are co-authored, and a twelfth will be published by Down & Out Books next year. When you only have to write half a book to take credit for having a whole book published, it sorta skews your numbers!

My first collaboration was with my friend and colleague, Colin Conway. We wrote Some Degree of Murder together, and set it in River City. At the time, we set the book ten years ahead of the most recent RC book I’d released (Heroes Often Fail, set in 1995). The format was a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. In other words, I wrote one character (a police detective) and Colin wrote the other (a mob enforcer). We both wrote in the first person. I wrote a chapter with my guy, then he wrote one with his. As such, the reader gets the intimacy of the first person, but a wider viewpoint than in traditional first person books.

This format has actually served me well. Jim Wilsky did the same thing in our Ania novels. Eric Beetner and I went this route with our Bricks & Cam Job series, and Bonnie Paulson and I stuck with it for The Trade Off.

But Lawrence Kelter wanted to go with a single POV in The Last Collar, so I gave it a go, though not without some apprehension. I was concerned that two writers penning a single first person voice would end up sounding schizophrenic. In the end, though, our styles blended well to create a singular voice. We went the same route in Fallen City, though with multiple, third person viewpoints. That worked so well that I was happy to use that same format with Colin in our newest book, Charlie-316 (due in 2019).

To date, I’ve collaborated with five different authors on twelve books. Four men, one woman. They hail from New York, California, Texas, Idaho, and Washington. Pretty varied group, but they all have one thing in common… great people. And that made the process an absolute joy. In each case, it was akin to those writer meetings over coffee that always have you coming away jazzed up and full of positive writer energy. I enjoyed the entire process, from the planning, to the writing, to the revisions. All of us were very good about putting egos aside, or at least subordinating ego to story, so I don’t recall a single argument. Disagreements and discussions, sure, but all of it focused on bettering the book.

I wrote about become a collaborator in a D&O blog post, if people find that process interesting. I also interviewed all of my collaborators in an episode of Wrong Place, Write Crime, if readers want to get their take on how it all went down.

OBAAT: I came across the Ania series while researching this interview. It sounds fascinating, a main series character who moves through stories that are the schemes of others, carving out her own niche. How did you come up with the idea?
FZ:  Actually, I’m pretty sure Jim Wilsky came up with the idea for the first book, Blood on Blood, once we decided to write a novel together. We put some meat on his bare bones idea, but the initial story wasn’t about Ania. It focused on two half-brothers who were cooperating and competing to find the loot from their father’s last heist. Jim invented Ania in an early scene with his character, and as the story grew, so did her role. It was a classic case of a character refusing to be ignored and ultimately hijacking the book, or at least part of it.

Once we finished the first book and started talking about our next one, we realized that she was the thread that would connect the series, even though she wouldn’t be the one actually telling the tales. Her POV is only shown a scant few times throughout all four books. Instead, we see her through the eyes of the two protagonists, and in each book, those two protagonists are different – Mick and Jerzy in Blood on Blood, Cord and Casey in Queen of Diamonds, John and Andros in Closing the Circle, and Boyd and Hicks in Harbinger (due December 2018). This keeps the air of mystery around the character of Ania, and allowed us a lot of freedom in setting up each new locale and story.

OBAAT: You and I share several things as writers. We collaborate with the James Brown of crime fiction, Eric Beetner (he does all my covers); we both contributed to Lawrence Keltner’s Back Car Business anthologies (me in Volume 1, you in Volume 2); we both were selected for Thuglit anthologies (you in Hardcore Hardboiled, me in Blood, Guts, and Whiskey), we both write for Down & Out Books, and we both revere Ed McBain and Joe Wambaugh. (I just finished reading McBain’s Tricks) last night. What sets those two apart from the rest for you?
FZ: Well, Wambaugh for a couple of reasons. One, he really pioneered the cop-to-writer persona. He made it something legitimate, and if someone looks at my series and gives it some credibility because of my background, that’s because Wambaugh forged the way. Secondly, he wrote about cops the way they really are (I mean, a little dramatized, but still accurate), and he made that okay, too. In my River City books, I strive to show the reality of being a cop to the reader. Sure, it is amped up and all of the exciting things seem to be happening to a small cast of characters, but outside of that, it is very realistic. Wambaugh not only made that okay, but attractive. He essentially created a sub-genre of the police procedural – former cops writing realistic police fiction.

I think McBain’s ability to build a department with recurring characters and take the reader on the long journey with those characters really stands out. It has definitely inspired me to try to do the same thing with River City.

Right up there with McBain and Wambaugh, I have to say Lawrence Block is an inspiration when it comes to recurring characters. The lessons from his Scudder novels are valuable for me in my Stefan Kopriva mysteries, but good writing like his applies across the boards.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bouchercon 2018: Saturday's and Sunday's Panels




8:00 (Yes, that’s 8:00 AM. This is what I get for drinking with Joe Clifford Friday night and him telling me not to come to an 8:00 panel. I showed him.) Drawing Inspiration From Our Kids (Bonus panel not in the program)
Joe Clifford (M), Emily Carpenter. Mason Cross, Shannon Kirk, Tom Pitts, LynDee Walker

Mason Cross: I like all my kids individually, but as a group…

Tom Pitts: Tucks his kids in with, “Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs crawl in your ears and lay eggs.” (To which Joe Clifford added, “There’s a bucket in the back for donations to help pay for the kids’ therapy.”)

Clifford: The days are long, but the years are short. (Didn’t take credit for it, but he did say it and I liked it.)

Cross’s daughter has a year-end evaluation where the child gets a chance to comment the school and teacher. His daughter’s contribution: Don’t use collective punishment, as it’s not fair to those who did nothing wrong and is illegal under the 1948 Geneva Convention.

Emily Carpenter: It’s better to let kids read beyond their comprehension than it is to let them see the same thing in a movie or on TV, as they’ll only imagine what they can at that age.

Pitts’s earliest reading experiences were reading the novels related to movies he wasn’t allowed to see.

8:30 Authors on the Air
Pam Stack did two series of short interviews on Saturday. She had to scramble to get all the people in she wanted—hell, she even got me in, which shows how far she was willing to stoop—but two stories stood out, both by Reed Farrel Coleman. When someone asked him how to become a best-selling author, he said, “Wait for a famous author to die, then take over the series.”

Once he was talking to Lawrence Block about that and Coleman mentioned he was probably better suited to writing Matt Scudder novels than Jesse Stone. Block took his own pulse and said, “Not yet, you’re not.”

(Reed was on a roll Saturday. Later he said, “Love writing, not what you’ve written.”)

9:00 It Takes a Village to Publish a Book—Behind the Scenes
Clair Lamb (M), Terri Bischoff, Mary Harris, Maddee James, Bryon Quertermous, Lance Wright
I know I missed good stuff here, as I got to the panel late after making an appearance at the Authors on the Air gig.

Maddee James and Bryon Quertermous agree that the more thought you devote up front the easier and quicker the setting up of your web site will be. (Editor’s Note: Full disclosure: Madee James built the web site you’re reading this on. Not only is she absolutely right with this comment, she gives you all the help you’ll need to think of the things you’d never think of on your own.)

Mary Harris (editor) asks for half of her fee up front then half when the client is happy. She’ll also take payments.

Quertermous: When agreeing on how the editor or web designer will get paid, take into consideration how the author will get paid. There are trade-offs for an author. When working with a traditional publisher, you get paid slower but have no up-front costs.

Quertermous: It’s not bad to use an editor who freelances while working a day job for a publisher. Lots of people do it, but the author must remember it doesn’t guarantee publication unless the editor is working under the auspices of the publisher.

Harris uses Word and Track Changes and will give the author a tutorial if necessary. (Editor’s Note: If in doubt, this is definitely the way to go.)

Quertermous: If an agent or a publisher asks for an exclusive, put them on the clock.

11:00 Abracadabra—Turning True Crime into Fiction
Reed Farrel Coleman (M), Peter Blauner, Julia Dahl, Hank Phillippi Ryan, R.G. Belsky

Reed Farrel Coleman started by doing something I wish more moderators did: gave the audiences a chance to ask questions as the panel went along, but established ground rules for the questions: 1) no thesis statements; 2) do not begin with “In my book.” 3) get to the point. These rules were enforced and everyone was better off for it.

Peter Blauner once called Coleman before writing a Long Island story to make sure Reed didn’t want it for himself.

Julia Dahl: Hasidic Jews in New York have their own shadow government, including a “police force.” They are strongly encouraged to keep everything inside the community.

Hank Phillippi Ryan had a deal to write a book about the Casey Anthony story and had it almost done for a quick turnaround as the trial was ending. The whole deal fell through when Anthony was acquitted, as “No one wants to read about innocent people.”

R.G. Belsky likes to show how covering stories affects the journalist, prompting Coleman to remember Joseph Wambaugh’s famous line, “It’s not how the detective works the case, it’s how the case works the detective.”

Dahl on the reasons to write a novel instead of an article: As a reporter you can only tell the truth as related by others. A novelist can put herself on the actual scene.

Blauner is not a “ripped from the headlines” guy. He prefers the story on page 7 that creates an emotional attachment in him. He finds people are more honest when talking to a fiction writer because they know they’re not going to turn up in the paper or on television.

Coleman: If you want the facts, read non-fiction. If you want the truth, read fiction.

Belsky wrote a piece about a Kennedy funeral from the perspective of the guy who dug the grave.

Ryan: You might not be able to get inside the crime scene tape, but you might be able to talk a neighbor into letting you look out of an overlooking window.

Blauner: Research can turn into a very sophisticated form of procrastination.

(Not to put anyone else down, but this was my favorite panel this year.)

12:00 Walking a High Wire Without a Net—Creating Tension in Thrillers
Brad Parks (M), Jason Backlund, Simon Gervais, John Gilstrap, Taylor Stevens, James Swain

(Editor’s Note: My new writing fantasy is to have Brad Parks introduce me at a panel. Hilarious.)

Brad Parks: A mystery is about solving a crime. A thriller is about thwarting one.

John Gilstrap: Keep questions unanswered as long as possible. End chapters so they lead into the next.

Simon Gervais: Each sub-plot should have its own layers of tension.

Jason Backlund: Keep pulling on separate threads.

James Swain: Stay ahead of the audience.

Gilstrap: Several books into his series he killed off a recurring character so his regular readers wouldn’t get too comfortable with the idea that everyone will live.

Parks (citing some guy named Lee Child): Write the fast scenes slow and the slow scenes fast.

Gilstrap: Tension can be created when nothing happens. Mundane things that proceed in an unanticipated manner can do it. He told the story of a routine ordnance disposition where the pile of explosives didn’t blow up until fifteen minutes after they triggered the initiator.

Swain: If a pre-reader gives you a suggestion, at least try it.

3:00 Southern Fiction (Another bonus panel)
Eryk Pruitt (M), Ace Adkins, Shawn Cosby, Steph Post, Alex Segura

Shawn Cosby: Why is the onus on the black community to keep track of genealogy? Why does anyone need to keep track of it?

Ace Adkins is an Alabama native who lives in Mississippi and sometimes trips up interviewers when he mentions his ancestors fought in the Civil War—for the Union.

Eryk Pruitt: The South ends in Dallas and the West begins in Fort Worth. To him there is no boundary between east Texas and western Louisiana.

Adkins: Even as deep in the south as Oxford MS, pre-Civil War shopkeepers were likely immigrants speaking foreign languages.

4:00 The Building Blocks of Crime Fiction
Jill Block (M), Peter Blauner, Lawrence Block, Robert Olen Butler, Philip Friedman, Laura Lippman,

Laura Lippman likes to take other novels and move the story in different directions.

Robert Olen Butler quoted Graham Greene: All good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism; what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination.

Butler also said fiction comes from the same place as dreams do. Not as dreams, but from the same place.

Lippman: To lose the sense of fun when writing is death.

SUNDAY
8:00 (Yes. Eight in the morning again! Damn you, Jeff Hess, for being such a good guy!)
Attenhut!—GIs Who Write
Ross Carley (M), Jack Carr, Jeffery Hess, Ward Larsen, Paul Sinor, Jeff Wilson

Paul Sinor described the difference between a war story and a fairy tale. The fairy tale begins “Once upon a time.” The war story opens with, “This ain’t no shit.”

Sinor: Military humility is often enabled by a morbid sense of humor.

Jeffery Hess encouraged people to let their kids read above their levels, to “read up.” (This in response to a question from a woman sitting directly behind me, who then said loud enough for most to hear, “So long as the language isn’t too bad.” In a perfect world someone that ignorant wouldn’t get to ask questions. I hope she home schools, otherwise what the fuck does she think the kids hear—and say—in school?)

9:00 Agents in Charge—Writing Federal Agents
Tim O’Mara (M), Christine Carbo, Matthew Clemens, Jim Doherty, J.J. Hensley, Mark Pryor
                                                                                        
(Tim O’Mara is a retired teacher who subscribes to the Reed Farrel Coleman School of Panel Moderation.)

Jim Doherty: Relations between local and state or federal agencies aren’t usually as contentious as books and movies make them out to be. Even when they are there are back channels people on both sides can work. (That said, LAPD and the FBI do not get along. Must be left over from Die Hard.)

J.J. Hensley: Locals are often glad to give a case up to the feds, especially one they can’t handle of have no interest in, such as counterfeiting.

Matthew Clemens: Friction can arise when there are competing interests. Gave the example of a situation where it was decided to prosecute a kid who had prior knowledge of a potential school shooting and the kid turned out to be the son of a tribal leader.

Christine Carbo: Small and isolated police departments in Montana have a very laissez-faire relationship with the feds, who come and go pretty much as they please. The FBI wants good relationships with the locals. They’re there all the time.

Mark Pryor: FBI profilers will not get involved if you already have a suspect. They only deal with UNSUBS. Individual agents may provide opinions individually and off the record.

Clemens: Investigators need to go to social media immediately on a major crime because the media will and they don’t want to see evidence on CNN before they get it.

*  *  *

And there you have it. I’ll have a couple more posts over the next few weeks to go over highlights that weren’t panels, as they deserve more attention than can be given in a post such as this.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Bouchercon 2018: Friday's Panels



Today is the second installment of my Bouchercon review. As always, comments were retrieved from inexpertly taken notes that were more impaired as the weekend progressed. I have tried to capture the essence of what everyone quoted said, but I make no claims that these are word-for-word, and apologize if I misinterpreted anything. No malice is intended. (So you can forget that suing for libel bullshit right now.)

10:00 Talking Tough—Writing Hard-Boiled and Noir
Ted Fitzgerald (M), Ragnar Jonasson, Rick Ollerman, Caro Ramsey, John Shepphird

I don’t have notes from this panel, me being on it and all. I just want to send my sincere thanks and appreciation to Ted, Ragnar, Rick, Caro, and John for being such outstanding panel mates and great fun. My Bouchercon streak is intact, as once again, I scored a panel that carried me.

11:00 Holding Out for a Hero—Criminal Protagonists
Penni Jones (M), Eric Beetner, Charles Salzberg, Josh Stallings, David Swinson, Rebecca Drake

This panel fell immediately after mine, so I got there late. It was still worth making the effort, as a good discussion broke out right after I got there. A condensed version is below.

Charles Salzberg: Criminality is relative. There are things that are illegal and there are things like breaking hearts and betraying trusts that are crimes against people even though they are not illegal.

David Swinson: The definition of criminal is someone who commits an arrestable offense.

Josh Stallings noted his father went to jail for protesting a war. Was he a criminal? Meanwhile, people in different, more elevated stations of life commit “arrestable offenses” every day but arrest is never contemplated.

(A little later) Swinson: Would I arrest Hunter S. Thompson? No. (Said with an inflection that is impossible to capture in writing. May easily be interpreted as, “Fuck no.”)

12:00 Capitol Crimes—Political Thrillers
Matthew FitzSimmons (M), Jack Carr, Joseph Finder, Christina Kovac, Terrence McCauley, Tom Rosenstiel

Christina Kovac: We’ve all seen the origins of political thrillers on the playground.

Terrence McCauley (following up): Political thrillers don’t have to be about “politics.” Any kind of human interaction qualifies.

McCauley: The most violent movie he’s ever seen is Glengarry, Glen Ross. The language is used as a weapon.

Tom Rosenstiel: Political stories often give us the politics we want but don’t get. The West Wing gave us a better Clinton, then showed the differences with Bush,

Joseph Finder: Conspiracy thrillers came of age after Watergate and Vietnam.

Jack Carr mentioned the Church hearings. His novel’s premise at the time was, “What if someone didn’t get that memo, that we weren’t doing those things anymore?”

Carr (On why people read political thrillers): This country was founded on a mistrust of government.

Rosenstiel (Same question): Political thrillers show a broken situation where the system puts things back together but in a slightly different form.

Kovac: From a woman’s perspective, it’s an examination of the fear that comes with being a “smaller mammal” and the social elements involved.

McCauley: Political thrillers address our fears so people can work through them to gain a different perspective other than fear alone.

Rosenstiel: Political thrillers are about the criminals on the front page while criminal thrillers are about people inside the paper.

FitzSimmons: The best political thriller writers are working for free on Reddit.

McCauley wants to make the thriller more personal by focusing on the one item everyone has the most exposure on. (He then pulled off the most masterful marketing coup I’ve ever seen at Bouchercon by holding up as an example his cell phone, which has a cover featuring Terrence’s new Western, Where the Bullets Fly. Brilliant.)

Carr: Cell phones are surveillance devices that also make phone calls.

1:00 Blue Collars—Writing the Working Class without Condescension
Mike McCrary (M), Elizabeth Mundy, Steph Post, Eryk Pruitt

Eryk Pruitt: Most of my stories are about how shitty I was as a drug dealer. (He follows his father around to get the voice he wants when he has trouble capturing it.)

Steph Post: The working class works. They’re not the stereotypes they’re too often made out to be.

Pruitt: The whole thing’s going to hell pretty soon so we’re all going to be working class.

Post: The rhythms of a character’s speech convey more than changing words or dropping Gs.

4:00 Fight Me! Authors Discuss Unpopular Opinions About Crime/Mystery
Kristen Sullivan (M), Christa Faust, Danny Gardner, Renee Pickup, Kieran Shea

Danny Gardner: We’ve been sleeping together since the Mayflower, so we should be able to get along. We do get along well enough to make babies.

Christa Faust is looking for the day when you can write marginalized characters as fuck ups. Then we’ll be where we need to be.

Kieran Shea: Raising money for a law school is like raising money for cancer. One percent of lawyers ever see the inside of a courtroom. The rest are embittered and angry people.

Renee Pickup: If you’re not a veteran, don’t give me another “veteran hit man” story unless you want me to become a veteran hit man.

Faust: Lots of people ask me for “neutral” stories. They don’t want to read social issues. (Pickup, interjecting: “How can you write crime without social issues?”) When people say not to add politics what they really mean is to add their politics.

(A question from the audience about cultural appropriation)
Gardner: Get to know some black folks and you can write black folks.

Faust: If you are respectful and get to know folks you can write about them.

Shea: Remember that everyone has humanity. Understand but don’t make assumptions.

Gardner never does anything to a character he wouldn’t do to a cousin, using the black definition of “cousin,” which can extend out quite a ways, leaving open plenty of opportunity for mayhem.

Shea: Everyone is being screwed over by their definition of The Man.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Bouchercon 2018: Thursday's Panels



Bouchercon is the crime fiction devotees’ Christmas. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a reader, writer, or those wonderful folks who don’t have a title yet act as the magnets and lubricants that draw everyone together and make things so easy. Bloggers, reviewers, podcasters, interviewers, everyone’s there, and everyone’s been looking forward to it since last year. This year’s conference was in St. Petersburg FL September 6 – 9. What follows here and over the next several blogs is one man’s experience. First, the panels. Later, the extracurricular activities.

(Editor’s Note: The comments attributed to each writer here and in the accounts to come are from the best of my recollection, taken from notes scrawled at the time. I am not a journalist, and I apologize to anyone whose quote I didn’t get right. I only claim to have made every effort to capture the spirit in which the remarks were intended.)

I knew this would be an exceptional conference when I scored copies of Lou Berney’s and Sam Wiebe’s books from a trade table before the first panel even began. I just feel badly for the poor unfortunates who don’t realize what a mistake they made by not keeping them.

10:00 AM Just the Facts—Getting Law Enforcement Details Right
George Lichman (Moderator), Colin Campbell, Deborah Crombie, Margaret Mizushima, Danielle Ramsey, Leo Maloney

Colin Campbell referenced Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys as addressing the elements of police life that interest him most: how they get through the day.

Margaret Mizushima: There are a wide range of things dogs can be trained to do. Most dogs are specialists but some can do nearly everything.

Campbell: Dogs will bite whoever is in the way, cops included, especially if they’re holding a weapon.

Mizushima: Dogs do occasionally turn on their handlers.

Leo Maloney: There’s a TV series being made of his books and he retains control of what goes into them. His hero is him and he doesn’t want what he does dismissed or disparaged. (Put me in mind of the scene where Lee Marvin turns down a job in a Wild West show in Monte Walsh.)

Campbell: There are as many reasons people become cops as there are reasons people become criminals.

Campbell: It’s surprising how often bad guys’ heads don’t quite clear the police car door when the cops’ frustrations run high.

12:00 Moonlighting—The PI Tradition
Ted Hertel (M), Matt Coyle, Ted Fitzgerald, Cheryl Head, Chris Knopf, Michael Wiley

Ted Hertel has seen some who think Chandler was being sarcastic when he wrote the “mean streets” section of “The Simple Art of Murder.” (Editor’s Note: How anyone could read the whole essay and know Chandler’s work and think that is beyond me.)

Ted Fitzgerald: Because the PI moves through all levels of society, these stories can be about more than just the crime.

Fitzgerald: If you have a story you want to tell by leveraging certain things, these are traditions. If you’re just trying to recreate something you’ve read—essentially checking the boxes—they’re clichés. In short, if it works, it’s a tradition. If it doesn’t, it’s a cliché.

1:00 BANG! POW! How Much Violence is Too Much Violence?
Neliza Drew (M), Matt Phillips, Linda Sands, Kieran Shea, Wallace Stroby, Frank Zafiro

Frank Zafiro: Eric Beetner is the Kevin Bacon of crime fiction. (Editor’s Note: And the James Brown.)

Frank Zafiro: The trick today is not so much to get published as it is to get noticed.

2:00 License to Snoop—Attending PI School
Michael Pool (M), Donna Andrews, Sean Chercover, Michael Koryta, Jack Soren

Sean Chercover told the story of working as a PI in New Orleans. He checked in with the police before starting the surveillance but they still rousted him, blowing his cover. He told the client he’d done everything he was supposed to do, then the client corrected him. In New Orleans, you’re also supposed to come by with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and say you’re turning it in, you found it in a parking lot. Chercover wasn’t surprised about the graft, just that it took so little.

Donna Andrews: A female PI can hang around places men can never get away with because people may assume she’s just waiting for her kids.

Michael Koryta: PIs dread the “off the street” client. They want lawyer referrals.

Chercover seconded the notion. He only had one or two clients come to him directly. He worked mostly for lawyers and insurance companies. He even used to investigate lawyers’ potential clients before the lawyer would take the case.

Both Koryta and Chercover emphasized that everyone lies to you. Koryta went on to say that it may be a trope or it may be a cliché, but a detective cannot trust his client’s version of the truth.

Koryta: Stationary surveillance is a great way to spend time in the PI’s head. Moving surveillance is truly exciting.

Andrews: Carrying a gun mostly just adds another level of liability.

Koryta: Readers like elements of realism, so what might be boring—such as sitting on a house where nothing happens or trailing the wrong guy—can be made to sing if done well.

Andrews: Always check out the client. Told a story of a PI who was hired to remove some bugs supposedly planted by a business competitor only to find out they were the FBI’s.

Andrews: PIs understand no one can do it all. If you’re a generalist you know who the specialists are who can help you. An amateur may not understand that.

Chercover: When writing an amateur, let them run into their limitations.

Koryta: Anyone with an iPhone and $100 can do more than anything he had gadgets for ten years ago. Don’t worry about how current the technology is. It’s the writing and the characters that give a story staying power.

3:00 Small and Mighty—Small Press Publishers
Reavis Wortham (M), Eric Campbell, Kat Georges, Bob Gussin, Lloyd Otis, Chris Rhatigan

Bob Gussin can’t imagine publishing romance. The best part of publishing crime is he can tell within 10 – 15 pages if it’s worth messing with.

Worst query Kat Georges ever received: “I wrote a great book. Here’s the link.”

Georges: An often overlooked means of promotion is to write reviews for other outlets.

Gussin: The best blurbs are from the biggest authors. At least meet them to say hello at a conference, after which you can write to them to ask for the blurb, reminding them of your meeting.

Reavis Wortham: Best way to build relationships is to go to the bar and stay there.

Georges: The key advantage of a small press over self-publishing is the ability to leverage the small press’s reputation and infrastructure.

5:00 From Badge to Page—Ex=Cops Talk Writing
Danielle Ramsey (M), Bruce Robert Coffin, Colin Campbell, Tom O’Mara, Lissa Marie Redmond, Bernard Shaffer

Danielle Ramsey: Graham Greene once said “Every writer needs a heart of ice,” by which he meant an ability to look dispassionately at the most horrible or intimate things.

Lissa Marie Redmond: Male cops often have this attitude toward a female cop who’s being abused: “If you can’t handle your shit at home, how can you handle it on the street?”

Bruce Robert Coffin: Cops are used to things and people getting in the way when they’re trying to work a case.