Thursday, November 19, 2020

John A. Hoda, Private Investigator and Author of Odessa on the Delaware

 I first met John Hoda at the Dallas Bouchercon. We sat near to each other at a panel on cops and procedurals. John and I came to quick agreement that selecting between realism and entertainment was a false choice. The best were able to make realism entertaining, mainly by knowing how to describe it, and in what detail.

 

We’ve since kept in touch, and John was kind enough to give me a slot on his podcast, between (wait for it) Michael Koryta and Joseph Wambaugh, which are pretty lofty surroundings for one such as me. I have been too slow to reciprocate in my invitation but will correct that today. John’s a great guy, fine writer, and I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of his visit here today.

 

(Personal note: In the “small world” category, John and I went to the same undergraduate school, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Alas, our years there were adjacent, not concurrent, so our paths never crossed.)

 

One Bite at a Time: John, welcome to One Bite at a Time. You’ve been a cop, an insurance fraud investigator, and spent the past twenty-plus years not only running a successful private investigator agency but coaching other PIs on how to make their practices more successful. What attracted you to investigations in the first place?

John Hoda: When I was a teenager, I worked at a gas station pumping gas. The local police department got their fill-ups there and I was enthralled by the stories they told me. A couple of times, they got hot calls and had to race off with lights and sirens. I was hooked. I went to IUP for Criminology and upon graduating become the first college graduate to work for that same PD. A short time later, I had the opportunity to become an insurance fraud investigator and I jumped at it.

 

OBAAT: You’ve been involved with law enforcement and investigations since the mid-1970s. What do you find most different how compared to when you started?

JH: The data is now at your fingertips. Doing a simple locate that costs me 75 cents today would take hours of shoe leather back then. Some things have not changed. You had guys coming home from Vietnam and just trading uniforms. You still have vets of Iraq or Afghanistan doing the same things. With tons of Homeland Security grant money, there is an unhealthy militarization of police departments now. They have to walk that back and put a greater emphasis on community policing and not acting like an occupying force.

 

OBAAT: Where do you feel the greatest improvements have come, so far as results are concerned? Are there any aspects you don’t feel are as good as they used to be?

JH: Actually, the hardening of job classifications and union rules have caused the
solve rates to plummet. I am hopeful that big data put in the hands of the first cops on the scene will allow them to work more effectively at solving crimes within the first 24 hours. Patrol functions as we knew them are archaic. Better use of time can be spent on crime interdiction and crime prevention. Don’t get me started on interrogation techniques meant to skirt around the Miranda warning. Cognitive interview methods such as PEACE which originated in the UK is much more effective and totally ethical. False statements and false confessions are still a bane of good policing.

 

OBAAT: On to writing. Your first book was a memoir of sorts, Mugshots: My Favorite Detective Stories. What put the bug in you to write them down and publish? (Note: I have a copy. John should expect to see several “homages” to his work in the next Nick Forte novel.)

JH: For years, I had been a storyteller with my family and friends, who always said that I should write them down, so I did. I didn’t realize at the time, it allowed me to create a voice that seemed natural for fiction.

 

OBAAT: What made you turn your attention to fiction?

JH: I wrote a story that had been kicking around in my head for twenty years of a little league coach who threw a magical pitch in batting practice. He was discovered by the Philadelphia Phillies, later in life. The book is titled Phantasy Baseball: It’s About a Second Chance. In that book, the protagonist meets a sorority sister at a mixer. She is an accounting major that wanted to become an FBI agent. Fast forward twenty years and they meet again. She married and divorced but kept her married name, O’Shea.

 

OBAAT: You’re four books into the Marsha O’Shea series. Tell us a little about her, and the books.

JH: Post 9/11, the FBI became the lead domestic intelligence gathering three-letter agency and stopped being the federal crime-fighting alpha-dog. Marsha was a gunslinger in the Miami Cartel days and when her squad was disbanded, she returned to her hometown in Philadelphia to quietly count the years to retirement on the nontraditional organized crime squad when a Russian gang enforcer decides to take over the entire Philly mob scene. That is how Odessa on the Delaware starts. At the end, Marsha is beginning to get her mojo back, but has a setback that sends her into the bottle and slumming on administrative leave in the Sunshine State, where Clearwater Blues is set. I take a real hard swing at the loopholes in gun laws, domestic violence, and non-existent mental health treatment in this country. Can she stop the next mass shooter headline?

 

She is then given a mission impossible-like assignment in Detroit and Detroit Wheels takes you on a thrill ride while the clock is ticking. A serial killer strikes only once a year on 9/11, his target Muslim women. Marsha puts together a sandlot team of investigators outside of normal channels in the race to prevent the next killing. Injured and exhausted, she accepts an assignment too soon after Detroit that deals with sex trafficking in Reading, PA. West Reading Traffic is the fourth book in the series and brings us back full circle with her co-protagonist in Odessa.

 

OBAAT: Any particular reason you chose a female protagonist?

JH: Marsha and a sportswriter turned crime beat writer appeared in Phantasy Baseball and carried over into Odessa. I found that I liked Marsha and her backstory made for a compelling, complex, and totally believable female investigator trying to make on her own it without a squad backing her up or in the shadow of a still male-dominated law enforcement culture.

 

OBAAT: What’s next on the agenda?

JH: Stew Menke, the sportswriter turned crime beat writer got his start in Vietnam as an Associated Press stringer. He and Tom “Doc” Barnes, a Navy corpsman, who later became the Philadelphia Phillies manager cemented a life-long friendship in the red clay of the first Marine platoon trench line on Hill 861 at Khe Sanh in January 1968. Dispatches from Hill 861 is slated for a May 2021 release. I will take you back to Marsha’s gunslinger days in Miami with a novella to become the prequel novella for her series.

 

Dana, your readers can get Odessa on the Delaware FREE with this link:

https://www.subscribepage.com/j4o8g6

They can check out my website at www.johnhoda.com or email me at John@JohnHoda.com

 

 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

From the Vault: Are You Going to Believe Me, or Your Private Eyes?

 As with many, the election and post-election trauma has taken much of my attention of late, so I haven’t spent as much time thinking of a blog post as I like to. That’s okay, because I spent a lot of that time re-acquainting myself with PI fiction through several outstanding books (Behind the Wall of Sleep, Red Harvest, Jackrabbit Smile) and preparing to dip my toe back into Nick Forte country when I get a little time.

 

With that in mind, I’m going to open the vault for a post I wrote back in 2009 about how I feel about the PI genre when properly done. While dated (there are others that have earned mention should I ever update the post, and no one thinks of Reed Farrel Coleman as even a "relative" newcomer anymore), this still sums up my philosophy about PI stories and why, when well done, they are the highest form of crime fiction.

 

Are You Going to Believe Me, or Your Private Eyes?

 

I’ve been lucky over the past few weeks to have read three books that reminded me why I got interested in crime fiction and writing in the first place: first person private investigator stories.

Libby Fischer Hellmann’s Easy Innocence takes the attitudes of an affluent suburb and shows consequences not often considered. Her detective, Georgia Davis, avoids the pitfalls of many female protagonists. She is not a man in a skirt, ready and willing to kick ass as necessary; neither is she dependent on either a big, strong man or divine intervention to get her out of tough spots. Best of all, she’s smart enough to know the difference and act accordingly.

The Silent Hour, by Michael Koryta, is a cold-case story. Lincoln Perry has many of the characteristics of a stereotypical PI—former cop who left under a cloud, bends and breaks his own rules, trouble maintaining relationships—though Koryta never lets him fall off that edge. His problems are the problems anyone in his situation could have, and he’s anything but omnipotent. Perry takes a beating and keeps on ticking, learning about himself as the books progress.

Declan Hughes’s detective, Ed Loy, takes beatings that make what Perry endures seem like air kisses from a friendly but distant aunt. In All the Dead Voices, Ed inadvertently finds himself cleaning up leftovers from the Irish Troubles, caught between republican terror groups, drug gangs, and government agencies whose interests do not include what most would call a classic sense of justice.

What all three have in common—aside from tight plots and uniformly exceptional writing—is what makes the PI series the highest form of crime fiction; they’re primarily character studies of the hero. (Or heroine, in Georgia’s case.) A good series—as all of these are—works even better, allowing the character to evolve. Attitudes change, as do relationships. Physical and emotional trauma accumulates. The character may grow emotionally, or become embittered. What he deems worthy of description, and how it is described, matures.

For all the talk of the decline of PI fiction, the quantity of expert practitioners isn’t hurting. James Lee Burke and Robert Crais still have hop on their fastballs after twenty years. (Burke’s Dave Robicheaux is actually a cop, but the length of leash he is provided in New Iberia and his personal journey through the series make his stories read more like PI fiction than police procedurals.) Relative newcomers like Sean Chercover and Reed Farrell Coleman prove the talent pool is deep as ever. Dennis Lehane’s upcoming Kenzie-Gennaro novel is much anticipated.

The fictional PI can look into things the average cop never touches. Could Ross Macdonald have explored the rotting foundations of crumbling families with a cop, or did Lew Archer have to be a PI? A cop concerns himself with who and what; why is nice, but is primarily important as a way to get to what, or to help to convince a jury as to who. His caseload is too great to do otherwise. Private eyes are paid to find out why, which often compels some worthy introspection. Cops are about closing cases; PIs are about closure.

PI stories are also better suited for ambivalent endings. A cop’s job is to catch the bad guy. The PI can appreciate the bittersweet nature of all cases, balancing the satisfaction of solving the mystery with the knowledge of his pre-ordained failure: no matter what he discovers, things can never be put right. The dead are still gone. The cop can catch the killer and exact a measure of justice; the PI may be brought in to clean up the mess that doesn’t quite meet the necessary standard of illegality.

It’s no surprise so many of the “genre” writers who receive acclaim from the “literary” community come from detective fiction. Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, and Burke are all accepted as great writers, not subject to the backhanded acclaim of “great genre writer.” No one thought Lehane presumptuous when The Given Day looked into issues well beyond crime; he’d been doing it for years. Gone, Baby, Gone is as thought-provoking a book as one is likely to read.

Declan Hughes may be the foremost advocate of the virtues of detective fiction, not just in his novels, but in his public statements. If I had a transcript of his comments from Bouchercon 2008, I would have printed them here and saved you the trouble of reading my interpretation; his is clearer and more impassioned. Few books—of any genre, or of no genre—are more likely to make you wonder, “What would I do here?” or, more hauntingly, “What would I have done differently?” When done well, what more can anyone ask from a book?

 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Favorite Reads

 

Time to catch up again with what I’ve read and enjoyed most since last I reported. “What makes it time?” you ask? When a blog post is due and I have no other topic. Still, it’s always good to make mention of books I’ve most enjoyed.

 

Behind the Wall of Sleep, James D. F. Hannah. Shamus winner, and well deserved. Hannah (if that is, in fact, his real name) knocked on the door a couple of years ago with She Talks to Angels, then kicked it down with BtWoS. I’ll be working my way through the rest of this series, as these two are as good an updating of the PI genre as has been done since Robert Parker in the 70s.

 

Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett. This is my third or fourth time for this one; I like it more with every reading. Hammett is one of the writers who prompted me to start a reminder file of who I need to read every year or two. He only wrote a handful of novels, but Red Harvest, The Glass Kay, and The Maltese Falcon may be the three most influential crime books ever written by the same author.

 

Trouble's Braids, Ray Banks. I will wash and wax the car of anyone who can explain to me why I can’t buy a Ray Banks book in this benighted country of ours; thank god for Kindle. No one is more consistent with characterization, action-packed yet believable plots, and sizzling dialog. Banks is on the aforementioned list as someone I make a point to read at least once a year.

 

Under a Raging Moon, Frank Zafiro. I’ve read a few of Zafiro’s collaborations, but this is the first of his solo efforts I’ve read. (FYI, he’s such a good collaborator the French would shave his head.) The first volume of his River City series, UaRM moved Zafiro (if that, in fact, is his real name. What is it with all these authors in WITSEC lately?) straight to the annual list so I can get through the entire series.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Dietrich Kalteis, Author of Cradle of the Deep

Dana’s gone off and left me the keys to the place, asking me to do a guest spot — and that’s a true honor.

 

I’m not sure the best way to work this, but first I’ll find his liquor cabinet, then I’ll just get comfy and ask myself some questions. 

 

So here goes:

 

Is there a central idea or thread that runs through your books?

 

Small-time crooks can lead to big-time misadventures.

 

What attracts you to writing the kinds of stories you write?

 

I like letting unwitting characters loose in uncertain situations, letting them tell it from their own shaky points of view, with me just following the action and seeing how it all ends up. It makes for fast-paced action, dark humor, mixed with unexpected twists, and accented by the heavy thump of ill-luck.

 

Tell us about your writing routine and how you approach the craft.

 

As for routine, I get up early most mornings and I start writing. Coffee must be involved, and I’m not sure how many words I get to the gallon, but it’s my fuel of choice at that early hour. And I’ve always got some music playing.

 

There’s no word count that I shoot for. Sometimes I crank out a lot, other days I only write a few pages, and as long as they’re good pages, then I’m happy with that.

 

I often write the first draft in longhand. It’s a mess to sort out with margin notes, scribbles, circles and arrows, but there’s something natural about writing by hand. For the subsequent drafts and any major edits, Mac beats pencil every time.

 

Mostly, I don’t plan out the stories before I start writing. I rely on instinct. A single idea for a scene kicks it off, leading to the next, and I write my way to the heart of it as more ideas keep coming along. By working like this, I end up with something much better than anything I could have pre-planned ahead of time.

What’s one thing you’ve learned since you started writing?

 

I learned from the first Bouchercon I attended — where I met Dana and his lovely wife Corky — to always have an elevator pitch ready. A well-known Canadian author came up to me before one of the panel discussions and asked what my debut novel was about, and I gave him the deer-in-the-headlight look and stumbled on with, “Uh, um …”  

 

Since then, I’ve learned to always have a pitch ready. In fact, here’s the one for the new book, Cradle of the Deep.

Getting into bed with the wrong guy can get you killed.

Wanting to free herself from her boyfriend, aging gangster “Maddog” Palmieri, Bobbi Ricci concocts a misguided plan with Denny, Maddog’s ex-driver, a guy who’s bent on getting even with the gangster for the humiliating way in which he was sacked. 

Helping themselves to the gangster’s secret money stash, along with his Cadillac, Bobbi and Denny slip out of town, expecting to lay low for a while before enjoying the spoils. 

Realizing he’s been betrayed, an enraged Maddog calls in stone-cold killer Lee Trane. As Trane picks up their trail, plans quickly change for Bobbi and Denny, who now find themselves on a wild chase of misadventure through northern British Columbia and into Alaska. 

 

Time is running out for them once they find out that Trane’s been sent to do away with them, or worse, bring them back — either way, Maddog will make them pay. 

 

Is there a point about the new book you’d like folks to be aware of?

 

Mainly that it’s published by ECW Press, will be released on November 3rd, and available in print, e- and audiobook formats.

 

How did you come up with the story idea?

 

The initial idea stemmed from a short story I wrote a couple of years earlier about two protagonists, Bobbi and Denny, who bump into each other in the middle of the night, each trying to rob the same gangster’s house. For Bobbi it’s the crime boss she’s been seeing, a thrill at first, but now she’s seeing him as a total bore. After discovering where he hides his stash of cash, she started getting ideas. For Denny, it’s revenge for being sacked as the crime boss’s driver — fired in the middle of a downtown street — kicked out of the car while beautiful Bobbi sat watching from the back seat. Denny had heard rumors that the old guy kept a lot of cash hidden in his big house, and he gets ideas of his own.

 

The short piece wanted to become longer, so I let it evolve, and more scenes just kept coming as I wrote — like the naked people in Whistler, and the car chase over the thin ice of a deep lake. A dead-end northern town where the locals don’t pay taxes and shoot at anyone speeding down their main drag. There’s a crazed war vet buzzing the treetops of the hinterland in a water bomber. A grizzly beating up a Ford Cortina, and a stone killer sent by the gangster to hunt down the pair.

 

I was in Oakland while I was still working on it, and I saw a piece of art depicting tattoos of ancient mariners. One of the images had the words “In the Cradle of the Deep” woven around an anchor and chain. I loved the phrase and it just worked so well with the story, and I knew I had my title.

 

Well, Dana’s nearly out of scotch, and that’s about it for me. If you pick up a copy of the book, I do hope you enjoy it. 

 

And thank you again to Dana for letting me sit in. It’s always fun dropping by.

(Editor's Note: It's always a pleasure to have you, Dieter. The book sounds like great fun. I'm looking forward to it.)

 

 


Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Process

 

The first draft of the work-in-progress is as done as it’s going to get.

 

Let me explain.

 

There is a chapter—maybe two—I might decide to add. One, almost certainly. I know where it belongs; I know what has to happen. What I don’t know well is the context, as the idea came to me when I was well down the road from its eventual residence. I could read the preceding chapters and knock it out now, but that seems inorganic compared to my approach so far, and all my good feelings about this first draft derive from trusting the new process of letting things flow as much as possible when I sit down to write. When the time comes I’ll pause—knowing what’s to come—and let it roll. Worst case, I have to rewrite it. Or throw it away. Even throwing it away would show I have enough confidence in what I have to know what doesn’t fit.

 

Back to the first draft. I’ve been posting about my process’s evolution, and how I think it’s for the better. So far I have no reason to change that assessment. It’s possible I might when I come back in a few weeks for a fresh look and find it’s a steaming mass of covfefe. The big thing is I’m not worried about it.

 

“Worried” might be too strong a term for how I often feel during revision. It’s a sense of how much remains inadequate, all the things I was unhappy with in the first draft but left in because that’s what first drafts are for: digging up the raw material the edits smelt into something useful. I still have all of that to do. What’s different is I’m looking forward to it. I’ll approach the edits the same way I did the first draft. Try not to think about them until right before I go into the office to write, when I’ll sit quietly for anywhere from two to twenty minutes to let my mind sort itself out. Then I’ll go in and see what needs to be better.

 

The first pass at revision won’t improve the writing much. That’s fine. The purpose is to smooth out the story so it flows. Get the pacing right. Scenes in the right order. Cut what I don’t need. Scrivener is good for that.

 

The next revision is where the real writing takes place. I’ll export everything to Word and give it all a hard look. Does it flow? Does it have the tone I want? Does the humor work? Does the violence work? Is there enough description? Too much? Does the description detract from the pace? Does the dialog fall on the ear how I want? It’s still the same attitude as the first revision, though: nothing is wrong. Things just need to be better.

 

Then I’ll let it sit again before doing my version of line edits. There’s a detailed and OCD process I use before I’ll let myself type “THE END.” I tend to call it the “final” draft, and it comes after I’ve fixed all the stuff that catches my eye. Some books it’s Draft Seven. This time it will be Draft Four.

 

I used to put off sticky problems by telling myself, “You’ll catch that in the next draft.” Then I’d keep cranking out drafts until I didn’t say that anymore, after which I’d set the book aside before the final OCD draft.

 

Not this time. This time I want to keep a little pressure on myself. I want that turn of phrase, that banter, to be just how I like it in Draft Three, understanding that it probably won’t be. It just has to be close. The final pass will be to tidy things up. A proofread as much as anything else.

 

Will it work? So far so good.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Movies I'd Watch Forever

 

We all have movies we’ll watch time and again. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if I had to pick a dozen movies to watch for the rest of my life, I’d be happy with these. (In alphabetical order.)

 

Animal House (1978) A film that speaks to me. I graduated college in 1978, and a guy lived in my first off-campus dorm parked his motorcycle in his room. I would vote for John Blutarsky in a heartbeat if he were running against either Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham. Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

 

The Big Lebowski (1998) How The Beloved Spouse™ and I spend two hours of every New Year’s Eve. The Dude abides.

 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Greatest buddy movie ever. Who are those guys?

 

The Drop (2014) As perfect an exercise in storytelling as I have ever seen. They never see you coming, do they, Bob? (Honorable mention: Gone Baby Gone.)

 

The French Connection (1971) I date all crime movies as pre-French Connection or post-French Connection. You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?

 

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) Maybe the best film ever made about the side of mob life no wants to think about. Life is hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.

 

Get Shorty (1995) What I watch on my birthday, and still my favorite Elmore Leonard adaptation. I’m not gonna say any more than I have to, if that.

 

Hell or High Water (2016) Sicario probably gets more attention and Wind River might make this list on a different day, but Hell or High Water is as well-constructed a crime story as you will ever see. What don’t you want?

 

Hombre (1967) There are arguably better Westerns, but not many. Maybe the best Elmore Leonard adaptation, certainly the truest to the book, and maybe his best book. Mister, you got some hard bark on you.

 

The Ice Harvest (2005) The Beloved Spouse™ bought it for me and fell in love with it. Now it’s the Official Christmas Eve Movie of Castle Schadenfreude. As Wichita falls... so falls Wichita Falls.

 

LA Confidential (1997) You knew it would show up here sooner or later, right? I’ll watch this bad boy multiple times a year and never get tired of it. Was that how you used to run the “good cop – bad cop?”

 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) My brother and I used to binge this as best we could when the only places you could see it were on PBS pledge drives and midnight shows. I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper.

 

Aw, hell. As I went through the list I realized there are two more I can’t leave out.

 

The Maltese Falcon (1941) As faithful an adaptation of as perfect a book as has ever been written. Or at least as close as the Hayes Office would allow. We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss Wonderly. We believed your two hundred dollars.

 

The Princess Bride (1987) I always forget how much I enjoy this movie until The Beloved Spouse™ talks me into watching it. Then I could watch it again the next night. The epitome of good, clean movie fun. As you wish.

 

I was going over this list with The Beloved Spouse™, who responded with some alarm, “Where’s Mel Brooks?”

 

Blazing Saddles (1974) Of all the movies that couldn’t be made today, this one is most unable to be made today, and we’re all worse off because of it. Satirical social commentary was never better. Huh, Mongo straight.

 

The Producers (1967) I liked the remake, but this is the one I’d take with me for Zero Mostel and a young Gene Wilder. Will the dancing Hitlers please wait in the wings? We are only seeing singing Hitlers.

                         

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Backstory

 

Last week I read a book by a favorite author that was, frankly, disappointing. I identified the problem about halfway through: too much time spent on backstory. I don’t remember this being an issue with this author in the past, but I imagined an editor saying, “People like characters with personal struggles that have nothing to do with the story. They eat that shit up.”

 

Not all people.

 

Backstory is like research: don’t use any more than is necessary. The author should at least have an idea, but the reader doesn’t have to know everything. The way to develop characters is in the context of what’s happening now. The backstory and research should seem to live between the lines as much as possible.

 

Several years ago a good friend or mind (yes, I have them), a sorely underrated author, was taken to task by the critic for a major newspaper because the critic wanted to know why the drug dealer had become a drug dealer. I read the book. It didn’t matter. The man was a drug dealer when the book started. Unless his background was unique and important to the story—which it was not—it’s not germane.  The book wasn’t about that. It was about what’s happening now.

        

This is among the reasons I detest serial killer stories. (The book in question has a serial killer, but that’s not what the book is really about.) I do not care about the psychological underpinnings of this asshole’s need to seduce, rape, mutilate, and kill women. It may be important to the cops, but even they don’t need to know everything. Just tell us what we need to make sense of things. You know, leave out the parts we’d tend to skip, like I did the parts of the book under discussion where the killer describes his crimes in a journal. The author had already presented him as a sick fuck. Everything else was piling on.

 

Hint at backstory. Tease the reader with it. Here are two outstanding example, both from moves, but movies where the writing was paramount.

 

In Spike Lee’s Inside Man, screenwriter Russell Gewirtz tells us nothing of Dalton Russell’s (Clive Owen) background, except that he knows things about Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) no one else knows. How does he know these things? Doesn’t matter. He knows them and the whole story revolves around what Russell is willing, and not willing, to do about it.

 

We do get insights into Detective Keith Frazier’s (Denzel Washington) background. He’s pondering marriage but has financial concerns. He’s also under a cloud due to a large sums of money that went missing from a previous case. Both matter to the story, as the suspicion makes his assignment to thie case tenuous, and his marital dilemma provides opportunity for a peek inside Russell’s character. (If you haven’t seen Inside Man, by all means do so. It’s wonderful, start to finish.)

 

Another, micro, example is from Deadwood: The Movie, written by David Milch. In a crowd scene near the end where the townspeople pelt series villain George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) with all manner of projectiles and invective, a man in the crowd hollers out, “I hope you die in the street like my father.” There’s an epithet, and a hint at why the man said it, all in ten words. Let your mind explore the possibilities. All Milch had to do was open the door. (As Timothy Olyphant said in the interview that drew my attention to this, “Wow. Backstory.”.)

 

Backstory, research, and description all exist to support the story, not crush it. Engage the reader’s mind. We all caution to “show, don’t tell” but what is it but telling to say the character was “Six-feet-one-inch tall, with blue eyes and brown hair that grazed his ears and collar. He had a well-defined nose with bumps that hinted at multiple breaks and fingers disproportionately thick for his hands.” How much of that do we need to know? He’s tall, but not exceptionally so. Unless his eyes and hair come into play later, why not leave them to the reader’s imagination?