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.