Thursday, December 31, 2020

My First Day of Retirement

 So I'm sleeping late. Leave me alone. I'll have something for you next week.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Happy Holidays


While 2020 has been a large, runny turd in the punchbowl of life, it has not been uneventful here at Castle Schadenfreude. Alas, not all the goings on have been good.

I was diagnosed late last year with a form of macular degeneration in my right eye. Monthly treatments have kept my vision relatively stable. About the only thing I don’t do is drive on unfamiliar roads at night, though most everything else takes a little longer. It could be a lot worse, but we’re staying on top of it and I have a great doctor, so the outlook is as good as can be expected.

·       In February, Dr. Sole Heir’s mother gifted her a car with one catch: The Good Doctor had to pick it up in Maryland and get it to New Orleans. I volunteered to co-pilot, and it was a weekend well spent.

·       In the spring John A. Hoda was kind enough to have me as a guest on his fine podcast. Even better, I had the slot between two major forces in the business, Michael Koryta and Joseph Wambaugh.

·       The newest Penns River novel, Pushing Water, came out in May. Leaving the Scene comes out in the spring of 2021.

·       I read at a virtual Noir at the Bar in May. Kudos to Ed Aymar for keeping the flam going for these events in the DC area.

·       My mother died from the virus on August 13. If anyone wonders why I’ve been such a hard case about social distancing and staying safe, this is a large reason. Everyone has to die, and Mom had a 93-year run, but no one should have to die like that.

·       Public Service Announcement: When sump pump backup batteries die, they smell like a gas leak. So much so the fire company doesn’t even fuss about what amounts to a false alarm when they scramble to see what’s what. We’re more than grateful for their speedy and friendly response, though it will not prevent the cops in my books making fun of firefighters.

·       In a matter unrelated to the battery failure, the sump pump failed in October. The damage was minor, but it was a week spent moving things and drying to dry out The Beloved Spouse’s craft room, made even tougher due to the rising street value of Lysol and other disinfectants

·       One bit of unadulterated good news: I am retiring at the end of the year. I’ll likely keep my hand in part-time, but I’m using my brother as role model, appreciating that I now have the hammer and can choose when, how much, and on what to work.

 Corky has kept busy during her enforced confinement, as well:

·       She’s an active quilter. Each project gets a little more elaborate and challenging.

·       She still makes cards, though not as much as she used to, given the time taken up by quilting.

·       She spent a lot of time back in the early days of the virus making masks. We have a variety of colors and styles, as do some friend, relatives, and Zack’s entire class at flight school. (More on him later.)

·       We broke down and bought an air fryer, which keeps her busy keeping up with its features, as it also grills and does so many other things I can’t keep track. Last week it woke me up, made coffee, and emptied the dishwasher.

 Rachel (aka “Dr. Sole Heir”) is well into the second year of her internal medicine residency at Tulane. She doesn’t want too much made of it because she hasn’t seen many covid cases since the post-Mardi Gras surge, but things are picking up down there again, making all of us doubly happy to see she got her first vaccination on December 16.

 Zack (aka “The Sole Son-in-Law”) finished the basic portion of flight school for the Coast Guard and is currently on hiatus before starting rotary-wing training. Both he and Rachel are exactly where they are supposed to be, doing exactly what they want to do, and we couldn’t be prouder of them.

 Stay safe and patient, folks. The vaccines are at hand, even if they don’t roll out as quickly as we’d like. We hope to see you down the road a ways.


Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Go West, Old Man

 The Western novel lingers. I set it aside when I got stuck, then the current Penns River story took precedence. I thought to look west between Penns River drafts but was asked to contribute to an anthology, which was well worth the diversion. I have high hopes for the project.

 A couple of weekends ago The Beloved Spouse and I spent an evening with Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven. The story bears no resemblance to mine except for the time period and general geographic are, but it put the bug in me. Every couple of days since then I find myself reaching for the journal or opening Scrivener to add notes. If nothing else, I figured out what was holding me up.

 A year or so ago I came across half a dozen writing tips from Edith Wharton that sum up what my problem had been.

1.     Know your scope. The original plan was to write a book about a town cobbled out of four ranches, and the frictions that ensued. This was too broad. The real story concerns the interactions of a town marshal, his protégé, and a federal who comes to town in pursuit of a fugitive.

2.     Do less, better. I’m narrowing the scope to sharpen the focus.

3.     Lead with your characters. Whatever goes on in town must support the three main characters in some way, which means I need to create fully realized settings and subordinate characters who help add depth to the big three.

4.     Dialog is where you learn most about your characters. This I already had pretty well under control.

5.     Create peaks and valleys. I had them, but they were random. Pushing the emphasis more toward the three major characters will help with this.

6.     Have a point. I had one when I started but it became diffused. Writing about a town can show certain qualities of the people, but focusing on the people allows a point to be made more relatable.

 I’m changing the name of the town, and the title. The town, formerly called “Necessity” because the founding ranchers desperately needed something to provide them with economies of scale on the Wyoming prairie, is now called “Savior Springs” after a wagon train that got lost was saved from dying of thirst by the source of water and decided they’d gone far enough. (I suspect in time I’ll come up with a reason for the town to prosper, at least enough to support the story.)

 The title, which was to be “Necessity, Wyoming Territory,” (about the town, right?) will now be “Lawmen.” That’s who it’s about now, with the added benefit of having more of a Western sound to it. I’m revved up to get the next draft of the WIP done so I can get back to this.

 Good thing I’ll be retired in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Post-Retirement Writing

 Last week I talked about my retirement plans. Writing was mentioned only in passing. That doesn’t mean I don’t have plans along those lines.

 I’m already into the second draft of the “official” WIP, working title “Officer Involved.” It’s the seventh Penns River novel, about a Black cop shooting a white man. Not just any white man; a white supremacist. A bunch of Whitey’s buddies decide this can’t go unremarked upon and the local cops have their hands full.

 I also have a story that needs one or two more passes. It’s a Western based on the song “Seven Spanish Angels.”

 Queued up behind them are:

  • Another Penns River story about illegal high school football betting. Tentative title: “The Spread.”
  • A return to Nick Forte. Forte leaves Chicago to help Goose, who has gone to the hills to help his family. Tentative title: “The Bottom.”
  • A Penns River short story, “The Box,” that has been awaiting edits since the 35-day government shutdown a couple of years ago.

 The first few weeks, while practicing the Chinatown Principle*, I intend to watch a Western a day to whet my appetite for the Western novel I’ve picked up and set down several times. There are good bits there, but I haven’t found the narrative I want to tie them together. Maybe some immersion will help.

 After that? I have notes on a high-octane thriller I may write for the hell of it, just to see if I can do it. I suspect it will end up being a bit of a satire, but that’s okay, too.

 I also have an itch to write a straight-up comedy novel. Maybe even a caper. My mind doesn’t tend to plot as tightly as a caper requires, but this is how we learn, right?

 I suspect I’ll have other ideas as time goes. I’m going to be disappointed if I’m not retired for a long time.

 (*--Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing [in Chinatown]?

Jake Gittes: Working for the District Attorney.

Evelyn Mulwray: Doing what?

Jake Gittes: As little as possible.)


Thursday, December 3, 2020

Into the Stretch Run


I gave my notice at work this week. December 31 is my last day before retirement.


It’s an odd feeling. I’m still working, and there are things I need to accomplish, but the sense of urgency is both less and greater. Greater because there’s a true hard stop; less because, much as I don’t want to leave my co-workers holding bags of shit with my name on them, none of that is my problem as of New Year’s Day.


How will I spend newly free time? I’ll do more writing, for sure. And more reading. My eyes won’t be as much of a concern because I’ll be able to spread things out through the day to rest them as needed. I have projects lined up and I’m looking forward to getting at them.


Road trips. Obviously we didn’t get one this year, but we’re looking at two long ones next year, maybe three:

1. Yellowstone, by way of the Badlands, then through Colorado to see the family before coming home

2. New Orleans for Bouchercon, going down early to spend time with Dr. Sole Heir (and hopefully Sole Son-in-Law) before the conference.

3. Albuquerque for Left Coast Crime, though this trip depends on the vaccine and virus situation far more than the others.


In coming years I see trips to New England, Florida (I’ve never been to spring training), Chicago, and random places that catch our fancy. We’ve been saving up for when we have the time, and in 28 more days I’ll have plenty of it.


I’ll try to keep my hand in with the old job doing piecework to hold off when I claim Social Security. More book promotion, even if only virtual. I’m also toying with the idea of a live interview series.


There will be day trips. (We live fourteen miles from Washington DC, home of more free museums and historical attractions than you can shake a dead cat at.) There will be mini-road trips (Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg, Colonial Williamsburg, Yonder) and “home” trips back to Pittsburgh (friends, family, Primanti’s, Glen’s). There are home improvement projects, games, walks, movies, and TV series to keep me occupied. Naps.


The Beloved Spouse™ likes to tease me how I already have 27 hours a day booked. That’s fine. I’m not going to do all of the above every day.


I’m going to do them all, though.

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:

They can check out my website at or email me at



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



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?



Thursday, October 1, 2020

Who Cares What King Thinks?


Much of this blog’s recent content involves either writing craft or the philosophy of writing, which leads to obvious question:


“Why should anyone care what Dana King thinks about any of this?”


Yeah, well, I’ll have you know I’ve sold scores of books over the past ten years, pal. Tell your story walking.


Back to reality. It’s a reasonable question. How can someone with my profile presume anyone else cares what he says about writing? Even I don’t often read articles about writing unless written by someone whose work I know and respect. Who am I to expect other to take interest in what I think?


That’s easy: I don’t. There’s an old story about a couple about to have sex for the first time. She notices his erection spans three inches, at best, and asks, “Exactly who do you plan to satisfy with that?”


“Me,” he says.


I write these for me. If you gain any benefit, that’s great. If there’s one thing I feel I was born to do, it’s teach. I love it and I’ve had enough feedback to know I’m good at it. Events and timing killed what career hopes I had, but I still get to do some on the day job. If these posts get anyone to think about something they might not have thought about otherwise, that’s great. The teacher in me hopes you’ll let me know in the comments.


Hearing from you is nice, but it’s gravy. I have learned over time the best way for me to refine a thought is to write about it, even if I never show what I’ve written to anyone. A personal standard allows me to see if I’m on a track worth pursuing or if I’m kidding myself. I’ve lost track of how many potential blog posts are never completed because I wasn’t satisfied with how the thoughts come together, or get a few hundred words in and realize not even I care enough about this topic to go on.


This is where I order my mind. I post because—well, because I can. The Internet gives every swinging dick who thinks he has something to say a venue. I work to ensure I don’t too often fall into the noise, so maybe someone else will learn something, or consider something new, or just pass a little pleasant time on a tough day.


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Taking My Time


I wrote in July about the influence of David Milch on my writing and the concept of “resting transparently.” An exercise he promotes is to sit down and start typing a scene. Two characters: Voice 1 and Voice 2. Nothing but dialog. Type whatever comes to mind for no less than 25 minutes and no more than 50. Stop when you begin to think about what you’re doing. When finished, seal it in an envelope and forget about it. As Milch puts it, “Give it to God.”


Milch believes writers too often think about what the writing can do for us, or how it will be received, or, ultimately, if it will sell. Or how well. The point of the exercise is to pull the creative process away from that. His point is that your best writing gives you the best chance of success, and your best writing often comes from a place the conscious mind may be reluctant, or afraid, to go. Resting transparently is letting go and trusting your subconscious.


I don’t have much time for exercises. The day job still consumes almost half my waking hours. What I can do is to put the concept to work for me.


I’m writing this after supper. The work-in-progress awaits. When I finish here I’ll do something else for a while to clear my head. When I’m ready to get to work I’ll take a few seconds, no more than 30, and refresh my memory of where I am in the book. Then I’ll walk into my reading room, sit in my chair, and close my eyes. Whatever comes to mind comes to mind. I make no conscious effort to direct it.


Sometimes it’s a little while before the book takes over. Sometimes—and more often recently—I sit no more than a few minute before I know exactly what comes next. I about launch myself out of the chair to get to the keyboard.


The session goal is 500 words. If I hit a roll, I keep going until I start thinking too much, or I start feeling good about what I’ve done. Either of those involves the ego, and the ego is the enemy of creativity. When that happens it’s time to stop. With rare exceptions, this takes 25 – 50 minutes.


Where this method works best is on days I don’t work the day job and I can repeat the process three or four times. It seems to work so long as I leave an hour or so between sessions. Do that three times a day and I’ll have at least 1500 words and quite possibly more than 2500, because, once begun, every session gets easier as more comes to mind virtually unbidden.


It also helps that this is the first draft. There are misspelled words and mangled grammar. There are sentences I’ll look at in three months and wonder, “What the hell does this mean?” Doesn’t matter. There are no mistakes. There are only things that need to be better. That’s what edits are for.


First drafts were always drudgery for me. Now I look forward to the next session. This may be the best first draft I’ve ever written. I don’t know if it will be the best book—a draft often bears only passing resemblance to a finished novel—but I’m delighted with what I’ll have to work with.


I’ve discovered chapters I’ll need to add. Leave them for the end, then find good places for them. Sanding off the unintentional edges are what edits are for. (Scrivener’s note cards are great for this. Just create a new card, type in a slug, and I’ll get to it when I get to it.) What’s best is the lack of anxiety. Every first draft I’ve written has had several, “Oh shit” moments. Not once in this one—so far—and I’m at least two-thirds of the way through.


I’ve known for years I’m more left-brained than it’s good for a creative person to be. Resting transparently allows my right brain to breathe. Taking my time allows what comes next to form itself in my subconscious so when I’m ready to rest transparently, what I need is right there.


I never think about writing when I’m not writing anymore, which is another Milchian trademark. That doesn’t mean ideas don’t come to me unbidden. I came home from shopping recently with well over half of the plot for a new Nick Forte novel so well formed I typed out 1500 words of notes. Didn’t have to think about them. Just wrote down what was on the tips of my fingers.


We’re all looking for a way to open the tap in our brains that lets out the words we want in the order in which we want them. Resting transparently and taking my time will not make me more talented. They might help me to stay out of my own way.

Thursday, September 17, 2020



The Beloved Spouse™ and I rarely leap into the hot thing du jour. We let things breathe and gauge the reception over time before devoting any of our precious remaining hours to something. Ergo, we recently binge-watched NYPD Blue fifteen years after it went off the air. All 261 episodes. In a row. We didn’t watch anything else.


We don’t fuck around.


What a great show. Like any property that runs twelve years, it slows down a little toward the end, but not a lot. The entire cast turns over except for Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and the producers use that turnover to shift the squad’s internal dynamics so you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, but you have an idea how events will affect the characters.


If I had to pick one thing that stands out, it’s how the rest of the squad, including the bosses, come to respect and gain affection for Sipowicz. He’s a racist asshole when the show starts, and he’s never cuddly. He struggles with multiple demons and keeps them at bay while understanding they are never defeated. He learns when and how to ask for help, never more touchingly as when he calls his wife to come get him in a bar. “No, I’m not drinking. But if you don’t come for me I know I will.” Not an order; a plea. Early in the show the only person who has the time of day for him is his partner, John Kelly (David Caruso.) By the end the entire squad will do anything for him.


All of the characters’ histories have their places, but not in a manner that the show becomes about their flaws; it’s still about the whole person. What turned me off of Rescue Me was that every episode became a test of whether Denis Leary would drink. After a while I didn’t care anymore, and there wasn’t much else to him. That’s never true of NYPD Blue. Everyone is a well-rounded person and personality. The characters never become stale because there’s always fertile ground to be worked, between New York situations (“Everything’s a situation,” said Sipowicz’s second partner, Bobby Simone) and the depth of the characterizations.


Since I brought him up, let’s talk about Bobby (Jimmy Smits). He’s only in a third of the episodes, but he leaves his mark on the rest of the show. His replacements, Sorenson (Rick Schroder) and Clark (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are well-developed, well-acted characters, but they’re not Bobby. It’s Simone’s understanding and empathy for Sipowicz that turns the rest of the squad around. Not because Simone says or does anything, but everyone loves Bobby, and if Bobby feels this way about Sipowicz, then he can’t be all bad. The show is still good, but not so often transcendent after Simone leaves..


It’s a cop show and I haven’t said a word about the crimes. There’s no big deal made of stories “ripped from the headlines,” but former NYPD detective Bill Clark had a hand in breaking the overwhelming majority of stories. It shows. The weird crimes all have a “no one could make this up” feel, and the painful stories are never melodramatic. They just tell the story. Make of it what you will.


No show has better exemplified Joe Wambaugh’s mantra that a good cop story is more about how the cases work on the cops than about how the cops work on the cases. NYPD Blue is a procedural without much procedure. Only what you need to understand what’s going on. Nothing easy about that, and it’s more than worth your time when executed this well.


(I also recommend David Milch’s book, True Blue, about the first two seasons of the show, including the transition from Caruso to Smits. As good a behind the scenes book as I have read.)


Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Cold Six Thousand

My first exposure to James Ellroy was the movie LA Confidential. That sent me to the local library, where only Ellroy available was The Cold Six Thousand. It was the most unpleasant reading experience of my life. I vowed never to read Ellroy again.


A few years passed. Stephanie Padilla, then editor of the New Mystery Reader web site and the person responsible for many of the good things in my life as a writer, asked me to review Blood’s a Rover, which picks up where The Cold Six Thousand leaves off. I accepted as a favor to Stephanie. Turns out it was she who’d done me a solid. I loved the book, which taught me

1. The Cold Six Thousand is not a good point of entry into Ellroy’s work.

2. I needed to go back to The Black Dahlia and read him in order.


I revisited TC6K a couple of months ago. I revised my original assessment by the end of the first page. By Page 100 I understood why it’s a masterpiece, though I stand by my opinion it is not the place for the uninitiated to learn about Ellroy. There are no good guys, only shades of bad guys, and they’re not just bad guys, they’re bad people. Racial epithets, anti-Semitic and homophobic comments, the dialog and internal thoughts of the characters show much of the worst of human nature. The subject matter aside, the best word to describe the writing style is, “brutal.” The sentences are short and percussive.


The story draws heavily from the FBI’s attempts to discredit Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. The hatred for the Kennedy brothers shown by organized crime and J. Edgar Hoover in American Tabloid is now secondary to civil rights matters, but the inciting incident for the book is John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.


TC6K reads like a description of what one might find after overturning a rotting stump, told in stark, unapologetic language. Human empathy is well down the list of “virtues,” and it’s most often dealt with by crushing its bearer. It’s a dog eat dog world, and the main course doesn’t need to be dead for the feast to begin.


And yet it’s a glorious read, as daring a book as I have ever encountered. Ellroy’s vision of America in the 60s turns a negative light on events we have struggled for years to describe either positively or as aberrations. Ellroy is having none of that. To him, the events described, factual and fictional, did not happen in spite of America’s greatness; they are part and parcel of the illusion of American greatness.


It’s also a much timelier book now than when I first read it. The current political climate has allowed the kinds of people depicted in TC6K as working underground to surface and thumb their noses at ideas of decency. Lots of people write of dystopian futures. Ellroy pulls the covers off our dystopian past.


Through all of that, the ending shows a little light. Not so much for the situation as a whole, but for how people can find a little justice for themselves, so long as they don’t hope for too much of it. Even that is eventually doled out in a brutal, too little too late, manner.


There won’t be any moves made of The Cold Six Thousand, though the storytelling virtues of streaming services make one wonder what Netflix or Amazon Prime could do with the material. I have no idea how TV would handle the pages of “transcripts” and “internal reports” that give the book such a documentary feel in places. Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks have both tried, and failed, to get series on the air.


It’s just as well. The Cold Six Thousand may be a story best saved for those willing to invest the energy to reads them. No skimming here. A proper encounter gets the reader dirty with the characters or the point is missed. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Irish Alzheimer's

My friend and outstanding writer Dietrich Kalteis asked me to contribute my “favorite” rejection story for an article he’s putting together. He only wanted a paragraph and I had a good story for that level of detail. I have another story that’s more along the lines of writers’ nightmares I can share here.


Nick Forte was originally a tongue-in-cheek protagonist of a not quite cozy about a former musician turned PI who worked cases that involved the music business. His sidekick fancied himself as Hawk but was universally known as Wren. I had an agent—the late and sorely missed Pam Strickler—who enthusiastically pushed the book to the major New York houses, where it received encouraging rejections.


Pam turned to a leading second-tier publisher of crime fiction. They asked for an exclusive, then sent it for a round of readers’ comments. I made some edits, and they sent it around again. More comments. More edits. Then it went through what sounded like a painfully detailed evaluation process with the house editors. No news. Pam sent a gentle prod. They put us off. Pam send another note. The runaround again. I forget how many of these we went through, never rejecting us, but not sending a contract, either.


Pam and I finally agreed it was time for the “piss or get off the pot” letter. That received a blow-off: a two-line e-mail with grammatical errors even I recognized, back when I chose to write in the first person because I lacked confidence in my grammatical skills. Total time waiting: almost two years.


The story has a happy ending. I used the time to take Forte in a different direction, which led to two Shamus nominations. Still, I have a fantasy I think most writers can relate to.


I sell a book that generates enough buzz I get to make a national tour. When the publicist tells me I can have a spot in [city name redacted] speaking at [prominent bookstore associated with the publisher mentioned above redacted] I tell her I wouldn’t appear there if the owners kissed my bare ass on the 50-yard line of the Super Bowl during the coin toss. The publicist would be encouraged to relay my comment to [publisher name redacted] in those exact words. I’d then ask her to spare no effort to book me into that bookstore’s closest competitor, where I’d be happy to bring food and beverages, stay as long as anyone wanted, and sweep up after.


(*--Irish Alzheimer’s: A condition where the afflicted party remembers only the grudges. My mother’s maiden name was Dougherty.) 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

The French Connection


I suppose it’s telling that, facing a rare free weekday afternoon and looking for a feel-good movie, I chose The French Connection.

Regular readers know I am a devotee of Seventies crime movies. I rarely pontificate on the “importance” of films, but I do believe The French Connection is a seminal event in the genre. Crime movies were different after this. They had to be.

A problem with seeing anything as often as I’ve seen The French Connection is that little flaws become more obvious and TFC has its share.

·         Cloudy (Roy Scheider) asks Popeye (Gene Hackman) how he was supposed to know a guy they busted had a knife when it was he who hollered, “Watch out, Jimmy! He’s got a knife—” when the action went down.

·         Why do the smugglers leave the Lincoln with the drugs at the waterfront? I’m willing to say the plan was to have it picked up to transfer the drugs, reported as stolen, and returned intact, but there are far easier ways.

·         Why do they buy the junker car to store the money? Why not just put it back in the Lincoln?

·         Why take Doyle and Russo to the site of a horrible car crash to take them off the case? They’re Brooklyn narcotics detectives. Why are any of them even there?

·         How does the conductor (or whatever he is) of the subway train not know the Transit cop has been shot? What happened to all the people who fled toward the front of the train?

·         Why doesn’t the dead man’s switch engage when the motorman passes out? (Yes, I read The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three.)


None of that matters.

There are lots of movies where any of the above would take me out of the story. Not here. I saw The French Connection for the first time in a theater (a double-feature* with M*A*S*H, no less) and noticed none of those things. The film engrossed me from the opening credits. Martians could have delivered the drugs and I wouldn’t have cared.

 It’s the attitude. It sweeps you into Popeye’s world to see things through his perspective, even when he’s not ion camera. As great as the chase is—and it still has to be in the top five ever—the scene I remember best is the two cops walking into the bar and Popeye says, “All right, Popeye's here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!” Every line in that scene shows Popeye controls the situation less because he has the badge than because he has the will.

 The original heroin test. (“Blast off: one-eight-oh. Two hundred: Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”) Picking up the initial thread while out for an after work drink. (“He’s spending money like the Russians are in Jersey.”) Tearing apart Devereaux’s car. Stalking Frog One through the abandoned crematorium with Russo darting from cover to cover while Popeye walks right up the middle. Popeye and Frog One getting on and off the subway train and Frog One’s little finger wave goodbye. Popeye mimicking that wave when the cops come for the arrests. The continuation of Popeye’s obsession even after he learns it’s Mulderig he shot. (“That son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I'm gonna get him.”) The film keeps you in the moment, and in the moment it all makes sense.

 And Don Ellis’s soundtrack. So far ahead of its time we’ll never catch up. Never intrusive, always uneasy, propulsive when necessary. There are less than 25 minutes of music in the movie and every second has a purpose. Ellis was an innovator throughout his career but his soundtrack for The French Connection may be his masterpiece. (Ellis died in 1978 at the age of 44. I’ll always be sorry I never saw his band in person.)

The French Connection and the first two Godfather films hold positions in the cinematic pantheon of crime stories not unlike the relationship of Beethoven symphonies to Mozart’s. The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 perfect the conventions that have come before. The French Connection throws open the door of what is to come. There is a little overlap, but once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no going back.

 (* - Note to readers not of a certain age: There was a time when a person could pay for one movie and legitimately see two.)

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Have a Nice Weekend

Life has intervened. I got nothing for you this week. See you next Friday. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

First Cousins

“Write what you know” is the hoariest piece of writing advice. Also the worst, when taken too seriously. Used responsibly and wisely it can add depth and nuance to any project.

 I got comfortable writing what I knew when I began the Penns River books. Previous efforts involved things I’d learned or come to know. Penns River I knew. I never had to learn it. I grew up there. Many of its qualities, better and worse, are as ingrained in me as my hair color.

 Like hair color, what you “know” changes over time. Perspectives that made perfect sense in your twenties now seem silly or even embarrassing. That doesn’t mean you deny their existence. Keep them in your toolbox. A character come along sooner or later who suits your discredited ideas. Not only can you use them, you get to look at them from the outside. There’s potential gold there.

 I wrote a few weeks ago about David Milch’s talks on “The Idea of the Writer.” In one he discusses the concept of looking for the first cousins of ideas. I’m still finding my way around this at the story level, but it’s already paying dividends on the character level as a great way to keep from being too “on the nose.” It’s particularly useful when dealing with a personal experience too painful or too close to write as well as you’d like. Often those situations become either preachy or heavy-handed, or the characters start to wallow in the writer’s self-pity.

I moved back into my parents’ house a few years ago when my mother couldn’t handle the day-to-day needs of Dad’s home hospice care. I wouldn’t trade most of that month for the world, as it was an opportunity for a son who’d moved away to show he cared about, and for, his parents. That said, I wouldn’t wish Dad’s last few days on anyone. Nor would I wish it on anyone’s family. (Home hospice care is a wonderful thing. The doctors, nurses, and clergy truly are angels on earth. There also comes a time when the professionals need to take over, both for the comfort of the patient and the sanity of the family.)

 I can’t write that story, nor work it into a larger piece. I can find its first cousin. I know what it feels like to watch someone you love become les vital until what’s left is hard to remember as anything except what he’s become. I know the odd mixture of relief and guilt that comes when he finally dies. That’s the “what I know” to write about.

 A friend of mine wrote a first-rate story for our writers’ group years ago about a homeless man. The story gripped everyone from the start until the ending, which fell flat. The consensus was to leave everything else alone and fix the ending. Suggestions flowed like a spring, as so often happens when critiquing something that’s thisclose.

Within minutes, our friend was almost in tears. It was a true story. The homeless man was her brother. She was way too close to make any changes without feeling like she was betraying him.

 The ending was weak because it was too on the nose, which made it land heavy. What she needed was the first cousin for it to kick ass. I wish I’d known about it then. Everyone could’ve left happy that night. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

What to Write?

“Don't ever write anything you don't like yourself and if you do like it, don't take anyone's advice about changing it. They just don't know.”

 --Raymond Chandler

 This applies on both the macro and micro level. You’re going to spend a lot of time with whatever project you select; it better be something you’ll enjoy reading. And reading. And reading again. I went through my most recent book nine times, with another pass pending when the edits arrive. How can I expect someone else to enjoy the read if I felt it a chose to write?

This is the primary reason I’ve never tried my hand at a thriller. I don’t often read them. I like more realism than contemporary thrillers tend to provide. I’m not ripping those who do enjoy them—we’re all entitled to our own tastes—but the work would be drudgery, which means the reading will almost have to be.

 (Editor’s Note: He does sometimes entertain the idea of writing a satirical thriller, but he hasn’t even bought it a drink yet.)

 The micro level is just as important. I recently wrote about the inherent conflict between authors and editors. I stand by everything I said there, but I should have been a little more resolute myself. I sent an e-ARC to a loyal reader (yes, I have some) who wrote back to express his appreciation of a particular line, which I had cut from the final version at the editor’s suggestion. I liked the original better myself but I didn’t stick up for it. That’s my fault but it’s okay for two reasons:

1) I learned my lesson and will not make that mistake again;

2) I was able to get it changed back before the book went to press.

 “Maybe your books don’t sell because you obstinately avoid the mainstream of public taste,” id the obvious question.

 Maybe. Probably. So what? Not everyone has the skill set to write in a certain genre or style. Leonard Bernstein is possibly the greatest musical polymath this country ever produced. He went to his grave lamenting his inability to write a hit song, and had great respect for those who could do it. No one is going to ask Tom Brady to play linebacker; that’s not where his gifts lie. Even if he wanted to and was young enough to learn the position-specific skills, that’s not what he was born to do. As Captain Dudley Smith said to Bud White when White asked if he was going to work cases in the Homicide Division: “Your talents lie elsewhere.”

 I am a massive fan of Dennis Lehane’s The Drop, both the book and movie. They’re master classes on how to develop and tell a story. The movie had a small budget and still lost money in the United States despite having Tom Hardy (when the movies on either side of The Drop were The Dark Knight Rises, Locke, Child 44, and Mad Max: Fury Road)and James Gandolfini in his final role. Foreign receipts pushed the film into the black but the money men can’t have been happy.

 This is what Lehane said about the film in an interview with Boston Magazine: “Everybody was always on board to kind of make a gritty, down-and-dirty, 1970s-influenced film. The commercial considerations didn’t override the film. We didn’t say, ‘Oh, we have to slap on a happy ending,’ or ‘Oh, we have to do this because market research.’”

 I get that. I love 70s crime movies. That’s probably why, without any conscious thought or effort, I write novels that could easily be 70s movies. I’m well aware the population at large isn’t much interested in seeing films like that anymore. This is my wheelhouse, for better or worse.

 Maybe my favorite book I’ve written is the standalone I wrote between the Nick Forte and Penns River series, Wild Bill. It’s the story of how a mob war in Chicago ruins a large FBI investigation. I showed it to an agent everyone thought I should work with. Met her a Bouchercon where she told me she liked the book but

1) No one cares about Italian gangsters anymore. Maybe if they were Russian.

2) It needs more unexpected violence.

(She also didn’t like it enough to send me any of this feedback. I had to find out at the bar.)

 Maybe it did need more unexpected violence to sell, but that would have been a different book. It did have half a dozen corpses but they weren’t the point. What mattered was how and why they got that way.

 Could I have re-written it to accommodate her suggestions? Sure. Would that have increased its changes for a sale? I think not. I’d be writing someone else’s book, and I give readers credit for being smarter than that. They’ll know something is a quarter bubble off level. Wild Bill was the book I had in me and I wrote it the best I know how. I still think it’s the best constructed book of the eleven I’ve seen published.

 I sometimes toy with the idea of getting an agent to shop the Penns River books for a streaming series. My ego is large enough to think they’d make a good one. What’s tricky is that I’m the square peg in the round hole. I have no screenplay, so I have to go through literary agents who will look at my sales figures and pass unless I want to try something else. Down & Out Books lets me write what I want. The books are better, and I’m happier, because of it.