Thursday, October 27, 2022

August was PI Immersion Month. What Did I Learn?

 I want to try something different with the Penns River series, which will require time to research if I am to do it justice. I also have a couple of stories I’ve been wanting to write about my Chicago-based professional investigator, Nick Forte. No thought needed, right? Write a PI novel.


Easier said than done. I had an outline I liked, fleshed it out, and got to work, but things weren’t jelling as they had been for the Penns River books. The writing didn’t flow and the voice wasn’t what I wanted.  I considered re-reading a couple of Forte novels until it occurred to me that I should read someone good instead.


I dedicated the month of August to reading nothing but PI novels. The list included Ace Atkins (writing a Spenser novel), James Lee Burke, Reed Farrel Coleman, Robert Crais, Dashiell Hammett, Declan Hughes, Dennis Lehane, John McFetridge, Bill Rapp, and Mickey Spillane. (I’d read James Crumley and Robert B. Parker only a few months ago; I did not read any Raymond Chandler for reasons I’ll go into later.)


Here are the primary takeaways:

·       I had forgotten how much I love PI stories. This exercise reminded me of that.

·       Elmore Leonard didn’t write PI fiction, but good PI fiction holds one of his rules in high regard. Very little of what I read sounded like writing. The best PI fiction is a conversation, albeit one-sided, between the narrator PI and the reader.

·       First person is the preferred point of view for a good reason. Not only does it work best as a conversation, it allows the narrator’s mind to wander without sounding too much like an authorial intrusion. After all, he is the author.

·       Along these lines, define the protagonist by what he notices and passes onto the reader. Or doesn’t.

·       Wise-ass comments and snark in narrative and description are not only allowable, they’re desirable, assuming the observations are in character for the detective. (They are in Forte’s case.)

·       A lot of things have to happen off-stage. One person can’t know as much as an entire police department, no matter how small the department.

·       Real-life detectives have no more privileges than you or I, but half the fun of writing PIs is letting him get away with things. Within reason.

·       Even though the reader lives in the narrator’s head, dialog still carries the story. I was bogged down writing a chapter in which Forte interacted with no one. The chapter dragged on to the point where I made a few notes and left it for the rewrite. A couple of weeks ago I figured a way to insert more dialog and rewrote it. The chapter still needs work, but it’s much better, and tighter.


I’m sure a couple of questions came to mind as you read the above:


1. Where are the woman writers?

With a couple of exceptions, I specifically picked authors whose voices, at least in their PI fiction, were similar to, or had affected, mine. Laura Lippmann, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretzky are great writers, but not indicative of Forte’s voice. That’s no slight to the talent of those, and other, women. They just weren’t what I needed at the time.


2. Where’s Raymond Chandler? (I told you I’d get to him.)

Chandler is, as much as any single writer, the reason I wanted to write these kinds of stories. Over time my tastes have evolved toward the leaner writing of Hammett. I noticed this even as I was reading the impressive list of authors above. There were times when the back of my mind wished they would just get on with it.


So what’s the end result? Even if I had learned nothing, I had a ball during what was a difficult month for me. (Covid and post-infection fatigue kept me pretty much housebound for the month.) I will work more PI fiction into my reading regimen as time goes on. Most important, this exercise reminded me of why I love to read and write PI stories, much as a brief stint in a local concert band rekindled my love of playing the trumpet by reminding me why I wanted to be a musician in the first place.


It also put this book back on track. It will be different from the earlier Forte efforts in many ways, but that’s a good thing. A series either evolves or becomes stagnant. No one can say in advance how any evolution will work out, but at least I know now it won’t be stagnant.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Beau Johnson, Author of Old Man Rider

 No one has guested in this blog more than Beau Johnson. (Editor’s Note: He did not research this, at all, but it sounds right.) There’s a reason for this: he’s a great interview. His new book, Old Man Rider, drops this week and I’m delighted to have Beau back to talk about Rider, cheeses, and life in general. (Mostly cheese.)


One Bite at a Time: Welcome back, Beau. It’s always a pleasure to have you here on the blog. The new collection is Old Man Rider. What’s Bishop Rider up to now?

Beau Johnson: Hi Dana!  As ever, thanks for lifting the ban and having me back! As for Rider and what he’s up to now—if I'm honest, the answer remains the rest of his life. The stories within the pages of Old Man Rider harken back to the beginning of Bishop’s struggle (A Better Kind of Hate), then fast forwarding to his end (All of Them to Burn), and if I’m honest again, many of the stories in-between (The Big Machine Eats and Brand New Dark).


OBAAT: It’s been five years since you were first here to discuss A Better Kind of Hate, the collection in which Bishop Rider debuted. Since then you’ve written close to a hundred Rider stories. Has he changed over the years? If so, how? If not, what keeps him on the same path through all the trials he’s faced?

BJ: He’s still as angry as ever, and that pretty much has been his defining point throughout his life-–the very thing which has kept him on the path. So no, he hasn’t changed all that much.  Down some body parts, sure, but I believe that’s par for the course with a character such as Rider. 


OBAAT: Back in 2017 I asked “Where did [Bishop Rider] come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?” You replied “I'm pretty far removed from Bishop Rider. He's combination of many things, but anger is the thing which drives him most. Call him Frank Castle. Call him Charles Bronson. Call him a man who is trying to save himself by saving others.” That’s a good description of his character, but it doesn’t really answer the question of where in your imagination he came from. So, give it up before I taunt you with cheese.

BJ: Ha! Well, it was his sister, April Rider, who came first.  Me having a picture in my mind of six men in masks and her life ending because of them. This is how Rider was truly born.  He’s a response, really, to an image I had almost fifteen years ago. Oh how the time flies!


OBAAT: How did you come up with the name “Bishop Rider?” It’s not bizarre, though it is unusual, and it’s a great name for such a character. I sometimes drop in homages to book or movie characters when naming minor players in a book. For example, I once named my head of investigations for the Chicago Crime Commission after an FBI agent made notable thorugh his efforts to bring down the Chicago Outfit, and the Western I never finished has a couple of variations of names from The Wild Bunch included. Was anything like that involved in Bishop Rider’s gestation, or did you pull names from the phone book? (Naming characters always fascinates me.)

BJ: You ever see the movie ALIENS? Anyway, the android played by Lance Henricksen, he’s where Rider’s first name came from. Unfortunately, I have no such story for his last name save I knew there would always be an i and never a y.


OBAAT: Last month you tweeted “I’ve been told going shirtless and misting myself in baby oil may—may—help me sell more books. We’ll see what I can come up with.” How’d that work out for you?

BJ: Ha! Yeah, that happened over on the Facebook. I keep things pretty PG in my promos, though, so such a misting was never really in play. Also: third nipple. (I kid. I kid.)


OBAAT: You published your first book five years ago. Now that you’re a literary veteran, what about being a writer has surprised you the most?

BJ: How hard it remains. How new obstacles appear. How perfect strangers will champion you more than your own family and friends ninety-five percent of the time.  That there are more people rooting for your success than your failure but that apathy is rampant regardless and I will no longer keep my head in the sand about such things. Also: editors are your friend.


OBAAT: The quintessential final question for any interview: Understanding each meal may be our last, what’s the most recent cheese you ate, and how was it chosen.

BJ: Marble, baby.  And only because we were out of Havarti! Thanks again, Dana.  For having me.  Fun was had!


And not just by Beau. Buddy, you’re always welcome here.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity 2022 - Part Two

 (Last week’s post covered the first half of my experience at this year’s Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference, held September 30 – October 2 in Columbia MD. Today we’ll look at the second half of the conference.)


They put me back to work right after lunch on Saturday. Kelli A. Harmon led Chris Bauer, William Donahue, Lanny Larcinese, and me though Dark and Dirty Bits: Writing Thrills, Chills and Toe Curling Squeals. Mostly we looked at the similarities and differences between thrillers and horror. Kelli made an excellent executive decision by adding Chris Bauer at the last minute, as he writes in both genres. It was a good panel that showed these two genres may have more in common that most people think; much of the difference is in the presentation.


In From Script to Screen, Adam Meyer led a discussion of screenwriting tips and horror stories that I wish I had a recording of. Everyone agreed that what you need to have appear on screen (location, sets, period, action, etc.) affects costs, and cost determines how likely it is your project sees the light of day.


Kathryn O’Sullivan – screenplay descriptions need to suit the tone (comedy, suspense, etc.). You’re writing for the producer’s readers. Link one scene to the next to keep them turning pages. You want them to read it in one sitting.


Adam Meyer – when reading notes, look for the note behind the note. What they tell you is a problem may be due to something else that doesn’t set it up properly.


Kathryn O’Sullivan said to be mindful of punctuation in dialog. Actors will read it almost like musical notation, and that no line of dialog should be more then twelve words long. Let the actor act. Give no more stage direction than necessary.


Vonnie Winslow Crist and Kelli A. Harmon then gave a master class on how to write for, and be accepted into, anthologies. I had a hard time keeping up with all the good stuff here, but I’ll give it a shot.


If an editor rejected your story, look for another element in it that may qualify for a different anthology.


If a market accepts reprints, send them one. Use your new pieces for those that require them.


For themed anthologies, pick the angle no one else will think of.



“Hardboiled” was the panel name, and, as usual, Austin Camacho brought out the best in all his panelists, even me. (Patrick Hyde and Lane Stone needed far less help.) This was one of my two favorite panels of all time and I truly wish it had been recorded so I could have a copy. I can’t take notes when I’m as actively engaged as I am on panels, so you’ll have to take my word for it.


C3 2022 concluded (for me) with Allie Marie leading Mark Bergin, Bruce Robert Coffin, and Wayland Smith on a discussion of police procedurals. As you know, I’m a procedural junkie, so this fascinated me start to finish. Here are some examples of why:


Panelists’ pet peeves:

Mark Bergin – cops never do any paperwork

Bruce Robert Coffin – having a social life when working a homicide. Describe the cop’s social life through what he’s missing.

Wayland Smith – fights over jurisdiction are much more likely to be about getting rid of a case. (Think THE WIRE, Season 2)


Who gets it right?

Wayland Smith – Barney Miller, NYPD Blue

Bruce Robert Coffin – Michael Connelly (shows differences between experienced and new cops), Joseph Wambaugh

Mark Bergin – Wambaugh, Bruce Coffin

Allie Marie – Adam-12 (admittedly dated but shows the bond between partners), Cagney & Lacey


Who gets it wrong?

Mark Bergin – the cop who gets out of the car and charges his gun, maybe more than once.

Bruce Robert Coffin – All the CSI shows. Cops still break most cases by talking to people.

Wayland Smith – any show where they get anything useful from a surveillance camera. Ring cameras can be good, depending on the installer.


Bruce Robert Coffin – each crime scene should have one way in and one way out.


Wayland Smith – best way to keep unnecessary personnel off a crime scene is to have a cop stand at the entrance with a clipboard, taking everyone’s name and telling them they have to file a supplementary report if they cross the line.


A poorly written report can damage an investigation. Multiple cops and supervisors will go over them and an officer can be recalled from home to fix something found inadequate by a supervisor, as no one can edit another officer’s report once it’s filed.


Factual omissions and errors can occur due to workload and divided attention.


Reports may be on paper or computer. Depends on the department.


*  *  *


And then The Beloved Spouse™ and I went home and napped.


This was my eighth C3, and the best yet. We’re already looking forward to next year, September 8 – 10 in Columbia MD.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference 2022 - Part One

 The ninth Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference took place September 30 – October 2. It’s over now and I’m sorry to see it go. This was my eighth, and best, C3. While I now view panel attendance as more entertainment than education – which stands to reason after attending conferences for going on fifteen years – I took more notes at last week’s C3 than I have for any conference in quite a while. To give an idea of how action-packed things were, I skipped only one of the fourteen panel slots.


The plan here was to recap the highlights in this week’s blog, but it would run over 1600 words and I have more respect for your time than that. We’ll do about half today and half next week. If you’d like to learn more, there’s nothing stopping you from attending next year’s conference, September 8 – 10, 2023 at the Doubletree Hotel in Columbia MD.


Note: I attributed comments to their utterers without putting them in quotes, as my note taking skills are not that great. Apologies if I didn’t get some as intended. My personal thoughts are in parentheses.



I hit the ground running, moderating a panel on what the FBI actually does, and doesn’t do, and dispelling some myths. Panelists Bruce Robert Coffin, Jeffrey James Higgins, and Allie Marie all had experience interacting with the FBI and supplied a lot of good information from a perspective of one foot inside and one foot out that provided an excellent mix of distance and intimacy with the Bureau’s workings.


In the Historical Fiction panel, Wayland Smith noted you need to write things that could have happened, even if not verifiable. (If it helps your story to have Bill Hickok and Seth Bullock meet in Deadwood, go for it. They were there at the same time, though there is no record of a meeting.)


In the Complex Plotting panel, Charles Salzberg noted something that more writers need to hear: avoid characters who are there just to die. (If the reader has no other connection, they won’t care.)


Journalism panels at C3 are always exceptional. Austin Camacho led Mark Bergin, John DeDakis, William Donahue, Rick Pullen, and Dylan Roche. My notes have 170 words on this panel alone. Here’s what stood out most:


Dylan Roche – writing fiction improves your journalism and vice versa. (Journalism improves fiction by teaching you to stay on point. Fiction improves journalism by teaching you how to tell a coherent story.)


Rick Pullen – bias may appear in newspaper headlines, but the stories are generally solid. Not true of TV.


John DeDakis – “What does it mean” is critical to good journalism.


Rick Pullen – would like to see more emphasis on process and the desire to get things right in fictional journalists. They’re not there to break the rules.


John DeDakis – double sourcing is essential.


Rick Pullen – going off the record only means you can’t print what he said. You can still use what you learn to inform future questions.


Austin Camacho – journalists will call each other out for getting something wrong.


Mark Bergin – papers often report what someone said and readers will incorrectly attribute that opinion to the paper.


John DeDakis – The perceived accuracy of a story may depend on the quality of the information the source dispenses.



In the Diversity in Fiction panel, Cheryl Head noted that what makes a character “diverse” (race, gender, LGBTQ, etc.) should not define that character. (Cheryl said this much better. My notes are hard to read.)


In the panel on writing female protagonists, Terry Brooks noted that people relate to a character depending on how much of themselves or others they recognize, and that we should only describe characters as much as is necessary to the story.


Moderator Dani Pettrey mentioned that Sue Grafton never sold the Kinsey Millhone stories to the movies because she didn’t want to upset the readers’ mental image of Kinsey.


Austin Camacho came back to moderate the Reality in Fiction panel.


Raymond Benson once asked the FBI if he could speak to their human trafficking expert as research. She let him shadow her for a day. (You’d be surprised at how accommodating people and agencies can be.)


Along those lines, the Marines allowed Tom Young to spend a day at the sniper school at Quantico.


Words to the wise from Jeffrey James Higgins when writing action: if a person is knocked out for more than a minute or so, they’re seriously injured. (So don’t have them doing extraordinary things anytime soon.)


Two excellent quotes, courtesy of Tom Young:

·       “If you know a topic well enough, you’ll know what to leave out.” (Attributed to Hemingway.)

·       “Stuff isn’t story.” (Attributed to Tim O’Brien.)


Discussing how much of your research to include in the book, Jeffrey James Higgins recommends that writers give the reader the minimum amount they need to understand the story.


That took us to lunchtime. Come back next week for the highlights of the rest of the conference.