Friday, March 24, 2017

Movies Inspired Me to Read the Book

by Paul D. Marks

Reading—What authors particularly inspire you? Do you read them when you are working on a book?

To the second question, I’d say I have and can read some of the following while working on something, but I don’t necessarily do so on purpose. Sometimes that’s just what I happen to be reading at the time.

Now to the first question: I’m inspired by a lot of authors and a lot of individual books where maybe the writer’s oeuvre doesn’t hit me but they have that one book that’s a knockout. And my two favorite books, both of which inspire me in different ways, are not mysteries or hardboiled novels.

My favorite book of all time is The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. But I have to admit that I saw the movie first, the original Tyrone Power version, and that’s what inspired me to read the book. I couldn’t relate to everything in it of course, but I related to a lot of it, mostly the main character, Larry Darrell’s search for meaning in an insane world. I relate to the character of Larry on a lot of levels, his disillusionment after the war (WWI), and his search for peace and meaning in life. I found the book inspiring. Still do.

Later on, I saw the Bill Murray film version when it came it out. I didn’t like it nearly as much as the Power version, though it’s grown on me over the years. And it was my understanding that Murray wouldn’t do Ghostbusters II unless he could do his version of The Razor’s Edge, because he also found it so inspiring. Not sure if that’s true though. And, as a sidenote, the day after it was released (I think—hey, it was a long time ago) I saw him on the Warner Brothers lot (though I think then it was called the Burbank Studios, it’s kind of like the song “Istanbul was Constantinople, Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople,”—well, it used to be Warner Brothers then it was The Burbank Studios now it’s Warner Brothers again, so a studio by any other name…). He was leaning on a car in one of the parking lots, reading a review of it—everybody has to check their reviews.

My other favorite book is The Count of Monte Cristo. Who doesn’t love a good revenge story and this is the best of all, especially the way the Count hoists the villains on their own petards. It's the ultimate revenge story and revenge is so satisfying, served hot or cold. As such, it almost counts as a mystery or hardboiled story. Almost.

And while I’ve read books, both fiction and non-fiction, since I was a little kid, I’m a movie guy at heart, so I came to a lot of writers and their books via the movies. This happened with my favorite mystery writer, Raymond Chandler. And he is the top of the heap to me, bar none. I love his style, his turn of phrase. His depiction of a Los Angeles that still existed to some extent when I was a kid. And I came to him through the Bogie-Bacall version of The Big Sleep. His prose definitely inspires me and I keep trying to write my own version of the opening to his story Red Wind.

When it comes to noir, David Goodis is the man. And guess what, I came to him through the movies too, another Bogie-Bacall movie, Dark Passage, based on Goodis’ novel of the same name. I’d seen that movie several times and finally decided to check out the guy whose book it was based on and I was hooked. I devoured everything by him and back then you had to find used copies of his books cause there were few, if any, new production books out there like there are today. My fave Goodis novel is Down There, which was made into the movie Shoot the Piano Player by Francois Truffaut. I’m not a big fan of the movie, but the original book is terrific if you like down and dirty noir stories. This one’s about an ex-GI, a former Merrill’s Marauder, now a piano player who finds more trouble back home than in the war and he had plenty there. Goodis has been called the “poet of losers” by Geoffrey O’Brien and his stories deal with failed lives and people who are definitely on the skids. They’re often people who weren’t always in this position though and the interesting part is seeing how they deal with their downfall—not always so well. Goodis inspires me so much that I wrote a story that might be considered an homage to him. Born Under a Bad Sign was originally published in Dave Zeltserman’s Hard Luck Stories magazine, but is now available in LA Late @ Night, a collection of some of my previously published stories.

Along with film noir, the early hardboiled writers (though there is some crossover) have influenced and inspired my mystery-noir sensibility: Chandler, Cain, Hammett, Dorothy B. Hughes, etc. Along with these writers comes John Fante, although Fante doesn’t fit in either the noir or hardboiled categories. Nonetheless his thinly disguised autobiographical tales of a struggling writer's life in early 20th century L.A. made enough of an impression on me that I wrote to him shortly before he died.

Farther down the time-line road, I was drawn to Ross MacDonald with his psychological insights and stories that constantly double back on themselves and James Ellroy with his corrupt and sultry grittiness. Of current writers, Walter Mosely, Carol O’Connell, Michael Connelly and Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source help to inspire me.



But for me Chandler, with his elegant descriptions, metaphors, characters, depiction of the mean streets and his ville fatale relationship with Los Angeles, will always be on top.

What draws me to many of these writers and the noir and mystery genre in books and films is that they're about the other side of the American Dream, the dark side. There's an inner core of darkness and corruption in society, a feeling of fear and paranoia. There's a moral ambiguity in the writings of most of these writers and in these films. They are the equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting (another major influence on my writing) with its cold light and shadows, filled with a sense of loneliness, alienation and angst.

In much of noir and some hardboiled writing (and there is often, though not always a difference between the two) there's no sense of redemption, but much betrayal. No good guys, just bad guys and worse guys. The hero is flawed. People's own flaws and weaknesses create their fallibility and ultimately lead to their downfall. I think this appeals to me in the sense that it's a realistic, though often pessimistic and cynical, view of society. And in my own writing, both in my novels White Heat and Vortex, and many of my short stories, the characters are flawed, the situations ambiguous.

So my inspirations seem to go from the heights of the Himalayas (Razor’s Edge) to the gutter (Down There), which is kind of noir in itself.  What about you—what/who are your inspirations as a writer, as a person?

***

And now for the usual BSP:

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Day I Dodged

It should be my day today (Catriona), but I'm handing over the blog to my friend and fellow writer, Lori Rader Day, as she celebrates the publication of her third novel THE DAY I DIED, the follow-up to the Mary Higgins Clark winning LITTLE PRETTY THINGS. I was lucky enough to read TDID early on, and it's absolutely fandabbydozy. 

So, without further ado, over to Lori.



What authors inspire you? Do you read them when you are working on a book?

Which writers inspire me? This is not sucking up. I will read anything Catriona McPherson cares to write. Her grocery list? Bring it.

But since she is my host today, I should probably think of other writers who inspire me.

My first mystery/suspense inspirations were Lois Duncan, Agatha Christie, and Mary Higgins Clark. Imagine the 12-year-old me carrying my Mary Higgins Clark library copy of A Cry in the Night onto the school bus to seventh grade to share with my friends. Yeah. That really happened.

Today I’m still inspired by the careers of those three women and by those who follow in their footsteps: Tana French (The Likeness is my favorite) Megan Abbott (The Fever), Lisa Lutz (Heads You Lose with David Hayward is a book more people should read), and Ann Cleeves (I love Vera!). I also read male authors, of course. Favorites include Charles Todd (I’m cheating there, I know) and William Kent Krueger.
I do read fiction when I’m writing, or I wouldn’t read fiction at all. But let’s be honest: I do sometimes put off reading books that I think might influence me too much in what I’m writing. Instead, I might read a novel that is so different from my style that I’m unlikely to borrow. (M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series is great for this, or Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency.) Confession: I have not yet read Lou Berney’s award-winning The Long and Faraway Gone because I’m pretty sure it’s going to give me a severe case of Why Botherism.



I don’t have time to feel more insecure than I already do. Thanks anyway, Berney.

What I read most when I’m trying to get my head out of my own work-in-progress for a while is nonfiction. The best kind of nonfiction is work that may spark ideas for my own project, but that’s hard to predict. The best examples I’ve had of this are the Jon Curran Agatha Christie notebook books and a recent read that blew me away, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin.

Not all of my nonfiction reads have to be about my favorite authors, of course. I’m also a fan of books by Erik Larson, Melissa Fay Greene, Sarah Vowell, David Grann, and books like Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown and The Fiddler on the Subway by Gene Weingarten—essay collections that have nothing to do with what I write but send my mind pinging all over the place. That’s what I’m looking for in anything I read, whether I’m drafting or not: distraction, energy, and that excitement I used to get as a kid, finding a new favorite story. It’s hard to get as an adult, as someone steeped in books all the time. But when you find it, it’s just as magical as it always was.

Catriona again: Over to you all, Criminal Minds readers - who inspires you?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Simon Says vs Chatty Cathy...by Cathy Ace



“Reading—What authors particularly inspire you? Do you read them when you are working on a book?”

Oh heck – this is a tough one to answer! Second question first – I don’t read when I’m writing…I just cannot do it. Not because I’m afraid I’ll start writing just like Agatha Christie (!!!) or any other author, but because when I’m working on a book I’m so completely immersed in the world I’m creating that I barely have room for the real one, let alone the inventions of other authors. So, not reading novels while I’m writing one is my way of hanging onto my sanity.

Some of my Christie books
As for reading when I’m not writing – yes, I still do that! Over the years I have broadened and deepened my list of “authors whose work I have read”, but I have to admit I am probably still most influenced by those whose works I read earliest and have therefore re-read for the longest period of time. Agatha Christie’s works have had a profound effect on me; I own at least one copy of everything she ever wrote (plays and memoirs included) and have lost count of the number of times I have read each one. I’ll admit not every book is “brilliant in every respect”, and some might be said to be a little “clunky”, BUT Christie at her worst is better than so many other writers, I’ll step back into the metaphorical “comfy slippers” her works offer at the drop of the proverbial hat rather than wade through something that doesn’t hold me, or appeal to me.

I also read a great deal of Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and Ellery Queen when I was young – and still read their work now, so all of that must have influenced me.

As I write this blog post I am asking myself “In what way/s have they influenced me?” and this is what I’ve come up with…

Structure, setting, characterization, the laying down of clues, playing fair with the reader or specifically deciding to not do that – all these things were laid down in my psyche because of my early reading. Topics? Christie, Wentworth, Marsh, Queen and more wrote about extra-marital affairs, sex before/outside marriage, drug dealing and addiction, alcoholism, espionage, violent theft, serial killers, psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists and so many types of characters or situations we often forget they tackled when we think of their work. They might not have used foul language, or have dwelt on the gory physiological aspects of a crime, but they certainly examined the psychological damage done, and did so in a pretty intense way in many cases. So, by starting my crime-reading life with their books, I gave myself a framework for when I began to write. Every topic I’ve mentioned above is contained within what I’ve written in my traditional Cait Morgan Mysteries. So, there’s that…

Nowadays I try hard to read works by authors I have met and come to know – and I have to admit I am not sure how much that reading influences me. I suspect it does in that it marks out for me what “their territory” is…and allows me to see what’s working well in the marketplace and how good writing sells. I’m always trying to learn, and, while I believe there’s a lot to be learned from authors who were working many decades ago, I am also sure there’s a great deal I can learn from those who are writing today. 

With Sue Grafton - a living inspiration!
An example here would be the work of Sue Grafton; I think it was the Kinsey Millhone books that allowed me to understand the different way that a “Golden Age” book (be it about the sleuth Miss Marple or the PI Poirot) vs a “modern” book about a professional investigator can and should work. Let’s be honest, we never get the feeling that Poirot is taking on a case because he needs the business – I know he has Miss Lemon to organize his correspondence and immaculate filing system, and that he is commissioned to take cases but, rather like the Sherlock Holmes tradition, we’re aware of Poirot “picking” his cases rather than having to do something to allow him to pay the bills (for Poirot aficionados, yes, I know there are a couple of times where the state of his bank account means he takes a case he might have allowed to pass him by, but that’s not his usual motivation). Kinsey Millhone is a true professional, and her “cases” often build from seemingly innocent/slightly boring or uninspiring beginnings. That’s how my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries work – with my four professional private investigators taking on a case – after the proper signing of contracts, of course – which leads them somewhere they never expected. Of course, Kinsey's in the USA in the 1980s and my WISE women are in Wales today, but...you know. So there’s that…

This is a bit like peeling an onion…I know I have never, ever, set out to "copy" the style/shape of another author's work, but there must be innumerable ways in which what I read fifty years ago (Enid Blyton’s “Secret Seven” books) or fifty days ago (Elly Griffiths’ “The Crossing Places”) has and will influence me – be that in a turn of phrase, or an entire structure for a character/tale/series. Maybe I’ll never really know where certain inspirations come from, and maybe that’s for the best; I’d like to believe I’ve come up with some of the stuff I write all on my own, you see!

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries (#8 The Corpse with the Ruby Lips was released on November 1st) and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (#3, The Case of the Curious Cook, was released in hardcover in the UK on November 30th and in the USA & Canada on March 1st).  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rule Breaker

What authors particularly inspire you? Do you read them when you are working on a book?
BY RM 

An author who inspired me some years ago, when I was looking for representation, is Louise Penny. Along with enjoying her Gamache series, it was also a matter of the permission she gave me to break some rules, or what I thought were rules.

Louise Penny proved:

            Yes, I can set my stories in Canada, where I live.

            I can be a touch sappy if I want.

            Tension doesn't have to be a kidnapped president or a primed pistol.

It all seems self-evident now, but when you're trying to make your manuscript as marketable as it can be, you read between the lines of all the advice that comes at you, and draw your inferences, right or wrong.

Louise Penny breaks rules, and her writing can be unreservedly melodramatic at times (but so what, and yay Louise!) She's got insecurity issues. I heard her on a podcast describing how devastating a bad review can be, no matter how many good ones she may have. Frankly, she's got a lot of good ones, not to mention countless awards. But still she avoids reading her reviews, for fear of the rotten one, and that's so human, isn't it.

In the big picture, the whole world loves her, and I love her too, for her strengths and weaknesses, and for what she did to the rules.

For the second part of the question, I regret that I don't have time to do either right now. In normal circumstances, if I'm writing a lot, it's a relief to put my work aside and read. Sometimes something challenging and different, but often I turn to the comfortably familiar, especially when stressed, and Louise Penny and her village of Three Pines is about as comforting as it gets.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Inspiring Writers

Q: What authors particularly inspire you? Do you read them when you are working on a book?

-by Susan



I fall back to Jane Austen when I’m pushed to say who really influences my writing. That combination of wry wit, social satire with deft and utterly believable characterization gets me every time. How is it that every time I read one of her novels, I am caught up in a drama whose ending I know as well as I know the names of my children? To me, it’s magic. I’m not sure how she does it, but I reread her books to catch the sparks and to remind myself that dialogue has to sound real without being real, if you know what I mean.

One recent novel that I love has some of those elements. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is an epistolary novel, itself a kind of throwback to another era, and the author (Shaffer wrote it and her niece Barrows helped whip it into shape when Ms. Shaffer became too ill to see it through to publication) tells her World War II tale through the voices of a handful of individuals whose correspondence brings them together. The uniqueness of each letter writer, and the way they carry the story forward so smoothly is something I aspire to get right some day.

Tim Hallinan’s series about a man named Poke Rafferty who lives in Thailand and has created a family of people I love almost as much as the protagonist does appeals to me as a writer. The affection he writes into his portrayals of the young characters is only one of the reasons Tim is considered a writer’s writer. (His Bangkok is hot and steamy, corrupt and exotic.) Poke is a rounded character, softened by his love for the vulnerable people he’s drawn to protect. I hope to create some of that warmth in my own work.

There are others, authors and books that do something so well that I want to hang onto the experience and try to do it my way in my stories. But I don’t deliberately dig out a book when I’m writing as if it were a primer. I’m not trying to copy or mimic them so much as incorporate what I got from reading them into my own voice. I read all the time, even when I’m in the midst of a manuscript, but so broadly that it’s hard to say there’s a direct influence. When I’m deeply tangled in plot issues, I read non-fiction, though, because I can only keep so many balls in the air – or my brain – at one time.



Friday, March 17, 2017

Ernest Borgnine

Who is the first person who encouraged you to be a writer?

With beginnings like mine, and with the necessity to apply Hollywood-style spin to beef up one's bonafides, it'd be easy to tie this week's question back to some well-meaning teacher back in Chicago Public Schools who saw better in me than I believed lay within. Maybe she'd resemble Michelle Pfeiffer. Read from the classics and explain them to us in our own street semiotics.

Is it a Gangsta's Paradise, Coolio? Is it, really?

"So, like, King Richard III was tryin' to be gangsta with his, right? 'cuz he got robbed in the gene pool and is rockin' a humpback 'n whatnot. Anyway, he figures he can marry ol' girl, you know, that cat Earl Warwick's daughter."

"Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick," says the best Catwoman.

"Whatever. Anyhow, he's like, butt-ugly, right? And he ain't the favorite kid, like, at all. But that wasn't gonna stop dood, 'cuz he gotta get his. Like I gotta get mine."

My boys who sit next to me will co-sign and give me some dap (if you're older than 50, that means slap me some skin.) Then some pretty girl who gets good grades (even though she can't let anyone know because it'd make her look soft) would say something smart about how I never get mine from her. The rest of the class would go "Oooooh." I'd make some profane comment and have to stay after class. Miss Pfeiffer will turn her chair around so we're on the same level. I'll pretend I'm not listening. She'll pull out my English composition she graded with an A. Tell me I have potential.

"You don't know me," I shout. "You ain't even from here! This is just a job for you. You don't really care about the 'hood!"

I'll shoehorn into my dialogue a reminder I'm from a broken home and I'll be joining a gang any minute, just like my brother, and father. I'll admit I'm afraid. Then, in her outlander's wisdom, Miss Pfeiffer will administer the only medicine I need: a hug. I'll break down in tears. We'll share a moment. Some old Motown tune, like Ain't No Mountain High Enough, will play. She'll dance with us when we should have been doing maths. The uptight Assistant Principal will walk past, look in the window, and then write her up. Samuel L. Jackson will get into a gang war with Clifton Collins and some white kid with a blonde dye job who seems really confused about his cultural place in the whole thing.

Shit. I'm messing up my film references. My bad.

"I told you punks, office hours are on Mondays and Thursdays."
"English, m*therf*cker! Can you teach it?!"

Anyhow, I just don't have any stories like that. I received a workman-like education from working-stiff teachers in a CPS magnet school, grew up across the alley from the most expensive public library projects of its day, hung out with kids who were smart too, and who had parents who were a lot more available than mine. I'll admit, growing up, I had it rougher than most. What I had better than most were equally brilliant friends, who came from equally odd family circumstances but who were similarly unattracted to criminality. Within reason, I'm sayin'. We were all Chicagoans, after all. The utter absence of social corruption would be met with suspicion. And derision.

See, in the hood, if you suddenly find yourself without a father, you likely find many other fathers. Even more unique, your fathers can be your age. Of all my wonderful friends coming up, none was more of a father to me than Rommel Shaw. And no one encouraged me to get myself in constructive trouble more than him. It was Rom who had the stroke of genius for me to take my hilarity out of the living room and onto the stage. And from there, a star was born.

Or a monster was created.

I won't bore you with an autobiography. That isn't what this week's question is about. I'll just riff on one of the most profound times I endeavored to make my biggest life influence piss his pants.

We shared an apartment together in Hyde Park, Chicago. I was gigging rather well for having been new to stand-up (still within my first two years.) My peers wondered why I was coming up so fast and always had such strong material. It's because I had lived with the guy who made me reach for funny, and who had the same penchant for culturally obscure and outdated references. One eyebrow raise from Rommel during a late-night conversation and we'd be up until 4am, with me standing up, and Rom rolling around on the floor in tears. Thing is, you only get so much time in the spotlight when you're new, and I wanted more than just five minutes of solitary stand-up delivery. I had entire seasons of television inside me (not to mention a lot of piss and vinegar.) I pitched Rom the idea of my own sketch comedy show. In that room, at that late hour, I had an unlimited budget and cast.

Growing up, Rom and I loved war pictures, the more cliched the better. We'd quote them in strange situations, busting up in laughter to the befuddlement of anyone else around. In my imaginary sketch show, I'd bring all of that into it, and why not, the only audience of the entire first season I wanted was Rom. I wanted to do a crazy movie trailer, like we'd seen the cast of SNL and SCTV do so often.

"You gotta do some old war picture stuff, Danny."

"I got it. I got it. It's all in the title, right? And the best titles are about setting."

"Right."

"Bridge On The River Kwai."

"Good flick."

"Ice Station Zebra."

"Jim Brown!"

"Hell Is For Heroes."

"Okay, okay."

"Danny Gardner in...THREE MILES OF SHIT."

Hahahahahaha!

"The Axis has unleashed their most frightening weapon! Three miles of human defecation! Only the worst soldiers the US Army ever produced are insane enough to go in. Danny Gardner leads a rag-tag bunch of yahoos..."

"It's always a rag-tag bunch of yahoos!!"

"Always!"

"Gotta get George C. Scott in there."

"George C. Scott, as the General. 'I don't care what it takes, mister. If we have to crawl through three miles of shit to bring Hitler to heel, by God, we'll do it!'"

"He's either onto something or off his rocker."

"Carroll O'Connor!"

"Carroll O'Connor, as the Sarge. 'Get on that radio, Corporal. Let our boys know...they're walkin' into...THREE MILES OF SHIT. God help 'em.'"

"Telly Savalas!"

"'Dammit, Sarge. We can't send our men in there. That's SHIT!"

"Haaaaaaa!"

"It's a real flick, man."

"Ernest Borgnine! Can't have a war picture without Ernest Borgnine, Danny."

"Ernest Borgnine as Happy Jones, the company cook. 'I've been responsible for some shit in my day, but never any shit like that shit! Those Nazi bastards are some geniuses."

"Hahahahaha!"

"And we need paratroopers."

"Who parachute across enemy lines into THREE MILES OF SHIT?!"

"Exactly! Hahahahahaaaaa!!"

"That's genius, Danny! That's the funniest shit I've ever heard."

I should've named my firstborn Ernest Borgnine Gardner.
She's a strong young lady. She would've adjusted.

The material felt so good, y'all. We laughed and edited and rehashed it and laughed so much more that the room started to get small. It began to hurt to be funny. In fact, I got sad. I never told him this, but I actually started to feel afraid that I wouldn't be able to realize ideas such as these. It wasn't enough just to be funny for Rom anymore. The guy who drove me to every open mic. Who vetted all my material. Who helped me prepare for my first acting role. Who bought me my first suit, ever, so I could go on stage in my first big show looking clean and mature.

In that moment—in those THREE MILES OF SHIT (haaaaaaaa!)—I realized I was good enough, and that hurt, because I would have to leave the safety of the best audience I could ever have: my brother Rommel. I had to give myself a chance, except without him in the back of the club, laughing loudest, cheering me on, would I really be able to make it? Sometimes being funny is the most dangerous thing in the world.

Somewhere between THREE MILES OF SHIT (haaaaaaaa!!!!) and A Negro And An Ofay, I learned screenwriting and long-form creative writing and got good enough to be produced and published. Thing is, being completely honest, I think I'm just trying to relive those moments with my best friend and brother, who had my back since the day my Pops died when I was nine years old. Moments where I thought I was only making Rom laugh, but I was actually learning to be the writer I am now. The memory of those days is as funny and profound as when they first happened. My future may be as good, as will my writing, but nothing will ever be better—

—than THREE MILES OF SHIT!


Haaaaaaahahahahaha!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Significance of Setting in Noir

by Harley Mazuk

I’d like to welcome guest blogger, Harley Mazuk to the blog! A little bit about Harley:

Harley MazukBorn in Cleveland, he majored in English literature at Hiram College in Ohio, and Elphinstone College, Bombay U. He worked as a record salesman (vinyl) and later served the U.S. Government in Information Technology and in communications, where he honed his writing style as an editor and content provider for official web sites.

Retired now, he likes to write pulp fiction, mostly private eye stories, several of which have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. His first full length novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder, was released Feb. 28 of this year, by Driven Press. Harley’s other passions are reading, his wife Anastasia, their two children, peace, running, Italian cars, and California wine.

I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of his novel, and I certainly recommend it! (See blurb at bottom)

Now, take it away, Harley!    – Alan

 

I’m in my “setting” period. I don’t claim it as my idea. John Straley put the notion in my head. John, a very good crime writer from Sitka, Alaska, was the first instructor I ever had who stressed the primacy of setting.

I think about setting in terms of noir. I favor noir, both in my reading tastes and my writing style. I could look up “noir” on Wikipedia, and maybe tell you what some Frenchman thinks it is, but I have a simple rule of thumb:

· If the protagonist gets married at the end (or otherwise lives happily ever after), the story is comedy

· If the protagonist dies, the story is tragedy

· If the protagonist lives but would be better off dead, it’s noir.

However, it takes more than an ending with a lost and lonely character who deserves to die to make a good noir tale. That is where setting comes in. All the elements of fiction--plot, setting, character, point of view, and theme must work together, but of these, the most important to the noir author is setting.

The first note I took in John Straley’s class reads, “Ecology is about place.” Everything starts with “the place.” So it is with noir, wherein the plot and the characters are often rooted in or develop from the landscape of the story. While there are many fine rural noirs, we most often associate an urban setting with noir. Some extremely good examples might be the books of David Goodis. Goodis set his tales in blighted urban landscapes, (often his hometown of Philadelphia), and populated them with lost souls. Consider these book titles in his bibliography:

· Street of the Lost

· The Moon in the Gutter

· The Blonde on the Street Corner, and

· Street of No Return

Or contemplate this quote from Goodis’s Of Tender Sin:

“Winter was gray and mean upon the city and every night was a package of cold bleak hours, like the hours in a cell that had no door.”

That’s just one sentence, which illustrates it needn’t take a good author a lot of words to describe the setting.

If Philly’s not your cup of tea, consider Jean Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, depicting Marseille’s dark side--poverty, drugs, organized crime and police corruption.

“Marseilles isn't a city for tourists. There's nothing to see. Its beauty can't be photographed. It can only be shared. . . . In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.” 

A story has to know where it is not only in place, but also in time. You can do noir in the present or modern era, or even in the distant past. But when we write we can take advantage of all the images our readers carry in their subconscious by creating a story world that allows readers to make connections to other stories, written or in cinema, and to all the images they may have experienced from that time and place. For my money then, the best time to set your noir piece is in the ‘20s or ‘30s of Dashiell Hammett, the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s of Raymond Chandler. Give me my news in black and white newspapers, from which the ink comes off on my hands. If I need to make a call, give me a phone with a dial, and even a separate receiver and mouth piece. Coin slots are optional. If I go into a bar, there should be no nonsense about whether I can smoke indoors, and if I do, my cigarette will most likely be unfiltered.

“I puffed at the cigarette. It was one of those things with filters in them. It tasted like a high fog strained through cotton wool.” —The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

If a blonde in the bar smokes, let her blow her smoke out in someone’s face. The gritty analog world beats the digital world for noir feel.

Newspapers, telephones, cigarettes—these are details which can give life to the feel and poetry of a place. The feel or atmosphere is also part of the setting. You can create a noir atmosphere, an atmosphere of dread, with your use of details. Maybe it’s bad weather, the threat of a storm. Consider the hurricane in Key Largo. Consider L.A. It’s normally sunny in Hollywoodland, but it rains throughout many critical early scenes in The Big Sleep, which Chandler developed out of his short story, “Killer in the Rain.” In the rain surfaces are shiny, poppy, vivid . . . and foreboding. Details can give your story a threat or undercurrent of menace--portents, a character in ill-health, a lost child, an oppressive atmosphere, even a crooked picture frame on the wall— noir writing should be prickly with detail.

I’ll leave you with this example from Raymond Chandler in which the master uses mundane details of setting to create atmosphere:

“There were 280 steps up to Cabrillo Street. They were drifted over with windblown sand and the handrail was as cold and wet as a toad’s belly.” —Farewell, My Lovely

Something bad is about to happen. It’s noir.


Get your copy today! Here’s what one blurber thought (okay, it was me):

White with Fish“Harley Mazuk’s WHITE WITH FISH, RED WITH MURDER is a delicious throwback to the PI stories of Hammett and Chandler, when all the dames had shapely gams. With shamus Frank Swiver on the case, no suspect goes unsuspected and no clue goes undetected. An entertaining, fun ride with colorful characters and snappy dialogue, this one’s a treat! Mazuk’s uncorked a real winner—good to the very last drop!”

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Kid, you’ll move mountains!

by Dietrich Kalteis

Who is the first person who encouraged you to be a writer?

I realized the magic of words as soon as I learned to read. It was Dr. Seuss and the Grimms and when I got a bit older I read every Hardy Boys’ story cover to cover. And I guess I wanted to write like Franklin W. Dixon. Books transported me to other places and times: Last of the Mohicans, Call of the Wild, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island and lots more. Then later it became Steinbeck, Keroauc, Salinger and Kesey; and once I got a taste for crime novels it became Leonard, Higgins and McBain. 

I took a few stabs at writing some fiction over the years; the first time when I was in my teens. I wrote a draft of a novel in longhand, but there were the usual youthful distractions, and I eventually gave up on it. But, I knew then it was something that I wanted to do – someday. And a dozen years later, I got around to writing a few short stories and even drafted another novel, but I balled up most of the pages and tossed them in the bin as soon after I wrote them. Still, I kept thinking that someday I’d write. And here and there I’d try my hand at a short story. I submitted a couple of the early ones and when one was accepted that encouraged me to keep writing more. It wasn’t necessarily crime fiction back then, that just kind of happened over time. One thing I didn’t realize then was that I was slowly finding my voice as I kept cranking out words and tossing pages in the bin, but the desire was there, and so I stuck to it.

So back to the question, who was the first person to encourage me to be a write? Occasionally I’d get a nice note from an editor at the various publications that I submitted my short stories to, and once I got some suggestions from a lit agent who liked a couple sample chapters I submitted. All of that and the desire to write kept me going, but it was really my wife who made the biggest difference. She convinced me to really get into it, something I had been talking about for a very long time by this point. So, I dove in and started writing full time, every day, morning till night. And after a while, I thought one of the short stories I cranked out was pretty good. And when I reread it the next day, I didn’t ball it up and toss it in the bin. I submitted it and it was accepted, and I got another nice note from an editor. It didn’t hit me then, but I had stumbled on my voice, and that same short story also sparked the idea for my first novel; so, I started writing a few scenes of what would become Ride the Lightning. When I had a polished draft, I submitted it to the same New York agent who had sent those words of encouragement, and I also sent the manuscript to a publisher in Toronto who had a couple of mystery authors whose work I really liked, and I hoped my stuff might be a good fit. I never heard back from the agent, but a few weeks later I got a letter of acceptance from Jack David, the publisher at ECW Press. After doing a spit-take, I reread his note a couple times, then I called to my wife in the other room …