Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Give it Up

by Holly West

I'm willing to bet that most of us have, if not actual written bucket lists, a running mental tab of items we'd like to accomplish in our lives. For a long time, writing and getting a novel published was at the top of my list. Now that I've done that, I realize that particular goal is kind of never-ending--I'm always writing, trying to better myself.

But there are other items on my list which I've pretty much conceded defeat to. I know that goes against the principles of positive thinking, but let's be honest here--I'm never gonna be a size two or win American Idol. Sometimes you have to give up goals and be okay with it so you can move on to the ones that are actually important to you.

So in that spirit, I thought I'd share a few of the items on my personal list that are unlikely to ever be accomplished.

Realistically, I will never:

1) Learn a foreign language

The closest I will ever come is my rudimentary Spanish skills acquired in high school. Hey, that was enough to get my husband and I by in Peru, so I figure it's enough. Still, I cling to the idea that someday I'll be fluent in Spanish--I'm just not willing to put in the work to make that happen, Rosetta Stone's full immersion learning system be damned.

And speaking of Peru, I have something else to add to this list: Much as I'd love one, I will probably never have a baby goat.

2) Learn to play the guitar

I've wanted to play the guitar since I was a kid. When I left for college, I sold my flute, which I'd played since the fifth grade, so I could buy myself a guitar. I carted that damned thing around all through my twenties, thirties, and into my forties, only giving it away when we moved into our current house three years ago. In all those years, I never learned to play it, or the second one I acquired along the way. Now, the only guitar I own (yes, at one point I had three unplayed guitars) is the one my Grandpa used to play. It's displayed in the entryway of my home.

3) Visit Africa

I've always said I wanted to go on a safari someday. But honestly, I'm not that great a traveler (the picture of me with the goat above notwithstanding). I don't like to fly and I refuse to be away from home longer than ten days because I hate leaving my dog, Stella. Like so many things in my life, I love having traveled, but while I'm actually doing it I'm a little bit anxious and missing home by day three. With so many other locations in the world I'd rather see, I'm officially crossing Africa (and that safari) off the list.

4) Be a graphic/web designer

When I quit my job fifteen years ago, it was with the understanding that I'd work from home as a web designer. While it's true I designed a few websites (to my knowledge, none of those designs survive), I never learned the skill set to do it properly or efficiently. The same goes for graphic design.

But for some reason I've always considered myself the graphic/web designer type. I can't quite give up that ghost. A couple of weeks ago I told my husband I was thinking about taking some design courses online with the goal of eventually earning some extra money. His response: "Whose gonna hire you?"

So.... yeah.

5) Learn how to dress myself stylishly.

Obviously, I know how to dress myself. I just don't know how to dress myself. All those magazine articles about dressing for your body-type (I'm an apple, if it wasn't obvious), using accessories to make a statement, using classic pieces to build your wardrobe.... I'm still clueless. It's not that I don't try, I just lack the fashion gene. It's time I admit that and move on.

Now, my friends, it's your turn. Tell me what Bucket List goals you're ready to give up in order to make room for the important ones?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gabriella Giovanni Research Trip

By Kristi Belcamino

This year's summer vacation involved a tangential side trip to do research for my third novel in the Gabriella Giovanni mystery series.

The third book in the series, Blessed Are Those Who Weep, comes out April 7th, 2015, so I decided to include a side trip to the Bay Area on our annual family vacation.

With the kids up at their grandparent's house in northern California, my husband and I headed to our old 'hood — Oakland. We rented a little apartment in the Oakland Hills as our home base and began exploring all the areas that appear in my book.

We moved from the Bay Area to Minneapolis in 2004 and in between then and now, I'd written two books based in that area on memory alone so it was fun to actually go visit the spots that are key in my novel: Contra Costa County (suburbs east of Oakland), Oakland, and North Beach in San Francisco.

I also visited a few secret spots I can't reveal since they would be spoilers for my new book.

Here are a few places we visited:

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Perfect Pets for Each One of Us

Scott D. Parker

I had a post already planned about increasing writing efficiency--you’ll get it next week--but our family had a loss yesterday. Our wonderful, beautiful dog, Azula, eighteen years old in July, passed away. What made the death especially wrenching was that we had to decide to do it. We had been managing her pain all summer with medicine, but this past week, she went downhill fast. It was the right thing to do, but it sure as hell hurts a whole lot.

When my wife and I met, I had two cats, she had two dogs, and “this bunch must somehow form a family.” We did, and added a human to the mix as well. The other three animals all passed away naturally here at the house. Basically, they took the decision of when or if to put them down out of our hands. You don’t realize how much of a blessing that is until you are faced with a situation when you have to schedule an appointment, make arrangements, carry the animal to the car, drive to the vet, and go into their offices with everyone knowing why you are there. And if they didn’t, the tears on our faces would have told the story.

The good folks at West Houston Veterinary Medical Associates were so gracious to us. When the time came, our beautiful girl didn’t even need the drug that stopped her heart. She was so tired that the anesthesia was all she needed. One last sigh and she no longer hurt.

We still do, of course, and will for awhile. Everyone thinks that their pet is the best pet in the world. The best thing about a pet is that the animal is the perfect pet for your family. ZuZu was my wife’s second dog and she had her two years before she and I even met. Eighteen years is a good, long life for a dog and, even though this last week has been rough, I wouldn’t trade any of the awesome times I had with her. She was my first frisbee dog and dang if she didn’t *always* beat the frisbee and catch it in midair. She ran so fluidly and gracefully.

For all you pet lovers and animal lovers out there, hug your babies today just a little tighter. They bring so much joy to our lives that they open a special place in our hearts set aside just for pets.

The writing life is a part of our lives and our lives will, on occasion, experience pain. I worked all morning yesterday until noon when I took the rest of the day off to help my wife--man, she was so strong, God bless her--do what we had to do. I had already done most of my fiction writing for the day before noon, but I’ll tell you a little secret we writers know: the act of writing can help you get through pain. Me writing this piece helped me praise our beloved puppy but also reach a nice calmness. Oh, I know I’ll weep in the days to come, but I’ll be smiling much more than crying. In fact, I think I’ll write more about my memories of our dog, Azula. She was such a blessing.

Friday, August 22, 2014

"32 Ways to Write A Story but only One Plot..."

By Russel D McLean

Nobody did small town noir like Jim Thompson. And that's something that screenwriter Dutch Southern and directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins are quick to remind us this dirty, messy and brilliantly atmospheric neo noir set in small town Texas.

Mystery nut Sue (she reads nearly everything from Thompson to Rex Stout and seems to have near perfect recall for every pulp on her shelf) is heading off for college with her boyfriend BJ's best friend, Bobby. BJ ain't too happy about this, despite his cheery, aw-shucks attitude, and what he does is arrange one final weekend for the trio funded by some money he got "by saving", or, as we know from the opening sequence, by stealing bundles of cash from a local hood. Of course none of this goes right and soon the hood knows who stole his money and what he does is get the trio to steal back the money from local gangster, Big Red.

The movie knows its roots. The story is nothing new - but then, as Thompson himself is quoted as saying, there are 32 ways to write a story but only one plot: nothing is as it seems - but what really counts here is atmosphere, and We Gotta Get Out of This Place has that in spades. The three young leads are spectacular. Their connection at the start is perfect, and the way things fall apart for them quickly becomes unsettlingly tense. This in particular evidenced by a woman in front of me at the cinema who was constantly ducking at every violent act. And while the film becomes a little rote towards the end (and perhaps ends with a slightly sunnier note than some noir fans might expect), its reminiscent in its energy of the Coen Brothers debut, Blood Simple. Except with a far more photogenic cast wit. The shots of Texas are spectacular, too, and those windfarms will stay in your mind a long time after you've left the cinema.

Its a shame movies like this get buried beneath the hype of larger movies with bigger budgets and less cohesiveness. I would much rather see more movies like this than a sequel to Olympus Has Fallen or yet another Adam Sandler comedy. Yes, the stakes are personal and relatively low, and no, its not a crowdpleaser - the violence and threats of violence will put many people off - but its solidly made, beautifully shot and absolutely absorbing. The more bad decisions these guys make the more you feel for them. In short, if its playing near you, and you like your noir and your neo-noir, you need to seek it out.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

This Must Be The Place

If you’re reading this, you should know that I’m on vacation.
Not while writing this – that’d be silly - but right this moment, as you're reading.
I’m hopefully on a beach or sitting somewhere comfortable, reading a good book or taking a nap. I haven’t taken a vacation in what feels like years. My wife probably deserves it more than I do.
Anyway, traveling always gets me to thinking about how we, as writers, portray place and setting in our works. Some authors are indelibly tied to cities – Pelecanos and DC, Lehane and Boston, Block and New York, Lippman and Baltimore. The beat goes on. Others, not so much. They jump around. When I started the Pete Fernandez series of books (Silent City is out now!), I knew I wanted to set it in Miami. It’s my hometown, I felt comfortable writing about it and I thought – aside from a few essentials, like Vicki Hendricks’ noir classic Miami Purity – Miami as a setting for modern noir was not well represented. Just my gut feeling at the time. I wanted Miami to be as much of a character in the book as Pete or his supporting cast.
Whether I was successful or not is up to the reader, but these are some of the things I picked up while writing the book – and the lessons learned that I carried into the second.
Keep it real. Do your research. Don’t skimp on details because you don’t have them readily available. Even being a native Miamian didn’t give me a free pass when describing the city. I set scenes in restaurants and bars I’d visited, drove cars down streets I’d driven on and referenced places I knew. All the venues mentioned in Silent City are or were real places in Miami except one – I leave it to you to figure out which one is the poser. But I also wrote about places I wasn't familiar with off the top of my head - and that required research: live visits when possible, historical reading and Internet digging. You have to put in the work to make it feel real.
You gotta feel it. It’s one thing to be accurate about setting – it’s something else to show why a setting was chosen. If your novel is about Anchorage, Alaska, it shouldn’t read like a NY crime noir with the street names changed, and the difference shouldn’t boil down to weather, either. Give the reader a sense of the culture, language, smell, feel and sound of the city or town. Make the reader feel like they’re in the city. For Silent City, it couldn’t just be “Miami was hot.” It had to be about the food, the people, the vibe, the music – it’s a challenge, but one with plenty of reward if done right.
Don’t force it/be authentic. There are limits to my last point. The little cultural and location hat tips have to drive the story. Or, at the very least, add to the story as it moves forward thanks to the plot. Don’t have your main character sip a coffee at this cute coffee shop or browse vinyl at a record store you remember from college just because. Have that happen if the character is going to run into An Important Other Character, though. Then that’s fine. But don’t shoehorn stuff just to prove your location cred. You should be able to do that while telling a good story. Anything that seems like an in-joke, complicated hat tip or forced mention will turn off readers, and that’s the last thing you want.
Make it matter. This ties into nailing the feeling of a place/setting. Why is this book set here? Why here over New York or any other popular crime fiction spot? Why would this story only happen in Miami, for example? As much as your story is personal to you as the writer, make it personal to the place – use the details you’ve peppered the book/story with to show why the setting is irreversibly tied to the narrative you’ve created.
That’s all I’ve got! Chime in below and let me know if you have any tips of your own when it comes to setting.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Whatever of One's Own

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” 
― Virginia WoolfA Room of One's Own

Dear Ms. Woolf,

Thanks for that. But I'm not a woman. I guess maybe you're figuring guys have it easier, like we can just have Jeeves drive us down to the club on the Thames and all, but it doesn't work like that for me.

Also, we don't have room at the house to give me a room of my own to write. I mean, sure, I could take over the guest room, but then people would be looking at all my stuff. And probably touching whatever map I put up on the wall.

And then if I wanted to write while we had company, then what? Tell them to wake up and go downstairs because I need to write? I mean, I guess I could just write at the kitchen table on those days.

I could get a trailer, like Alan Heathcock has. That 1967 Roadrunner the cops used.
But that's got to set you back a few grand, huh? And I'm pretty sure our neighborhood covenants would keep me from that. Still. a trailer or outside shed would be kinda cool. People have writing sheds, which seem like good ideas. They build them up or convert old garden sheds. I know many of you old timers did that, and folks are still at it. Check this out. So, yeah, that would be nice, if we had world enough and time, as that creepy old guy said in that poem.

Anyway, I've carved out my own room, and here's what I do. I carve out the space in my head.

First, I've set aside a specific time day to write. This helps. I write first thing in the morning. Some folks write late at night. Some on their lunch breaks. As we say when some asshole, talentless writer friend gets a big movie deal or six-figure, Big Five deal -- good for them. I mean, that's great. Whatever.

But for me, writing before the day starts is key. I don't have anything left after work. And, this is pretty cool, my body adjusts to this. I fall asleep knowing that the first thing I'm going to do when I get up is write. So my brain starts kicking around ideas in the darkness.I'm not thinking about work or leaky faucets (unless I have to pee, Haha!)

I also carve out room in my ears. I've been listening to David Lynch's Big Dream, which puts me right in the mood. There's the soundtrack to The Red Violin, which is a good backup. I need kinda ambient, background, mostly wordless music. Sets the mood and gets the brain working. They did this study about how kids who listen to music while studying do much better on tests if they can listen to the same music when taking the tests. I mean, it makes sense, as your brain is connecting stuff in ways you can't imagine, all the time. Of course, look who I'm talking to, You know this. Anyway, the music helps put me in that writing zone.

So that's my room for writing. The timing and the music. I figure other people have stuff, like maybe a certain pen or a talisman of some sort on the desk. For me, the room is all in my head. Then again, what isn't?

Steve Weddle

PS -- If you're in the good place, say "hey" to Oscar Wilde and tell him we all think he's awesome and Tom Stoppard has stopped borrowing all his jokes and is doing great stuff. And if you're in the bad place, tell Emily Bronte she sucks and no one reads her shitty book anymore.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The largest and the smallest books in my collection

Just for fun I thought I'd post a picture pairing the largest and the smallest books in my collection.

The dictionary is 1 3/4" x 2" and Anomaly is 15" x 10". That's a huge difference.

How about you? Any big or small books in your collection?