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?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Don't Forget to Exercise

Scott D. Parker

This week at the day job, I was tasked with creating a safety moment for the regular staff meeting. Usually the safety moments are related to the subject of the day job – – oil and gas – – but we in the office have our own specific safety moments. You would think office workers need to focus on safety, but we do. It's a nice cultural mindset that keeps everybody looking out for each other. What I ended up choosing was how to maintain healthy practices while working a nine-hour day in front of the comptuer.

Now no matter how each one of us gets words strung together to make sentences and paragraphs, we are all looking at our work up close. A large majority of us, I think, are probably working on our computers. Eyestrain is a very real and big problem. It can cause dryness, headaches, and after a while, your eyes begin to lose their muscular ability to focus. Which is why it is important to give your eyes a rest every now and then.

One of the more recent discoveries in the scientific community is something called the 20 – 20 – 20 rule. In short it goes something like this: every 20 minutes or so, look at something that is at least 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds. What this does is relax the eye-focusing muscles when they look at something in the distance. Whenever we look at something up close, the muscles used in her eyes to focus work harder and longer.

I've mentioned before that at my day job, I take regular, hourly breaks. During these breaks, I walk the interior atrium circuit as fast as possible. I am now wearing a Fitbit Flex so I am able to track my steps each day. These "laps," as some of my co-workers call them, allow me to reach my 10,000 step goals every day. Why I bring this up is that when I'm not looking at my iPod touch and writing on my current work in progress (yes, I really do that), I am relaxing my eyes by looking down the four stories inside the atrium at the plants or a passing person. Additionally, I step outside at least once a day and gaze off in the distance as far as possible to rest my eyes.

It goes without saying that whether you are a professional writer or an office professional with a day job where yoyu work in front of the computer, another thing that everyone has to do is get up and move. It's too easy to sit in front of our computers and type all day long without a break. For someone with a day job like mine, breaks are ways to realign and refocus on the task at hand. Same is true for full-time writers. Now I know from experience that when something exciting is happening in the my story, I go with the flow and see the scene to the end. But as soon as that exciting scene is finished, I get up and walk around. It's not enough really to just stand. You actually have to stand and move and stretch while you walk. Walk a brisk five minute "lap" or do some other physical activity that will get your blood flowing. I can attest from experience that a short five minute break with fast walking makes me more focused, and more attuned to the task at hand whether that be my day job or the work in progress when I'm writing at home at 5 o'clock in the morning.

The last thing that I do at my day job is that I make sure that I eat snacks regularly throughout the day to maintain a consistent energy level. And I make sure that those snacks are healthy snacks. I've gone from a work–from–home experience to a day job in which I work nine hours a day. As you can imagine, that's a long day, even when I do get every other Friday off. The second week on the job, and I was not eating as healthy as I needed to eat, including having a Dr Pepper in the middle of the afternoon, and boy did I crash hard. I ended up keeping a record of all the food and liquid that I consumed during the day to see what was best for me. My usual regimen of green tea throughout the day is still the best along with nuts and dried fruit. Dark chocolate is my little treat after lunch, I always drink ice water with lime, and around 3 o'clock or so, I down a can of unsweetened coconut juice. That keeps me alert and focused on the task at hand.

What are the things that you do to keep you fully focused and energized throughout the day?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Cover Story

By Russel D McLean

If you don't know, the new McNee book will be out in the UK a little quicker than some of the others have been. This, the fifth and possibly final* book about the dour Dundonian detective has been in many ways one of the most challenging to write, tasked as it is with tying up several loose ends and that massive change that happened at the end of Mothers of the Disappeared.

But here's the cover:

Good, isn't it?

The thing is, a good cover is essential to a book. Whether its an ebook, a big pub book, a small pub book, whatever, a cover is absolutely vital. Just slapping images about with no context isn't good enough. Just using a font you think is "cool" isn't enough. You need to have thought through your design.

So why do I like this cover?

There's the match. The match is important. And the club scene behind. Both work in the context of the story (which you'll learn later) and together, the designer has actually given the readers a little hint about what might be to come. The composition is nice and threatening, too. It gives the atmosphere of the book.

Then there's the text. Positioned nicely. Author's name nice and clear. And the title. The title looks great. What's really nice - - and this is something I didn't notice for a while - - is that the text isn't just distressed, but  that the distress comes from someone's mucky fingerprints. Its a nice detail and works in context of the book's genre.

I've had covers I've been unhappy with. I've had covers I've loved. This one, its one of the latter. I think it does the story inside justice. And I hope, come November, you'll agree with me...

*I always said there would be five books and this wraps up a lot of McNee's story - - but will it be the end completely? Oh you'll just have to wait and see...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Vigilante with a Badge

By Steve Weddle

Fellow Team Decker member Frank Wheeler, Jr. has a new book coming out, the first since The Wowzer wowed readers in 2012. The Wowzer (2012 DSD interview here) is about a rough cop in Arkansas. This is about a rough cop in Nebraska. That's the biggest similarity between that book and this one and, for the most part, the only one.

The Good Life introduces us to Junior, a returning son thrust into his father's shadow. He's intent on cleaning up the area, becoming a vigilante with a badge. He sets in motion a plan that follows what his father taught him: Order is built on bloodshed.

Not only is Junior thrown back into an older life, an order life is thrown back onto Junior when his ex shows up on his doorstep. She was his ex for a reason, just as there are reasons he is an ex-Denver cop. As we work our way through Junior's quest for order in his town, we see all the disorder that brought him back. The Good Life is a compelling, vibrant tale of a troubled man returning home to face troubles he left behind and troubles that have followed him. Small-town violence and big-time troubles keep this book moving along, all the while grounded in the main character -- Junior -- and what he has to live up to, what he has to get away from.

Want more? Here's Frank Wheeler, Jr. reading from the book, which is available next week:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Name Changer

by Holly West

Holly West isn't my real name. Well, it is my real name, but not officially; my legal name is Holly O'Neill. Nearly sixteen years married and I still haven't changed it.

Of course, I know plenty of people who never changed their name when they married and have no plans to. Nothing wrong with that, but I don't fall into that category. I've used my husband's surname since day one and the only reason I've never officially changed it is pure laziness. I'd always intended to change my name legally, I just never got around to it.

As a result, my author name, Holly West, is considered a pen name. People generally know me as Holly West--it's how I introduce myself--but legal documents, my driver's license, my passport, credit cards, et cetera, are all Holly O'Neill. Has it been confusing over the years? Yes--but not as often as you might think. Not enough to take any real action, anyway.

When I was trying to sell Mistress of Fortune, I didn't give it much thought--I figured I could be Holly West as long as I had my marriage certificate to back me up. But when it was time to sign the contracts, I learned that Holly West was considered a pseudonym. For some reason, that bothered me.

And then there's the travel. It's been an issue all along, but recently, my husband and I took a trip to Peru with my mother-in-law. For some reason, no one there could understand that I was my husband's wife. Hotel staff and others kept assuming that his mother, who shares his last name, was married to him. Yes, it was comical, but it was also a little bit inconvenient. I decided that enough was enough. It was time to make Holly West my legal name.

A key question now arose: What to do with "O'Neill?"

Originally, my plan was to ditch my middle name and replace it with O'Neill. No hyphenating for me--I definitely don't want to be known as Holly O'Neill-West. But after living with O'Neill for so long, I didn't want to get rid of it entirely. Using it as a middle name seemed a happy compromise.

After giving it a bit of thought, however, I've decided to keep it simple. I'll be Holly West, with no middle name at all. If my ultimate goal is to prevent confusion, keeping O'Neill as a middle name won't accomplish it, and my current middle name has no bearing on my identity. Why keep it?

Some have argued that I should keep my original family name as a tribute of sorts to where I come from. I can buy that. But the more I ponder it, the more I realize that I know exactly where I come from and who I am. Losing the name will not take that away from me. Plus, my husband and I are our own family and it seems only fitting that we finally share a name. Sure, he could take mine, but we both now use West for professional purposes. There's no reason for either of us to be O'Neill.

As of today, when I present my application and documents to the social security office, I will no longer be Holly O'Neill--I'll finally, officially, be Holly West. I suppose it won't feel real until my driver's license and other documents bear the name, but getting my social security card changed is the first step. I've lived a long, happy life as Holly O'Neill. But now it's time to give Holly West a chance to take the stage.