Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Southland and the Sgt. Pepper Moment

John McFetridge

The story goes that when the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in June 1967 every other musician working on an album stopped and reconsidered everything they were doing. The Rolling Stones quickly put together Their Satanic Majesties Request, often called the least representative album of all the Stones’ work (I still like “She’s a Rainbow,” but that’s the only song from that album anyone’s likely to hear these days).

One version of the story is here, if you're interested:

Apparently Brian Wilson was working on the album Smile for the Beach Boys (the follow-up to Pet Sounds) when he heard Sgt. Pepper and stopped everything. Smile finally came out in 2003.

This year I was one of the writers on a new cop show, The Bridge, when Southland premiered.

We had a Sgt. Pepper moment in the writers’ room.

Not as drastic as Brian Wilson’s, no one put a sandbox in their living room (as far as I know) and we finished writing all our scripts on time, but Southland was different enough from other cop shows on TV and similar enough to The Bridge for us to talk about non-stop every day after an episode aired.

There are a lot of things about Southland that to talk about. The look of the show is incredible, especially for a network show – it looks like a cable show and it sounds like one, with plenty of the dialogue bleeped out (of course the difference between a cable and network show is more than just swearing, nudity and fewer viewers). The subject matter is terrific. It’s not just the usual cop stories of bad-bad guys and flawed cops. It’s not a procedural interviewing witnesses and getting lab reports until the crime is solved. It goes deeper into everyone’s lives – cops and criminals and victims and people just caught in the middle.

The cast is fantastic. My favourite is Regina King as Lydia. She's a tough cop but she also has her mother living with her and trouble dating because not many men want to go out with a police detective. It's great to see how she handles all this and still does her job so well.

But it’s also great to see her with the teenage crime witness and talk to the mother of a murder victim that’s now a cold case. The interaction between the cops and the victims of the crimes is incredibly well done.

The Bridge is more of a procedural, often looking into cops accused of crimes because the main character, Frank Leo (played by the terrific Aaron Douglas), is head of the police union. Sometimes the cops are actually guilty of crimes, sometimes not.

We were working on the script for an episode about a cop who loses his gun when Southland aired an episode about a cop who loses his gun. Of course, it’s handled quite differently, but it made us wonder what was in the air.

The final episode of the first season of The Bridge will have one of the best car chases a TV show has ever had. The final epsisode of the first season of Southland features a one-car car chase that’s one of the most tense two minutes of TV ever.

Once we got over the Sgt. Pepper moment and the similarities we were able to sit back and enjoy Southland. It’s a writer’s show, the same way Mad Men is a writer’s show. Complicated characters, layered plots and no easy answers.

The new season of Southland starts October 23rd on NBC but you can watch highlights from the first season on the excellent website right now if you live in the USA. In Canada CTV hasn’t put anything online yet.

As far as I know right now, CBS plans to start advertising The Bridge during the NFL playoffs in January and start airing the show sometime in the week following the Super Bowl. I think there's enough room on network TV for two shows about the inner workings of a big city police department.

Here's a trailer for The Bridge:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

No sleuths please, we're British.

By Jay Stringer

We all know the tradition on the PI in fiction.
Even the mention of it evokes certain images. Mean streets and trench coats, strange camera angles and seedy Motels. Maybe it evokes New York hotels with introspective alcoholics, crazy Colombians and Irish gangsters. One of the most lingering images for me is of a beach trailer and a gold car, and in the last few years it’s begun to conjure up poetry and whiskey in a rain soaked Galway.

Okay, maybe none of those things. There are a number of writers doing interesting things with the PI at the moment, and some of them are on this very website. But what I’m getting at is that all of the images that spring to mind when you mention the phrase “Private Eye” seem inextricably linked with America. And, thanks to writers like Bruen and Hughes, Ireland. I’ll take that a step further, and say that the images that spring to mind are “anything but British.”

British crime fiction gave the world Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple. And the grail myth, the themes that Chandler was so obsessed with, took form over here. Yet, when Chandler wrote his famous line that Hammett took crime “out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley,” he was complaining about the disconnect between the cozy English mystery and the realities of crime.

So what happened? It’s not as if we’re short on mean streets. From the places the tourists visit, like London and Glasgow, to the modern reality of cities like Birmingham, Newcastle and Liverpool. There’s plenty of material there. In fact, if you look at the issues that modern Britain is facing -unemployment, recession, racism, immigration, knife crime- you’d think it would be the perfect setting for some classic PI fiction. And it’s only through the work of some great Irish writers that the genre now seems so natural over there.

So is there something else at play? Is there something unique to Britain that also makes it difficult to write a Marlowe, a Scudder or even a Rockford? Well that’s enough of me. I sat down to talk with a couple of people who know what they’re doing, and who know the subject inside and out.

Ray Banks has written four novels that focus on the some-time PI, Callum Innes. Innes is a very British character, full of both love and contempt for himself, and his stories found a middle ground between the social issues of modern Manchester and the themes of classic hardboiled fiction. The fourth and final Cal Innes books was released this year. It’s called Beast Of Burden, and can be found here. The first book, Saturday's Child, is here and here. I'd also recommend you head over to Ray's website where there are links to the short stories that first started Cal off, I'm partial to The Monkey Man.

Our very own Russel D McLean writes about death and deceit in the great cold north. Or Dundee, to be precise. His character, J McNee manages to be cut from both the classic PI mold and a very Scottish cloth. (Don’t mention heather or kilts, though, whatever you do.) His first novel, The Good Son, dealt with issues I wrote about last week; grief and guilt. And he finds a way to make the PI work. His second McNee book, The Lost Sister, is released this week.
I’m officially putting all of these books on the dosomedamage syllabus. There will be a test. But right now, I hear you, lets get on with the show…..

JS: What are your thoughts on how a PI fits into British crime fiction? Do you think he serves a different function than the American character?

RB: Honestly? I don't think the PI fits within a British tradition any more than a lone gunslinger does. They're both quintessentially American character types, and don’t work naturally in a British setting. I’ve always thought that character was supposed to spring naturally from its environment, and a British background doesn’t naturally provide the same circumstances in which a PI would thrive. The US, after all, is a country founded on the principles of questioning establishment. Conversely, Britain – and England in particular – has a long history of establishment rule, whether that be government or monarchy. As such I think there’s still an underlying belief in that rule, which is why our protagonists may well be disdainful of the establishment, but they still work within its confines. Even our most popular PI substitute, the investigative reporter, ostensibly belongs to a larger organization.

So yes, absolutely, for me a PI character true to the archetype would have to serve a different role in the UK, and the only way I could think of making it plausible for myself was to take the Bruen route and make Innes a completely marginalized character, the natural extrapolation of the grass. That’s not to say it can’t work with the right author – I’m fascinated with what Russel's doing with the PI at the moment, for example, and Declan Hughes is doing fantastic things with the traditional PI in an Irish setting – but it wasn’t right for me.

RDM: I don't know that I one hundred percent agree with Ray here. You can have a lone gunslinger or PI type that exists in UK fiction, but the focus would be very different. I don't think there's the same glamour you could do and that's why the UK PI - on the few occasions he has been attempted - is often a working schlub, a true outsider.
You can "do" the traditional eye approach, but you have to ensure that their reactions are appropriate and acknowledge that the situations in which they find themselves will be very different to those of the American eye. I think the eye as a loner can work in the UK - and, in fact I think this gives them a unique point of view - but like Ray says they faces the horror of a very establishment-oriented society and that basically means that they cannot be "the hero" in the same way as they can in the US. In fact, it often means that even when they try, events are swiftly taken out of their hands and no matter how much they want to, they lose all control.

JS: So the common idea there is you're really looking for the character that belongs on the outside of the society being looked at, the rebel and the observer type. It's interesting that both your characters, Innes and McNee, are Scottish and that seems to work.

RB:I'm not sure that he has to be a rebel. I think he just has to represent the margins, not actively revolt against the established order. But the observer thing is very important, certainly, and is a natural result of being on the margins of society in the first place. I think there's a slight difference in mine and Russel's characters in that I specifically set out to have Innes as a Scot in England, with all the societal transience that would imply. I might be wrong about this, but Russel's character seems to be marginalised less in a geographical sense, but more psychologically. In that respect, I'd argue that his is a more traditional PI. He might disagree, though.

RDM: Ray hits that on the head about McNee being marginalised in an emotional sense. I wasn't thinking consciously about that, of course. I just love characters who have difficulty connecting. But it’s the way it worked out, the only way it could be, I think. As to the question itself, I think that the Scottish character works as one "outside of society" because rebellion and distrust are part of our history and makeup.

I don't know that a fictional PI has to be a rebel, although I think he has to have some moral code that exists outside of the mainstream of the society he works in. He needs a strong internal sense of justice, a desire to try and get to the heart of a case. This tends to only push him further outside of mainstream society because he will not sit quietly by and let his principles be fucked about with by anyone, even those allegedly in "authority". Even Cal Innes, fucked up as he is, has a basic sense of right and wrong that is unique to him, and that he tries (often unsuccessfully) to impose on the world about him.

JS: Focusing on the nationality for a second, even Rebus seemed more convincing as a very American 'maverick cop' than an English character may have done. So can we say that the Scottish voice is the one that works best when questioning the authority in Britain?

Yeah, I think the Scottish attitude is certainly a questioning one, especially when that authority is based in England.

RDM: We're cynical bastards. Not just about the English. We don't even really trust ourselves when all's said and done. I think it’s got something to do with the weather. And our fucking appalling diet.

JS: And a self-destructive streak that can be the only explanation for the Proclaimers! But it is interesting; we've identified elements of the PI that seem to fit with Scottish identity. But aside from that there is something inherent in British culture that romanticizes failure. We do love to see someone who tries and fails, the 'plucky loser' type. There's something very Chandler-esque about that, don't you think?

RDM: Don't mock the Proclaimers - us Fifers are very proud of them! But yes, I think the PI archetype could very easily fit the Scots psyche, and that "plucky loser" you mention there - we were the nation whose 1998 world cup song was "Don't Come Home Too Soon" which probably says everything about our inbuilt pessimism. But yes, I think perhaps it could be applied - to a lesser degree - to the rest of the UK, too.

RB: We are very proud of the Proclaimers. I even name checked 'em in Donkey Punch. Good lads, miracles of modern science. But I don't think we necessarily romanticize failure in the UK, rather I think we demand failure. It's why all our visionaries bugger off to the States. America waits for you to succeed; Britain waits for you to fail, Gawd bless 'er in all her insecure glory.

JS:I wonder if there's not a uniquely British take on the PI that could be used to examine our own society. I'm thinking that the British PI could be seen to be about class. The ‘working Schlub’ as Russel put it.. So he's just another working stiff being controlled by the system, and the system always wins.

Yeah, but by that rationale, so is every single cop protagonist in the genre. Most British crime fiction - the stuff I tend to like, anyway - is about class, because a majority of crime novels have their roots in the social novel, and you can’t write a social novel set in the UK without looking at the class system, even in passing. But yeah, I think British crime fiction would tend towards the system always winning, which would make for a bleak ending.

RDM: I've said it before, and I'll say it again: all good crime fiction is social fiction. It cannot be anything but. And once we get past our obsession with treating authority figures with reverence, British crime fiction is beautifully placed to explore notions of class and social standing. In fact, big recommend here: read Tony Black's Gutted, which winds up being truly about how little class and upbringing means to morality and true social grace.
I'm not so sure I agree with the description that that the PI is "just another working stiff" in fiction because a working stiff is still a cog in the system. The very nature of the PI's work places them outside the system. Which is probably why, in UK crime, he will usually end up seeming either powerless or be defeated which, as Ray says, makes for a bleak outcome.

JS: I definitely agree on social fiction. I think more and more I look for social fiction with a crime element, rather than crime with a social element, if that makes sense? I think it's why I grew into Pelecanos whereas I didn't take to him a few years ago.

RDM: There's only one book of Pelecanos' that didn't quite work for me. But, yes, I love where he's been taking his work - The Long Way Home- was a killer of a novel and The idea of crime fiction as social commentary is a huge hit for me, and honestly, I think Brit crime needs to do it more by moving away from our fascination with authority figures as protagonists. That's why when writers like Ray and Tony Black came along, I was dancing with joy - these lads were taking crime fiction back into the seedy territory that Brit crime of recent decades seems to have overlooked, or only glanced at on occasion.

RB: There was a resurgence in the '90s that gave us some cracking authors like Bruen and Waites. It also gave us a whole load of shite, it has to be said, but there was a moment when it looked as if Brit crime could have followed its American influences and become something more. I mean, check out the Jakubowski Fresh Blood anthologies - there's a real energy in there that I don't see now, not even from those originally featured. Perhaps there simply wasn't the readership for that kind of fiction. And if there wasn't an audience in the middle of a boom period, I shudder to think what the situation is now.

JS: Sort of giving crime back to those who do it for a reason? I’m hoping Chandler would forgive me for that theft. While I’m there though, Chandler has always felt to me more of a moralist than Hammett. If we’re looking at moving British crime away from authority figures and towards that ‘seedy territory,’ would we be looking for a British PI to be more Sam Spade than Phillip Marlowe?

RDM: Yes, Chandler was far more of a moralist - in a traditional sense - than Hammett. I would say that a UK PI would probably be closer to Spade - harder edged, less romantic - than Marlowe. And I say this as a guy who loves Chandler's work.

RB: I was thinking more Ned Beaumont, the poor bastard. Are we then saying that the British PI story is noir by nature?

JS: I think so, yes. And I’d say your Cal Innes quartet went a long way to legitimizing that.

RB: Bollocks, Stringer. Flattering bollocks, but bollocks nonetheless.

JS: I'm serious. After four books on the subject, have you scratched the PI itch?

RB: I've scratched the Innes itch, certainly. Probably the PI one, too. I think I did everything I wanted to do with it. Whether I was successful or not is another matter entirely. But no, I don't see myself coming back to it. Which is a pity, of course - I know everyone's gagging for a Barry DeSilva series.

JS: I still hold out for a Messed up DS Donkin police procedural. Some of the things we've been discussing can be found in your Cal books. Aside from his own self-destructive problems, he's also messed around constantly by the system. He's marked by his time in prison, and the police -through Donkin- seem to have it in for him. Even in the second book, when he leaves Britain for a while, he struggles because he can't quite figure out the rules of his new environment. Was that all part of the plan?

RB: Kind of. The plan, such as it was, was to take elements of the traditional PI story and mess around with them, try and reconcile them to a realist UK setting. So you have character types and events that are quite traditional, which then go a little skew-whiff because of their setting. If I'm going to be poncey, then it was a conscious deconstruction of the PI archetype. If I'm going to be truthful, then it was me bored with seeing the same old Chandler-lite over and over.

JS: Russel, I noticed with THE GOOD SON that you've clearly put a lot of thought into the logic and the realities of being a PI in Britain. When I was doing some research of my own, I was surprised by how many private detectives there are over here. There's a disconnect between the kind of fictional PI's we’ve been discussing, and the realisation that people are actually out there doing the job. Was it important to you to put in the research to make the character work?

RDM: There is a disconnect, and there is always will be. From the little I know, the real PI's take on pretty dull work (from a fictional perspective) and are actually pretty workaday guys. But fiction is always going to be about a kind of hyper-reality, where everything is amped up, especially when it comes to the big emotions and ideas.

But I have tried to ensure that McNee acknowledges the reality of his job, and that it at least feels possible that he could be an eye in the real world. Hence why I've done little things like had him join the Association of British Investigators (although if he keeps down the path he's heading, they might just be taking away his membership) and had him acknowledge the upcoming legislation in regard to licensing his work and so forth. My research wasn't hugely in depth, but I knew I wanted him to feel slightly connected to the real world in that sense.

JS: So McNee's back with THE LOST SISTER. What's he up against this time round?

RDM: This time, McNee's on the case of a missing teenage girl. Her godfather is local hard-man, David Burns, and it soon becomes clear that the girl's mother is hiding even darker secrets. What starts for McNee as a favour for a friend soon becomes a nightmare as he races to find the girl before its too late...


Russel’s new McNee book is released, new and shiny unto the world, this very week. You could order it here, but to get the full experience why not come along to the book launch? J McNee is unlikely to be there, but Russel himself will be playing host.

7 PM, Thursday 1st October
Drouthy Neebors
142 Perth Road
United Kingdom

If you want to come along, drop Russel a line at, marking the subject "LOST SISTER LAUNCH". Or mention it in the comments here and I’m sure we can sort it out.

I hope this is just a starting point. We scratched surface, and it would be fun to keep a conversation going in the comments. Feel free to join in and run with it. And not just about British fiction; what do you like or dislike about the PI stuff? Lets hear about the genre in different countries, different voices. The topic of social crime fiction is something we touched on, and i think its fair to say each of us is interested in that angle. I could have gone off on a tangent right there. If anything, I'd say we showed there is no straight forward answer.

I think that a genre, an idea, or a character is only as good as the people writing it. And these guys are two of the best.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Skating around with Joelle Charbonneau

By Steve Weddle

If you’re a fan of Janet Evanovich, Toni McGee Causey and Lisa Lutz, you’re going to love Joelle Charbonneau. Her debut novel, SKATING AROUND THE LAW, was grabbed by St. Martin’s-Minotaur this summer and is scheduled to hit the shelves in the Fall of 2010. Since Joelle and I are repped by Stacia Decker at Donald Maass Literary Agency, I was able to coax her into letting me have a peek at the book. The book is funny and fast, with characters you care about. Oh, and there’s a dead guy in a toilet and a camel in a hat.

SW: So, what’s the deal with your debut book? Mystery? Romance?

JC: SKATING AROUND THE LAW is a comedic/cozy style mystery about a city girl who returns to her hometown in order to sell the roller rink she inherited. Only she doesn’t count on finding a dead body in a rink toilet. Now she’s stuck in a town she can’t stand with a sheriff who is better at gardening than solving crimes. With the help of her sexually active grandfather, a sexy large animal vet and an ex-circus camel, she has to track down the killer before the killer tracks her down.

Technically, I fall into the cozy category because my setting is a small town and the violence happens off screen. There is a romantic element to the book, but the book isn’t a romance. The only person having sex in my series thus far is Grandpa. He’s a frisky one…and no worries…that doesn’t happen on screen, either.

SW: Where are things now with the book? Working with an editor and getting the next books ready?

JC: The book is currently being edited by the fabulous Toni Plummer of St. Martin’s Minotaur. I should be getting my edits in October. Meanwhile, I am busy sending out the manuscript for author quotes, which is more terrifying than I thought possible.

I have book two in the series already complete – I finished the second one during the time my agent was submitting the book. I was very happy to have finished it before the series sold. Less pressure that way. I am now about 120 pages into the third book. Roller derby has made an appearance in the series and I am having a great time learning about the sport and the personalities.

SW: How has your background and training in opera influenced the characters and pacing of your mystery writing?

JC: As an opera singer and theatre performer, I learned a lot about rejection – so in that way I was a perfect candidate to become a writer.

The theatre and opera background also gave me great training in how to create a character. Actors often create pages of character backstory to help them present a well-rounded and believable character to their audience…but the audience never actually sees any of that information. They just use it for their own understanding of the character. The same is true in writing. A little backstory is necessary, but as a writer, we often know more about our main characters’ pasts than any reader ever needs to know. I think understanding that helps keep the unnecessary bits out of my writing and helps move my pacing along.

Also, music theatre and opera have scenes that end on great hooks. All genres require hooks, but I think mysteries and thriller writers have a higher bar to climb over. It is the nature of the genre. I never want to bore my audience, so I try very hard to keep my scenes focused and moving toward that hook.

SW: Your narrator in SKATING AROUND THE LAW returns to her small hometown after having been away in Chicago for her job. How does that impact her character and how she interacts with the locals?

JC: Rebecca has a lot of baggage back at home. Being in the big city allowed her to push that baggage to the side and just live her life. She didn’t particularly love her job, but she loved being away from her past. Now that she’s back, she’s forced to confront her feelings about the death of her mother and deal with the people that she thought shunned her years ago. Of course, she needs those same people to help her solve the crime, which leaves lots of room for conflict.

SW: When and where to you write? What is your process like?

JC: My process has changed a little since I have a toddler running around. I used to write in the mornings before I taught voice lessons or went to rehearsals. Now that a 21-month-old tornado is running around, I tend to keep my laptop high up on a counter during the mornings. I do the writing business stuff then – check e-mail, facebook, twitter and all that jazz. I try to get a couple pages written in the afternoon when the toddler tires out and goes down for a nap. And then, when he is asleep for the night I tend to get another hour or so in. I try to write about 4-5 usable pages a day.

When starting a book, I always start with the mystery. I know what the main crime is that Rebecca has to solve and I brainstorm the clues that might go along with this. I have a word document with that going. I also then have about five or six other story lines with ideas listed for what I would like to see happen. Rebecca’s relationship with the vet, her grandfather’s new career etc….they each get their own column on my word document…then I cross each thing off as I hit it or I make changes or add to the columns as new ideas hit. By the time I reach the end, this document helps me make sure I’ve tied up all the loose ends. I really hate loose ends.

SW: How many more mysteries will Rebecca Robbins solve?

JC: Depends on how much readers like the books. Three for now, but I have an idea for number four and a couple of thoughts for other books. The best part about mysteries is that the series can last a long time. However, that can be the downside. You better hope you like the people you’ve created, because, if it is successful, you might be there a while. I’m fortunate that I love my town and my characters make me laugh. I’d be happy to stay in Indian Falls and my roller rink for a long time.

SW: Not to tempt fate, but who would play Rebecca in the big budget movie?

JC: Reese Witherspoon? She’d need to dye her hair red, but I could definitely see it.

SW: What are you most looking forward to at Bouchercon this year?

JC: I’ve never been to Bouchercon, so I’m excited to experience a large mystery conference. I know lots of writers, but most of them don’t write mysteries, so meeting a large contingent of writers that do what I do is very exciting to me. Of course, I have recently learned that my publisher has a blow-out party at Bouchercon, so I have to admit I am looking forward to going. This will be the first time I feel like a member of the club.

SW: You and your friends have a night on the town to see any opera: Gilbert and Sullivan or Wagner?

JC: If those are my choices – I’m picking Gilbert and Sullivan. Pirates of Penzance is still one of my favorites. However, if I get to pick any opera, I’m going to Carmen. Seduction, matadors, gypsies and dangerous thieves with killer music. What more do you need?

SW: What is your favorite room in your house?

JC: The kitchen. In another life, I plan on going to culinary school and becoming a chef. In the meantime, I just create whatever comes into my head and hope that we aren’t ordering out for pizza later. (We haven’t had to do this, ever – but, I have the pizza place on speed dial just in case!)

Find out more about Joelle on the Twitters and the Innerwebs.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Stark Equation

by Mike Knowles

Pi is defined to be the ratio of the circumference c of any circle divided by its diameter. You can take any circle and divide it by its diameter and you will always come up with the same number: 3.14 and a huge line of digits going on and on. Equations are everywhere whether you can see it or not. They’re even in books— sort of.

My favourite writer is Richard Stark and most of his books are pretty loyal to a standard equation that I call the Stark Equation.

Stark Novel (SN) = P + N + C + O +N (M) - R

To understand the formula you must first understand the variables.

P— Parker

Every Stark novel revolves around Parker. He is the prototypical anti-hero. Parker is a remorseless, resourceful, thief who supports himself by doing big jobs like armored car heists and bank robberies. He is a bad guy who does bad things, but he doesn’t ever feel remorse about it and for some reason that transfers to the reader who doesn’t ever hold anything against the character for being a bastard. If anything the reader loves Parker for what he is. But the Stark Equation needs more than just Parker.

N— Need for Money

Almost every Stark book begins with Parker running out of cash. Loyal fans always know when Parker's coffers are low because his sex drive takes a nosedive. Soon, he becomes completely focused on the task of making money. This focus usually upsets a lady or two. Stark never lets the reader in on how a mean dude, with a fake name, no job, no interests, no conversational skills, who is living in a hotel for months at a time attracts such a bevy of beautiful women, but I always let it slide.

C— Caper

So Parker needs money and the only way he knows how to get it is the wrong kind of way. Parker is a robber and every book centers around a caper. The Caper is usually, initially, not a good one and is often poorly orchestrated. Parker will take over said job and refine the plan until it is sure to be a success. Well it would be if it weren’t for the next two variables.

O— Old Allies

Parker always aligns himself with at least one or two old allies he has worked with before. They are men like him who supplement their lives with the money they make stealing things. The usual suspects are often: gigolos, pro-wrestlers, race car drivers, diner owners, etc. Parker signs on for the job because he knows he can trust the men he has worked with before. But these men always bring along a complication.

N (M)— The new guy who’s inexperience is multiplied by some sort of mental defect.

Almost every Parker novel has a new guy who is the one behind the crime. It is usually some cousin’s sister’s brother’s roommate who has a perfect idea for a heist. Most people know someone like this. A guy who works somewhere and swears he could walk off with a pile of money without getting caught if he felt like it (On a side note, I got a few plans like this if anyone is interested). Other times, the new guy is another robber who is new to Parker. The new guy is always screwed up and has some issues that will definitely end up in a classic Stark double cross. The double cross usually goes like this: Men steal money, men evade cops, men get to hideout, new guy kills men (just not Parker) and runs away with the money. You would think Parker would learn to be suspicious of idiots, but most people accept others based on a friend vouching for them. When I was twelve, one of my buddies brought a friend over to a friend’s house. The kid seemed creepy, but we let it slide because his references checked out. It took ten minutes for the afternoon to go off the tracks. The creepy kid found the collection of artistic photos my friend’s dad owned (that somehow took us years to find) and the kid spent the next few hours in the middle of the area rug staring at the nudes (male and female) in the book and freaking us out. Never trust the new guy.

R— Revenge

Parker overcomes the double cross and usually must deal with a setback. The setbacks vary in intensity; they can be as mundane as a head start by the new guy, or as serious as several bullet wounds. Usually, Parker overcomes the setback in forty pages or so and ends up with less money than he thought he would get.

It took way longer for the weird kid to stop coming around. We had to hide the photo books and stop playing outside.

It all works out every time: (SN) = P + N + C + O +N (M) - R

The equation is never good for Parker. In his world, his job is a lot like everyone else's: He has to do all the planning himself, his job is physically intense, he ends up having to do the work over because the new guy screwed it up, and in the end he somehow makes less than he was supposed to.

But for Stark, the equation is literary alchemy that turns words into gold. The equation seems relatively simple to follow, but it cannot be properly applied by anyone but a master. Stark used a similar equation over and over again, but somehow managed to create something new and cool each time. His skill defies the laws of nature. Somehow, his 2+2 never equalled 4. If Stark added a literary 2+2 it would always end up equaling 100% badass.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

In Praise of CSI: Miami

Why do so many people dog CSI: Miami? It wins it's time slot easily every week. It's been in the top thirteen television shows for its entire seven-year run, getting as high as seven in 2004-05 (it's third season). The cinematography is gorgeous, it has beautiful people, and it has interesting stories. It also has David Caruso. I know for some, this is enough not to watch. I'm here to tell you something: you are missing out if you don't watch this show.

Some critics think CSI: Miami (Miami for the remainder of this post) is too unreal. Hello? If you're not watching "The Wire," then just about all police shows are unreal. Sure, some are more real (The Shield) than others (Monk) but that doesn't mean they are bad. They're just different. It is entertainment, after all. Miami's creator, Anthony Zuiker, knew exactly what he wanted when he made Miami: Not Vegas. In Vegas, you have The Land of Perpetual Shadows, pretty people wearing sexy clothes, and interesting main characters. In Miami, you have The Land of Perpetual Sunset, prettier people wearing sexier clothing, and main characters who are equally as interesting.

Miami had the luxury of airing its pilot episode wrapped inside an episode the original CSI. There's a crime in Vegas and Warrick and Willows travel to Miami to follow leads. There, they meet the Miami cast, see how they work, react to the differences, and basically get Miami's mission statement directly from Calleigh Duquesne: "We do things more fanciful down here."

Calleigh is only one of the cast of Pretty People in Miami. She's fun because she's a blonde Southern belle who knows and likes guns and has an alcoholic father. Hunky Eric Delko is Miami's underwater diver who, just last season, learned that his dad was really a Soviet, the very man who put out a hit on him. Yikes! Hello dad. Glad to know you, too. For fans of characters who have a lot of noirish backstory, Delko's your man. Or maybe you like'em smaller, less hunky, prone to wearing pastel ties with jeans, but with a gambling problem. Miami's got you covered. Ryan Wolfe has his demons, gets himself kicked off the force, brought back on the force, and is the only one team leader Horatio Caine trusts for a giant undercover project, much to the chagrin of the straight-and-narrow characters.

Horatio Caine. I think we can all be honest and say that, if you're one who doesn't like Miami, it's because of Caine. Rather, it's because of David Caruso, the actor who portrays Caine in all the episodes. I don't get it. Some accuse him of being a prima donna after his departure from NYPD Blue back in 1994. Yeah, maybe. Whatever. I don't care. Caruso's NY detective, John Kelly, was a great character and did the honorable thing when he turned in his badge and walked away. Granted, I caught this in reruns but I liked what I saw. Cut to the one-season TV show "Michael Hayes" (which I watched and enjoyed, thank you) and I thought there might be a new series for Caruso. Nope. Then, the Miami pilot: There he was again. And his character, Caine, and Caruso's portrayal of him, had me from the beginning.

As writers, we are excoriated to show, don't tell. Show a characters traits, don't tell us about them. Caine, in the first scene, shows what kind of man he is. The cops are looking for a seven-year-old girl. Caine finds her in the Everglades (or wherever they are) and approaches her. They talk and he mentions that people are looking for her. He sits next to her and says "Why don't we sit here and let them find us together." As a new dad in 2002 when this show aired, I was hooked. To paraphrase, he had me at "together."

It's exactly that empathy that I love and appreciate in Horatio Caine. He ends the episode by talking with young Sasha again, together, as they sit on a beach. He tells her that she'll hear many bad things said about her parents, who have both been murdered. He implores her to remember that both her mom and dad "fought like heroes for you." I guess that's why I like Caine so much: he fights for the powerless. Whether it's a little girl, newly orphaned, or Wolfe when he's fired/rehired, or the various other victims of crimes he meets, he's always there to help, to shoulder the burden of others' pain. That's why he does what he does even though his personal life (murdered wife; criminal brother; grown son introduced last season) is often in the tank.

You're saying "Scott, that's all well and good, but the show is just too damn cheesy" and I'll agree with you. Yes, there are entirely too many coincidences in Miami (CSI, too; can't speak to NY as I don't watch it). We're talking a 48-minute show here, people. What might take hours or days in real life takes a commercial break on TV. Deal with it. Yes, Caruso delivers his one-liners like Roger Moore did in his Bond films. William Peterson did, too, and no one gives him grief. What's up with that? And yes, there are the sunglasses. Yes, there are times when, entering a dark room, I yell for him to "take off the shades, H!". Whatever. It's iconic now. Just like Chicago *has* to play "25 or 6 to 4" in concert, Caruso has to have the shades. In last week's premiere, we get an origin story of the team...and the shades. I grinned. I love this show. So sue me.

If you haven't given CSI: Miami a try, you ought to. If you've left, give it another shot.* You might be surprised how much fun it really is.

*But don't forget ABC's "Castle." I've written about Castle on my blog and it was the one show I most looked forward to watching again. CSI: Miami was #1A. It's just aggravating that they both show up on Mondays at 9pm CST. Miami is in no danger of cancellation anytime soon. I watch Castle live and, around 10:01pm, I start up Miami. Maybe you could do the same.

P.S., After I wrote about Castle last week, I decided to write about Miami here in this space. I was going for the "Caine is like Donald Lam" angle (I'll write about this later) but changed to an entire CSI: Miami focus. In fact, I had the post mostly written when I received an e-mail from Damon Caporaso of I had linked to his website's recap of Castle on Tuesday. Well, he invited me to participate and write recaps of a show of my choice. Guess what I picked? Well, you don't really have to guess, do you? My recaps start this Tuesday.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Investigating the Investigator

By Russel D McLean

This post – an entirely fictional interview with an entirely fictional character – contains mild spoilers for THE GOOD SON.
J. McNee – he won’t give me his first name – is a private investigator working out of the Scots city of Dundee. Last year I was privileged to chronicle his investigative work, and again it seems I’ve been allowed back to chronicle one of his most recent high profile cases. Seemed a good time to catch up, see what was on his mind. We met at his offices on 1 Courthouse Square, and when I went in he was the one making the coffee. As ever, there was a slight air of sadness just below the surface whenever he talked, and I was loathe to ask him about how he was coping two years on from the death of his fiancée. But there was something else, too, a kind of change I could sense in him. From the most recent case? Or the passage of time? I was eager to find out… but getting the answers you want from a man like McNee isn’t an easy task…

Russel D McLean: I’m glad you could take out the time to talk to is. Its been just under a year since we last clocked in with you.

J McNee: Sure. Doesn’t feel that long.

RDM: How much has changed in your life?

JM: Hard to say. I’m still working. Haven’t found a replacement for Bll [Bill was McNee’s assistant before an incident involving two London hard men]

RDM: So he’s gone?

JM: I couldn’t fit access for his chair to the offices. And his boyfriend, Andy, blamed me for what happened. For putting him in that chair in the first place.

RDM: Do you think he’s right?

JM: Some days, aye, I’d agree with him. But you have to keep moving on. So I’m still working as in investigator. Still taking on cases. Been doing some work with a guy at the local paper, The Dundee Herald.

RDM: Cameron Connelly?

JM: That’s yer man. He’s had some troubles himself. His brother-in-law was an investigator.

RDM: Used to work out of your offices. Guy named Bryson. I knew him a little.

JM: Anyway, Connelly’s been getting me some gigs. Mostly on the QT considering his lords and masters don’t appreciate any extra expense.

RDM: He was the one told you about the Furst case?

JM: Aye. A favour for a friend. Can I give you some advice? Never do favours for friends. It never works out well.

RDM: Last time we spoke, you and PC Susan Bright had started to patch up your differences. I was never too clear why you stopped speaking the first place.

JM: (pause) It was complicated. As anything personal is. And this case… the missing girl… there’s been some fallout. I’m not sure what any of it means, of course.

RDM: You’ve been seen working with a man I believe to be another investigator.

JM: Wickes.

RDM: Looks like a cross between Brian Blessed and the BFG.

JM: Wickes. His name is Wickes. He was an investigator back in the day. Now, he’s… he doesn’t operate on the books, let’s put it that way.

RDM: And he’s a friend of yours?

JM: (silence).

RDM: Without getting too personal, I understand that with this case, there were some official questions being asked about –

JM: – I can’t talk about it.

RDM: We need to –

JM: – I won’t talk about it. Are you getting the message yet?

RDM: Following the suicide you investigated a year ago, it seems like your investigations seem to attract this kind of controversy I’m trying to talk about. All I want to –

JM: – The interview’s over, pal. We can’t talk about that.

Can’t or won’t? It’s hard to tell with a guy like McNee. Leaving the interview, I was sure there was more going on than I knew about his latest case. The missing girl, Mary Furst, was fourteen years old, seemed like any other girl. Except her godfather was a known criminal and I got the impression that there had been other secrets hidden by her more immediate family. And then there was this guy Wickes. When I started asking McNee about him, the atmosphere shifted in the room. Something happened between them that McNee wanted to avoid talking about. Something bad. Something deadly…

J. McNee’s latest case is chronicled in THE LOST SISTER, by Russel D McLean, available in the UK from Five Leaves Publications on October 1. The first McNee novel, THE GOOD SON is available now in the UK and will be release in the US by St Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne in December ’09.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


by Dave White
Dear Every Relative, Colleague, Friend, or Random Person on the Street,

I'm going to lay a little truth on you. I'm going to tell you what motivates me to write each day.

I love to write, but it's very hard to find the time to write.

My fiancee and I are planning a wedding. I'm a public school teacher. For another month, I'm still under thirty and I like to hang out with my friends. Have a little free time.

Sometimes it feels like writing should get put by the wayside. It's tough to sit down every day and write.

But I do it.

What motivates me?

Sometimes it's an email from fellow Do Some Damage-er Steve Weddle dragging me into a contest as to who can finish the draft of our novel first. I love stuff like this. Writing is such a solitary job (and yes, it is a job) that a little competition can go a long way.

Winning or losing doesn't matter (at least that's what Steve'll say when I kick his butt). What matters is getting the book done. Sitting there every day and getting something down on the paper. Getting that much closer to the finish line. Finishing a novel is a goal. It's a marathon.

And if you do it every day it becomes a habit.

That's why it bugs me when people come up to me and say, "I used to write. I don't have time anymore." or "I have so many ideas, I should write a novel. But I just don't have time." And their tone is clear. It's I'm better than you at writing. If I were to sit down and write it, my novel would be the greatest thing ever and make yours look like dirt. And they sit there and wait for you to say something.

It's as if these people are coming to me for abosolution. As if I'm going to sit there and say, "You know what? You're right. You're better than me. You just don't have time. You shouldn't feel the least bit guilty that you want to write, but won't find the time."

Becuase that's just it. It's not a matter (for the most part) of not having the time. It's a matter of WANTING to have the time.

And guess what... until you find the time to write... you're not better than me.

If you really want to write, you'll find the time. You'll sit down every day. And if you are better than me, you'll be published. And you'll motivate me some more. Because I want to get better. I want to beat you.

And right now, you're making it easy to beat you. I just have to tell you how I wrote for another two hours after work last night and then watch in your eyes, how you get annoyed that you didn't have time.

There are a lot of writers out there that are better than me. That can write circles around me. And they also have the desire to keep writing every day. To find the time. I strive to be as good as these writers. I find the time every day to get better so I can come close to their talent.

But you have to do it. Discipline is as much a part of writing as having an idea. As putting the words on paper.

And that's what motivates me the rest of the time. The people that complain to me about not having the time. I don't want to become like them.

I want to finish my third, my fourth, my fifth, my sixth... and so on. And I'll make the time for it. I wrote my first novel between term papers in graduate school. I'm working on my third and fourth now, between calling churches, reception halls, and florists.

I know someone who has two really young kids (including a newborn--congrats!!) and is finding time to get his opus done.

We all have to work. We all have things to do. We all let real life get in the way sometimes.

But writers write.

I find the time.

That's how bad I want to write.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

John McFetridge

For me, it all starts with the characters. The story comes later. If the characters are interesting enough, I can follow them anywhere. If they just seem to be there to advance the plot, I lose interest. Just my taste, and it doesn’t seem to be the most popular approach these days.

Author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), recently said that Dan Brown’s characters are, “completely flat and two-dimensional... His basic ignorance about the way people behave is astonishing, talking in utterly implausible ways to one another.”

John Grisham defends Brown (not that he needs defending, he seems to be doing all right on his own) and says of his own writing, “If I try to understand the complexities of the human soul, people's character defects and those types of things, the reader gets distracted.”

Now, the characters in my books may not be all that complex but I try to make them plausible. Sometimes that works against me. In a review in the National Post last weekend, Philip Marchand said of my new novel, Swap, “... one gets tired of hearing members of the human race routinely classified as either 'asshole' or 'bitch,' depending on gender. Such language is always a blunt instrument, and its use, through direct or indirect discourse, diminishes the characters — they cannot rise above the linguistic limitations imposed upon them.”

So here’s the dilemma. I wanted to create fully developed characters that behave – and talk – in ways the reader would find plausible. If this means they can’t “rise above the linguistic limitation,” I figure so be it. Marchand also says, “It is certainly hard to convey delicate emotions through this language. At one point Sunitha relates a painful childhood memory to Get. His response? 'She liked the way he made fun of it and still understood that it messed her up,' McFetridge writes. 'She got the feeling he’d never call her a psycho bitch and flip out on her.' That’s good — though surely it should be a minimal requirement for a gentleman engaged in an affair of the heart not to flip out and call his beloved a psycho bitch for sharing her feelings.”

My wife read the last part out loud with an English accent in her best Jane Austen voice – pretty funny.

And finally, Marchand is right when he says, “That’s life in the fast lane, with tough guys and tougher women, who can be pretty boring, when you come right down to it.” It’s that whole banality of evil thing.

So, I guess there’s a balance between creating characters as “real” as you can and still making them, well, not boring.

I like to know a lot about the characters in my books. I look up the most popular baby names from the year they were born, I like to know what year they graduated from high school (or dropped out) and what were the popular songs and movies and TV shows that year. Margaret Atwood said, “You wouldn’t want your character to have the wrong horoscope any more than you would want them to have the wrong name.”

And most importantly every character has to want something. They each have to have their own agenda.

Some of them may even get what they want.

What do you think? How fleshed out should every character be?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Heart Of The Matter

Writing inside-out
by Jay Stringer

I’ve been trying to crack a story lately. I’m working on a manuscript and, while I know I’ll manage to beat it into submission eventually, I’m still at the point where I haven’t quite cracked the heart of the story. But while I'm thinking about it, I’m realising a few things about my tastes.

I like writers that go inside-out.

What I mean is the emotion.Something Dave has touched on before. I need to get into the emotions before everything else falls into place. I’ve found a problem with all fiction, but one I notice more in crime, is that not enough writers really tackle issues like grief or loss.
Sure, loneliness and isolation get used, but often more as short hand for establishing a moody character. These are some of the key emotions that we all experience, and if a writer shies away from those, what do they have to build on when they want to tackle things like love or hope? In a genre that is built on dark deeds, marginalisation and death, the emotional fall-out of these things seems all to easy to overlook.

I’m generalising, of course. For every writer that I’ve just tarred with that brush, there are many more who deal with emotions. Reed Farrell Coleman built a whole PI series -the Moe Prager books- out of loss, grief and melancholy. Ken Bruen at his worst can do more with grief and guilt than I could do in a lifetime at my best. Our very own Russel D McLean’s The Good Son was a book that tackled these things head on, that actually managed to build a plot on top of emotion.

An example of what I mean is in my first book, currently being pitched by my ace agent. As I looked at where the story was headed on my last rewrite, I realised that I let the death of a teenager pass without any real sense of loss. So I stared at the screen until my forehead bled, trying to write a funeral. It wasn’t working. I’ve been to enough of them, I know what happens and when. But every time I started to write the scene, that’s all it became; a report of what happened and when.

Then, by chance, I wrote about the flowers on the coffin. I realised that some of those flowers would have been placed there by the boys’ mother, and bam….emotion. Writing the scene was easy from there; I had a way in. Once I had that one emotion on the page, the other followed, a broken heart and a bruised ego makes its way into the chapter. Anger bustles its way in. And just like that, a dull and lifeless scene became a chapter that managed to sum up each issue I was trying to get across in the book.

And thinking about all this recently has made me realise that this is what I look for in writers. All writers, be they films, novels, songs, comics, bleach bottle labels….

I often try and explain to friends that I need music to hit me in the heart and the gut before the head. I’m a lyrics man, no doubt, always have been. But they have to get me emotionally. If your song needs to be thought about before it can be felt, it’s not going to stick with me.
And that comes from an economy of words, I think. I real writer, for me, is one who can break your heart with the fewest words possible.

I’ve wasted many thousands of words online trying to explain what it is I love about Paul Westerberg. I mean, his lyrics are amazing, but to try and explain it that way is to make it sound wordy and complex. What really gets me? His lyrics get me into the heart of an emotion in a matter of seconds. He doesn’t need a whole song; he can do it with a flick of his lyrics;

“How do you say ‘I miss you’ to an answering machine? How do you say ‘Goodnight’ to an answering machine?”

Boom. Loneliness. Guilt. Love. Loss. Heartbreak. In two lines. THAT is writing.

“The bride groom drags you cross the room, you said ‘I do,"
But honey you were just a kid, your eyes say ‘I did.’ "

Again. Right into the heart of it, a whole story told straight away.

Springsteen, too, has become a master at it. His early albums, the ones where he sounded like a street poet with a record contract, were full of words. Free and easy, jangling guitars and rhyming dictionaries in flames. Then he seemed to get a little darker, a little older and he found focus the way some people find religion. He crafted his sentences, stripped away at them like a hardboiled writer until he became the most effective storyteller to ever pick up a telecaster.

“To the dead it don’t matter much, about who’s wrong or right.
You asked me that question, I didn’t get it right.”

Slipped into the middle of a rock song, hidden away amidst other songs that got scrutinised for any political meaning, was the simplest assessment of a foreign policy. And more than that, it was done through regret and a sense of loss, rather than anger or blame. Or how about one of the few moments in song that matches Folsom Prison Blues for getting to the heart of darkness;

“They wanted to know why I did what I did,
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world.”

Sometimes a total lack of emotion can be just as pure as any hatred or love. Here, a cold blooded killer looks you in the eye and tells you he killed innocent people for no real reason. Chilling. Terrifying.

How about our man Waits? Natural born storyteller. Look at this little turn of phrase and see how complete a story can be told with a throwaway line;

“It’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal.”

Okay, okay. Everybody writes about Westerberg, Springsteen and Waits. This is true. But some clichés are still important. It doesn’t stop with them, though. There’s a songwriter by the name of Ben Nichols, the front man of Lucero, who I think is well worthy of attention.

“When this world was made, it was never meant to save everyone in kind.
I don’t believe God much had me, had me much in mind.”

I’ll be returning to Ben in future to look at his album, The Last Pale Light In The West. But back to today, it seems somewhat counter intuitive to love such economy. I mean, if a story can be told with 12 words, why read a book that takes thousands? Well, different mediums have different strengths, but the principle holds true. There’s an old joke that a gentleman is someone who can play jazz guitar but doesn't. Along those lines, I think a great writer is someone who doesn’t put too many words into a sentence. And I'm sure that Weddle fella could turn this little article on its head by bringing his knowledge of poetry, another way of relating complex emotions through simple words.

All of the writers that really stay with me are the ones who can get me into the very heart of the story. As I've already said, going for the pure driving emotion of the scene and writing inside-out. Why? I don't know. I've written before about how comic books taught me to read, so maybe it comes from that. Maybe its because I'm dyslexic, and its a survival instinct -the fewer words there are, the more chance i have of getting the point. Maybe it's just because the sky is blue, i don't know.

How about you guys? Who does this for you?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Abandoned Love: Novel Cuts in a Deleted Scenes World

By Steve Weddle

In 1974, Bob Dylan was recording songs for BLOOD ON THE TRACKS and had to leave out some great work. One of these songs was “Up To Me,” an absolutely masterful piece of meter, lyrics, images, music and whatever the hell else makes songs great.

Oh, the Union Central is pullin' out and the orchids are in bloom,
I've only got me one good shirt left and it smells of stale perfume.
In fourteen months I've only smiled once and I didn't do it consciously,
Somebody's got to find your trail,
I guess it must be up to me.

In 1985, I hopped into my blue ‘76 Caprice Classic, headed to the Pierre Bossier Mall and bought BIOGRAPH, an album of Dylan outtakes and rarities. I don’t know what it was like when Adam first saw Eve or, as Joe Theismann might say, when Norman Einstein split the atom, but I have a pretty good idea.

These were songs I hadn’t heard before. “Up To Me” was left off BLOOD ON THE TRACKS supposedly because it was too long to fit in. Feh. Since Dylan was never the Motown hit single machine, this reason sounds to me like complete bunk.
One of the things that makes this song so great is the personal nature: “And the harmonica around my neck, I blew it for you, free./ No one else could play that tune,/ You know it was up to me.

The entire 5 LP set (kids, ask your grandparents about LPs) was amazing, full of songs or versions of songs I’d never heard. Now, of course, I have whatever Dylan songs I want, hundreds of concert bootlegs and versions of albums, such as HIGHWAY 61, that were never meant for the mass market. And this is exactly what I want from an artist.

From the time Dylan recorded “Up To Me” until the time it sold to dopes like me was more than 10 years. In the 1980s, outtakes for albums were about as popular as outtakes for novels are now. Why would you release songs that didn’t make the album? Why would you release scenes that didn’t make the novel?

In editing my book LOST AND FOUND, I made some fairly substantial cuts, backspacing characters out of existence completely. I lost a good deal of junk, but also some good stuff in there, basically because it didn’t need to be there, didn’t move the story along. So what the heck am I supposed to do with the extra stuff now? Turn those chapters into short stories? Use Chuck Thompson as a character in the next novel? The reason Chuck didn’t make the cut – or, I suppose, did make the cut – was that he was set up as a foil for the main character, a role I was able to incorporate into another character, combining some of my needs in the book. Chuck was removed because the reason for his existence was gone.

Turns out I’m not the only one who’s wondered what to do with this deleted stuff. Robert Harris posted some deletions he made for his book THE MILLION DOLLAR GIRL. I’m sure others have given this some thought—the deleted scenes you see after you’ve watched the DVD.

Is it a good idea to publish your deleted scenes? Is there a chance that doing so spoils the experience for the reader? Maybe the decision whether to publish the cuts depends on the reason for the cuts. I can’t imagine a writer prefacing the publishing of a cut scene by saying, “I cut this scene because my editor was a little squeamish about how I ran these puppies through the meat grinder. I really hate puppies and loved this graphic scene, but my editor said the book would sell better without the scene. So I cut the scene, sold a ton of books and used the extra money to buy myself a new puppy grinder.”

Sure we have reasons for making our cuts, but what do we do with the cuts that could stand alone?

When we revise, we cut away so much that doesn’t “fit.” We’ve made more than we need for this project and have to remove the excess. I know this. But there are still so many good characters, sliced through with red pens or marginalized into the boxes of Track Changes. What do we do with these stories? As someone said, “When you bite off more than you can chew you have to pay the penalty,/ Somebody's got to tell the tale,/ I guess it must be up to me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Daniel Silva Was Right Moscow Does Rule

by Mike Knowles

Everything I have written so far has taken place in Hamilton, Ontario. If the last two words are unfamiliar, just know my books are set in Canada. I’ve briefly moved settings to Montreal, or Prince Edward Island, but the bulk of my work is about the city I live in. I write about the city because it’s all I know. But there are some places I really wish I could set a story in.

Recently, on Twitter, someone threw out the name Brent Ghelfi. I checked out the name and found out he’s the writer of the Volk series. The series takes place in modern day Russia and centers around a military operative working both sides of the law. Once I found out the book was set in Russia, I was in no questions asked. There is something so tough about the Russian setting, not the Jason Bourne-esque Russia full of embassies and expensive dacha’s, but the mean streets full of everyday people and everynight lowlife’s. Any crime story about Russia makes me excited like a kid on Christmas because I always know I'm in for something raw and new. As I read Ghelfi, I thought about why I liked the setting of the former Soviet Union so much. I think what it is comes from what the country was. The harsh communist roots bred a system of corruption so deep that every level of society is involved. This kind of corruption makes crime stories possible anywhere. Stories can involve regular people, the mob, political figures, and the army all at once and it never seems implausible. The country is also experiencing a boom in organized crime. Russian gangsters are the new black. They are written as cruel, emotionless, hard cases— they are the perfect bad guy. No one feels bad when you kill off a Russian gangster in a book. Even my mom was cool with it when she read about it in my book. Not even the government in Russia is safe. The politicians with their former KGB and military roots run a system that is corrupt on levels unheard of in the West. In short, there is bad everywhere in Russia. Bad is good when you’re writing crime novels. One other aspect that I really love about Russian crime is the lack of technology. You won’t get a protagonist aided by the latest satellite technology or forensic advancements in a Russian crime story. The old styles of police work and espionage still pop up even though everywhere else it is the twenty-first century. It always feels like the protagonists have less to rely on, so they end up needing to get really dirty to get the job done. I love the hands on approach. It is always more satisfying when something is beaten or coerced out of a person rather than found on the internet.

Case in point from Volk’s Shadow:

The makeshift command post has been established in the first floor lobby of an office building three blocks away from the one that was bombed. I cross a wide street emptied of traffic. Slam open the steel-and-glass door. A small group huddled around a folding metal table all turn to stare at me.

"Who's in command?" My voice sounds loud even to my own ears.

"Who wants to know?" Tall, thin, and spectacled, he looks like a haughty professor, although too young to be one. I know his kind at a glance. A staffer, privileged from birth by his family's social position in the old Soviet order. His uniform and red beret identify him as a special forces officer of the internal troops of the FSB—the principal successor of the KGB—but his kind can be found throughout Russia's military, political, and bureaucratic elites.

I throw off my overcoat so that he can see my rank on the tunic beneath. He turns his back to me.

"I'll get with you later, Colonel." He spits out the words as though he's trying to rid his mouth of a bad taste.


He whirls to face me, lips twisted into a snarl. "You'll not speak again until I address you. Is that—"

And I am upon him, wrenching him onto the table. It collapses under his weight and the force of the blow. A laptop crashes to the floor with him as he smacks the marble facedown. I plant the heel of my combat boot on the back of his neck.

"Who is second in command?" I say, so softly that everyone in the room leans forward to hear me.

A florid-faced policeman snaps smartly to attention. "I am, sir. Inspector Barokov."

The FSB officer under my boot struggles to rise. Or to reach a gun. I pull my Sig, bend down, and crunch it against the side of his head to knock him out. Then nod to the inspector to go on.

If this happened in an American story, there would be a court marshal and some time in whatever the brig is. In Russia, this doesn’t even slow the story down. How great is that?

Another place I wish I had the knowledge to write about is south of the border. Hard Case Crime had a few books set in Mexico and they are always off the chart fun. Mexico has a lot of the same corruption I like about Russia, but with added bonus of a huge emerging drug cartel with zero fear of law enforcement or the governments of Mexico or the United States. The geographic position of Mexico makes it possible for all kinds of cool smuggling stories and tales of extortion. You can even hit up a tourist angle and do a cool kidnapping story like Gun Work by David Schow.

"From the top, Carl," Barney said into his phone in the dark. "Deep breaths. Simple sentences. Subject, object."

"This goddamned phone card," Carl’s voice crackled back at him from one country to another. "You’ve got to get a phone card to use the payphones and half of them don’t work. The time on the cards runs out faster than—"

"You said that already. You said they grabbed Erica. Who-they?"

In Mexico, kidnapping constituted the country’s third biggest industry, after dope and religion.

"They didn’t leave a business card,"Carl said.

"But she was abducted."

"Kidnapped, right."

"What do they want?"

"They said a million."



Barney wiped down his face. Squeezed the bridge of his nose. He didn’t need to click on the nightstand lamp and become a squinting mole. "Why you?"

"Because they think I’m a rich gringo." Carl started breathing more shallowly and rapidly on the other end of the line. "My god, bro, how can I—"

"Don’t start that," Barney overrode. "You were doing just fine. Calm. Calm." A beat, for sanity. "So...are you?"

"Am I what?"

"Rich. Can you cough up seven figures?"

Another beat. Barney frowned. His long-lost friend was wondering whether to lie.

Finally, Carl said, "Yeah. Don’t ask how."

"And you want what from me, exactly? They’ve got the hostage and you’ve got the ransom. So, trade."

"It stinks, amigo. It stinks like underbrush when you probe by fire." He was playing the war-buddy card again. "Probing by fire" was when you cut loose a few rounds into unknown territory. If return fire erupted, you knew the hide was enemy-occupied. It helped to be fast-footed in such circumstances. The suspense was gut-wrenching, and you could smell your courage leaching out in your sweat.

"You want backup," Barney said, dreading it.

"There’s nobody else I can trust in a shitstorm like this. No good faces. I’ll wind up nose-down in a ditch with my money and Erica gone. I need your help. The kind of help you can’t just buy." Another telltale beat of quiet. "Will you help me?"

I’m not giving away the rest of the story, but Barney does help out and the violence that ensues could never happen in a North American setting.

I think that’s the great thing about these types of settings— they’re like the bizarro world where everything is similar enough to feel at home, but full of differences that make all kinds of new things possible.

I don't have money to travel, but I'm not sure if a vacation to Russia or Mexico would get me the experience I would need to create the kind of story I would like to write. I write about Hamilton because I know the people. I know the customs and the little nuances. I don't know how off the beaten path I would have to get, or how long I would have to stay there to get what I would need to write a good Russian crime story. Plus, if any of the stuff I read in books is true, I'm not sure I'll ever make it back off the beaten path. There's no way I could muster up enough broken Russian to keep me from being shot or ransomed. My fingers would probably end up being Fedexed to my door while the rest of me stays tied to a chair.

For now, while I build up my bank account, my vocabulary, and my nerve, I think I will just keep reading about the underbelly of Russia and Mexico. It’s safe enough from a distance of twelve inches from the page.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Learning from the Past...and the Pulps

How can you move forward when you don't know where you've been? How can you avoid the mistakes of the past when you don't even know what the mistakes were?

These are two fundamental questions one has to ask when you study history, a discipline in which I hold two degrees. For me, history, both past and present, is a living thing and it is something for which I have a lot of passion. Writing is something else for which I have a lot of passion and, you know what? The questions are relevant to writing as well.

This past summer, I read a lot of old adventure and pulp fiction, things most boys read when they're ten or twelve. I'm a boy of forty. Guess it ain't too late. I cataloged them in a week of themed reviews (Adventure Week) on my blog. You can read them if you want. Here's where I get to list a few things I learned from reading these old stories. Here's the list:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1873)
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1875)
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1913)

Coincidences are like garlic: a little goes a long way

Coincidences. The things that make you go "No way!" could that happen...and they do. You'll roll your eyes and accuse the writer of taking a short cut. In modern stories, coincidences have almost no place. The "Back to the Future" movies are among my favorite example of "everything is explained." The writers may have started with a shortcut ("Hey, wouldn't it be cool if Marty dressed up like Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars?") but they found a way to make it believable (I'll leave it up to you to remember the clue). Same with novels. For as fun as the Miss Marple stories are, seriously, how many murders can one old lady stumble upon?

In these adventure stories, there are a few eye-rollers and one big whopper. The Return of Tarzan is riff with them. Tarzan is thrown off a boat and swims to shore and lands *exactly* where he parents were marooned twentysomething years ago. Whatever! I could do that as a writer...and have a bunch of manuscript pages yellowing in a drawer. Now, in our hyper-keep-it-real-explain-everything world, there's no place for coincidences. The best thing about ERB , as more than one commenter wrote on my blog yesterday, is that the stories are so much fun, you can let the "serendipity" slide. Not so with King Solomon's Mines. Our brave European explorers have with them an African guide Who Just Happens To Be The Long Lost King of the Lost Tribe They Discover. Sure, the African could've guessed where Quatermain was headed and hitched a ride but it could've been better explained. It just landed with a solid thud in the story that had already lost its steam.

Exotica can only get your so far.

All of these stories involve some sort of exotic location. Verne has the Nautilus, Captain Nemo's ship, and all the ports Nemo chooses, like Atlantis or underwater graveyards. Treasure Island features the Caribbean and tropical environs while Haggard and ERB set their stories in Africa. You'd think that having an exotic setting would be enough to drive a story. You'd be wrong. The Verne and Haggard books both have one simple fault: they rely too heavily on the environment. Whether you're reading about Quatermain's trek across Africa or Nemo's journey's under water, the stories have to go somewhere. I think these authors were too content to just let the setting play too big a role in their respective books. I give Verne a bit of a pass since he invented a working submarine in his novel. Haggard just tried too hard to make an exciting story and failed.

Character Counts. Big Time.

This is not an earth-shattering revelation. There's a reason Agatha Christie wrote as many Miss Marple stores as she did: people liked the character. In their books, Stevenson and ERB use their respective exotic settings as a means to tell a better story with compelling characters. I was much more invested in the stories of young Lord Greystoke and young Jim Hawkins...and I couldn't care less where the story took place. Now, the setting helped but I liked the characters. Who hasn't dreamed of finding a pirate treasure map and set off to find it? I won't say who hasn't dreamed of growing up with apes in the jungle but the situation is compelling enough that you want to know what happens with Tarzan. It was fun watching him grow up in the jungle and Hawkins battle pirates in the Caribbean. In these books, the environment was gravy. The meat was in the story and the characters.

Fun is Important

We're now entering the fall season, the time when the Important Books and the Important Movies are released. It's awards season now. We must put away our paperbacks and pick up hard back books that challenge our intellect and make us think. When I started work on my second book, my modern crime novel, I wanted to make it real. I wanted it gritty and urban. I wanted no coincidences. Everything had to be explained. I got so fixated on Keeping It Real that it died in my laptop. It suffocated. I didn't keep it fun.

Fiction, by definition, isn't real. It can be realistic but you've still got to enjoy yourself. Right? HBO's "The Wire" is real and gritty and utterly engrossing but it's the characters that matter. The real-life cop procedures are nice but if we didn't care if McNulty screwed around or if Omar's lover got himself killed, we'd stop watching. We'd also stop reading, were it a book. That's the Keeping It Real part. But how hard did you laugh when various groups of characters got drunk and just mouthed off? Those moments of levity helped me love those characters, even the criminals. Have a little fun. That's probably the biggest lesson I learned.

Everyone who writes columns (like this one?) on writing tends to boil the entire process down to the couplet Stephen King captured best: Read a lot and write a lot. I wouldn't be a writer if I didn't enjoy reading. And I'm a better writer every time I sit down to compose because of the variety of books I read. Classic adventure tales and early pulp fiction continue to grab our imaginations and rarely let go. They also can show us writers how they used to do it back in the day and allow us to question their choices and learn from them. I learned a lot from the adventure tales I read this summer (including a modern descendant, Gabriel Hunt) and I can't wait to get back to Africa with Tarzan or solve crimes with The Shadow or travel the world with Gabriel Hunt. I want to learn some more. And be entertained.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Russel D McLean

Next week I will be talking to Alexander McGregor, a journalist whose book, THE LAW KILLERS, went straight to number one in the Scottish book charts and stayed there… for over ten weeks! THE LAW KILLERS is, of course, a true crime book concerning itself with crimes in the city of Dundee.

And, yes, that’s the same Dundee I’m writing about.

True crime is a strange genre. Sometimes it can feel manipulative, exploiting others’ pain for a few hours entertainment and fascination. But when done well, with compassion intelligence and respect, true crime can be a fascinating form of reportage from the darker side of the human experience.

Carol Anne Davis – a Dundonian author by birth, but these days, I believe living somewhere south of the border – tends to be published under seemingly exploitative titles that disguise her thoughtful, reflective and often illuminating case studies. Couples Who Kill, as a title, reeks of schlock, but then you open the pages and realise that this woman is dedicated not to feeding the shock-horror factor but is deliberately setting out to discover – in a sober and respectful fashion – what makes criminals and killers tick. Her interviews, analyses and reconstructions are gripping and above all unbiased. She is not here to titillate you. She is here to make you think. About the nature of the violence. About who these people are who could commit such acts.

I like Davis’s style, because what fascinates about crime is what it says about the way that people think and the society that could produce such people. It’s why I love crime fiction, and it’s why I love well written true crime.

Joseph Wambaugh, of course, truly fascinates me both with his fiction and his true crime. I think his cop’s eye view of proceedings provided the right kind of distance, and it helped that he could just naturally write up a storm. Moments from his true crime have often stayed with me, particularly Lines and Shadows and, of course, Echoes in the Darkness.

At this year’s Harrogate Crime Festival I foolishly didn’t get up the guts to just stride over and speak to David Simon. I had just come off reading THE CORNER, and as I said to many people, I have rarely felt such anger when closing a book. Not anger at the author or the people involved in the book, but at the way we as a society could allow such things to happen on our watch. And anger that we find it so hard to provide an alternative, to undo this mess that we have created in our cities. I felt angry because I was not reading simply about Baltimore, but about cities all over the world. With variations, regional and personal, the stories of THE CORNER could easily take place anywhere and with the same indifference from authority and society. This was true crime as true social commentary, and it made me mad – precisely the point, I think, of the book.

Talking to Alexander McGregor in advance of our event next week, I’ve been fascinated to hear how, for the new edition, he’s had to update cases as new evidence has come to light, been forced to include new studies that caught his attention and generally had to ensure the book kept pace with the world around it. Because true crime is not written in a vacuum. The players and their situations are always in flux long after a book has been published. He has not abandoned his cases, left his words set in stone. How could he? Unlike fictional thrillers, true crime cases reverberate long after the dust has settled. And in so many cases, it seems that the possibility of the dust ever settling is truly remote.

I don’t know that I could ever write a true crime book. I don’t know that I could do true life tragedy justice. Not many people can, but those who write truly compelling and intelligent analyses of the terrible things we do to each other, making sense of reasoning and motive that can often seem bizarre and terrifying, have my utmost respect and admiration.