Saturday, October 3, 2009

Two Posts for the Price of One

In lieu of a longer, one-themed approach, I’m opting for two shorter ones today.

Sgt. Pepper Moments

On Wednesday, my colleague, John McFetridge, wrote a fantastic article about a Sgt. Pepper Moment he and the other writers for his show, “The Bridge,” had earlier this year (and get a load of the kick-ass trailer for "The Bridge). As they were writing episodes for “The Bridge,” another cop show, “Southland,” premiered and challenged them in new and unique ways. The entire post is well worth reading.

I got to thinking about my own Sgt. Pepper Moments. These would be moments in my life where I experienced something that completely changed an aspect of my life. I’m not going down the ultimate Sgt. Pepper Moment (being a dad), but, rather, staying on topic with mystery and crime fiction. As I wrote in my bio for this blog, I’m a late comer to the crime fiction genre. I’m here because of a Sgt. Pepper moment. I can state it in two words: Mystic River. Up until its publication, I rarely gave mysteries a glance. Heck, I didn’t even realize there was a distinction between “mystery fiction” and “crime fiction.”

That changed in 2001. After listening to an NPR interview (you'll need RealPlayer to hear it) with author Dennis Lehane, I decided to give the book a try. It rocked my world. I had no idea that a book--a *mystery* book--could be so profound. It changed the course of my reading and my interests. It spoke to me in ways I didn’t know existed. I’ve read it three times now, and I return to it when I need to be reminded how a modern master of storytelling demonstrates his craft.

What are your Sgt. Pepper Moments that got you to start reading mystery and crime fiction?

CSI and the Case of the Recurring Story Line

I have watched CSI on Thursday nights since the beginning. Yeah, Grissom’s gone but Sara’s back...again (Jorja Fox, the Brett Farve of television?). It’s almost back to normal. But there’s a new twist in this season’s storytelling. Have you picked up on it? In the premiere, there was Main Case (the lady in the traffic accident) but there was also the John Doe who arrived at the ME. For the bulk of the show, I expected the John Doe to relate (miraculously!) to the Main Case. The episode ended without a link. Hot dog, I thought, are the writers actually going to have a thread that runs through more than one show?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and appreciate the Crime of the Week, but lots of times, I want the longer, deeper mystery ("The Wire" anyone?). Come episode two, John Doe made another appearance...and he still wasn’t solved. Way to go, writers. Heck, the closing scene of the program all but indicated something very peculiar going on in the Vegas crime lab. I have my suspicions about Lawrence Fishburne’s character (my wife doesn’t share them). We’ll see how it turns up. Suffice it to day, what CSI has started doing this season is making me want to tune in. In book speak, it’s making me want to turn the pages. Fast.

Are y’all liking CSI so far this year? Do you like their approach to the storytelling? If not, what mystery/cop show do you like and why?

P.S. Coffee

This weekend only, Starbucks is launching it's new instant coffee, Via, in stores. You can go and take a taste test and see if you can identify the instant coffee vs. the brewed coffee. I could smell the difference and the taste was just further evidence. My reward (and yours if you try it): a coupon for a free cuppa joe. For instant, Via was not all that bad, easily the best tasting instant coffee I've ever had. Still, I'm a brew man, myself. But I can't wait for that next camping trip...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Stage Fright

Russel D McLean

By the time you read this, I’ll have launched THE LOST SISTER. Yes, the book’s been available early in some places but tonight is the official release, and let me tell you that I’m excited. Well, nervous. Very nervous.

Thinking about the release, has got me thinking about events. Like, author appearances. And what a strange concept they are. In the end, do we really want to know who it is behind the words on the page? Are we not just setting ourselves up for disappointment?


Authors are not public speakers. Just because you can write words does not mean you can speak them. I have seen authors torturously mumble their way through appearances, come out with statements that were clearly not thought through and generally make a pretty poor impression on the audience. Some of these guys were immense talents, but it did them no favours to make that appearance.

Which is why I think that authors should always think carefully about events. Do you enjoy doing them? If so, you’re probably halfway there. If not, the audience can smell that dislike from miles away. Believe me.

I get very nervous about events. I get antsy and fidgety beforehand. I lose my appetite, and I get a little grumpy. But when I get up there, I love doing them. I love interacting with groups of people. I’ve done big events. Small events. I’ve done events that are about merely being entertaining and I’ve done events for university courses where I’ve had to be a little more cerebral. I’ve interviewed other authors and I’ve talked about myself. And, truly, I get a kick out of it. I’m not perfect, of course, and no one is, but what I’ve found is that the fact that I’m there and I’m passionate about what I’m talking about translates to the audience.

There are certain things that as an author in the modern age you have to learn – voice projection and enunciation help. The ability to communicate through body language and presence. Basic stagecraft that would have been optional years ago seems to be becoming more and more essential. If you have to put yourself out there, you’re going to need to put in the effort. The audience wants to be on your side, but you have to give them something all the same. They’re forgiving, but if you haven’t put in the effort, they won’t forget.

I’m speaking here not just as an author, but as a bookseller who’s worked with a number of authors on events and launches. I’ve seen good. I’ve seen bad. I’ve seen ugly. And I hope it informs what I do when I head out there with my author hat on.

Tonight, I’m putting myself out there and letting a very smart journalist ask me some questions about the book and about my work. I have half an idea what he’s going to ask, but he could very easily surprise me. I don’t mind this. I prefer panels and interviews because I love having someone to bounce off; its one of the things that make events fun and why as an audience member I generally prefer multi-author panels.

In short, I believe that if we have to do author events, we should always try and remember that they are about some form of showmanship. Not laugh a minute, necessarily, but they should be as much about passion and communication as our novels are.

And so tonight, I step out in front of folks in the vain hope that some of them might buy the new book not just because they feel obligated, but because they’ve had a good time. Because they enjoyed what I had to say. Because they had as much of a blast as I know I’m going to…

Thursday, October 1, 2009


It's a challenge.

Deep down writing is a challenge. To have the discipline to sit down every day and write is a challenge to begin with.

But what good writers do is challenge themselves everyday. Tonight I attended a signing for Jason Pinter's newest The Fury and Reed Farrel Coleman's (with Ken Bruen) Tower. At the signing both talked about challenge themselves as they sat down to write these novels. To do something different.

As a writer, I respect that. One of the things that's always been important to me is doing something different each time out. To find at least one thing to focus on that was something I hadn't done before. With When One Man Dies I just wanted to complete and publish a novel. With The Evil that Men Do the challenge was to tell a story that had two linear narratives and amp up the speed and action.

Now I'm working on two novels. And each time out, I'm challenging myself more. The novel I've almost completed is a standalone. All the characters in it are brand new. I had to think differently about how to tell a story, who's eyes I'm telling it through. I had to make everything up from scratch. It was a pain in the butt, but I think I'm getting there.

Next I'm challenging myself by making the setting smaller, new characters, smaller stakes, but just as compelling. It's difficult to think about, and even harder to get down on paper. And you know something, that's just the way I like it.

I don't want to tell the same story twice. Each time I sit down to write I want to do something new. I want to come up with ideas and characters no one has seen before. It may not always work, but that's fine. I'd rather fall from the highest heights, that stand on the ground not even looking up.

Try Dennis Lehane. He challenged himself by telling new and different series novels for a while. Then he BLEW IT UP and wrote huge, gut wrenching standalones. And now the rumor is he's going back to the series. That's got to be a challenge, going back to characters nearly ten years later. I'm interested to see what he comes up with.

But what do you as the reader want to see? More of the same or something brandy dandy new?

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.