Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Sense of Community

Scott D Parker

Yesterday, the family and I went to the fine gem and minerals show here in Houston. My wife is a silversmith/jewelry artist, and this is one of the regular events that we attend together. She gets to pick up some new material for her jewelry making and we get to see some really spectacular fossils — which is my favorite thing. But what makes this a fun event even for a non-rock hound like myself the sense of community.

The event is held in the Embassy suites. This is one of those hotels where the interior is a huge atrium and all the hotel rooms are on the perimeter. The show takes up the entire second floor. The dealers each have a room. In the front of the suite is where they set up all of their wares. Some, but not all, have additional items on display in the bedroom area. Every door is open, which makes the shopping process simple and inviting. Every vendor has a sign that sticks out from the open door frame to identify each shop my name.

Like every small community, everyone who attends this show wants to be there and knows what they’re talking about. There’s a friendly atmosphere. Everyone says “hi.” The dealers, like dealers everywhere in the world, are standing around waiting to make sales or answer questions. What makes this group a little different, at least in my mind, is the willingness to discuss rocks, gems, minerals, and fossils. Gems and minerals and fossils are nowhere near my expertise. So that means I ask lots of questions. Every person I talked with was more than pleased to answer all my questions. How does one determine that an object is from a meteorite? Why is heliodor such an expensive mineral? Do the rocks actually form this way are you cut them to make them prettier? Is that really woolly mammoth fur? Can you just imagine the size of the woolly mammoth based on just this part of the foot and lower leg? (Hint: no, not really, it’s just too big.)

I’ve experienced this sense of community in other environments, primarily at comic book and science fiction conventions. Murder by the Book bookstore, down here in Houston, is another place where you get that palpable sense of community. I suspect that Bouchercon and other mystery conventions are much the same way.
But maybe it was the size, the smaller size, which really made the minerals show such a fun experience yesterday. It made me think back to the late 70s and early 80s when I first began to go to comic book conventions. They weren’t the large, expansive conventions that are housed in giant convention centers of today. Those conventions back then were small affairs, barely contained inside a banquet hall or an event room of the hotel like the Embassy Suites. For a moment yesterday, I actually longed for the smaller environment and wished that there was an event that featured my wheelhouse that I could attend.

I plan to attend Bouchercon this year so I’ll get to see what it’s really like. Are there is still small conventions around the country that still have that small town feel to them? Or have they all grown to such a size that you’re merely one of a large number of people and you could never be noticed?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Livin' La Vida Criminal

Guest blog by Gabino Iglesias

Back in 1999, you couldn’t turn your radio on or read a music publication without encountering the Latin explosion. Between Ricky Martin’s hips and Jennifer Lopez’s derrière, it seemed like Latino culture was about to take over the nation with its sexy rhythms, pretty people, and danceable hits. Then the explosion fizzled and disappeared. Why? Well, for starters, because the music was a fabricated mess, nothing more than crappy pop with a few Latin touches sprinkled on top. Also, between the albums in English everyone started releasing, the yellowing of every singer’s hair, and the videos full of easy-to-swallow cultural references, the Latino part of the Latin explosion was nothing more than an homogenized product with no real voice and as devoid of authenticity as a Milli Vanilli record (Google that one, youngsters).
Now, something akin to that is happening in literature, except it looks, feels, and reads like the real deal. I’m talking about a Latin explosion in crime fiction that is finally giving folks from south of the border, the Caribbean, and those born in the US in multicultural homes the chance to let their true voices be heard, their language to be used in the construction of their discourse, and their realities to be exposed in new and very interesting ways. From famous authors like Don Winslow becoming experts in frontera drug mayhem and Latin crime fiction giants like Leonardo Padura and Paco Ignacio Taibo II being translated into English to top indie presses accepting more Latino/bilingual authors and a wave of new writers sticking up their middle fingers and writing about their experiences the way they want to, it looks like this Latin explosion is real, and that’s a good thing.
Ask anyone about the DNA of American crime/noir and you’ll quickly get a list that reads something like this: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane, and James M. Cain. Those are authors you have to read in order to educate yourself. However, the country they wrote about has changed, and the voices telling the narratives of that nation are finally as diverse as the country itself. In the words of Claire Wells, who contributed a superb piece titled “Writing Black: Crime Fiction’s Other” to Diversity and Detective Fiction, edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein: “Crime fiction is a notoriously conservative genre and an examination of how the boundaries are breaking down in terms of racial positioning in this genre is perhaps representative of the wider postmodern slippage which is generally occurring in the field of literary production.”

This postmodern slippage is gaining momentum, and that is only part of what’s making crime fiction crucial right now, perhaps more so than any other popular genre. You see, the way crime fiction works is like this: something bad happens and that something exposes a plethora of social and political problems. When I sat down to write Zero Saints, besides the experiences and memories I wanted to put into the book, I knew that there was something important that I had to keep in mind at all times: crime seldom happens in a vacuum. For the characters in this new Latin explosion, the gun, the kilo, the trick, and the murder are means to an end, a way to put food on the table, or a way to cope with the rejection that comes from being the Other/not being able to find a real job/not knowing the language. The narratives about guns and crimes are now being injected with looks at diversity, identity, positionality, (multi)cultural touches, and the experiences of those forced to live on the margins of society. Latinos are here to stay. Spanglish is here to stay. The Latin crime fiction explosion is only starting, and as a bunch of second generation Whatever Americans start looking for and writing themselves into the genre, it’s bound to grow.  
I grew up surrounded by death. I grew up knowing that the wrong look got you a bullet. I grew up getting my teeth broken in street fights. Then I moved away from that and got a different version of hardship. I’ve been asked for my green card at job interviews. A great university hesitated about giving me a job because they didn’t know if I could give a 3-hour course and run a lab entirely in English. I’ve been on the verge of homelessness. These past six years have shown me that women will accelerate as soon as I step off the bus behind them. I wrote a piece about my relationship with guns while growing up in a hyperviolent country (you can read My Gun Education here) and realized that some states of mind just stick around forever. In short, my life in this country, especially when mixed with the one that preceded it, is not normative, except for someone who inhabits Otherness. That’s why barrio noir happened. That’s why I think of Zero Saints as the start of something special. That’s why I need to talk about the things I need to talk about. That’s why I escribo en Espanglish even knowing that some folks will criticize me for it. That’s why I’m really happy women, African American, and Latino authors are making so much noise now. This is one Latin explosion that won’t fade away, and you should keep your eyes on it.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Guest Blog: Less Talking, More Writing

Very lucky to have the wonderful Steph Post (A Tree Born Crooked) step in for me this week with a topic I think we can all relate to.  Enjoy! - Alex

“Adventure is just bad planning.”- Roald Amundsen
Back in college, I was a “pack the dogs and some eyeliner” kind of traveler. I lived for spontaneous road trips and cheap motels, for trouble, for the unexpected, for the next adventure just around the corner. I was also a poet. Angry, angsty. Dashing off verse in the local coffee shop while glowering at all the people who didn’t understand me. Half-drunk, standing in the middle of the road, screaming stanzas up at the pouring rain. That kind of angst. We’ve all been there to varying degrees. Yes, you know you have, and you know it, too.
But then, as I suppose often happens, real life settled in. I spent less time scribbling poetry and more time waiting tables to pay the bills. Then came grad school. Then teaching. A few short stories here and there. An absolutely terrible novel draft. A halfway decent one after that. Life moving along, my dream of one day being a novelist still hazy somewhere on the horizon. 
About three years ago, I was sitting in my living room complaining. Blah, blah, I know I’m meant to be an author one day, but how will I ever find the time, so on, so forth, blah, some more, blah. I was complaining to my husband who is, thankfully, not a writer. He’s a firefighter. He saves lives. He doesn’t have time for bullshit. So, basically his response was: “quit talking about being a writer; be a writer, already.”
His words hit me at just the right time and place in my life. In previous years, I probably would have snapped back something about “art” or “inspiration” or “muses,” but I was finally ready and his words were the spark I needed. Quit talking. Start doing. I changed my mentality about the writing process and the writing life. I still worked from inspiration, of course, but I framed it within a schedule. I made myself disciplined. I put in the hours. Day in, day out. I fought, I pushed. My first published novel, A Tree Born Crooked, was the result.
I’ve often said that writing is like a war. And for me, the comparison truly fits. It’s a fight all the way, from the first few words scrawled on the back of the bar tab to the printed page, and I’ve always been a fighter. After my first novel, I wrote Lightwood (due out January 2017 from Polis Books) and then switched genres from Southern Crime to Historical Literary Fantasy for the novel after that. Now I’m back to Crime as I work on the sequel to Lightwood, but I’m also researching for the next book, going back to Lit Fantasy. And that’s where polar exploration and Amundsen come in.
I don’t know how many books I’ve already read on the subject, but I’m back to reading another about Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott’s race to discover the South Pole. Everyone’s heard of Scott, what with his dramatic tale of scurvy, struggle and finally death in the frozen jaws of the Antarctic, heroism in the face of insurmountable odds and all that, but he didn’t discover the South Pole. Amundsen did. The Norwegian explorer didn’t suffer a harrowing fate in the name of king, country and everlasting glory. He was smart, he planned and prepared for years, he understood the task he was undertaking and he just went out and did it. Nobody died. It wasn’t easy, certainly, but it wasn’t a disaster, either. He didn’t talk; he just discovered.
So many years ago, I thought that being a “real writer” was akin to being Robert Scott. If you didn’t bleed onto the page, if the story didn’t come forth in a dramatic rush of inspiration, if you weren’t inches away from an emotional breakdown, then the piece wouldn’t really be worth reading. Now, I find being a writer more like being Amundsen. If you really want to be successful, to accomplish your goals, then you need to be in it for the long haul. You have to plan and work, you have to put in the hours. You have to talk less and write more. You have to put your head down and march on through the snow. Robert Scott wanted to be an explorer. Amundsen was an explorer. 
Back in those blood-and-thunder college days, I wanted to be a writer. Now, I am a writer. And I know the difference.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Story Behind My UNLOADED Story

Guest Post by S.W. Lauden

Here’s a question I’ve been asked by several people who’ve read my debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION: Was the police shooting of a teenager ripped directly from the headlines of the past couple of years?

It caught me off guard the first few times because I'm not an overtly political person. Sure, I follow the news and I have strong opinions about certain issues, but you won't usually see me posting tirades on Facebook or getting on my soapbox at a dinner party.

So while the answer I want to give might be a definitive “Hell yes!”—because that seems like a pretty badass thing to write about—the truth is probably something a little more complicated.

I first sat down to write “BCC” five years ago. At the time, I knew the protagonist, Greg Salem, was going to be a beach cities punk singer who had grown up to become a police officer. I also knew that he would lose his badge, but I wasn’t exactly sure how.

It was probably a year later, and deep into the first draft, when I finally decided to make his fall from grace an on-duty shooting involving a kid. This wasn’t specifically in response to anything I’d seen in the news, but because it seemed like a good metaphor for his relationship with his own troubled youth.

Sadly, police shootings are not a new phenomenon, but in this case I used it more for dramatic effect. The political implications of choosing that kind of tragic event were not lost on me, but it wasn’t the focal point. That’s just not how I approach my writing.

So I had to think about whether or not to submit a story to Eric Beetner's anthology, UNLOADED: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns. I dug the idea and I loved that the proceeds from sales would benefit a worthy cause ( I just wasn't sure that I was the kind of writer to participate for all the reasons stated above.

My knee-jerk response was that it would be much easier to move on and put my energy into another writing project, but that didn’t sit well with me either. Then it dawned on me: Gun violence isn't really a political issue for me, it's a moral one.

Somehow that made it easier for me to wrap my head around the opportunity. From that point forward I focused on the interesting challenge of writing a compelling crime story without using guns.

The result is “Itchy Feet,” the story of a suburban family that’s hosting a yard sale while their lives fall apart. You can cut the dysfunction with a knife, but everybody is pretty much holding it together until a psychotic clown turns up. That’s when the wheels fall off the circus wagon.

“Itchy Feet” is the latest version of a short story I first started three years ago. The inspiration came to me while I hosted a yard sale of my own. I watched the strangers dig through piles of my old stuff while making up stories for them in my head—because that’s what I do.
Whether this anthology will make any difference in the greater debate is beside the point. For now I applaud Eric Beetner and Down & Out Books for putting this anthology together, and thank them for letting me be part of it. I know for sure that there’s a least one person that was challenged by the concept.


S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in September 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available now from Down & Out Books.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Dust Up: A Doyle Carrick Thriller

Guest Post by Jon McGoran

Scott's Note: Dust Up, the new biotech thriller from Jon McGoran, comes out today. That's good news; I can vouch for the novel being fast, suspenseful, and quite entertaining.  Good to know, also, that a guy who's funny in person is just as amusing in print. So....what does Jon have to say about his book?

Halfway through writing the first draft of Dust Up, I was ambushed by a Haitian gangster. Not literally, but literarily.

I am an assiduous outliner. I like to know as much as possible about where a story is going before I start writing. Outlining might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. If you ask me why, I’ll tell you more than you want to know about that, but I’ll also tell you that the outline has to work for the author, not the other way around. Two or three times per book, while writing a first draft, I’ll go back and tweak my outline to accommodate different directions the story has taken.

One of the knocks against outlining is that it can steal some spontaneity from the writing of the actual draft. I get that, and to some extent it may be true, but even as much as I outline, I frequently experience new minor characters unexpectedly stepping onto the page because that is what the story needs. And sometimes minor characters become major ones, expanding to fill a void in the narrative. But rarely does one of those characters grab hold of my affections — and my narrative — just through the force of their own personality. That’s what happened with a character named Toma in my latest thriller, Dust Up.

A late addition and a very minor character, Toma is the gangster nephew of one of the main characters.

From the very beginning, Toma responded to the practical demands of the plot with a backstory that gave him depth and complexity.

When I needed him to speak English, I realized that as a child, he’d been a boat person, brought on the dangerous journey to Miami by his mother. She died shortly after their arrival, but not before conferring upon him a deep understanding of Haiti and its history. Forced to make his own way, he became a small-time criminal, until his arrest and deportation back to Haiti. He is from both worlds and neither, but his experiences give him a broader view and insights that none of the other characters possess.

The plot dictated that the head of the gang had recently been killed, leaving Toma as the leader. But I realized Toma hadn’t just lost his boss, he had lost a friend. Being the gang leader wasn’t something he had sought or wanted. It wasn’t an opportunity, it was a tragedy.

Toma became one of my favorites — a troubled character with a difficult past and an uncertain future, a personality of unexpected depth, intelligence, passion and remarkable complexity.

In what has become one of my favorite scenes I have ever written, Toma lets loose with a ranting monologue, releasing the bottled up anger and outrage and frustration at the things that are done to his country and the things that it does to itself.

It erupts as Doyle and Toma are hiking through the jungle at night, as part of a broader plan. Just before they leave, Toma is forced to kill someone — a senseless murder that the victim brings on himself, and another tragedy in Toma’s life.
Immediately afterward, he and Doyle set out.

There is a lull in the narrative, and in it, unbidden, Toma starts talking. 

“Fucking Haiti,” Toma said, bitter and weary, fifteen minutes after we’d set out.

I didn’t know what to say to that. He had a point. It was not a country without problems. But it had upsides, as well. People like Regi and Marcel and Elena. People like Portia. And it wasn’t my country to criticize. How many times a day did I say, “Fucking America”— and with good reason too. But I wasn’t Haitian, so I kept my mouth shut.

For the next two pages, Toma talks about Haiti’s history, its place in the world, the heartbreaking unfairness that seems to haunt it, and that it sometimes brings upon itself.

I’m not a big fan of long monologues. I take very seriously my role as a storyteller, and while the books I write often have topical themes, I feel very strongly that those ideas should add to the story, not interfere with it. Whenever the two compete, story wins. Every time. Just the whiff of exposition makes me jittery and depressed.

In the scene, Doyle doesn't know what to make of it at first. Writing it, I didn’t either. I had no idea where this was coming from, but every time I tried to reign Toma in, to cut him off, he told me, ‘No, I’m not done yet.’ And he was right.

Looking back after writing it, I realized Toma had just been through this traumatic event. He barely knew Doyle and didn’t care what he would think. And in the darkness, like a confessional, Toma might feel more freer to speak his mind.

It made perfect sense. The crazy thing was, Toma realized it long before I did.

And that’s one more reason why I love him.

Dust Up is out now and available here: DUST UP.

Jon McGoran is the author of the Doyle Carrick biotech thrillers Drift, Deadout, and the newest releases, Dust Up, as well as the novella Down to Zero, from Tor/Forge Books. Writing as D. H. Dublin, he is the author of the forensic thrillers Body TraceBlood Poison and Freezer Burn.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"I'm a Writer" and other awkward conversations

by Kristi Belcamino

The other day I was introduced to a new neighbor by another neighbor, with this:

"Kristi is a writer."

Dead silence.

That I filled with: "Um, yeah, it's fun."


And that was that.

I asked my friends in the Facebook Mystery Writers of America Midwest group what they say in these cases so they don't come off as goofy as I did.

Now, I'm all about taking ownership and proudly stating you are a writer. But sometimes saying you are a writer opens you up to all sorts of weirdness.

Here are some great answers my MWA friends offered instead of my lame "fun. me writer."


Oh, Kristi--I feel your pain! Whenever I identify myself as a writer, I feel like a kid working at McDonalds in Manhattan must feel when she says: "I'm an actress."

I'm so glad I'm not the only one! And what do you do when a friend praises you to strangers about the wonderful books you write, but describes them in such a way that you know they've never read a single one?

 "I write mysteries."

"Yeah, I write mysteries. What do you do?"

 "I write crime fiction." And "Yeah, it's fun," because that's totally true, too.

"I kill people for a living how about you?"

"I lie for a living, but I'm not a politician."

"Meeting new people is such a great experience. I get so much material that way!"

"You know that Beatles' song -- Paperback Writer. They wrote that about me."

Option 1-A: Have your phone ringtone set for "Paperback Writer" with the ability to automatically play on demand whenever someone asks you this question.

Answer 2: "It's better than being a wronger"

Answer 3: "It's not my fault. I come from a long line of ne'er-do-wells and scallawags."

What do you say?