Saturday, May 14, 2016

Castle: All Good Things..

Scott D. Parker
I can't think of another situation like this where many longtime fans of the TV show CASTLE are happy, albeit bittersweet, about its cancellation.
On Tuesday, I wrote how I was dreading this season’s finale because of all the behind-the-scene shenanigans regarding the firing of co-lead Stana Katic and Tamala Jones. I lamented the inevitable way Katic’s character, Captain Kate Beckett, would have to be written out of the show: her death. I even had my failsafe way to assuaging the anger I knew I was going to feel this coming Monday: re-watch the Season 7 finale.
But now, all that is moot. On Thursday, ABC cancelled Castle.
For me, Castle was one of my all-time favorite shows. Ever since the promo to the series aired back in 2009, I was hooked. Part of it was Nathan Fillion. C’mon! But the other part was the concept. A bestselling writer teaming up with a tough lady cop? Banter that hearkened back not only to “Moonlighting” but Nick and Nora Charles? What’s not to like?
I not only liked it. I loved it. Passionately. In an interesting bit of timing, my family was selected by the Arbitron folks to wear this little pager-like devices that would monitor what we watched and listened to on the radio. “CSI: Miami” aired Mondays at 9pm, but so did Castle. And, since the monitors didn’t pick up VCR recording, we watched Castle live (and taped CSI: Miami). I’d like to think that my family helped in the ratings during that first 10-episode season.
The chemistry between Fillion and Katic was present from the beginning. Charm oozed from them both. They were so good together. I watched each and every episode with a goofy grin on my face. My wife enjoyed the show, too. I’d tell everyone about it and why they should give it a try. It was a rare instance when a friend would come back and say, “That’s not the show for me.”
Even though Fillion and Katic were the central crux of the show, the entire ensemble deserves high praise. Jon Huertas and Seamus Dever, as Detectives Esposito and Ryan, became inseparable and indispensable as the show continued. Together, they formed a unique team, the likes of which are rare on network TV: co-stars that belong together. As I wrote back in 2011 during my recap of the season 3 finale, “If there was an Emmy Award for Best Co-Star Team, Huertas and Dever should be nominated annually.” Molly Quinn, who played Castle’s teenaged daughter, literally grew up before our eyes. Her special chemistry with Fillion was so good you’d be forgiven for believing they really were father and daughter. Susan Sullivan, Martha Rodgers, Castle’s mom, usually played her role for laughs and conflict, but she brought decades of experience to the show and always was a welcome addition to any episode. Early on, Ruben Santiago-Hudson played Captain Montgomery, Beckett’s commanding officers. He brought gravitas to the prescient as well as heartfelt courage when his character sacrificed himself for Beckett. That he was replaced by Penny Johnson Jerald as Captain Gates was wonderful casting and helped keep the show’s conflict afloat. Together, all these wonderful actors—and so many more—created something so much more than the mere sum of the parts.
The writing on the show, created by Andrew Marlowe, started strong and kept up the momentum. It’s a rare serious show that can do comedy well. “The X-Files” was good at that. But it’s also the rare lighthearted show that can craft such deeply emotional and serious episodes. This is where Castle excelled. I wrote about Castle at lot over the years, and more than one time, I commented that they should have just changed the name of the show to “Beckett.” She grounded the show. Her emotional arc is the through line of the entire series. The overall investigation into her mother’s murder gave the show heft and showed, that even when life jars your and knocks you off your planned trajectory, you have to right yourself. Katic breathed so much life into Beckett. She portrayed the police detective not only as a strong, capable, modern woman, but also one that had to overcome life when life broke down the walls she built. She is an incredible actress and she did such a stunning job at playing the part written and tailored to her.
Speaking of writing, I can’t think of another show with as much meta-stuff as Castle. That the good folks at ABC decided to actually publish real books featuring Nikki Heat and slap Fillion’s face on the back cover was inspired. Brilliant! I absolutely loved them all. They were great to read in real time as Rook and Heat (Castle and Beckett’s doppelgangers in the novels) got together early on. And a big shout out to Johnny Heller who narrated the first four novels. His voice and cadence so closely matched Fillion’s it was like “Richard Castle” was narrating his own book.
And so it ends. As I wrote on Facebook, I actually have mixed feelings about the cancellation. I know it would have to end sometime. There were times in this final season where even I could tell the show wasn’t reaching the heights it had in past seasons. But I still loved it. Passionately. Fervently. It was perfectly suited to my nerdy, geeky, writerly wheelhouse. That it went from a gimmicky show about a nerdy writer and his muse to an incredibly deep one that showed the blossoming of a real romance amidst the uncertain times of the early 21st Century is remarkable. I will dearly miss it and my "I don't answer the phone Mondays at 9pm" time. Heck, if you throw in CSI: Miami which started in 2002, I’ve had a 9pm Monday show for 14 years!
Before the cancellation news broke, I had my fail safe backup plan in light of Beckett’s inevitable death: I was going to rewatch the season 7 finale. In that episode, the writers buttoned up the entire series with a smiling cast and wonderful, heartfelt words. I have since learned that they filmed two different endings for this season’s finale, the one where Beckett most likely died and the happy one. Let’s hope the editor gets it correct! It looks like we’ll get our closure ending. It looks like we’ll have our sad, yet happy tears. 

But, most of all, CASTLE will end the way it started. With two characters, Richard Castle and Kate Beckett, two people from different worlds who found each other, discovered in the other person that which they themselves lacked, withstood the hardships of life, fell in love, and got married. In so many love stories, there’s the “and they lived happily ever after” line. The implication is that life will always be smiles. That’s not the case. What the romance of Castle and Beckett showed, time and time again, is that life throws obstacles in their paths, but together, they can overcome anything. That they are stronger together than apart.
And we are all happier for all the joy that CASTLE has brought to our lives. Together, we have experienced our lives together, cast, crew, and fans. No matter what life threw in our way, we always knew that, come Monday nights, we can see our TV friends and they’ll bring a smile to our faces.
Man! I so loved this show!
It’s easy, now, to write “There’ll never be another show like it,” but there likely will be. After all, some folks characterized Castle as a new Moonlighting. But the next show that tries to do what CASTLE did will have an incredibly high bar to reach, to say nothing of surpass.
So, come Monday, we will get our happy ending. And Castle and Beckett (and us) can end this wonderful relationship in the only way possible.

P. S., I just re-watched the series premiere Everything we love is there, right from the beginning. It was like Marlowe and company created this show from whole cloth and the subsequent years only refined its flavor. Truly a one-of-a-kind program.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Real Detective and True Crime TV w/John McFetridge

I sat down with John McFetridge - novelist, screenwriter, and one of the writers behind Investigation Discovery's Real Detective to talk about true crime TV and the ways it's evolving and changing - and the way it has helped him evolve and change, too. He started by kindly explaining to me how TV writing works, as that's a topic that's always been interesting to me (writing with other people?!) and how Real Detective was a different experience - since they were working off police reports and interviews with, well... real detectives, and not in a traditional writer's room.

At the beginning of these shows, before they start, it says “Hey, some of this stuff has been changed.” When you’re writing these is there a certain amount of pressure to change certain details if they don’t necessarily fit a clean narrative or do you have a little bit more leeway to put the facts out and just make them make sense? 

The writer is part of the crew. So a writer gets hired the way a grip gets hired and you’re told “we're gonna lay some dollies on a track right here, make it level” and the writer is told “we’re gonna make the scene between these two people – write it.” So you’re clearly the first of many people who are going to go through this material by the time it gets onto TV. You know going in, I don’t really have a lot of say in how this is going to work out in the end. But you do at least get to have your say. This is how I think it should go, this is how I think it should be. The claim is always that we want to get as true to the spirit of it.

For example, in one of the episodes that I wrote one of the things that was just left out was that – the crime happened in Van Nuys, CA in the early 90s and it was at a time when there was a lot of murders. One of the things that kept coming up in the interview with the detective, and it even came up in some of the reports, was that these detectives would get three or four murders a week – usually on the weekends – and then they’d clear them in about a week, and usually either have enough evidence to hand it over to the lawyers and have a charge or they hit a roadblock where they probably weren’t going to get any further. The one that got pulled out was one where a detective felt that they weren’t going to get anymore and they probably weren’t going to get any further, but he just didn’t want to let it go because the victim was a nineteen or twenty-year old woman who had been homeless and a drug addict, and she was working as a prostitute, and he really just thought that for the end part of her life – nobody cared. And he didn’t want it to go out like that. When it came time to write the episode, one of the notes was: don’t mention prostitution. And then one of the notes was: Don’t mention the drug addiction.

And I said “well that’s kind of a big part of the story,” but in the heat of the moment you get talked into the idea that it’s really not the most characteristic thing about her. There’s was an awful lot more to her life then the way it ended and the last couple years of it. I thought, well that’s true. Because at first I though, “No, no, you gotta put that in because it’s important!” But the network didn’t want that in. I kind of came around to it, to be honest with you. I kind of came around to the idea that it’s maybe not the aspect of her life that we should dwell on so much.

I agree that you don’t want to focus on maybe the worst parts of a victim’s life but it’s interesting that it would be “don’t mention it at all.” Do you think that comes from a certain amount of – they know who the audience is, they know that the victims have to be sympathetic and certain elements will take away from that sympathy for the casual viewer?
Probably. One of the other things though, is the time constraint. The episodes are pretty short. It’s not a lot of time to get in there. When you start to raise things like that, and you don’t have enough time to really deal with them, they can kind of take over.

The network itself is pretty conscious of who it’s audience is, and they definitely pick, of all the true stories out there to dramatize, they pick ones that they really feel their audience will be interested in. I have to say, they know more about that than I do.

A follow on to that: When you’re sitting down to write this story – the people are real, the names for the most part are real – do you feel any responsibility or weight when you’re doing that, knowing that the majority of people who see this episode are people who never knew the victim, never knew the killer, never knew these people in real life – and what you’re putting out there is going to be everything they get. 

Yes. I certainly do. I think that it is a responsibility. Of course, I couldn’t help it, after the episode aired I went online to see what people were saying about it. A lot of the comments I saw on the webpage about the show – I thought “gee I’d like to jump in there and explain to them more of the backstory that they didn’t get.” They are just using the information that was in the show as the basis to have this big conversation. A lot of the conversation would be different if they saw more of what was going on.

One of the things I found interesting about Real Detective was the interviews with the detectives. Most of them were retired so they were able to talk about the cases fairly openly. And the cases were all closed and from a while ago, usually. But they also felt a real responsibity to the victims, to the families, to the people who were actually involved. It was just nice to have just one more layer of care on it.

Recently the numbers came out that Investigation Discovery, specifically, the vast majority of viewers are women, and people were really surprised by that. A lot of these stories revolve around women, whether they’re the victims or they’re the women who discover their husbands are horrible criminals. Women play a central role in all these stories. But when you watch, say Law & Order, the woman is there for the first five minutes and then she only exists in commentary from other people. 

From the ones that I looked at for Real Detective – because I went through a whole bunch of possible ones – one of the things that came up, and it wasn’t a directive from the network – one of the things that came up was that these crimes are mostly family dramas. They’re people who know each other and they’re people who are often intimate with one another. So on these crime shows one of the things is the motives – you know they couldn’t do twenty four episodes of Law & Order where every single motive was infidelity. Just because the writers’ room – someone’s gotta be embezzling or somebody’s gotta be doing all this other stuff. In reality, most of these kinds of murders are people who know one another quite well.

You have to really feel strongly about somebody to want to see them dead.
(Laughs) Yeah. A lot of times it is an accident though! But certainly to plan it, and to think about it. To think about it more than one day. But what I mean is, in these stories, they aren’t stories about hit men or like a lot of what we see in the current noir/crime trends are – I mean, the network didn’t come out and say it but they didn’t really want gang stories, and they didn’t really want drug deals gone bad, they didn’t want that kind of stuff.

But essentially, the way they really got weeded out, what they wanted was the case that was the most meaningful for the detective that worked it. The show is called Real Detective, so when we’re interviewing detectives – they weren’t that interested in the gang ones either. They weren’t that interested in the, you know, a couple of drug dealers have a big fight and one of them kills the other one. That didn’t change their lives. But one that disrupted a family. One that was really involved in the intimate family moments. That was the one, for most of the detectives we saw on the show, those were the cases that were the most significant for them.

For a homicide detective, it’s gotta be hard to care about the seventh bad drug deal of the month.
Yeah, and don’t get me wrong, the detective we were talking to in Van Nuys, who worked a lot of those, he was affected by them. He had a fairly lengthy lecture on the waste of human life that goes on because of bigger factors and all that kind of stuff. He did see it repeated many, many times, and that did seem to have an effect as well. But again, even in those cases, if he wanted to, he could have picked almost any one of those other murders, and if we were willing to lay the backstory down, and we were willing to do the research into the family, they’re all that kind of tragedy. As bad as whatever else is going on. It’s somebody, the family is still devastated.

One of the things that came up interviewing James Queally was how the families are effected and how that’s what stuck with him through the years. While what you’re saying makes perfect sense – you want the stories with the familial drama – there is a story behind every life that’s lost. Somebody cared about that person.
Right. The network definitely wanted to hit that “that could happen to me” and most of their viewers are not involved in a lot of drug deals. But anybody could date someone who is not what they think they are.

I think it does play into a certain fear that a lot of women are raised with. That if you get in the car with the wrong person, or you fall in love with the wrong person, or you’re not on your guard – that you could end up dead. Or you could end up an accomplice or living with somebody you don’t really know who they are. That’s something I don’t think a lot of men understand until it’s laid out for them. Do you feel like you have a better understanding for that kind of cloud that hangs over the experience of women having looked at all these stories?
Over the time that I’ve been writing I’d say that has happened, yes. And it’s ongoing. In some ways it feels like we’ve only recently come to this point where we should have been here a long time ago. Now that it is in the conversation. I was just talking to somebody – I don’t know if you know The Tragically Hip, they’re a pretty big Canadian band, they have a song called “Thirty-Eight Years Old” and it takes place in 1973 and it goes back 18 years before that. It’s about a rape and of course it’s one that never got reported. I was thinking about it the other day and I made a joke, “Oh I’d like to write a a screenplay based on that song” and the reason I thought of it is because that story is still relevant. The line in the song is “My sister got raped so a man got killed.” But the story is still the same that – she was the victim but that got lost in the fifties. But also in the seventies and also today! So it is, you’re right, going through all this stuff makes you more aware, but still, it feels to me like we’re just at the very beginning of that.

Well, I agree. I mean, it’s funny to me because this is a topic that I’m very interested in and very passionate about. Intellectually, I think if you ask somebody, “If a woman gets raped is that bad?” they’re going to say “Yeah, that’s terrible.” But there’s that line that you have to cross with empathy and understanding of how these things happen and what the circumstances are and why a woman might choose not to report it. I think you’re right, we’re just starting to get to the line and start crossing it. 

It still seems like the issue around reporting and the issue around the most very basic right and wrong is that it couldn’t go that way. It couldn’t get reported the way a burglary got reported. It couldn’t get reported the way any other crime got reported. It’s different.

We just had this really huge media event in Canada where there was a sexual assault trial for a guy who was really famous and one of the things that came up in trial was the actions of the women before and after the assaults. I thought, twice in my life I’ve been mugged and nobody ever said to me “yeah before you were mugged what were you like?” It just never came up. I got out of the subway, I was walking to my house, a guy jumped out, hit me over the head with a club and took my money. When I reported it no one said “well what were you doing to make him take your money?” It just never came up! My apartment got broken into and no one ever said to me “Yeah but two weeks ago you left the door unlocked.”

...And you know one of the things I didn’t realize, I gotta admit, I thought I was just naïve. I had no idea how many men live in fear of the false accusation. I just didn’t think it would ever come up.

I don’t think we have enough time to get into the layers of that particular one. I’d say 95% of the men I know have no fear whatsoever of being falsely accused of rape, and I think that’s probably due in large part to the fact that they don’t do things that could be “misinterpreted” as rape. I don’t think the line is really so fine. I worry about men who think the line is so fine that they have to worry all the time that some girl is going to accuse them of rape.
I do too. I’m glad to hear, 95 is a pretty good percentage there. That’s good to hear.

Well I’m really picky about the people I associate with, I guess.
So, a lot of what I’ve been doing is really critical of the true crime genre, but it’s interesting, and enlightening to actually have this conversation with you and think, “Well of course this is why women watch these shows” and “this is what the people working on these shows maybe learn.”
And the other thing to keep in mind, and I wonder about this myself, is the stories that become the most famous… when we were going through the possible crimes, one of the things that came up was that, something unusual often times in itself makes it interesting. So what you end up with are a bunch of the stuff that gets dramatized or gets reported is atypical. But I think in some ways, and I don’t watch an awful lot of true crime, but I am interested in the way that they portray the characters. I do think because the network is looking for the “it could happen to me” I think we’re getting a little bit less atypical ones and a little more…

You know that whole, “dog bites man - that’s not a story. But man bites dog – that’s something!” So for quite awhile we had true crime that was all man bites dog. They were after ones that looked out of the ordinary. Now I think there is a trend toward ones that are a little more in the ordinary. In a way that can be good because it can get us a little deeper into things, if the superficial of it isn’t “Oh wow look at that!”

I see what you’re saying. On Investigation Discovery, a lot of these shows are about ordinary families where something extraordinary happens. But when you’re watching the news, they’re still going for the super sensational, crazy, “Oh it comes out that they were into weird sex stuff! It comes out that he had a mistress!” They’re still really leaning on that extraordinary crime, which is interesting because you would think that the entertainment channels would be more focused on the sensational and the news channels would be more focused on the stuff that actually happens every day and affects people.

Yeah. I did think about this a little when I read the interview that you did with the crime reporter last week. One of the things I realized was, for the reporting, it’s really immediate, and it’s ongoing, and it’s as the information comes out. I really got that when he was saying you get the call and you race down and you get there at the same time as the police and there’s a dead body there and you’re writing about it and that goes out to the news. And I thought, that’s really interesting – that speed. Because when we’re looking at these stories – one took place in 1991 or 92, so there’s been a long time to reflect on that.

That’s one of the things about it, it’s just the time difference. The reporter is really after the accuracy of facts and realty the immediacy. They’ve gotta, they’re getting it out fast. And it’s good because what gets out first is often what stays around. I’m glad they’re interested in getting it accurate and getting it out quickly.

Then the line between entertainment and news that really crosses on this, I mean everybody is pretty much accepting the idea that “based on a true story” is based and reality TV’s not really real. But it is a whole separate genre on it’s own where it’s not – it’s not a grey area – but we understand that it’s not raw footage. It’s been edited and it’s been put together. So there is an entertainment aspect of it.
And that was one of the things about working on the show that was a bit of a conflict – a bit of a push and pull between the writer and the producers was the network is still a TV network. So it still has the show divided into acts and it still has breaks in the 48 minutes. So the most common note that I discovered you get in straight ahead fictional TV and in Real Detective was “stronger act out.”

Just before we go to commercial, we want there to be some bump. So this kind of naturally turns the show into a bit of a whodunit because just before we go to commercial, theres a new piece of information. In a way that kind of skews the story telling. In that case it’s clearly entertainment because now we’re trying to do that cliffhanger, suspenseful moment that is more in the entertainment world than in the documentary world. So, everything we worked on had four pieces of new information that came to make for an act-out. So there was a lot of discussion about what was suspenseful and what will keep people watching… It was interesting to me to see that as more of these shows get produced, there’s more variants on that kind of thing. It used to always be “We find out there’s a mistress! Dun-DUN” But now it can be, it’s getting a little bit more subtle. It’s a little bit more character than a piece of evidence. So there’s potential for this kind of story telling, but it’s still a little bit – it’s not really new, it’s been going for awhile – but it’s still getting worked out.

Read John's fiction HERE and look out for Real Detective on Investigation Discovery.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Cannibals: Jen Conley's fantastic collection

By Steve Weddle

If you wanted to know what was going on with the contemporary crime fiction scene, you could do worse than Jen Conley’s new collection, Cannibals, but you couldn’t do much better. In terms of story depth and publication breadth, of quality and quantity, Conley’s book will be the one you see listed on your awards ballots. And there’s damn good reason for that.

Conley’s stories have appeared in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp, Out of the Gutter, Grand Central Noir, Big Pulp, and Literary Orphans, as well as a number of anthologies. She’s been a driving force behind the fiction site Shotgun Honey and a regular Noir at the Bar reader.

If someone asks you what’s up with crime fiction these days, this is the book you’d buy them.

This collection includes the following stories:

Home Invasion
Howling Pipe
Marty in Love
Debbie the Hero
It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City
Finn’s Missing Sister

“Home Invasion,” published in Thuglit, was nominated for a 2011 Best of the Web Spinetingler Award.

At Needle, we had the honor of publishing “Finn’s Missing Sister,” which was later selected by the Best American Mystery Stories 2013 as “Distinguished.” Damn right it is.

All of the stories included either won awards or should have.

While I could show you any snippet of any story and have you fall in love with the writing, let’s look quickly at the opening of “Debbi, the Hero,” which will give you a taste of what Conley is doing, and how it is that these stories are so good.
I see that rotten boy who got my fourteen-year-old granddaughter pregnant. I’m just standing here in the 7-Eleven, waiting to pay for my yogurt and coffee, when he walks in with his mother, Melissa, who heads down one aisle, pretending not to see me. I don’t know Melissa well but she never bothered me until after the storm, when I became Facebook friends with her. You know the type—always posting positive inspirational quotes like: God never gives you more than you can handle. Or, I love my son! If you love your son and think he’s the best thing in your world, share! Given the present situation, I find these posts obnoxious. Yes, I unfriended her but she’s a Facebook user who hasn’t discovered the privacy button. Like an addict, I’m drawn to her page, fascinated by her hypocritical posts.
But Melissa isn’t my problem.

Building a contemporary scene. Great details. Character. Intrigue. (Is Melissa nuttier than the narrator?) And then, Blammo. “Melissa isn’t my problem.” A paragraph of quick right jabs setting you up for the left cross you never saw coming.
I drive across town, cursing, my hands gripped on the steering wheel, as I head to my bartending job. That boy needs an old-fashioned ass kicking—and I know plenty of guys who will step up—but that will also get me in trouble. Times aren’t like they used to be when I was a young woman, when people had codes. Now grown men call the police if they’ve lost a fist fight.
A billboard catches my eye: New Jersey. Stronger than the Storm. The town I live in was hit hard by the hurricane. If you Google Sandy and a picture of a bridge in the water comes up, that’s my neck of the woods.
More character development here for the narrator, with the line about grown men calling the cops really nailing the setting and the voice. People had codes. Times were different then. Now everyone is a loser.

And then, again, that left cross. Go to a book festival, throw a rock in the bar and most writers you hit would never have been able to pull off what Conley is about to pull off: telling you where the narrator lives by showing you on multiple levels. The narrator doesn’t live east of here or in the Glenfarful neighborhood. No. Sandy had an impact. The narrator lives in the fallout of that. The picture of the bridge in the water. The tying to the contemporary by way of the search engine, by way of the recent devastating storm, a storm that has devastate the characters in this story in many ways. Though this is the not the only storm to hit. And there are always more coming. You get a sense from just this glimpse of life here. No. That’s not right. Not a sense. You get a feeling. And Conley hits you hard, paragraph after paragraph, story after story.

Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens (Down & Out Books) is a strong testament to not only Conley’s skill as a writer, but to the strength of the crime fiction community.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Writing Kids Into Your Crime Fiction

Guest Post by Jen Conley

While I was doing an interview with Chris Irvin, I started to think about something: I write about kids. A lot. Not cute little kids but older kids—ten, eleven, twelve-years-old, and teenagers. My new collection, CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF THE PINE BARRENS, is chock full of kids and teenagers. After mulling over it, then obsessing over it (because we writers tend to obsesses about everything we’ve ever written) I started second-guessing myself. Did I write too many kid stories? Is that going to turn people off? Because aren’t children an easy go-to for quick sympathy? Everyone feels bad for a child in trouble. Hell, put a dog in the story and the tears are already forming. In fact, I’ve written so many stories centered around children, I had to leave a few out my collection. Even in my “older people” stories there is usually a paragraph or two or three about the main character’s childhood. Or a side character who is a child or teenager.

So why do I do it? Write all these kids? First, the obvious answer is: I like kids. (Not in a creepy way, of course, but in a normal way—let’s just clarify that now.) I teach seventh grade and you have to like kids to teach seventh grade because at seventh grade they aren’t cute anymore. They’ve become opinionated and snippy and interesting and dry-humored and goofy… it’s actually a cool grade to teach if you can handle the eye rolling and the tapping on the desks, clicking of the pens…the relentless tapping and clicking and tapping...I also live with a teenager who does that relentless tapping, clicking…

I’m going off on a tangent. Let’s go back to my original question—why do I write kids? Is it because I’m with them all day and with my teenage son all night?

 Not really.

So why? What’s the draw for me?

I think it’s this: Teaching middle school and living with a fourteen-year-old boy, it’s true—I’m bombarded with kids. It’s like I’m in the noise All Day, All Night. On the sidelines of a constant whirlwind of that great big change: childhood to adolescence. The age where you leave your favorite TV shows, your army men, your dolls, your kid friends—all that used to interest you. I remember when I turned thirteen, I stopped watching the Brady Bunch (and I adored the Brady Bunch!), stopped collecting stamps and pennies, stopped playing Barbies and school… and there was grief. Yes, I’d gotten bored with toys and hobbies before, but this seemed more acute, more heartbreaking. Sure it was exciting to move on to my teens, but I was sad to find that so many things that once kept my interest were now horrendously boring, and that my childhood was really over. It was the first turning point in life, when not only the physical parts change, but the brain begins to mature. It’s also the moment, I think, when you begin to get a grasp on how the world works. When you finally start to get it. That life isn’t fair, for real. And, if you were lucky to not have met them before, it’s probably the first time when you realize some adults are awful people. Really awful.

As a crime writer, that’s the part, if I’m being honest, that really interests me.

And I’ll tell you my story, the story of when I realized that some adults are more than awful, that they’re downright dangerous.

I was a late bloomer in life and I suppose I had a false sense of security: my world was pretty safe. I was independent, a bit of a loner, roaming the neighborhood on my bike day and night without incident. I had a lot of friends for a loner and I used to stop and hang out, but then I was off, riding alone. I would ride my bike on Route 70 (one of those crazy highways) up to the pizza parlor for a slice, and nothing happened. The pizza dudes were cool. Never once did some weirdo approach and try to lure me away.

When I was sixteen, my mom received an inheritance. We weren’t a poor family but money was tight, there were no big vacations or an in-ground pool or Disney trips (things my sister and I would ask for) and when she got this inheritance, my mom wanted a blow out: a cruise to Bermuda. Sounded great to me. We sailed out of New York (or maybe it was Jersey) and we were out at sea for a day and a half. These were the days when cruises weren’t for kids, but geared for older people, retirees. My sister and I were the only teenagers on the ship, no other kids at all. When my parents were around, all was good. But when we wandered on our own, the stares from the male ship workers grew longer and more uncomfortable. We were teenage girls, after all. It was early spring and the North Atlantic doesn’t warm up until July, so it was too chilly to wear a bathing suit, swim in the pool. I don’t think either of us would’ve done it anyway—both of us sensed something wasn’t right. Still, I thought I was safe. I was with my mom and dad, and it was a friggin’ cruise ship. What could go wrong? (I know, besides an iceberg, yada ya.)  

Jen as a kid

One night during the return journey from Bermuda, I was strolling along the decks wearing my Walkman. I was walking with my mom and my sister, and they were arguing, as was their custom, and I veered off on my own because they were annoying the shit out me (as was my custom—to be annoyed at everything.) As I was walking along the deserted decks, the moon and stars bright, I heard a whistle. I turned off my Walkman and heard it again. In the moonlight, I saw an older man sitting on a narrow flight of stairs. Actually, in the dim light, he seemed elderly. I pulled off my headphones and asked if he was in trouble. He waved me over and, even though I had that tug in my gut, Don’t Go, but because I tended to be an obedient yet naïve kid, I went over to him. The light wasn’t good and I noticed that he was older but not elderly. He didn’t speak but immediately grabbed me instead, clenching my wrist with a fierce grip and pulling me up the stairs. Nobody was around, my mom and sister long gone. The night was cold and all the passengers were inside. I pulled back, cried out, but no luck. He dragged me up a few more steps, to some secret higher deck area where I got a good glimpse of the dark Atlantic, glistening under the moon’s light, and in my peripheral vision, I saw the dark corners of this secluded area. I tried to get away but he pulled me close, tight, and began to kiss my cheek, then my lips, whiskey wafting off his breath. I recoiled, attempted to wrench away from his grip, but the clasp was iron. I knew what he wanted but I was also frightened that if I fought too hard, I might be thrown overboard. It might seem a silly thought but I didn’t quite have my bearings in the dark up on that higher deck so I had no idea how close or not I was to the edge. He gripped my wrist tighter, yanked me close again, to his chest, and with his free hand, pointed at the stars. He attempted kiss me again but I snapped my head back, cried out “No!” My heart was pounding, my bones rattling, the terrifying Atlantic in my eyes, and the fact they I knew what he really wanted—it was all making me sick. “Please let me go,” I begged again and suddenly, without reason, the man who had a hold of me just shrugged, completely annoyed with this ridiculous unwilling girl, and let me go. I raced down the stairs, across the deck, more stairs, not one person around, running down another deck, more stairs, until I finally found my mom and sister, bundled up in deck blankets fast asleep on the deck lounge chairs.

Figures, I remember saying to myself.

I told no one.

Why? I was scared. Confused. Embarrassed. What was the point of telling anyone? I survived, I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t want to spoil my mom’s vacation. Would she believe me? Probably. Then would she put up a stink? Would it become a big deal? Would I have to identify him? I could barely see him. And I had done a stupid thing. I had gone over to him when he told me to do so. I was ashamed about that. I was an idiot. Years later, I did tell my mom and she was shocked that I hadn’t told her. “Why?” she asked.

“I felt like an idiot. I didn’t want to ruin the vacation.”

“Oh, Jen. You should’ve said something.”

“Then you would’ve gone all crazy on the captain.”


My mom was the type who did shit about bad things. So I suppose I didn’t say anything because I was embarrassed and my mom flipping out on the crew of the ship would’ve made me feel more embarrassed. That’s the thing about kids and teenagers. In bad situations they want help—Hell, I was begging the gods to send me an adult who would beat the shit out of this man who had me in his grip—but afterwards, kids and teenagers just want the bad memory to go away. Because usually there’s a part of them that thinks it’s their fault.  For me, the shame of my decision to go over to him in the first place kept that story locked up inside for at least fifteen years.

If you read the title story of my collection, “Cannibals,” first published in BEAT TO A PULP, you’ll see I follow the same trajectory as my story from the ship. The setting is different and the details have been changed, but you’ll see recognize the fear, the sizing up of the surroundings, the immediate weighing of the choices that will either leave you alive or dead—it all comes from that incident on the ship. I think I write about kids because I’m trying to come to grips with why I walked over to that man. Or maybe that’s over-analyzing. Maybe I want to write stories where kids survive. Even if something terrible happens, I want them to survive. I remember my grandmother telling me the story of when she was sixteen, when she just got out of the orphanage and went to stay with her father, and one of his buddies got “fresh” with her. She took a frying pan and whacked him with it. “I fixed that,” she said. (This is the influence for my flash piece, "Hatpin.") He survived but she moved out of her dad’s apartment and into her aunt’s place, a much safer environment. She told me that story before she passed away and again, maybe I felt a connection with our similar experiences. Both of us were kids, she just out of a Catholic girls orphanage, sixteen too, me just out for a walk on my trip on ship… when the wolves showed up. (By the way, I’ve never taken a cruise again.)  

I have no answer how to protect your kids from situations like this. You can’t keep them locked up in the house. They have to learn to live in the world, to deal, even with the terrible stuff. They’re going to make mistakes. Even if you are the best parent in the world.  My parents were very good parents. They weren’t drinkers or drug users or crazy religious nuts or lazy or cruel. They were involved, they coached our soccer teams, they never abandoned us or left us hungry. If my sister or I stayed over at a friend’s house, you’d be sure to know my mother went inside first, had a conversation with the friend’s parent, made sure, in her lovely Debbie Reynolds/Doris Day way, that she was trusting them with her kid and if anything happened to me or my sister, there’d be Hell to pay. Monstrous horrendous Hell. Just projecting this protective presence can usually deter predators from victimizing your child. But it’s not foolproof. My mom and dad did everything right and still, I fell into a bad situation. I was sixteen, and even though the ship captain knew who my mother was and that she had two teenage girls who were in his charge, I still encountered a bad situation. I have no answer for this, like I said, only that it happens. And I’m interested in writing about it.

If you are too, interested in writing kids in your crime fiction, I don’t think you have to do what I did—rewrite your bad childhood moments. That’s not for everyone, I get that. But what I’m trying to drive home here is that writers shouldn’t be afraid to add kids into their crime fiction, as long as you make them authentic. Don’t do the smart, clever, wise-beyond-their years kid. Keep them average, the everyday kid. Don’t make them cool or mature, just make them normal. (There seems to be way too many sassy, very intelligent kids with extremely large and fluent vocabularies in YA these days.) You also need to resist the urge to rescue them, don’t play up any sympathy. Let the narrative get dark but not psychotic and shocking. (Shock is not writing. Shock is not having confidence in your writing.) Let your kids or teenagers get themselves out of bad circumstances, or even like my situation, let the universe help them out. And don’t be afraid to ask a real kid for advice, even if you are doing an adult crime story or novel. Just be age appropriate. I once wrote a story called “Robbery” published in PLOTS WITH GUNS (didn’t make the collection because of my many kid stories) which is a about an eleven-year-old boy who rides his bike up to a convenience store to get his mom some Advil and ginger ale. While he’s in the back of the store, getting the soda, a nutcase bursts in and holds the clerk up by gunpoint. My kid ducks down in the aisle, pulls out his phone, and then realizes he can’t call the cops because he can’t speak—the guy with the gun will hear him. The kid also figures he can’t text 911, or he isn’t sure, so he sends a group text to his friends and his mom, thinking someone will call the cops. Originally, I wrote the “text” like this:

Call police now! Hold up at Pine Store! Has gun!

But something seemed off about my “text message.” So I turned to an expert, a real kid I knew, a younger teenager actually. Without reading him my story (because, again, that’s not appropriate—please keep this in mind because you can scar a young mind with a frightening story, and it will get you in trouble) I gave him a brief, benign summary, and then showed him the text in my story. The kid said to me, “We don’t text that way. With capitals and stuff.”

“You mean punctuation?”

“Yeah. None of that.”

So I rewrote it:

Call police now hold up at pine store has gun

“Now you got it,” my expert said.

I suppose the answer to why I write so many kids is that I do like them. But more than that, I’m looking to see them survive, albeit learning a crummy life lesson and maybe their life will never be the same, but surviving all the same. And I want them to survive. With common sense, instinct and grit.

Sure, maybe writing about kids is an easy go-to for sympathy, but I think if you do it right, if your instinct isn’t exploitive, that you’re honestly trying to tell a good, compelling story, then you’ll be all good.


Jen Conley’s short stories have appeared in THUGLIT, NEEDLE: A MAGAZINE OF NOIR, CRIME FACTORY, BEAT TO A PULP, PROTECTORS, PULP MODERN, TROUBLE IN THE HEARTLAND: CRIME FICTION INSPIRED BY THE SONGS OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and many others. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books and is one of editors of Shotgun Honey. Her short story collection, CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF THE PINE BARRENS, published by Down and Out Books, is available now.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Less is Not More, But Too Much is Not Good

by Scott Adlerberg

Years ago, I remember, I was watching a TV interview with English author Anthony Burgess.  The interviewer asked Burgess something about his writing process and the question of striving for perfection in a work.  Burgess said that he keenly felt his own work's imperfection the moment he started writing.  In his head, carrying images and ideas, cultivating feelings and sensations, his novel was perfect. When he started to put all that abstract perfection into words, however, that very instant, he became keenly aware of falling short of his ideal.  This doesn't mean he disliked everything he wrote - far from it- but that he had to accept the idea of his own work's inherent imperfection if he was going to see it through to completion and then let anyone see it.   Burgess's observation sums up as well as anything for me a prime reality of writing - how much imperfection are you going to accept before you let go of a work? It's something I try to keep in mind when I focus on editing and revising.

I'm thinking of all this now because I'm in the midst of polishing what will be my next novel.  It's about seventy per cent done, and since I don't do drafts, but am the sort of person who proceeds slowly, revising and rewriting as I go, constantly doubling back to rework and polish, re-write and edit, unable to advance very far till I feel what I've done is adequate, I am now in that fixing up phase. Just as I went over the first twenty percent of the book, then the first forty percent, and so on, now I'm going over the first seventy per cent.  This should be my last round of revisions until I do the rest of the book.  Then I'll have the entire novel pretty much as I want it, and I'll take a breath before going back through the whole thing for the final touch-ups.

But here's where it gets sticky.  Over the years, I've come to realize I have a propensity for fussing too much and perhaps over editing.  It goes back to that notion of trying to put on the page exactly what you had in your head.  You want the reader to be engulfed in that dream as if they are in your head.  But you can't capture that.  Not really.  The reader of course brings their own perceptions.  They need space to breathe.  And after a point, as you tweak this and change that, cut a phrase here, search for the proverbial perfect word there, you run the risk of squeezing the life blood out of your work.  What came out free and rhythmical earlier, because of tinkering, gets twisted into something overly stylized. What sounded natural before now sounds cramped.  Then you go back and restore a passage to how you had it just isn't exactly as you want it, though overall it does read okay....

You can go on like this forever.  Letting go of a work has never been easy for me. But at some point, you start to realize that your changes are bringing diminishing returns, and the effort you're spending on these minuscule "corrections" would be better spent working on a new story.  I don't know about anyone else, but I tend to feel a mixture of relief and irritation when I tell myself I'm finished, that I may as well stop and let the thing be.  Beyond a certain point, I remind myself, my editing can only damage the writing.  The writing will never be an exact manifestation of what I have in my mind.

It's a delicate balance that must be maintained, a severe tension. You need to edit your work ruthlessly, but not overdo it.  You need to make your work as good as you can while still accepting it will never be as good as you want it to be.

After all these years writing, I have to say, I still have trouble maintaining this delicate balance.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Anthony Award Nominations!

by Kristi Belcamino

On Friday, they announced the finalists for the Anthony Awards.

This crime fiction award is special to my heart. Last year, my first novel, Blessed are the Dead, was a finalist for best first mystery, and I'm still incredibly honored by that.

People who attend Bouchercon in September will vote to choose the winners.

When they announced this years's finalists, my first thought was good grief, how am I going to pick who to vote for since so many of my friends are nominated?

It's a stellar list. If you haven't read these books, I highly recommend you do so.

I'm especially thrilled that our own Holly West is one of the finalists!

Here is the list.

2016 Anthony Award Nominees



Night Tremors - Matt Coyle  [Oceanview]
The Killing Kind - Chris Holm  [Mulholland]
The Child Garden - Catriona McPherson  [Midnight Ink]
The Nature of the Beast - Louise Penny  [Minotaur/Sphere]
What You See - Hank Phillippi Ryan  [Forge]

Concrete Angel - Patricia Abbott  [Polis]
Past Crimes - Glen Erik Hamilton  [William Morrow]
New Yorked - Rob Hart [Polis]
Bull Mountain - Brian Panowich  [G.P. Putnam's Sons/Head of Zeus]
On the Road with Del & Louise - Art Taylor  [Henery]


The Long and Faraway Gone - Lou Berney  [William Morrow]
Gun Street Girl - Adrian McKinty  [Seventh Street/Serpent's Tail]
Little Pretty Things - Lori Rader-Day  [Seventh Street]
Young Americans - Josh Stallings  [Heist]
Stone Cold Dead - James W. Ziskin  [Seventh Street]


The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story -
Martin Edwards  [HarperCollins]
Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald -
Suzanne Marrs & Tom Nolan, editors  [Arcade]
Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime - Val McDermid  [Grove]
The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett - Nathan Ward  [Bloomsbury USA]
The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Wickedly Good Meals and Desserts to Die For -
Kate White, editor [Quirk]


"The Little Men: A Bibliomystery" - Megan Abbott  [ Road]
"The Siege" Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Dec 2015 - Hilary Davidson  [Dell]
"Feliz Navidead" Thuglit Presents: Cruel Yule - Brace Godfrey/Johnny Shaw  [CreateSpace]
"Old Hands" Dark City Lights - Erin Mitchell  [Three Rooms]
"Quack and Dwight" Jewish Noir - Travis Richardson [PM]
"Don’t Fear the Ripper" Protectors 2: Heroes - Holly West  [Goombah Gumbo]


Safe Inside the Violence - Christopher Irvin  [280 Steps]
Protectors 2: Heroes-Stories to Benefit PROTECT - Thomas Pluck, editor  [Goombah Gumbo]
Thuglit Presents: Cruel Yule: Holiday Tales of Crime for People on the Naughty List -
Todd Robinson, editor  [CreateSpace]
Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015 -
Art Taylor, editor  [Down & Out]
Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds -
Kenneth Wishnia, editor  [PM]


Need - Joelle Charbonneau  [HMH Books for Young Readers]
How to Win at High School - Owen Matthews  [HarperTeen]
A Madness So Discreet - Mindy McGinnis  [Katherine Tegen]
The Sin Eater’s Daughter - Melinda Salisbury              [Scholastic]
Fighting Chance - B.K. Stevens  [The Poisoned Pencil]
Ask the Dark - Henry Turner  [Clarion]


Dark Waters - Chris Goff - Assaf Cohen, narrator [Blackstone Audio]
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - Clare Corbett, Louise Brealey
& India Fisher, narrators  [Penguin Audio/Random House Audiobooks]
Causing Chaos - Deborah J. Ledford - Christina Cox, narrator
[IOF Productions]
The Nature of the Beast - Louise Penny - Robert Bathurst, narrator 
[Macmillan Audio]
Young Americans - Josh Stallings - Em Eldridge, narrator  [Josh Stallings]