Saturday, May 28, 2016

Thinking on the Keyboard

Scott D. Parker

In the excellent book, The Secrets of the World’s Best-Selling Writer, Erle Stanley Gardner comments that he trained himself to think on the typewriter. This quote came earlier in the book when the authors were recounting his pre-Perry Mason career. What Gardner was referring to was that his prodigious pace meant he had little time to waste figuring out the plot of a story. He had to produce new content. By the time he started writing novels—The Case of the Velvet Claws was not only the first Perry Mason novel but Gardner’s first published novel—he realized that some work ahead of time was a good thing. To use modern parlance, he went from a pantser to a plotter.

Around the time Gardner started doing some pre-planning, he also started dictating. Not too sure of the timing there, but that’s the gist I get from the book. I’ve been training myself on dictating this spring and I discovered an interesting thing: as of now in my writing career, I think better on the keyboard vs. dictation.

Earlier this week, I hit a snag on the current WIP, a western tentatively titled Dead Men Can't Cheat. I hit a snag on a scene that was important, but I was struggling at how to flesh it out. Standing in my writing room, PC turned on, and microphone right next to my mouth, I struggled to form the scene. It was weird. When I know exactly what happens in a scene, the dictation just flies. But there I was, stuck.

When I’m planning a story, I often use yellow legal pads and index cards. That is, pen and paper. That ‘downgrade’ often clears the brain and helps me see the story better. I got to wondering if a ‘downgrade’ from dictation might help.

So, I fired up the Mac—yeah, I use different computers for different things, but that’s mainly because Dragon on the PC is stellar and Dragon on the Mac is less so—and started typing the scene. Viola! It flowed and the scene successfully ended.

Dictation is defiantly a learned skill. I will keep at it because I know the pace with dictation is just faster than by typing. But I’ve also learned that when I hit a wall, until I can dictate my way through it, I’ll just do what Gardner did and think on the keyboard.

Anyone else have this issue? Other than writing longhand with pen and paper, are there other techniques y’all use to get over the hump?

Friday, May 27, 2016

Stewed, Screwed, and Tattooed

Small details about my characters are the ones I have the hardest time nailing down. Are they drinkers, smokers? I tend to have that handled straight out of the gate (most of them are, so that one's easy). Do they listen to heavy metal or like sci-fi movies? How the fuck should I know? So, working on the current WIP, I knew the male lead had tattoos, but I had no visual in mind for them. Of course, the need for that information comes quicker than you plan for.

I don't know what I was expecting when I started looking up "prison tattoos", because we've all seen faded stick n' pokes and teardrop tattoos, but I ended up learning some interesting stuff.

The issue is, if you're prison tattooed character isn't part of a high profile gang, a white supremacist, or a Russian, there's not a lot of standard fare - just a lot of crappy tattoos. So, while taking a break from the writing I read about Russian Gulag tattoos because I'd had some interaction with them before and they're fairly fascinating.

Inside a Russian prison, the tattooing process started with the ink - burnt rubber made into powder and liquified with urine, and was carried out like any other stick n' poke tattoo would be done. A long, painful process of having your own urine jammed into your skin. Now, prison tattoos are supposed to be kind of badass, the ink a con gets behind bars can't compare to the ink you get in a clean shop with a talented artist and real ink, done with real guns. But Russian prison tattoos take this shit to another level.

My guy? Well he's just a thief from Indiana. He's got a bunch of faded out stick n'pokes that are totally urine free. Simple designs that we often associate with prison tattoos - but check out the detail on some of these Russian prison tattoos:

I saw the epaulets a lot, which denote rank. Unlike most tattoos, Russian criminals insist their tattoos mean something - and apparently, wearing one without meaning (or with false meaning) could get a your ass handed to you in jail. 

Even seemingly religious tattoos are code for things like prison sentences (the number of cupolas on the above tattoo reference number of times in jail, or length of sentence) and types of crimes. The Virgin Mary signifies a thief, the tiger "aggression against police."

It's all a lot more  complicated than neo-Nazis with SS symbols on their necks and a hell of a lot more creative than the popular MS 13 that signifies - you guessed it - that the wearer is a member of MS-13.

What's interesting about the Russian prison tattoos is that many, if not most, of them are downright beautiful. The Russian criminals took their tattoos seriously, and it shows.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Feed Your Ears: Crime Scene Podcast

By Steve Weddle

Soon after we first launched the Do Some Damage blog back in 1964, Jay Stringer got to work on the podcast version. You can find the podcast down the right rail on this here DSD site or at iTunes. Jay has moved on to doing his own Hacks podcast, which you can find here.

Eryk Pruitt
I enjoy listening to podcasts when I have time. I also dig audio books and the baseball channel on XM radio. Like pretty much everyone except my Uncle Clyde, I don't have enough time to do all the things I'd like to do. My appetite is legend. I've tried listening to audio books while I run, but after a few miles it gets pretty hard to hear the story over my gulping for air and then, pretty soon, I can't hear the book at all when I'm throwing up.

Recently, I got the chance to listen to some of Eryk Pruitt's new podcast on WCOM, which you can listen to via the webbernets. The latest episode features a talk about book reviewing, with guests Benoit Lelievre, Keith Rawson, and DSD's own Renee Asher Pickup.

Some highlights:

I was surprised to find that Keith and I agree on something and that it happens to be a movie. He and I share a minority opinion about Mad Max: Fury Road.

Renee went on the record to make sure everyone was clear that Tom Pitts is OK and that she doesn't have any problem with him.

Ben told an amazing story about a less-than-glowing book review that he wrote and ultimately took down when the author's fans began threatening Ben online and posting photographs of Ben's apartment building.

In fact, one of the best aspects of this episode was hearing stories about specific authors and publishers:

- How an indie publisher was upset with a review Keith wrote and has worked to keep him from reviewing their books since.

- How a Big Six Publisher emailed Ben after wrote a review they weren't happy with. In the email, they told him that their editors were at ThrillerFest and that everyone there was talking about Ben and laughing at him behind his back. Then the administration for ThrillerFest got involved. Crazy story.

- How Renee gave a three-star review on Amazon to an author and then had him on her own podcast (Books and Booze) the following day. #Tense

Check out the podcast here and, if you'd like, post in the comments about your favorite book podcast. Thanks

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Cleaning Up Finn: An Interview with Sarah M. Chen

by Holly West

Sarah M. Chen is a familiar name in short fiction circles, but recently, her debut novella, CLEANING UP FINN (All Due Respect) was published. It's a strong debut that introduces Finn Roose, a fun-loving, womanizing, manipulating--yet somehow, likable--restaurant manager whose exploits finally get him into more trouble than he can handle.

On to the interview!

HW: I really enjoyed CLEANING UP FINN and felt extra special because I got an advanced copy. Will you tell us, briefly, what it’s about?

SMC: Thanks, Holly! It’s about a restaurant manager, Finn Roose, who loves the booze and the babes. He takes out a woman on one of his infamous booze cruises and loses her—literally. Then she ends up missing and things go very badly for him from there.

HW: On the face of it, your protagonist, Finn Roose, is kind of a jerk. But upon digging deeper, we learn that he’s not such a bad guy and even has some heroic qualities. What is it about this character that made you want to write him?  

SMC: I’m so happy to hear you say that! There are some who didn’t like Finn and thought he was a real prick. Finn holds a special place in my heart. He’s a mash-up of the people I worked with over the years in the restaurant industry which was a fun crazy time in my life.

I wanted to explore a character who, at first glance, seems selfish and shallow, but underneath it all, there’s a reason for why he’s the way he is. People can be quick to judge a work hard/play hard lifestyle, especially if it’s someone who isn’t married or doesn’t have children. It doesn’t automatically mean they’re selfish assholes. Okay, maybe sometimes it does, but not always.

HW: Since this is, to a large extent, a blog about writing, will you talk a little bit about how you’ve approached your writing career? Where do you see yourself in a year or five years?

SMC: I knew I always wanted to be a writer but it took a long time for me to get started. It’s still taking a long time and I’ve come to accept that’s how I am. I’m not one of those disciplinarians who writes a certain amount each day. I wish I was. I value my downtime. With juggling three jobs, I fit writing in when I can but I make sure to set aside time to read and to travel. It keeps me sane.

I honestly have no idea where I’ll be in 5 years. I don’t think long-term like that, although I probably should. I can say that in 1 year I’d like to have a completed first draft of my YA novel. Then again, I said that last year.

HW: I like that you work for a private investigator. This seems like it would provide for all sorts of good ideas for stories. Is it?

SMC: Yes, it’s a fantastic job for gathering material. Maybe that’s why it’s the one job I’ve held longer than four years. My boss is an insurance adjuster with a private investigator license so almost all of our cases are from insurance companies. We deal mostly with tractor-trailer claims so most of our cases involve cargo thefts and stolen tractor-trailers.

My short story “White Devil” in DEATH AND THE DETECTIVE featured an insurance adjuster and it was a lot of fun to write. I also just completed a short story that was based on a crazy stolen cargo claim we just worked on. I’d say more but it’s an anonymous submission and you never know who’s reading what.

HW: You’ve been a part of a writing group for a while now. Tell us a little about how your group functions and how you think it’s helped you improve your writing. 

SMC: I give my writer group credit for everything that I publish. Without Travis Richardson and Stephen Buehler, I’d still be out there flailing around aimlessly. They give me a deadline which is what I need. We meet once a week and we’ve been pretty good about that schedule for the past 5 years which is mind-boggling to me. I normally don’t stick to anything for that long. We bring pages and read them aloud, then provide constructive notes to each other. If we can’t meet for whatever reason, we email each other our pages, but it doesn’t replace the read-aloud aspect which I think is crucial.

HW: I know you’re an avid reader. Who are some of your influences and what have you read lately that you’d recommend?

SMC: My love for crime fiction started with Robert B. Parker and Tony Hillerman, but when I picked up an Elmore Leonard novel, I knew I’d found my kindred writer spirit. Over the years, I’ve been inspired by Gillian Flynn’s SHARP OBJECTS, early Dennis Lehane and anything by George Pelecanos.

I split my time between crime fiction and YA. Right now, I’m reading an ARC of Stacey Lee’s fantastic YA novel, OUTRUN THE MOON which was released yesterday. It’s a story of a teenage Chinese-American girl in 1906 San Francisco. I also just finished James Ziskin’s HEART OF STONE which I absolutely loved. I’m a huge fan of his Ellie Stone series. Other novels I’d recommend for 2016 would be Lisa Lutz’s thriller THE PASSENGER and Molly Prentiss’s debut TUESDAYS IN 1980 about the art scene in 1980 Soho.

HW: Getting back to CLEANING UP FINN, it’s a novella but now that I’ve finished it, I can see it being a prequel to a full-length novel featuring him. I definitely think Finn deserves a chance to move beyond the world he currently inhabits. What do you think?

SMC: Thank you for saying that and someone else said the same thing. FINN actually started as a short story way back in 2007 and I never would have thought of expanding him into a novella so I guess it’s always possible. I do love the character and it’d be interesting to see what he does down the road, but once I’m done with a story, I’m usually done. But hey, you never know, right?

Sarah M. Chen juggles several jobs including indie bookseller, transcriber and insurance adjuster. Her crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication online and in various anthologies, including All Due Respect, Plan B, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Betty Fedora and Dead Guns Press. CLEANING UP FINN is her first book and it’s available now from All Due Respect Books.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Patricide for the Ages

 by Scott Adlerberg

You never know where you’re going to come across a grisly and riveting crime story.  To get acquainted with an author I long wanted to read but never did, I recently picked up a newly translated collection of novellas by Stendahl called Roman Tales.  The three stories in the book were first published in France in 1839, and the one I want to highlight here is “The Cenci”, Stendahl’s take on a true crime account that dates from the late 1500’s.

In a nutshell, the story is this:

Beatrice Cenci was a teenage noblewoman living in Rome with her father, Francesco; her stepmother, Lucrezia (Francesco’s second wife); her older brother, Giacomo, and her 12 year old brother, Bernardo.  Francesco was a horror.  Whatever the accepted standard of degradations an aristocrat could inflict on common people at the time, Francesco exceeded them repeatedly, and as Stendahl puts it, “Thrown into prison thrice for these perverted affairs, he managed to get himself released by giving two thousand scudi to individuals enjoying the patronage of the twelve popes who succeeded each other during Cenci’s lifetime.” 

With his own family, the man was no better.  He had a violent temper and a cruel disposition and mistreated everyone in the house. People in Rome knew he had abused his first wife and that he did nothing to help or support his three eldest sons who had left the house.  The one “virtuous deed” he did during his entire life was to build a church in the courtyard of a palazzo he had near the Tiber River, but the building of the church came about because of his “extraordinary desire to have beneath his eyes the tombs of all his children.”  Apparently he hated all his children and would tell the workman who built the church, “That’s where I want to put them all.”

Then there was Beatrice, the younger of his two daughters.  Her sister had found life with her father so unbearable she arranged for a message to be given to the Pope begging him to marry her or have her placed in a convent – anything to escape the house.  The Pope, who knew what kind of man her father was, did arrange to have her married and forced Francesco to give her a large dowry.  But her getaway, without question, made things worse for Beatrice; her father determined not to let Beatrice do to him what her sister had.

From that point on, Beatrice’s life became a living hell.  She was fourteen.  Her father confined her to one area of their palazzo and allowed no one to see her.  He brought food to her himself.  And it was during this period, according to what most people think based on the historical records, that he began raping her.  He tormented her constantly, sometimes in the presence of her stepmother, and as Stendahl writes, “He often spoke to her of the treachery of her elder sister, and, working himself into a fury by his own words, ended by raining blows upon Beatrice.” 

Beatrice tried to do what her sister did and get a letter to the Pope about her father, but it never reached its destination.  It's possible her father or one of his servants intercepted it.  In any event, that document vanished and it's a big part of the story because later, when she and her stepmother were in prison for the murder of Francesco, Beatrice's lawyer could have used the document to provide evidence of the atrocities going on inside their castle. In Stendahl's words, "Was it not clear to everyone that Beatrice Cenci had a legitimate defense?"

With no help forthcoming, Beatrice and her stepmother knew they had no one to rely on but themselves.  They began to formulate the plan that "brought about their downfall".  Well, downfall, yes, it would end with their public execution, but one cannot overlook what Stendhal dryly adds - that their idea "did, however, have the advantage of putting an end to their suffering in the world."

The murder plot involved Beatrice, Lucrezia, and both brothers still living at home.  It also included two of the family's vassals who detested Francesco, one of whom had become Beatrice's lover.  On the night of September 9, 1598, when Francesco was staying at the family's country estate where he had sent Beatrice and Lucrezia after Beatrice's attempts to contact the Pope, the mother and daughter managed somehow to slip him opium to knock him out and then let the two vassals into the castle to finish him off.  Neither could do the job, however; when they saw him, in effect an old man, lying asleep and helpless in his bed, they each balked.  According to Stendahl, their cold feet infuriated Beatrice. She called them cowards.  To make matters worse, she and her mother had agreed to pay the two men to help them with the murder. In the end, Beatrice, Lucrezia, and both brothers used a hammer to bludgeon Francesco to death, and then they dragged his body out of the bedroom and through the castle before throwing it off a balcony to make his death look like he had slipped and fallen late at night on his way to the outhouse.  His body landed, and got stuck, in a tree.

What followed after that was complicated.  From the moment the body was discovered the next morning, no one believed Francesco's death had been an accident, but not much happened in the way of investigation until the papal police got wind of things.  They arrested all the suspects, young Bernardo included, and started their work.  They tortured Beatrice's lover to death, but he revealed nothing.  At the same time, a family friend who knew of the murder interjected himself into the action and ordered a hit on the other vassal to prevent him from possibly talking. You can only imagine what this friend must have thought of Francesco to go to bat for a teenage girl who'd committed patricide. Unfortunately, there was a washerwoman who on the night of the alleged killing had received a bloodsoaked sheet from Beatrice, and her deposition to the authorities helped sink the Cencis.  After a lot of legal wrangling, a papal tribunal found them guilty and sentenced them all to death.  

Even during this period, though, not unlike today, there were protests against unpopular verdicts.  The regular people of Rome knew the motivations behind the murder and didn't agree with the sentence. Stendahl writes that cardinals and princes kneeled before the Pope on the accused's behalf.  He granted a stay of execution for twenty-five days, and during this time Rome's leading lawyers (acting pro bono we can assume) joined together to present a defense of the Cencis to him.  It all went for naught of course, and the Pope ultimately rejected all pleas for the Cencis.  It's thought that Pope Clement VIII, besides dwelling on the specifics of the case, feared that this patricide would encourage murders within other families.  

As you might expect, the executions of Lucrezia, Beatrice, and her elder brother Giacomo were gruesome.   A large crowd attended. This happened in Rome on the morning of September 11, 1599. Giacomo, tortured in his cart all the way to the scaffold, had his head crushed by a mallet, and both Lucrezia and Beatrice were beheaded by axes.  Beatrice the executioners did last.  The only one spared was twelve year old Bernardo, though he was brought to the scaffold and made to watch the execution of each of his relatives.  Stendahl describes how the little boy fainted more than once during the proceedings.

Ah yes, it's a tale with enough corruption, familial horror, and overall grotesquerie to suit any contemporary taste, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stendahl's coolly told account of it.  As a matter of fact, his Roman Tales collection contains three true crime stories from Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and each one, as he tells it, proves compelling.  I'm glad I picked the book up and lost myself for several days in the trials and dysfunctions of the long ago past, which, really, aren't all that different from the trials and dysfunctions of today.

P.S: The Beatrice Cenci story has been the inspiration for a bunch of stuff.  There have been numerous plays, operas, and novels derived from it, and the picture shown in this post is a well-known one of Beatrice by Italian painter, Guido Reni.  This painting shows up in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive in Ruth Elms' apartment (Ruth is the aunt, perhaps seen, perhaps not, of Naomi Watts' character), and for those who might want to check out yet another telling of the Cenci story, there's one by Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci called Conspiracy of Torture (1969) that stays quite close to the historical record of the events.  Fulci, best known for his horror movies like The Beyond and Zombie, maintained to his death that among his many films one he was quite proud of was Conspiracy of Torture.

Monday, May 23, 2016

When It's Time To Pull The Plug

Every time you turn around lately, someone's dying.

I'm not just talking about the immense toll 2016 has taken on amazing artists. I'm talking about the ongoing series of character deaths on TV shows during May sweeps.  (Possible spoilers if you haven't caught up on Bates Motel, Grimm, Orphan Black, The 100, Hap & Leonard, Quantico, The Walking Dead, Blindspot or Game of Thrones.)

I have to admit I was shocked by the death of Norma on Bates Motel. Yes, yes, of course one day her precious, disturbed son Norman would fake his mom's suicide and continue living with her mummified corpse if the TV show followed the movie; however, the TV show did put an original spin and subtly lay the foundation for Norman's most personal killing to date.

And gluing her eyelids open after he dug up her body? Creepy.

What was even worse was that Norma had recently been so happy, and Norman had been on the verge of getting real help. Just like a great noir show to show you the sun and a rainbow and then send in a tornado to tear it all apart.

Some stories swing for the fences. Orphan Black isn't even at the season's end and they've already burned it all to the ground.

Now, I'll admit that I'm not too happy about some of the losses that have been racked up this sweeps season. Pike wasn't unexpected in The 100 but he was a great character they could have done more with. And uncertainty lingers around Indra's fate.

Now, as The 100's finale reminds us, death is not the end for so many TV shows. The return of Lexa gave her a more fitting send-off than the one that had fans up in arms weeks ago. It was a nice touch in an otherwise grim season ending that has projected the end of the human race within the next six months or so.

And we all know that Jon Snow returned from beyond. Even if you don't watch Game of Thrones you've heard the news. It's inescapable.

As a writer I do appreciate stories that swing for the fences.

As a writer I also struggle with the question of killing off a character. It can be so hard to let go of someone you've developed for so long and spent so much time with. Executive producer Josh Safran said of the death of Simon in Quantico's finale:

It felt like a very organic thing, even though it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Even up to an hour before publishing the script, I was like, “Oh f—, are we really going to do this?” The writers had to sit me down and go like, “Yes, this is the right thing to do.” I personally tried as much as I could to get other people in that car and it just didn’t work. Every cast member cycled through that driver’s seat. 

When you really assess the character arc and the demands of the story and how the pieces fit together you can determine whether a character still has more life in them, or whether their death will serve as a catalyst for growth, change or motivation in those that remain. A death should always have value; it should never be cheap or gratuitous or done just to shock the viewer; it should always serve the story.

I just killed a character in a project I'm working on. It started with a plan to kill one character and as things evolved the victim did change. I was glad, because the original victim was likeable and a pleasure to write. For once, it worked out that I could kill a bit of an ass and have it fit the purposes of the story. One less victim for me to feel bad about.

Still, character losses take their toll. Many of our shows have wrapped up for the season, but now I must watch a sick Cosima without hope for a cure as the season finale of Orphan Black inches closer and closer and hope another significant loss isn't in store for that show.

But as much as the losses are hard to take, I do give a thumbs up to the shows that played it straight with us. No need to talk about the outrage over The Walking Dead's pulled punch. Yes, it could have been the show's Red Wedding. Instead it's become the symbol of fan outrage that the showrunner, creator and writers have had to try to defend, which just goes to show how important a character death can be, and how handling it can make or break how it's received by the audience.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Arrivederci and Ciao to uber talented Claire Booth!

by Kristi Belcamino

Two years ago, before my first book came out, I was FLOORED that the amazingly talented Joelle Charbonneau asked me to take her Sunday spot at Do Some Damage. I was thrilled, honored, and a little intimidated to even attempt to fill her shoes.

Now that I've had the honor of posting each week on this stellar crime fiction site, I'm ready to pass the torch to somebody I admire and respect more than I can say. I think I've said what I have to say about crime fiction and would like to step aside before I start repeating myself more than I already have!

So please, please join me in welcoming one of the best people and one of the most talented writers I know - Claire Booth.

Booth is a true crime writer, ghostwriter, former career journalist and has her first AMAZING crime fiction book out from Minotaur this summer, THE BRANSON BEAUTY.

Claire was the first person I thought of to take over Sundays and I was thrilled when she agreed to do so.

On a personal note, Claire and I worked together at the Contra Costa Times. I'd cover a story as it came across my beat as the police reporter and then as the story made its way into the court system, Claire would take it over. As it so happens, Claire was the one assigned to cover a HUGE story at our paper. I was on vacation in Minnesota and was told when I got back "Uh, yeah, you missed the biggest story in 20 years at the paper."


Not only did she cover the story, she KILLED it. And then went on to write the most amazing true crime book about it, The False Prophet. Now her fiction career is launched with a bang. She reminds me of Margaret Maron and in fact, Maron, gave her a lovely blurb for her first book, THE BRANSON BEAUTY.

Here are what some others have to say about her new book, out July 19.

“Former crime reporter Booth imbues her fast-moving narrative, which celebrates its Ozarks setting, with humor and humanity. A promising debut.”―Booklist

“Claire Booth hits the ground running in this debut novel set in the Missouri Ozarks. She writes with the assurance and clarity of a more seasoned pro. Let's hope Branson County Sheriff Hank Worth can get himself reelected so that we get to see more of him and his family―especially the crusty father-in-law who takes babysitting to a whole new level.”―Margaret Maron, New York Times bestselling author of Designated Daughters

“Quietly powerful, this novel pulls us into a snowy Ozark town where the new sheriff is learning to navigate small-town policing with a not entirely cooperative staff and a tiny budget, when a local girl is brutally murdered. Now he's facing the interference of local politicians and threats to his job while trying to settle into a new home with his two small children and ER doctor wife, while melding her recently widowed father into the household. With nuanced characters and an intricately unfolding plot―and a bone-deep sense of cold in this Ozark setting―this novel is reminiscent of William Kent Krueger or Giles Blunt. Claire Booth is a writer to watch.”―Sara J. Henry, national bestselling author of Learning to Swim

“A traditional mystery set in the Ozarks―a newcomer sheriff in a small town unearths ugly motives in a beautiful setting where greed, lust, and unintended consequences not only threaten the innocent but endanger all he loves. This contemporary take on a locked-room puzzle is chilling, compelling and completely entertaining, and Claire Booth is a wonderful new voice in crime fiction.”―Hank Phillippi Ryan, author of The Wrong Girl

I'm thrilled that someone of Claire's caliber is taking over my spot on Do Some Damage and hope that you give her a warm welcome. Her first post is next week.

Ciao bella!