Saturday, April 15, 2017

Requesting a Lifeline

Scott D. Parker

Who remembers the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” TV show from the late 90s and early 2000s? For the two of y’all that don’t, host Regis Philbin would ask the contestants a series of increasingly difficult questions with the ultimate goal of winning a million dollars. Along the way, there were three lifelines: poll the audience, remove two of the four possible answers, and phone a friend. The removal was usually the one that helped the most—except when they removed the most obviously wrong answer. The audience poll typically got you the right answer unless the question was really hard. The phone a friend was sometimes a crap shoot, especially when the contestant called the friend and they didn’t know a thing about the topic. Yeah, that sucked.

I don’t know about y’all, but when it comes to writing, I sometimes want to have a lifeline. A great proofreader to eliminate the errors that always sneak past my eyes (and my editor’s eyes). A great cover artist who can render what I see in my head exactly as I see it. Or, as it happened this week, asking advice.

I’m writing a new book for April and about a week ago, I hit a wall. It wasn’t a huge wall, but it definitely slowed down my pace. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, so I drew on a lifeline. I emailed a fellow writer who had been working consistently for over forty years. I specifically asked his advice because many of the books he writes are drafted without an outline—a skill I am honing this first half of 2017. “What,” I asked him, “do you do when you slow down?” Surely, I thought, he knew some tricks that helped him publish the massive amount of books he had written.

He came back later the same day. (It’s pretty much a common occurrence for me, who wakes at 4:30am every work day, to be able to send out emails before many folks are even awake.) Yeah, he said, I hit walls, but I power through them. I just keep writing. Oh, and he follows Raymond Chandler’s advice: when in doubt, have a man come into the room holding a gun. It doesn’t always have to be a gun, but it has to be something against which the main character can react. Because for every action, there is a reaction. Science.

Here’s the irony: I had already powered through the issue with a word count that surpassed the previous two days combined. But it was wonderful to know that even one of our most prolific authors also has moments of challenge and that he just plows ahead.
Oh, and the thing against which my character, Calvin Carter, had to react against wasn’t a man with a gun. It was a woman. And heaven knows Carter likes women…

Do y’all have any lifelines y’all typically use when you hit speed bumps?

Friday, April 14, 2017

My First True Crime Obsession

Someone mentioned Cadillac Ranch and just like that, I had a picture in my head. I've never been there, but I could see it.

That's Brian Deneke (with the mohawk) and a man named Stanley Marsh, at the Cadillac Ranch. In my memory, Brian is alone in the photo, but I have no way of knowing if there's another one taken around the same time.

I've written a lot about true crime without writing about the first true crime story that really grabbed me. Back in the late nineties, the internet was a small place. A teenager using a search engine (I can't even remember what we used before Google anymore) could type "punk" and get the same couple hundred results. Yahoo groups, a couple message boards. This was before Amazon, or at least before they did anything but used books, and now I'm starting to feel a hell of a lot older than I should...

 I have puzzled over how so many people can sit and watch live trials on television, and scramble for any news on Casey Anthony, but I must have read the same handful of articles about Brian Deneke's murder a hundred times. I participated in Yahoo groups that discussed the case, and I waited and hoped for more news.

I'm not going to get into the story. It would sound a little too familiar in light of the number of murders we've seen go unpunished, particularly when the defendant is a great athlete with a "bright future." Repeating it all would get tiresome, because I wouldn't be able to keep myself from drawing parallels to all the cases that have followed, that have ended with a dearth of justice. But this one got to me. This was post- O.J. Simpson, but I was a little too young to be invested in that case. I was invested in the injustice of Brian's murder. I was shocked at the details, though I read them again and again.

The reasons are clear to me now, and they were relatively clear then. Brian Deneke looked like me and my friends. His murderer looked like the guys that made our lives hell. It felt very personal to me and in a way, it still does. In the time since I obsessively read every article and internet post about Brian, the story of his life and murder has apparently been featured on several TV shows and a movie has been made. I managed to miss it. The internet is a lot bigger now. There's a Facebook group for Brian, but the last posts were made over five years ago. 

I ask a lot of questions about what purpose true crime serves and what draws us to it, but when I remember my obsession with this murder and the case that followed, it didn't feel like the passing fancy of a true crime junkie. Maybe that's because it was a lot harder to be a true crime junkie then, or because so few of the stories seemed to involve people I could relate to. But Brian Deneke's death had a profound effect on me. I've written about my experiences living in an area where "big story" true crime was simply "life," but all of that seemed to follow my first taste of true crime obsession.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Chatting with Harry Hunsicker

THE DEVIL’S COUNTRY (Thomas & Mercer) is a heart-stopping new thriller from award-winning author Harry Hunsicker, former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America. In the vein of True Detective, THE DEVIL’S COUNTRY features a troubling small-town murder and asks the haunting question: Does the devil live in your own backyard?

After losing his wife and child to a violent crime, ranger Arlo Baines wants nothing more than to disappear in the dusty badlands of West Texas. But when a young mother turns up murdered, Arlo becomes the primary suspect in the exact kind of crime he’s desperately trying to forget. Now, it’s up to him to clear his name and find the dead woman’s missing children, all before a corrupt local cult can exert its influence over the town and its residents.

Harry Hunsicker is a fourth-generation native of Texas and author of seven novels. His work has been shortlisted for both the Shamus and Thriller Awards.

Steve Weddle: Your publisher refers to THE DEVIL’S COUNTRY as a “21st-century western.” Other than being set in the southwest, what does that mean?

Harry Hunsicker: True story: I didn't realize until the publisher start working on ad copy that I had written a western. The story is set in the current day, so how can that be, right? Looking at the book after some time has passed, I realize now that the main character is cut from the same cloth as the rugged loners in all those Clint Eastwood movies. So in that sense the book is a western.

SW: Arlo Baines finds himself working with a newspaper reporter. What makes Hannah Byrne a good companion in this mystery?

HH: Hannah Byrne is a reporter for the New York Times who arrives in this small town in West Texas much like Arlo Baines does, with no connection to the area or clue about how things operate in that part of the world. In some sense, she's a wanderer much like Arlo is. But because she's reporter she's very inquisitive by nature, which proves to be a big asset for Arlo.

SW: What’s the town of Piedra Springs like, and why is it a good setting for this story?

HH: Piedra Springs is a fictionalized representation of what is going on in rural areas across Texas and the rest of the US. Short version: small towns everywhere are dying due to a lack of economic opportunity. People are leaving, and those that remain have a certain fatalistic outlook toward life.

SW: How is Arlo Baines different from Jon Cantrell?

HH: Arlo has a lot more baggage than Jon Cantrell. Arlo is a luggage store, he's got so much baggage.

SW: What is it that readers and writers find so interesting about characters with baggage, about damage and redemption?
Harry Hunsicker

HH: In regards to baggage, I think readers relate to characters who offer a glimpse into their own lives. I.e. everyone has some baggage.

SW:  You're working now with Thomas & Mercer after earlier books with more "traditional" publishing. How has that gone?

HH: Working with Thomas & Mercer has been a wonderful experience. They understand books and more importantly how to sell books.

SW: You're doing video promotion for this book?

HH: I'm very happy and honored that THE DEVIL'S COUNTRY was the only second mystery/thriller selected by Thomas & Mercer to be part of a program called Kindle in Motion, essentially a new format for consuming stories. Imagine a graphic novel where the graphics are moving images. So if the text reads "A guy walks into a bar" there's a short looping video of a man entering a bar. (Kindle in Motion is only available with the e-book version. No extra charge.) These videos and some stills are scattered throughout the book and are designed to make the reading experience more immersive. For THE DEVIL'S COUNTRY, the publisher created a short script based on my story, hired actors and a production team, and filmed in Nevada for a week last November. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a couple days on set which was an incredible experience.

SW: And you're working with Alison (Janssen) Dasho? Does it get any better?

HH: Alison is a great editor. I loved working with her on the Cantrell series. She has transferred internally to Montlake so for THE DEVIL'S COUNTRY I was fortunate enough to work with another all-star editor, Jacque Ben-Zekry.


THE DEVIL'S COUNTRY published April 11, 2017.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why We Write

I write because people piss me off.
I always have. The first story I remember writing was a picture book about Komodo dragons trapping a poacher in quicksand. This was in second grade, so I was eight years old.
You could say I have an overdeveloped sense of revenge.
(No wonder I love The Princess Bride).

The abuse of power has always angered me on a cellular level. I try to empathize with people who abuse their power, because it is such a common frailty, but it remains difficult. I've been the bullied kid who learned to bully bullies, and I didn't like myself. At heart I am compassionate. My characters suffer at my hands because I want them to overcome it, to learn from it, and to end it however they can. In Jay Desmarteaux and Denny the Dent's case, that would be physically. Other characters find different ways around their obstacles. (You can't kill everybody for their trespasses, who of us would be left?)

We can't always change the world. And our solutions, if we became dictator, might be as awful as what we despise. But we can commiserate. We can write stories about what angers, delights, and confuses us. Sometimes a story is simply "can you believe this?" A message in a bottle, looking for someone who feels the way you do.

What drives you to write?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Editing Time

It's that time again, when you're doing the edits your publisher sent you to get a new book into its final shape. Actually, I don't have a huge amount of work to do, and so far the editing process has gone well.  What has helped the process, though, I think, is the break I took from the book while waiting to hear back from the publisher after I sent it to him.

I tend to write slowly, and I don't do drafts. I re-write and re-write as I go along, and keep circling back to do revisions while inching ahead in a story.  I don't push ahead very far (or at all) until I'm at least halfway satisfied with what I have in the book to that point.  I sometimes wish I could work differently, by daily word counts or by cutting loose and doing a series of whole drafts, but I don't seem to be able to.  I just...can't.  So it goes; I've resigned myself to my method and come to accept that for better or worse, I'll never be the most prolific writer in the world.  Still, one thing I like: when I've reached the last page of a novel after doing all that revising throughout, I do have a book that reads pretty cleanly, without much waste.  Or so I've been told.  And such is the case this time around.  But there are some things to cut in the book, and a few things to add, and one or two points that could use clarification. Standard operating procedure. And this is where the break I mentioned comes into play; between the time I emailed my publisher the book and the time I got back his edits, three months or so had elapsed, and not once in that time did I glance at my story.  I put the thing out of my mind and concentrated on non-fiction pieces and preparation for the next book.  

Three months.  It was enough time to rid my system of the book, as it were, and take the adequate distance from it. You need that distance.  You need that time, some amount of time, after finishing a book.  Now I'm reading through it again, and I have the detachment I need to regard it with dispassion.  It's mine, this book, okay, whatever, but I try to regard it almost as if it's not.

Editing, sort of like revenge, is an activity best accomplished cold.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Character Perspective

This is a particularly interesting time of year, because it is a significant time for many, but the specifics are determined by perspective. Passover is a remembrance of God sparing the firstborn child of Israelites while striking down those of the Egyptians. This led to their departure from Egypt, where they had been slaves.

Christians celebrate Easter to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And there are varying perspectives about the possible pagan origins of the holiday.

It's interesting to think about, because it means that how one person views the significance of this time could be very different from how others view it. A non-religious family may only think of the Easter bunny and candy. A Christian family may think of family dinners and special church services. A Jewish family may be focused on gathering to celebrate Passover.

This is just one of many ways to illustrate the importance of perspective with our characters so that we convey a clear meaning. If the text says that the week before Easter was an important time for Saul, we might not connect that to Passover if it hasn't been established that he's Jewish.

It may seem a small thing, but perspective matters. A character shouldn't be different just for the sake of being quirky. Difference should manifest itself in their perspective and their actions. If a POV character is 4'6" then I want to see the world at that height; likewise, if they're religious then that should impact their life, choices and perspective.

We've been watching The Path, and it's really interesting to see how convictions manifest themselves in the different characters. I commend the writers for really getting into the nuances of belief and practice and incorporating it into the personality. One religious nut is not another religious nut. The personality and nuances inform character action, which drives the story, and that means those aspects of the characters aren't just dressing tacked on to give the illusion of character development; they're substantive and organically influence the characters and plot, which is what the greatest character development will do.

I remember for a period of time it seemed like every TV show had to have a token gay character, and at other points it's been a token feminist or a token person of a specific ethnic origin. In well developed work, the characteristics of a character are thought out to contribute to their arc and impact their story.

May we all write complicated characters.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dorothea Puente - The House Q&A

Tom Williams and Barbara Holmes live in a lovely Victorian just north of Sacramento's downtown, only about eight blocks from the state capitol. It became the most infamous house in the nation in late 1988, when its resident, Dorothea Puente, was arrested for murdering nine people, seven of whom were found buried in the yard. 
Tom and Barbara hosted a tour of their home recently (see last week's post), and they cheerfully agreed to a Q&A with me, because of course, I wanted to know more. What's it like living there? Are there ghosts? Read on to find out - and I think you'll agree, Tom and Barbara would make great neighbors!
How long have you lived in the house?
We have lived in the house 6 1/2 years. We took possession on Halloween 2010.
Do you know how long it was on the market before you bought it?
The house had been on the market about 2 years. It was a foreclosure.
Tell us how you came to buy it. Had you been looking for a house and just came across this one for sale? Or had you always had your eye on this house in particular? Did you both agree on the house at the same time, or did one of you need convincing?
We'd been living in a small mountain town, not anything like the South Park (urban area of Sacramento), and we were bored out of our heads. Added, Barbara's job continued to included a lot travel. We started out looking in the Bay Area, but were priced out of it. So, we eyed Sacramento.
About ten house tours in, we came across 1426 F Street. Modern people to a fault, we Googled to get the price and up popped Dorothea Puente. We were immediately hooked, for different reasons. Tom is the kind of person who takes Charles Manson tours in LA and is sometimes obsessed with the Zodiac Killer. So, 1426 F was something he latched onto. In her eighties, Barbara's mother lived in a small mountain town even less like South Park and we knew she'd be better off with us around in her twilight years. With the added perk of having a spot in the yard for her when things went really bad. No convincing needed for any of us.
Did you live in Sacramento when Dorothea was caught? What do you remember thinking about her (and her house) at that time?
We did not live in Sacramento when the Dorothea Puente story hit, but it did show up on Tom's radar. Not Barbara's. She was raising her family. Tom actually believed Puente's story about how she just buried the the poor people after natural deaths. A good detective, he would not make.
How long did it take to renovate the house? Were all the renovations practical ones, or did you do any based solely on getting rid of any Dorothea-ness in the house (if there was any left)?
The house had been remodeled a few times over the years and there was nothing left from Dorothea's time except her reputation and ghosts. It took about six months of heavy lifting and pounding hammers to get the house to a point where we sorta kinda had what we wanted. The yard tacked on several more months. We took down a couple walls inside and Ikea'd the hell out of the place. Barbara is always practical when remodeling, but she likes things fun. Tom goes where he is pointed and has become a fine Ikea installer.
How has it been for Barbara’s mother living in the downstairs unit? She saw a ghost at one point?
Barbara's mom LOVES living downstairs. If she wasn't so reserved, she'd giggle a lot. She sees ghosts. We believe her. For us, we don't actually disbelieve that ghosts are here, they just don't bother us. Barbara's Mom is open to it. We take it all with a grain of salt. We owned a bookstore in Placerville once and it was definitely haunted. Again, though, we didn't give it much attention.
The yard is beautiful. I noticed that it is mostly hard surfaces – flagstone and synthetic turf. Was that a deliberate choice, considering what the yard had been used for before?
When we bought the place it came with eight inch deep cement over most of the yard. We thought it was overkill and were left with the choice of knocking it all out, or paving over with slate. Slate was cheaper. The synthetic lawn turn was to soften the driveway. As an aside, weeds grow on the fake grass where one of the bodies was buried.
Do you get people coming up to your door, asking about Dorothea?
People do come to the door to ask about Dorothea. Unless they are obnoxious, we chat with then. The house is, necessarily, a piece of Sacramento's history and their interest is understandable.
Your house has been featured on several television shows. Can you tell us which ones?  Dorothea Puente has been chronicled in numerous Discovery ID Channel versions, but we're not sure of the titles. To our everlasting shame, the house was featured on Ghost Adventures. It shows quite often on the Travel Channel. It is . . . interesting. We were also contacted by a documentary filmmaker who seemed to think us buying the house would make a good documentary. He was right. The House Is Innocent played in 70+ film festivals and won numerous awards along the way. We were even on the extremely long list for an Academy Award at one point. We lost.
You both have a great sense of humor. Do you think someone could live in the house who didn’t have such a good sense of humor about its past?
People say to us that we were exactly the right people at the right time to buy the house. We're not generally given to cosmic controls, but we'd have to agree. It definitely took a sense of humor to turn the place from house of horror to somewhat amusing.
Is there anything else that would be fun for readers to know – either about you or about your completely unique house?
There are numerous signs around the property which, hopefully, lighten the atmosphere of the place. When we first bought the place the negativity pointed at the house seemed too unfair. The house hadn't done anything, but was taking blame. It seemed very unfair, so Tom put up a sign that said:
It was that horrible woman who did it.
Don't blame me.
The House
It got laughs and, maybe, made people think twice about blaming an inanimate object. The laughs were the problem, though. Never laugh with Tom. The next sign could have said: KEEP OUT!, but that seemed kinda rude, so Tom went with:
Trespassers will be drugged and buried in the yard
Tacky, but well received. More signs showed up.
Keep Out From Under the Grass

Please don't park across the driveway.
The Ghosts need to get out to
terrorize the neighborhood
So now you know. Special houses need special owners, and the House on F Street found the perfect people. Thank you, Tom and Barbara, for your time!