Saturday, June 24, 2017

Reading for Pleasure vs for Research

Scott D. Parker

How many of y’all writers out there read for research?

Now, I’m not talking about actual research, where you scour the internet or books to make sure you have your facts correct for a historical piece or to verify which bullets go into the gun your hero carries for a thriller. I’m talking about reading other fiction books with a writer’s mind involved.

For awhile now, I’ve read hard copies with a pencil in my hand and I will mark up the book as I go along. I circle various passages or great turns of phrase. This is especially true when I read westerns because I gather a growing list of “western words” that I can deploy in my own writing.

But I also study how books are constructed. How many chapters? How many sub-chapters? How many pages/words per chapter? How many pages over all? How many total words? A few years ago, I broke down the first 100 pages of THE DA VINCI CODE to figure out why it’s such a page-turner. It’s really not rocket science.

As fine as this practice is, it can also lead to reading *only* for research. For example, I’m in western-writing mode in 2017. That’s what I’m reading (mostly) and writing. Thus, the desire to read only westerns is quite strong. But other books are pulling at my attention. I selected the new Donald Westlake novel, FOREVER AND A DEATH, for my book club so I’m reading it. BEACH LAWYER by Avery Duff is also on my Kindle. The oddball is a book by Jim Beard written in the G.I. Joe Adventure Team Kindle Worlds Universe, MYSTERY OF THE SUNKEN TOMB. A fellow book club member recommended it to me. I’ve read a bit and it pretty darn good.

Which reminded me of the reason I (and all of us) read in the first place: for pleasure. A good story told well is a great pleasure to experience. So I’ve put my pencil down for a bit and engage in some pure summer reading for no other purpose than to enjoy myself.

Y’all ever run up against the conundrum of reading for pleasure vs. research?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Crime DOES Pay (For awhile)

A real life jewelry heist story...

Most heist stories focus on what goes wrong - whether it's during or after the robbery. A well-executed robbery where everything goes to plan and the thieves escape doesn't make for great story telling. Or does it?

Surely when a real life criminal decides to rob a jewelry store or start fencing stolen goods, they think they're going to live the high life. Who would submit themselves to so much risk if the payoff was continuing to live a normal, boring life with a shit job? Marvin Lewis figured it out.

I mean, he got caught. We wouldn't know the story if he didn't. But before he did, he bought the cars, the luxury watches, the clothes. He inserted himself in Oscar and Emmy parties and documented his moneyed life on Instagram. He got another guy to keep robbing stores while he partied it up.

Usually, the only thieves who get to drive $200,000 dollar cars and hang with celebrities work for banks (badum-tss), but Marvin got his, at least for a little while.

His most heinous crime? "Loving" Ed Sheeran.

The moral of the story is always supposed to be "crime doesn't pay" and while Marvin defended himself by claiming he'd always been rich, despite not wanting to discuss where his money came from in court, he's facing 57 years in prison. Hope the parties were worth it - and that a great director gets the rights.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

First Readers and Sensitivity

Most writers have a "first" reader or readers, sometimes called beta readers, ideal readers. They are trusted voices who "get" what we do, who catch the rough spots we can miss because we're so close to the work, among other things. For some it's an editor or agent. 

We research our books. Some crime writer go on a ride-along, take FBI courses, or visit areas they want to write about, to get the little details that make verisimilitude in the story and hold the readers' suspension of disbelief, because after all, if it's fiction, they know it didn't really happen. It's our job to make it feel like it did, or bring it to life in the readers' minds. One of your first readers might be in law enforcement, if you are writing about police. They might be someone who spent time in prison, if you are writing a prison novel. Someone who lives in Alaska, if you are writing a book set there, and only had the time and funds to research it online or by reading. Someone who has lived a life similar to your character.

Which brings up what some are calling "sensitivity readers." It's a first reader who has lived a life similar to your character. But not in their profession, or in their home country or state, but their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation. And a lot of writers chafe at this idea. Some of it is the name itself. What, you sayin' I lack sensitivity? (Imagine that said in my thickest of Jersey accents).

Writers work in empathy, in the original sense. The vicarious experience of another's emotion, through our imagination. And the idea that we'd fail at this strikes at the heart of what we do. Part of what we do is create imaginary people, and they are very personal to us. And the idea that we lack "sensitivity!" That's our bread and butter! We observe, we feel, we create in response to those observations and emotions! 

Yes, but we do it through a lens. We don't actually walk in another's shoes, much less their skin. And as hard as we try to shed the beliefs and prejudices we were raised with, there are experiences we can only know second hand. Sometimes we feel like we know these experiences because we've read about them, watched them on TV, and have close friends who have lived it. But that's a lens in front of a lens. Which can be doubly distorted.

A writer I greatly respect responds to this with, "but your 'sensitivity reader' is only one person. Their experience doesn't speak for everyone of their background." And that is true, but their lens is different than ours. Personally, I think this chafing comes from fear. Not at being called a racist, but of finding a cataract in our empathic lens, a blind spot. To me, that's an opportunity for improvement. To learn something about life I can never experience firsthand. And that's why I read.

And I will admit my hypocrisy. One of my more popular characters is Denny the Dent, a hulking African-American man with a birth injury that makes people assume he is developmentally challenged. I have never used a first reader for any of those stories. They've gone directly to editors. Because Denny is based on me. Once I filled out, and my terrible striking defense gave me a pugilist's nose, I noticed that people were intimidated by me. When I went on my nightly walks, lost in my daydream writing world, people would cross the street. When I'm distracted by writing thoughts, I get what my wife calls my "murder face."
So I amplified what I felt, when writing Denny. He's a very sympathetic character. Like his pit bull Remy, he just wanted to be friendly, but the world was cruel. And now he hides inside himself, until he sees a cruelty inflicted upon another that he cannot abide.

That doesn't mean I got everything right. Denny grew up in Newark. I've worked there for decades, but I don't know what growing up in his ward was like. I've read articles by people who grew up in the Terrace projects, and talked to people who have. For a few short stories that may have been enough, but when I write the Denny the Dent novel, a lifetime Newarker like Denny will be one of my first readers. Because I want to get it right. Another lens, when positioned correctly, can let us see the stars. And that's what the right first reader can do. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Gritty in the Suburbs

Stanton McCaffrey is a first time novelist whose book Into the Ocean recently came out from New Pulp Press. A New Jersey set crime novel from a Jersey native, it's gotten good reviews like the one at Out of the Gutter online, and no less a crime writing notable than Charlie Stella calls it "a hell of a debut novel".  In his piece here, McCaffrey talks about how important setting is in his novel and why he aimed to write not an urban crime tale or a rural crime tale, but one set in the very specific world of the New Jersey suburbs.

Gritty in the Suburbs

When starting the brainstorming process for my first novel, Into the Ocean, I knew I wanted to write something brutal, something gritty. I like the idea of morally conflicted and desperate protagonists. Even more, I like settings that don’t just feel like characters but feel like forces conspiring against characters.
For the types of fiction I like to read, those stories typically take place either in urban or rural environments. But those aren’t the places that I know. I could have done research on those places I suppose, but to me that would have been dishonest. That would have been someone else’s book.
No, I grew up in the suburbs. They’re what I know. To be exact, I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, which is in-part the inspiration for the fictional Madison Park where Into the Ocean takes place. Madison Park is an amalgam of central New Jersey towns, where we have both trailer parks and housing projects. We used to have vacant factories too, but they’ve all been turned into big-box retailers and Amazon warehouses. The poverty is there too, you just have to look for it or know people well enough.

It struck me thinking about the setting I grew up in and am still in to an extent, that I didn’t have to write someone else’s novel in order for my book to be gritty or for it to hit some of the same notes that other pieces of noir hit. Based on my own anecdotal experiences alone, with some creative exaggeration of course, I felt I could pull off some brutal and honest crime fiction.
Just like in the flashback scenes I have in the novel, there were some nasty characters around me growing up. And, man, people in the eighties and nineties in central New Jersey were incredibly racist (not to say they’re not still). There was one kid who would ride his bike through the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood making Nazi salutes. Last I heard he had a job with the township.
Also, the town I grew up in had and still has an almost comically corrupt police department where one officer recently tried to firebomb an officer from another town’s house for not getting his relative off a DUI charge. When I was a teenager I had a drunken run-in with the Edison cops myself from which I still bare the scar on my head. A detective told me that if I didn’t admit to punching a cop he would stick his pen inside the hole the other officer had put in my head.
If you decide to pick up Into the Ocean, you’ll notice that police corruption features prominently. 
It’s not just the police. The entire atmosphere in the suburbs is stifling. Growing up, if you had a conflict with somebody in elementary school that conflict carried through to high school. If you weren’t lucky enough to get out as an adult, you still worry about running into that person you tussled with in 5th grade or one of their siblings at the ShopRite. In the suburbs like Madison Park there is no starting over.
There’s the poverty too, a staple of noir fiction and something I felt compelled to depict. In my neighborhood now, which you’d still consider the suburbs, poverty is apparent. As I write this, two of my neighbors sit with their utilities cut off because of inability to pay. Two houses on my street were abandoned when the owners could no longer cover the mortgages. My personal favorite story is that another one of my neighbors, one who my wife also witnessed smashing his car with a garden hoe in a drunken fit of rage, tore off his nipple hopping out of a dumpster after looking for food. Now, tell me that’s not gritty.

There are statistics and wider reporting to support these anecdotal observations as well. The suburbs might have once been the home of Leave it to Beaver, but now they’re home to Breaking Bad. According to Time Magazine, more and more people simply don’t want to live in the suburbs anymore. According to The Atlantic, “The number of poor in the suburbs surpassed the number of poor in the cities in the 2000s, and by 2011, almost 16.4 million suburban residents lived below the poverty line.”
This means to me that many of those that still live in the suburbs are those that for one reason or another can’t get out. They, like many noir protagonists in books from Dennis Lehane or Daniel Woodrell, are stuck.  
Add to all this the current opioid epidemic hitting much of the U.S. and particularly central New Jersey and you have a perfect storm fit for crime fiction.  
And Into the Ocean is fiction, but I like to think it portrays at least one honest perspective of life in the New Jersey suburbs where it’s not just the summer humidity that makes you feel like you’re going to explode.

You can pick up Into the Ocean here.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Bidding Adieu

My husband and I have an ongoing debate about books and shows. Or, perhaps more accurately, we have fairly firmly set opinions that are entrenched, and that are at odds with each other.

I love a great series. Brian... not so much.

The real difference centers around Brian's belief that too many series outlive their shelf life; they could end on a high note earlier, but instead they're milked for all they're worth and the overall quality suffers.

I have to admit that, while I might not be willing to always pull the plug as soon as he would prefer, that I'm starting to embrace his way of thinking.

Personally, I think it sucks that Orphan Black is taking its final bow this year, after just five seasons. I think there could have been more depths to explore in this richly layered world, but I will applaud them for staying focused. Meanwhile, a few other shows that I've enjoyed in the past are not fairing as well for me. I'm not captured by this season of Orange is the New Black yet, and I didn't find House of Cards to be quite as compelling, either.

However, House of Cards elevated the whole season with one critical ingredient; the ending. A great ending can draw things together in a way that reveals the genius of subtlety that may have been at work throughout the body of the season.

I've been thinking about that a lot as we watch this season of Fargo. The acting is brilliant, as ever. The show retains its quirkiness and its black comic moments... but something this season felt a little off. Perhaps it was my expectations. I'd anticipated season three with the expectation of declaring Fargo the greatest crime show ever made; seasons one and two are amongst the best seasons of any crime show, ever, but when faced with competition such as The Wire I felt like Fargo needed a third season to rise to the top.

Interestingly enough, Brian and I aren't the only ones who've talked about how the truth of the season's merit will be fully realized with the finale. The AV Club's reviewer "said last week that it was possible that the final two episodes of the season might tie things together" and that's the beauty of these complex, season arc shows; they must be weighed as a whole.

And much of the weight falls on their finale.

Recently, The Handmaid's Tale stuck the landing so brilliantly, I was surprised. And I do not want to give anything away, but if you're studying story arcs, if you're looking for great examples of storytelling that masters  the art of both the subtle and straightforward approach, look no further.

I think one of the reasons the endings can elevate the storytelling's effectiveness so significantly is because they can give shape to what's been hinted at that may have been missed, and that means you realize there was even more going on than you picked up on fully, and then you watch again and begin picking up on those cues.

Think of storylines that have suffered with an ending that failed to tie things together in a way that convinced the audience or elevated their understanding of the storyline. Lost comes to mind as an example, along with How I Met Your Mother, and I am not alone in those views.

Ending well is an art... and it's a storytelling skill that, when mastered, can take a good story and make it great. Knowing when to end is part of that equation; knowing how to tie together the subtle and straightforward threads is another. In order to get there, yes, the audience has to be invested in the journey, but word of a bad ending can deter an audience from giving a story a try, or finishing it.

As I was once told, the end of your story sells the audience on your next story, and it's what we all should be striving for in our craft.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Country (Midwestern) Music

I fell in love with the Midwest. And then I fell in love in the Midwest.
I grew up on the West Coast and hadn’t spent much time in the Midwest until I went to college. I enrolled at the University of Missouri-Columbia, packed up the bare minimum, and moved seventeen hundred miles.
It was a fantastic university in a town full of arts, and sports, and no parental supervision. I met lifelong friends and started my writing career.
And unlike my childhood home in Nevada, it was green everywhere, and humid, and full of trees that exploded with color in the spring and the fall. It rained during the summer. There were fireflies. All astonishments of nature that I’d only experienced in books. 
Green, everywhere!
I couldn’t help but fall in love with the place. And then I fell in love with the man who would become my husband. And he introduced me to Branson.
You might have heard of it. Country music theaters, huge busloads of tourists. 
But it’s also in a very proudly rural area in the Ozark Mountains that was well known for its outdoor recreation and fishing long before it became a country music draw. And it has many of the characteristics the Midwest is known for – the slower pace, the welcoming attitude, the politeness. 
For instance, typical Midwestern friendliness can be amplified by the small size of a town. On one visit to Branson, we were running errands. A driver waved to us as we passed her while pulling into a parking lot. I was confused. What was she trying to communicate? Was our muffler falling off? Our tire flat? We weren’t in her way, were we? What was her problem, I groused. My husband looked at me with a mixture of pity and exasperation.
“She was waving at us. To say hello. Because she’s friendly. People do that here.”
That possibility had never entered my citified brain. I resolved to immerse myself as much as I could. And the more I learned about Branson, the more fascinating it became to me. It’s a small town … but it isn’t. Less than 11,000 people live there (more than double the population when my husband first took me to visit). Yet it gets millions of visitors a year. So it has to have an infrastructure that supports this huge tourism industry. And that dichotomy has always fascinated me.
So when I decided to begin writing a mystery series, I knew immediately where I would locate it. How could I ask for more – a place that was a small town and a big city all at once, and that was located in my beloved Missouri?
I’m not a native, and I didn’t want my protagonist to be, either. I wanted my readers to see the Midwest through the eyes of someone who was experiencing it – the good and the bad – for the first time. And so I made my Sheriff Hank Worth an outsider who’s suddenly put in charge of the entire department when the former sheriff resigns the job. There are many people who aren’t happy with his appointment and try to discredit and undermine him. And Hank, who’s been a big city street cop for years, has no experience running an organization or managing employees.
He’s trying to figure all that out when one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions, a showboat called The Branson Beauty, crashes on a nearby lake. But what starts out as the logistical headache of rescuing more than a hundred stranded passengers turns into a criminal nightmare when the body of a murdered college student is found in a locked room.
This is the perfect Branson combination for me – tourism and nature. The showboat, with its skirt-twirling, fiddle-playing, tap-dancing extravaganza of a stage show, employs several of my characters and entertains many others. And it wouldn’t exist without the lake, a giant recreational jewel just outside of the city limits.
I’m looking forward to exploring more of Southern Missouri and the Midwest as my Hank Worth series continues. Hank's next case will take him into the Ozark backwoods, where he has to solve the murder of a John Doe that sets him in the middle of a generations-long family feud. And that's in addition to running for election so he can keep his job as sheriff. He’s doing everything he can to win. And that’s because he – like me – has fallen in love with the Midwest. 
This article originally appeared in Mystery Readers Journal: Midwestern Mysteries (Volume 33:1).