Saturday, March 18, 2023

Alaska Daily and The Company You Keep Prove Network TV Is Not Dead


Scott D. Parker

Remember a few weeks ago when I lamented the end of New Amsterdam and wondered if there would be any more network TV shows I’d watch? Well, it didn’t take long before two very different shows landing on my viewing schedule.

Alaska Daily

Curious about the throughline of the series—the disappearance and murder of indigenous women in Alaska—the wife and I watched the pilot of Alaska Daily, the new show starring Hilary Swank. She plays Eileen Fitzgerald, a famous New York investigative reporter in New York who gets fired for asking too many questions. Amid her public humiliation, her old boss, Stanley (Jeff Perry) shows up. He has a job for her: investigating the systemic crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women in Alaska. The sticking point is, obviously, that the new job is in Alaska. Stanley knows Eileen and all he has to do is get her hooked on the story.

She gets hooked and she moves to Alaska where we promptly have a fish-out-of-water story mixed with a this-is-how-we-do-it-in-the-big-city story. But it works well.

The indigenous women story is the season-long arc and little pieces are uncovered in each episode. But you also get a story of the week. In each episode, you’ll see some of Eileen’s fellow reporters either get rubbed the wrong way because of her or learn something from her that they can then use. It’s a good push-pull dynamic.

Two things particularly stand out. One is obvious: the importance of journalism, especially local journalism. In episode 7, Eileen has a long conversation with another character who thinks all she does is twist facts around. She counters the argument by pointing out things that reporters have contributed to society. It’s a general “If not us, who?” argument that I find matches the tone of 2023.

The other aspect of this show I really dig is Eileen herself. She’s single-minded in her devotion to her job, so much so that she sacrifices personal relationships. She’s a loner, and her lover is being a reporter and uncovering the story. We’ve seen characters like this before, but they’ve almost all be male. With Eileen, you get the female version of it, and it’s refreshing.

I find it fascinating that the topic of violence against indigenous women is featured not only on this American network TV show but also on Amazon’s Three Pines. Perhaps with more exposure, more can be done to stop this crisis.

The Company You Keep

On the other end of the ledger is another new show, The Company You Keep. We saw the trailer while watching America’s Funniest Videos one Sunday evening and were intrigued. I didn’t watch This Is Us but I knew the Milo Ventimiglia starred on it. Milo’s also in this show opposite Catherine Haena Kim. He’s a con man named Charlie from a family of con artists: mom, dad, and older sister. She’s a CIA operative named Emma, daughter of a retired senator whose brother is running for his dad’s seat, and no one in the family knows she works for the government.

In the pilot, Charlie’s family earn $10 million from a job but Charlie’s fiancée steals it. Emma discovers her partner is having an affair. Charlie and Emma meet at a hotel bar and a weekend of passion ensues. But they are both secret about their real selves and real jobs. Naturally, they fall for each other but still keep up the mysterious fronts. Cut to the end of the pilot where the bad guys who used to own that $10 million show up at Charlie’s family bar. They demand repayment plus interest, and you have this show’s schtick: A Con of the Week.

And it’s so much fun. It doesn’t hurt at all to have Milo and Catherine look so dang good and look good together. As the credits rolled from the pilot, I said to my wife, “Ah, so it’s pretty people doing cons every week. I’m in.”

The supporting cast is fun, especially William Fichtner as Charlie’s dad. He’s good in just about everything he’s in, but a particular favorite is his role in the 1999 movie, Go. James Saito plays Emma’s dad, an actor who has been in a ton of things, but I particularly enjoyed him in the old Eli Stone TV show.

If you are a fan of heist stories, you’ll probably get a kick out of this.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Short stories for podcasts

Over at Writers Who Kill, KM Rockwood discusses writing stories for podcasts.

Short stories have long been some of my favorites, both reading and writing them, and I’ve added listening to them to the menu.

I’ve also been trying my hand at writing for podcast distribution.

Podcasts have much in common with audio versions of books, and owe much to that earlier invitation to “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear” on pre-TV radio.

But I’m learning that the stories written for podcast do present some unique challenges.


Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Wild Canaries

I recently saw the film Black Bear (2020), with Aubrey Plaza, and really liked it. Set in upstate New York, broken into two contrasting parts, it plays as a sort of cross between Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and a John Cassavetes movie, in particular Opening Night, a psychological mind screwer with a great and multi-layered performance from Plaza.  The writer-director is Lawrence Michael Levine, and since I'd liked Black Bear so much, I decided to watch his previous film, from 2014, called Wild Canaries.

This one hearkens back to the classic tradition of screwball mystery, with a married Brooklyn couple, often bickering, neither a cop or a professional detective, investigating the death of an elderly lady who lived in the same building that they do. The woman lived in the building's last rent-controlled apartment, and when her grown son starts acting oddly after her death, delivering an off-key eulogy at her funeral and selling off her possessions quickly as though he is in dire financial straits, the wife in the couple, Barri (Sophia Takal), begins to suspect that the son (Kevin Corrigan) killed his mother.  Perhaps Barri's enthusiasm is fueled by her love of Hitchcock movies, but eventually, the son's behavior makes even the husband, Noah (Levine), suspicious.  They begin poking around in the son's life, aided by their gay roommate Jean (Ali Shawkat) who has a thing for Barri.  Barri and Noah have been having their own difficulties, but the investigation they launch themselves into involves them in something that distracts them from their problems and might, just might, help their relationship.  

Wild Canaries has an obvious love for The Thin Man movies and one can't help but think as well of Manhattan Murder Mystery.  The pace is fast, the dialogue rapid-fire, and the investigative shenanigans amusing.  It's difficult to balance a genuine mystery with a marital comedy, but this one does it well, all the while capturing in a wry way early 2010s hipster world Brooklyn, with its aspiring and sometimes pretentious artists, rent worries, cramped apartments, and constant financial anxiety.  It's completely different in tone and style than Black Bear, and the chemistry between Levine and Takal, who are married in real life (and she also is a filmmaker, having directed the psychological thriller Always Shine as well as the Black Christmas remake) is excellent. For its 98 minutes running time, Wild Canaries is quite diverting, something perfect if you too love a certain film tradition and want to laugh.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

How to Promote an Event, in Fine Cactus Fashion


I'll be in Tucson later this week for Left Coast Crime 2023, a convention for mystery fans and authors. It's always a wonderful time, and this year I get to start early. On Wednesday night, the local Sisters in Crime chapter is helping coordinate Noir. Noir is an event that happens in fine drinking establishments nationwide, where authors read brief excerpts from their books. It's a home-grown thing, with people organizing them in conjunction with other events or for no reason at all, other than to have a good time. 

Word about Wednesday's event has hit in all the right places. Organizer Patrick Whitehurst has provided multiple graphics for people to use on their social media, and gotten the event into the local alt weekly newspaper

Note how the graphics give good placement to the brewing company that's hosting the event. It's truly an example where everybody wins. So if you're going to Left Coast Crime this week, stop by and subject yourself to some great crime. 

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Pushing the Old Guys Aside: HBO's Perry Mason Season 1

Scott D. Parker

I finally finished Season 1 of the updated and re-imagined Perry Mason TV series on HBO Ma. Yeah, I know: I’m two years behind. There’s just too much good content to watch and not enough time.

Here’s a funny thing: when I pulled it up on HBO Max late last week, my time stamp was halfway through episode three. I asked my wife if she’d be up for watching. She was and, without going back to re-watch the opening two installments, we forged ahead.

The cheeky summation I’ve heard about this show is that it is not your grandfather’s Perry Mason. That’s certainly true, both in the language and the personal relationships. The moment where Della Street, assistant to E.B. Jonathan (Jonathan Lithgow), the nearly-too-old-for-this lawyer defending Emily Dodson, climbs into bed with her girlfriend, my wife asked about it. Cue said cheeky comment.

I enjoy the old TV show quite a bit, but I’m nowhere near an expert. It’s just good comfort television. As for the books, I’ve only read the first one. What’s fascinating about the first book and the 2020 series is how much alike they are. If the only Perry Mason you know is Raymond Burr, well, he’s not like Matthew Rhys but Burr is also not exactly like the character we first see in 1933. Rhys and 1933 Mason are scrappers, not afraid to poke a hornet’s nest and see what happens. It’s rather remarkable how well that type of character fit both in the Depression as well as ninety years later.

This being an origin story, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how far down Mason was when this series began. Employed by E.B., Mason drinks way too much, is estranged from his wife and son, and constantly is threatened to have his family’s house taken away from him.

But the core quality of Perry Mason is his drive for justice. He can’t let things go when he knows there is something just under the surface. To quote Mason’s own self description when asked what he does, “He snapped out two words at her. “I fight!””

Rhys fights, both with his fists as well as his brain. The problem is that he often goes a few steps too far and says things to people like Della or his investigator, Pete Strickland, who are trying to help. I appreciated seeing Rhys try and smooth over Mason’s rough edges by the end of the season and never quite finishing the job.

It’s also fascinating to see how they inject 21st Century themes into a show set in the Depression. It’s obvious that same sex relationships and racial prejudices existed in the 1930s (and the 1950s era of the TV show) but it’s good to see it out in the open. Paul Drake, Mason’s main investigator by the end of the 2020 series, is now portrayed by Chris Chalk, an African-American. That itself brings up a lot of possibilities of narratives and themes. But I liked that Drake, a beat cop when we first meet him, has an inner integrity that is stronger that any position or job. Ditto for Della. The old TV show always showed her as all but an equal partner, but she always remained a secretary. The 2020 Della is an assistant, but she’s already enrolled in school and plans on becoming a lawyer. “A woman lawyer,” Mason says at the end. “A lawyer,” Della replied. “No modifier.”

Author Erle Stanley Gardner’s books are famous for their intricate nature. This 2020 season lives up to that bar. I did not see the ending coming and I really liked how the trial was resolved.

Oh, a quick shout out: Stephen Root, known for his comedy chops, plays the smarmy, publicity-hungry DA is all of his greasy glory. It made me want to see how many other non-comedy roles the actor has done. Loved him as I did Lithgow.

I suppose, with any origin story, you have to have older characters in places of authority that the younger characters seek to overcome. It’s pretty much the same in Season 1. So, in a very literal sense, the young Perry Mason beat a couple of old guys. You know, so it really isn’t your grandfather’s Perry Mason.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

From Sonny Liston to Marcel Proust

In the first place, if Sonny Liston had fought Marcel Proust, the fight would have lasted a shorter time than the two fights Sonny Liston had, one winning the Heavyweight Championship of the World, one defending it, against Floyd Patterson. Both those fights ended fast.  In the first bout, on September 25, 1962 in Chicago, challenger Liston knocked out champion Patterson in 2:06 of the first round.  A left hook to Patterson's jaw, one knockdown, and it was over.  Patterson, who president John F. Kennedy had telephoned, telling him how imperative it was that he (the good Black) beat Liston (the Black who had been in prison, tussled with cops, and had mob connections), left Chicago after the fight wearing a fake beard and mustache, so embarrassed was he by his performance. In the second fight, held on July 22, 1963 in Las Vegas, Liston knocked Patterson down three times and the fight lasted 2:10, four seconds longer than the first fight.  The crowd, reacting to Liston's victory, booed.

Now all this, at least about the first fight between the two men, is the main subject of a long essay I recently read called "Ten Thousand Words a Minute", by Norman Mailer. Published in Esquire Magazine in 1963, it's Mailer at the top of his game, which means talking about something he loves with brilliance and funny insights, expanding outward from his subjects -- Liston versus Patterson, boxing -- into any number of subjects about the United States at the time. It is also Mailer being Mailer, which means you get silly and at times antediluvian ideas mixed in with the thought-provoking ones.  And as always with Mailer, when he discusses race and Blackness, there are things now, if they didn't then, that read as cringe-worthy.  But he was one of the foremost boxing writers who ever lived, and if you like boxing, as I do, and love reading about its history and how it has tied to the culture and world around it, he makes for pleasurable and stimulating reading.  But this is reading, just to be clear, that is about a subject I'm interested in. It's not surprising I would come away from a foremost boxing writer writing about boxing and like what I've read.

But what about when you read a writer on something you don't have a longstanding interest in?  Or any particular interest in, really.  What about then, and when, without question, do you know that a writer is great?  It's not necessarily when they write about a subject you love and that you know in depth. Sometimes it’s when the writer tells you about something you know virtually nothing about, haven’t thought about much, and will never ever do (not that I'd box), and still, as you read, it’s fascinating. That writer can be great company and you may feel that you're in a cafe or bar with them, just talking.

This has been my experience reading Essays Two by Lydia Davis, the companion book to her, you guessed it, Essays One. Her first book of essays concentrated on writing and writers, and this one focuses on the activity Davis has pursued throughout her professional career, as a way to make a living: translation. The book consists of numerous pieces connected to her translation endeavors, and these include her work translating the first volume of Proust's seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, which is Du côté de chez Swannor Swann's Way.

I happen to have finally started reading Proust myself, and I'm working my way through Swann's Way.  I'm only about 200 pages in, so I'd rather not talk too much about the experience of reading Proust yet, but I can say that reading Swann's Way in the Lydia Davis translation, from a little over 20 years ago, is what led me not to reading Davis herself (I've been reading her short stories for years), but to acquiring this particular book of hers.  When I first looked through it, I saw that it has a lot of Davis dissecting Proust and talking about the joys and challenges of translating him, and I was persuaded to buy it.

And how is Davis on translation, breaking down the art and the craft of it? She's got me immersed. I'm totally into these pieces and actually wish at times that I had become a translator, in whatever language. Davis compares translating to sentence-by-sentence problem solving, and since she is a fiction writer as well, she talks in great detail about how translating differs from fiction writing but also how it can help your fiction writing. She talks about how such complete engagement with language, when translating, benefits her, in myriad ways, when it comes to her own writing. After all the years of doing it, she has plenty to say about translating, and the fact that she's made it as interesting to me as, say, boxing, is evidence yet again of what a great writer she is and what a great writer can do.

A certain writer's obsession becomes your obsession (or at least to you a strong point of interest), and you love exploring the subject with them. I liked hanging out with Mailer talking about Liston, but I'm enjoying even more spending time with Lydia Davis talking about translation and Proust.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

What the Number Three Meant Last Week


Scott D. Parker


I want you to keep that number in mind as you read this post. (And yes, it’s a magical number…)

Last week I posed the question about the best way to measure progress in a story. Specifically, if word count was the best way. Every writer differs and every writer has a way to determine progress, as Dana King commented on last week’s post.

Well, for me, I use word count. Always have. And starting on New Year’s Day, I had written at least 1,000 every day.

Until last Friday.

The day job part of last Friday made it feel like a Monday. Lots of meetings, lots of quick turnaround projects. Even though I worked from home, the day just kept consumed by the demands of the day job. Nothing wrong with that at all—better to have a Monday on a Friday than the alternative.

On the days I work in the office (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), lunch is my fiction writing time. I take my Chromebook and write in an empty conference room. On the days I work from home, I use the fact that I have no commute to work in writing before the day job duties start. But last Friday when I woke up, I was still feeling tired so I opted to sleep in (something I rarely do, even on weekends). It was okay, I told myself, I can pick up the writing at the end of the workday. It’s all good.

But it wasn’t. You see, my early morning sleepy self forgot that the wife and I were heading out to see singer/songwriter Jeff Crosby at Houston’s Mucky Duck. The responsibilities of the day job were going to take me up to and a little beyond five o’clock. The show started at seven. Oh, and I also had to write my post for this blog.

What to do?

Well, I wrote the post y’all read last week and got it posted before we departed for the concert. With that done, I opened up my story and started writing some fiction.

I wrote three words. They consisted of two sentences and, after I hit the return key, an entire paragraph.

I looked at the screen, willing some words to make their way from my brain, through my arms and fingers, and onto the screen. They weren’t happening. That tiredness I woke up with was still with me, even more so with the day job’s activities. I knew I would return from the show and want to keep that one-on-one time with the wife, something that remains an important part of daily life. I also knew my 1,000-word writing streak was in jeopardy. The everyday part of the streak remained alive, but would the thousand-word streak?


I chalked up a notch in the main streak and called it a day. There are more important things than getting a daily word count. It was a stumble, but you know what you’re supposed to do after you stumble, right?

Get up.

The next day I clocked in 1,172 words.

That’s the key takeaway I want to leave you with today. There will always be days in which you won’t or can’t write. A streak might be broken. As irritating as it may be—and after 55 straight days of 1,000+ writing days, it was a bummer—don’t let the break go on longer than a day. Get right back in the groove the next day and start a new streak or habit. Your future self will thank you.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Magic City Blues: A Conversation with Bobby Mathews

 I've known Bobby Mathews for a few years now. Not only have I had the pleasure of editing one of his stories in Rock and a Hard Place (you have have heard we have a new issue out, which you can check out here!) but I've also had the pleasure of having him as a friend. We've drank together, talked shit about football teams together, and we've traded more than a few encouraging texts while in the middle of some tough writing. 

Speaking of, Magic City Blues, Bobby's second novel, just dropped last week. Starring a legbreaker turned knight errant, it recalls Parker, Leonard, and Westlake, while also being, undeniably, Bobby Mathews. 

To celebrate the release of Magic City Blues, I chatted with Bobby about writing, Birmingham, and lots more. Check it out below, and when you're done, make sure you get Magic City Blues. Look at that, I even gave you a link straight to it, so you definitely don't have an excuse. 

Magic City Blues was supposed to be your debut, but Living the Gimmick came first. How long has this story been inside you, and how does it feel to finally have it out in the world?

Magic City Blues started probably in 2018 or so, and I put it away for a while because I couldn't find a way to move the story forward. In 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic raging, I had a lot of time to think about writing, and pulled out Magic City Blues. It was already around 30,000 words ... I thought "I've put too much time into this story to let it die," and then I realized that I needed to inject some life into it, make the setting more believable and relatable. So I began deepening the book's real-world ties with Birmingham.

It feels very good to have the book out in the world, even with the distribution hiccup Shotgun Honey had on launch day. What I feel most, probably, is relief. I was beginning to believe the book was snakebit in some way ... but for better or worse, MCB is here. And so far, folks seem to like it. 

Tell me about Kincaid, the main character of Magic City Blues. He’s obviously inspired by a lot of single name PIs, but he’s got his own thing too. How did you find the balance to his character?

Kincaid definitely has a lot in common with the singly named PI, but his outlook is, I think, darker. He's not really an investigator. He's the guy who'll visit you if you get behind on the vig that you owe to your local loan shark, or the guy who intimidates witnesses in order to make sure his bosses don't go to jail. In Magic City Blues, he's forced into being an investigator because he believes it's the best way to serve his client.

I think Kincaid's humor and self-understanding help bring balance to the character. He knows who he is and what he can do — and what he can't. He takes the work he does very seriously, but he doesn't take himself seriously at all. He's also got some undiagnosed (or mis-diagnosed) PTSD, as well. He lives in temporary housing — a crumbling motel rather than a real fixed abode — by choice, because it's easy for him to leave everything and everyone behind if he needs to. 

Birmingham is the other main character in the novel, and throughout, the city feels real. Like a character. How did you feel about committing your version of the city to paper? Any trepidation about focusing too much on its flaws? Or any fear you were painting it as more rosey than it actually is?

I love Birmingham, despite its flaws. The crime rate is high, the Alabama Department of Transportation is hell-bent on fucking up the roads for a generation, and downtown floods during the summer rains because the sewer system is woefully inadequate, and gentrification is a huge issue that no one wants to grapple with. And yet ... and yet Birmingham is still a jewel. We have a world-class food scene with multiple James Beard Award winners, our reputation as a banking and innovation hub in the Deep South is well-won, and the city is actively trying to overcome its racist past.

I wanted to "get it right" in the sense that I want people to recognize this fictional version of Birmingham. The John Hand Building, Eagles Restaurant, Gip's Juke Joint, the clubs and bars, Carraway Hospital ... all of those are  where I say they are, more or less. I did take some liberties with things like setting scenes at Pale Eddie's Pour House, since Pale Eddie's closed during the pandemic. But it was my favorite dive bar, so it had to go in. I tried, as much as possible, to play Birmingham straight ... it's too rich in history and in its present-day resurgence to treat it any other way than how it is.

Your work seems to often be dealing with the past; the wrestling circuits you grew up attending that are no longer around, the city trying to outgrow itself and it’s past, the Knight Errant inspired by your favorite writers growing up who may have less of a place in the modern world. Do you think that’s the Southerner in you (if you accept that the South is always in conversation with its Past) or are you digging for something else, something more personal? Or is it both?

It's likely both. I try to be aware that as a white Southerner I probably have something of a genetic predisposition to mythologizing the past, and that's a dangerous road to go down. The thing that I try to do when writing about the past is to use my perception of it to uncover potentially hidden truths. Like in Living the Gimmick, the main character discovers that his best friend is not — and never was — the person he thought he was. When I think about my characters, one of the things I try to explore is how much we lie to those closest to us, how much we lie to ourselves. Are we really who we think we are? Are our best friends really who we think they are?

Faulkner had that famous quote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I think about that quote a lot. Down here we live with the long shadow of the Confederacy that casts evil ghosts like lynchings, Confederate monuments, "militias" and rednecks who think "the gub'mint" is out to get them. It's an attitude and outlook that's been handed down since the Civil War and the Reconstruction efforts that came afterward. 

But I think for me, a lot of my efforts to look into the past come down to this: When you're young, it's easier to believe in something. Whether it's wrestling or religion or redemption, belief is important. It's a way to belong. As you grow older, belief in just about anything is harder. I think a lot of my work incorporates people who are looking for something to believe in ... even if it's just the gun in their hand.

I can see that in your work. The other kind of artery I’ve noticed in your stuff is that so much of it is set against change. Either some debilitating change that has already happened, or one that is in the midst of happening. If we take your comments about belief and put them against the backdrop of change, does that make you feel your work is cynical but striving, or disappointedly optimistic? Or somewhere else on the spectrum? 

There's a line in one of Jason Isbell's songs that I will probably end up getting tattooed on my arm at some point: Experience robs me of hope.

With apologies to Yeats, that's life, isn't it? Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Yet we get up in the morning and take care of the kids and go to work and mow the yard and wash the car and watch the TV in spite of the chaos and entropy going on around us. We carry on in spite of knowing somewhere down deep in our souls that this world is completely — maybe irreparably — fucked up.  Another Isbell reference: "We ain't never gonna change, we ain't doing nothin' wrong. We ain't never gonna change, so shut your mouth and play along." Dark, but maybe as I think about it, somehow hopeful, too. Or at least the way I hear it. We're trapped in this circumstance, but we'll keep swinging until we go down permanently.

That's all underneath. On top, though? I think a lot of my stuff is typically about middle-aged dudes who struggle to understand the changing world around them. How do they react when they've been knocked down? Do they get up and carry on? Do they decide to take someone down with them? What's their reaction to failure and heartbreak and pain? Do you take it, swallow it down, learn from it, and move on ... or does it poison you? I think it's an incredibly difficult and brave thing to take failure and stand back up and carry on, to adapt to the new circumstances after that failure. So maybe experience does rob us of hope. But we go on anyway, and isn't that kind of hopeful in a way? 

Two more questions for you: you’ve got two well received novels out, but you’re also a prolific short story writer. If you had to pick three short stories you’ve written to show readers what you’re all about, which three are you picking, and why?
And finally, what’s next? Are we going to see Kincaid again, or are you focusing on something else?

Three short stories that show my best work: Negative Tilt, which is a story you know pretty well. It appeared in Rock & A Hard Place # 7 in early 2022. I think that's probably the best story I've ever written — and it may be the best story I'm capable of writing. But I also have a soft spot for The Ghost of Buxahatchee Creek, which appeared in Reckon Review in July 2022. And The Swahili Word for Hope was published last year in The Dillydoun Review ... I think in some ways I began looking for more from myself when it comes to my short fiction, and those three stories reflect that.

What's next? I wish I knew. I've got a couple of partially finished novels, so at some point I've got to get to work on them. My hope is to find a good agent — scratch that, the right agent — and see if I can leverage my well-received novels into something more. I have hopes for one of these partially finished books. The working title is The Children Are Sleeping, and it's a Southern gothic set against the backdrop of a hurricane coming up from the Gulf of Mexico and wreaking havoc with the lives of my characters.

I don't know  for sure that we'll see Kincaid again, but I hope we do. I like that guy.

Thanks to Bobby for swinging by this week. And, again, check out Magic City Blues. I promise you'll dig it. 

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Is Word Count the Best Way to Chart a Novel’s Progress?


Scott D. Parker

Words, pages, or scenes? What is the best way to measure progress when writing a novel?

When I wrote my first novel, I had zero idea about word count so I just stuck with scenes. They were as long as they needed to be.

After I met some fellow writers online, I learned that word count was also a method. In fact, it was often the preferred method publishers used to solicit stories and novels. So I switched and have been using word count as my standard ever since. I still let scenes do what they want.




Writing streaks are a great way to maintain momentum when you are on a project. I use them all the time as well. Since 2022 was a disastrous year of (non) writing for me, I resolved that I would start a brand-new project on New Year’s Day 2023 and keep going everyday until I completed the book.

I have written everyday this year. Yay! The book is coming along nicely, and its serving to remind me about the power and excitement of actually creating a story out of thin air.

During every writing session, I have managed to write 1,000 words or more. That’s kind of a doable benchmark I use that is a nice round number. It has enabled me to reach 64,000 words in the book as of yesterday, Day 55 of the year, so that’s really nice to see. Plus, it’s not as aggressive as the 1,667 words per day you need to write, a la NaNoWriMo, to get a 50,000-word book done in 30 days, but it is usually an achievable threshold, especially when I’m in that flow state.

But is it a good one?

There have been a few days this year when I’m writing a particular scene and I half wonder if I’m writing more words just to reach 1,000 words. I cannot consciously say yes, but the nagging splinter of that idea that I’m just padding the word count remains.

I guess that’s what editing is for.

What about you? How do you measure progress on a book?

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Books We Haven't Read (yet)

 My wife's Valentine's Day gift to me this year was to redecorate my office. 

She explained, "You spend like 80% of your time in there, so it should be as nice as possible", and, honestly, that's one of the nicest, most thoughtful gifts I've ever received. So we spent Thursday, nine inches of snow fresh on the ground, homebound, working in my office. Books were pulled off the shelves and the shelves were removed from the walls. Paint was applied, and old paintings and photos and pennants I'd collected over the years were consolidated and placed on a single wall, keeping the space directly above my desk blank, for now. 

It feels different in here. Because of her work, mostly, but also because, after the paint was dry, I worked in to the night, reshelving my books. 

That's always a magical feeling, placing your books back on the shelf, but this time, maybe because it was the first time I'd reshelved my whole collection without the stress of moving the whole goddamn house too, it struck me a little different. It's not that I was more critical of what I was shelving, but rather... distant, maybe. 

I'm sure a therapist would say it has more to do with getting older than a result of the redesigned space, but this time I was keenly aware that a lot of the books I was reshelving were, more than likely, never going to be pulled off again. Not to be read in full, anyway.

But instead of wondering why I am still keeping those books, instead of pondering the inherent power of a collection of books filling a wall, I started to think about the books I haven't read yet. 

Here are a few books from my shelves I have not read yet, and a brief explainer as to why. And when I hope to rectify that. 

Mystic River 

I think it was LOST that put this idea in my head. Desmond and his obsession for Dickens. I can't get into the convoluted nature of LOST here (to be honest, in part, I kind of don't want to remember), but there's a character on the show, Desmond, who has read everything Charles Dickens has ever read except for a single novel. That novel, I think it was A Tale of Two Cities, is the last novel Desmond wants to read before he dies. 

That's Mystic River, for me. 

Lehane was, and continues to be, one of my single greatest influences. His Boston is as much Gothic as it is a criminal Wonderland, his characters are always aching, always searching for something better, his plots are razor sharp, and his prose is immaculate. And if what everyone says is true, Mystic River is his masterpiece. I know I'll read it eventually, but I'm in no rush. Saving something for close to the end can only make it sweeter, right? I have no idea when I'll read this one, but just knowing it's out there is powerful, I think. Eventually, when the time is right. Maybe when I'm close to the end. 

Lonesome Dove 

Well, first, it's so goddamn long. Just looking at that book on my shelf, I can feel the weight of commitment grabbing my shoulders. But I know it's good. It has to be. And (check my other blogs in you don't believe me) I've had Cormac McCarthy on the brain for years and years and years now. Someday, it's going to be incredibly pleasant to get a different picture of the West in my head; something to replace The Kid and the Judge and the barren, baking, hellscape of the desert. And if that only lasts while I'm reading the book? That's fine. It'll still take quite a while. I'm hoping I can read this one this ear. 

What about you? Do you have any books you can't wait to read, but you're holding off, waiting for that special time? If so, tell me about them below, or reach out on Twitter @pauljgarth 


Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Death at an Old Mansion

A few months ago I wrote here about the excellent Japanese mystery novel, The Honjin Murders, published in 1946 by Seishi Yokomizo.  It's a classic honkaku mystery, defined by Japanese crime author Saburo Koga as "a detective story that values entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning", usually, if not always, a mystery of the locked-room or impossible variety.  I've really been into reading these Japanese books for a couple years now, but I didn't find out till recently that there's been a movie adaptation of The Honjin Murders. It's called Death at an Old Mansion and came out in 1975, directed by Yoichi Takabayashi.

In brief, the plot revolves around the deaths of a bride and groom on the night the two wed. Both are found bloodied, stabbed by a sword, inside a locked room. The sword is found outside the room, however, and on a wall inside the room is found the bloodied handprint of a three-fingered person. Amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi, working with the local police inspector, tackles the case, and the investigation proceeds in the small town in rural Japan where the deaths occurred.

The Wikipedia description of the film says it's a horror film, but this is not accurate.  Death at an Old Mansion is a pure mystery, like the book, presenting a puzzle and a collection of suspects and an ingenious, complicated solution. What the movie does do, perhaps earning it the appellation of "horror film", is emphasize the book's macabre aspects quite a bit, while downplaying some of its humor.  The movie is less lighthearted, less playful, than the book, which serves at once as a superb mystery and a commentary on mystery stories.  One note: the brother of the dead groom, a  member of the eccentric family Kindaichi is probing with questions, is in the movie like in the book a detective fiction aficionado, and this makes for lively conversations in the film about the difference between crime in "real life" and in detective stories.   

I'm not sure why this film, at least in the US, is a bit obscure, but I'd say that for those who feel they've seen all the good traditional mystery story films there are to see, who are enjoying the current small resurgence of classic-style whodunnits on film, this is a film that would probably be up your alley.

And it's available to see on You Tube if you look for it, with subtitles, in a lovely print.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Springsteen, Showing Your Age, and Knowing Your Truth

Scott D. Parker

“I’m getting a certain vibe here,” my twenty-one-year-old son said as I drove my car on the streets leading to Houston’s Toyota Center. With less than thirty minutes before showtime, the traffic crawled and the sidewalks were jammed with people heading to the arena to see the 2023 version of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Yes, there was a vibe. Lots of middle-aged people, many with all-gray hair and loose, baggy clothes worn to hide bodies no longer as thin as fit as they were when The Boss ruled the airwaves in the Seventies and Eighties. Some wore concert t-shirts from ages past while others sported more modern Springsteen attire. A decent number of the concert goers were like me: attending the show with a younger person, hoping to introduce what it was like to see Springsteen the Showman fill an arena with sound and lead the fans in singing his songs. I chuckled as my son and I made our way to our seats. So many people my age and older crowded the hallways. Not like when he and I saw the band Ghost in early 2022. Then, I was in the age minority.

But there was a moment before the lights dimmed and the music started when I looked around at the people who sat near us and lots of the people we had seen coming into Toyota Center: they were old, or at least they looked old. But if they were old, that meant I was old, too. Right? I’m not one who takes my age into account on any given day. Looking out of my eyes, I’m like a perpetual twentysomething person. Looking in the mirror, I see the truth. Looking at all these older Springsteen fans, I see their truths.

And when Bruce himself got on stage and started the evening with “Night,” his face was broadcast on four screens hung over the stage. We had decent seats, but it was nice to have the professional camera folks giving us close ups of the Boss and the members of the E Street Band. When the camera often zoomed in on Springsteen’s face, you could see his truth as well.

The man is seventy three. Yes, he’s aged well. I hope I look as good as he does when I’m that age. Yes he has access to medical and dietary resources that help him age gracefully, but you can still see the age on his face, his eyelids, and the wrinkles around his face. You can tell that he’s not as animated as he used to be when he ran across stages, sliding on his knees, and leaping into the crowds.

But he was still thrilling, and he still put on a helluva show.

And yet I never expected to tear up at a Springsteen show. Well, I should have expected it, but when it happened, it actually moved me.

Every rock star I discovered in my youth, teens, and twenties have aged right along with me. Of course they have, you say. We’re all human. Yes, we are, but when you spin a record that came out in 1992 or 1982 or whenever, your mind can time travel back to that year and you can remember how you felt hearing those songs. In those moments, you can be that age again, even if you’re driving an SUV and taking your kids to band practice.

We got that sense of time travel on Tuesday evening with Bruce. So many of those songs are all time travel songs. That’s what they’ve become. Some songs never get old. “Born to Run”, sung at full volume with the house light up, everyone punching the air with upraised arms, will never, ever get old. But twice on Tuesday, mortality and truth entered the room and reminded us that time never stops.

In a long, spoken introduction to “Last Man Standing,” Bruce told us about he was the last person who was still alive from his first band, The Castilles. It was in this story that Bruce uttered a particularly great quote: “Death’s great gift is expanded vision.” None of us knows how many days we have, so it is necessary to make sure the lives we live are the best possible version.

The final song was just the two of us. By that I mean it was Bruce, on stage with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, singing to everyone but, in reality, he was singing to each and every one of us like it was just him and us in a room together. “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is a song about mortality and aging and loss. But it’s also an inspirational ode, especially with the line “For death is not the end and I’ll see you in my dreams.”

On the record, it’s the last track and the last time he says those words, he talking, to us, individually and collectively. On stage, the same vibe could be felt throughout the arena as the crowd was mostly silent, listening to Bruce Springsteen tell us that he’ll see us—his fans, his friends—in his dreams. The implication is that when he finally calls it a day and stops touring, he’ll have dreams about the fifty-plus years he’s experienced life on stage.

And we’ll have memories of concerts like this as well.

When I listened to that song on the record back in 2020, I wondered if those last few words would be the last time I’d ever hear a new Bruce Springsteen song. I should have realized that his restless spirit will always create new material even if he doesn’t tour it.

When I listened to that song live in 2023, I wondered if that would be the last time I ever heard Springsteen in person. Maybe. Maybe not. But if it was, what a way to say goodbye, not with a loud, bombastic anthem, but a quiet, gentle song about aging and mortality yet filled with hope, joy, energy, and the truth that shows like this will last a lifetime.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

With a Twist by Cathi Stoler

Scott's Note: Today Cathi Stoler guest blogs.  Cathi is a fellow New Yorker who I've done a number of Noir at the Bars with, and she's one of the most prolific mystery writers I know. Today she talks about her newest book, With a Twist, the fourth book in her Murder on the Rocks series.


by Cathi Stoler

I’m the kind of person who believes a change of scenery will do you good. Traveling to new countries and cities, interacting with interesting people, and experiencing a variety of cultures and cuisines are enticing and exciting.

But for Jude Dillane, my protagonist in my Murder On The Rocks Mystery series, not so much. Jude rarely leaves her East Village neighborhood, where she owns The Corner Lounge on Tenth Street and Avenue B. She has everything she needs right there: her boyfriend Eric Ramirez, her friend and landlord Thomas ‘Sully’ Sullivan, her customers, and her cozy apartment above The Lounge in a beautiful Beaux-Arts building.

Born and bred in New York City, Jude’s faced a lot of adversity in her life and has finally found a place where she feels at home. Her neighborhood is her comfort zone, and she doesn’t like to venture too far from her bar. 

In the first book in the series, Bar None, Jude travels to the Bronx, a borough away, and reluctantly goes undercover at the Big City Food Bank to solve a murder. In books two and three, Last Call, and Straight Up, Jude pursues and is almost killed by the New Year’s Eve Serial Killer, who’s been living and operating in her Lower East Side neighborhood for years, proving the theory that trouble can find you wherever you are. Even close to home.

Setting is very important to my stories. I think of it as the element that brings plot, characters, voice, and action together while giving the reader a true sense of place. The Lower East side is rich in history and character, which I wanted to share. There’s a lot to see and do there and I hoped whoever was reading my stories would see it through my words. 

But for book four in the series, With a Twist, I felt that Jude and my readers needed a change of scenery and a new setting, so I sent her on a cruise, a very exclusive and luxurious one on a small, but magnificent ship, The Allure. As opposite from the Lower East Side, as you can get, this was a Mediterranean cruise to die for.

When her boyfriend, Eric Ramirez, offers her this trip, which he received from a grateful business client, she initially refuses. As tempting as Spain, Italy, and Greece sound, they are not the Lower East Side, she points out to him. Eric finally persuades her to go and when she tells her employees about the voyage, they react with surprise that she’d actually leave The Lounge, even for just ten days.

When Jude and Eric reach The Allure, the newest ship in the Wanderlust Cruise line fleet, things begin to look up, especially when she meets her old college friend, Monica Delmar, the Director of Passenger Services. It’s luxury all the way, from the spacious suite to the fabulous food and drinks, to the number of passengers—a mere two hundred and fifty. Two ports-of-call on The Allure include Barcelona and Rome. I wanted to portray these beautiful cities with as much life, excitement, and energy as the lower East Side. Barcelona is a magnificent city with spacious plazas and gorgeous buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi. And Rome, with its ancient buildings and rich history, captivates from the first glance. At least, I hope my reader thinks so.

Once onboard The Allure, Jude finally begins to relax, but the good feeling doesn’t last for long.  An unfortunate dinner with the obnoxious Captain Brigman, who somehow knows about Jude’s unfortunate history with a serial killer, is just the beginning. When Monica discovers the body of the assistant purser, Jamie McFarland, lying in a pool of blood, everything changes. Jude’s romantic getaway quickly becomes complicated by a murder that may be tied to an international gang of jewel thieves.

Monica, who is under suspicion, asks for Jude’s help and she agrees. As Jude works to unravel the mystery and identify the killer, and the leader of the jewelry theft ring, her own life is put in danger. She knows she has to figure out who’s responsible for turning this opulent cruise into a death trap. Are the theft of a valuable diamond ring and the discovery of a cryptic notebook related? Jude makes waves as she looks into everyone, from Monica’s close friend, Chief Officer Damian Carstairs, to the ship’s photographer to a smarmy casino host, to discover who is responsible for the crimes.

Complicating matters even more, in Barcelona, Jude recognizes someone from home, Tony Napoli, her old friend, and protector, a former undercover cop who’s fled the country to protect the woman he loves from going to jail. Torn between her loyalty to Tony and her sense of duty, Jude goes to the American Embassy to report seeing Tony.

All this happening outside her comfort zone is quite a departure for Jude. It’s definitely a change of scenery, and Jude faces it with the determination and snarky attitude readers have come to know and love. 


With a Twist, a Murder on the Rocks Mystery, is out now and you can get it here. 

Cathi Stoler is an Amazon Best-Selling author and Derringer winner. The four novels in her Murder On the Rocks Series, Bar NoneLast CallStraight Up, and With a Twist feature Corner Lounge Bar Owner, Jude Dillane. Other books include the Nick Donahue Adventures, and the Laurel and Helen New York Mysteries. Cathi is a member of SinC, Mystery Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. Find Cathi at:, or email her at:

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Poker Face and the Spiritual Reboot


Scott D. Parker

Poker Face had me at Rian Johnson. But had I not known it was his brainchild, the show would have had me at the title font. 

That yellow font on the title card, the year represented by Roman numerals. What decade are we in? Well, the headspace of creator Rian Johnson was the 1970s and 1980s with shows like Colombo and The Rockford Files. I suspect he gets nostalgically triggered when he sees the title cards of those shows and others and wanted to bring sensibility forward to the 2020s.

What sensibility is that? A traditional crime-of-the-week series. But not just that: a new crime every week with a whole new cast. Which brings me to another 1970s TV it reminds me of: The Incredible Hulk. Both feature a lead who is being chased across the country, meeting new people every week.

Now I know what you’re thinking: there are plenty of crime-of-the-week shows from Law and Order to Castle to all those shows on CBS I don’t watch. That’s not new. No, it’s not, but the laid-back aesthetic is a refreshing return to a modern TV landscape full of season-long streaming shows to modernized takes on old tropes.

Both of those things are fine, and I enjoy them, but I also appreciate the slower paced TV shows that used to dominate networks with stakes that are not really that high. And I very much applaud Johnson for channeling that vibe into something new rather than a modern reboot of an old franchise.

He could just have acquired the rights to, say, Colombo (the obvious ancestor to Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie Cale) and created a story around Colombo’s grandkid who is a rumpled detective just like Peter Faulk. I’d watch that and chances are, you would, too. But we’d constantly be comparing the new actor/actress to Faulk, much to the detriment of the new show. Also, we’d probably have the admittedly fun “sequel” to some random episode that no one remembers save the dedicate Colombo fans.

No, what Johnson did was take all those elements and, crucially, made something new, unique, and his own. That last bit is probably the key factor for Johnson. Given the opportunity, he’d probably make a Colombo sequel or adapt some Agatha Christie novel in to a movie, but with Poker Face and Knives Out and Glass Onion, he gets to revel in all the stuff he loves while playing in his own sandbox.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Art Taylor on writing with range

Guest Post by Art Taylor

I debated fiercely about the subtitle of my new book: The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions, due out February 14 from Crippen & Landru, a publisher specializing in collections of short mystery fiction. 

In an informal and very limited poll (my wife Tara, our son Dash, and Jeffrey Marks at Crippen & Landru) “and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions” was the unanimous winner among several options, and I hope readers ultimately find it more catchy than cumbersome. But my mind keeps circling back to the subtitle I’d originally been considering: “Stories Light and Dark”—a tag which would’ve served two purposes, not only description but also (frankly) disclaimer.

In an interview several years back, Ed Aymar mentioned the range of my stories (a nice compliment, I’d thought!) but then he asked if I ever worried about branding, which . . . which honestly I hadn’t considered before in terms of my own work . . . and maybe I should’ve? I’m an avid reader in the mystery genre—everything from traditional mysteries to domestic suspense to hard-boiled and beyond—and I’d enjoyed writing across a similar spectrum, even crossing some genres within a single story, a bit of speculative fiction in the mix, for example. 

But are other readers equally broad in their tastes, or are they more focused in what they like and don’t like? With a collection, does that phrase “something for all readers” (you’ll find that idea in my book’s description) also carry the suggestion “oh, well, you can’t make everyone happy all the time”?  

The title story, “The Adventure of the Castle Thief,” is a traditional clue-driven mystery: a college study abroad in Ireland, students suffering a series of small thefts, and a professor and his star student setting out to solve the case discreetly and return order to their once-happy little group. This one’s at the lighter end of the spectrum. 

And at the other end . . . “The White Rose of Memphis” focuses on a hotel which has made a tourist spectacle out of the legendary assault and murder of a woman on her wedding weekend; the story follows a modern-day couple paying to recreate that experience, which hardly goes well. Do Some Damage’s own Steve Weddle originally published this one in Needle: A Magazine of Noir—with emphasis on that subtitle, noir at the core. 

Truth in advertising, the book jacket for my new collection explains that range, and I’ve ordered the stories within mostly with an eye toward increased darkness as readers push ahead—and increased dipping of my toes into speculative fiction as well. 

Ease into these waters—that’s the message. Not “Abandon All Hope Ye Who . . .”—at least I hope not!   

Coming back to titles and subtitles, I’m grateful to be here at Do Some Damage, and I want to focus on the site’s own subtitle/tagline: Crime Fiction Is For All of Us. In fact, it’s that combination that’s prompted some of these reflections. What kinds of “damage done” are readers here willing to accept in the fiction they read? How widely do you read generally in either direction? And for the writers, how much attention do you give to positioning yourself along that spectrum from light to dark—with an eye toward whatever reader you imagine? 

(These are real questions, I should stress—and I hope folks reading this might answer below!)

Order yours:




Art Taylor is the author of  two collections—The Adventure of the Castle Thief and Other Expeditions and Indiscretions and The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense—and On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has won three additional Agatha Awards as well as the Edgar, Anthony, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Beau recommends Rosson


This week, Beau recommends Keith Rosson's Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons


“With this excellent collection of 15 jagged, fragmented pieces, dark fantasist Rosson subverts expectations and challenges his characters and his readers alike to second-guess their preconceptions. Evil is just as likely to spring from daily life as to lunge out of the supernatural in these disquieting tales. . . . These powerful stories will leave readers unsettled in the best ways.” – Publishers Weekly

Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons is an unforgettable and often heartbreaking one-two punch of satire of and elegy for a decayed America.” – Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts and Survivor Song

“Keith Rosson is a storyteller with magic and grit to spare. Mesmerizing from the first sentence to the last, Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons is a phenomenal collection.” – Andy Davidson, author of The Boatman’s Daughter

“Effortlessly brilliant, entertaining and full of raw emotion, Rosson’s work takes you out of your comfort zone and into new landscapes of fiction. Literate, horrific, humanistic, sardonic. I’ve never read stories quite like Rosson’s and that is a great thing.” – John Hornor Jacobs, author of A Lush and Seething Hell