Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Ten Year Story

I wrote a story almost ten years ago. 

The exact date, or even the year, is kind of hard to pin down. That's the way it is with creative stuff, I find. The composition, the editing, the idea, it's all nebulous, pulled from the ether before you grab at it and try to nail it to the board, and in between all those fumbling grasps, life goes on around you. And the story. Some stories come quick, all at once, but others, they sit there, in different forms or shapes, for years. If you're lucky, you can remember the moment the story clicks. When it becomes more than an idea, and is, suddenly, something else, something you can share with the world. But I don't think that happens often. 

In my experience, a story comes in fits and starts. It's less blasting a shape out of stone and more the gradual wearing away of layers, experience piling up, both as a writer and as a person, until you look at it and think, Oh, this is something. But sometimes, the something you have doesn't match what was in your head, so it goes back in the drawer. It goes back to the subconscious process of sanding away and becoming something new. Molting into a different form. Sometimes you don't see those stories ever again. Life runs out or you simply have too many ideas, so only the strongest survive. But sometimes they come back. 

The story I first wrote almost ten years ago was published this week. I looked for the original draft, but that was at least three computers ago, so while it's probably on an external hard drive somewhere around here, it's definitely not easily accessible. And besides, I think I'd be embarrassed to read it. To watch myself grasping at things I did not yet have the ability or experience to emotionally convey. 

Back ten years ago, I was a new writer. In some ways, I think I still am, but if thats the case, then ten years ago I was goddamn green. I'd written and published a couple of short stories, and was very much in the I-Need-To-Write-And-Publish-As-Much-As-I-Can mode. The idea, which everyone around me (also young, hungry writers) was to get enough stories for a collection. To make it into the great magazines. To get noticed. 

So I played that game with gusto, and I got into a lot of the magazines I desperately wanted to be in. And a lot of those stories? They're pretty good, even now, with my more experienced eyes. "Moses on the Hill, with Fire Following" in ThugLit? Hell yeah! "Lights in the Sky" in Plots with Guns? Goddamn right. "Blood and Pavement" in the legendary Needle? Still a banger. But, the first drafts of the story I've been talking about, the story I published just this week? I never sent it out, despite knowing, at least on a plot and character and thematic level, it was pretty okay. Not great, maybe, not what it is now, but at the time, what the hell did I know about what I could do now? Nothing. I thought it was a good story. 

But I held it. 

A few years later, an editor heard I had a few things in reserve and asked to see them, so I sent a draft of the story I've been talking about. He liked it, but wanted me to punch up the ending to feature more action. If I did that, he'd publish it. And I didn't know why I did this, but me, Mr.-Hungry-For-Credits-And-Successes, told him "no".  It was a gut feeling. Something that said, "this isn't the right home for it."

And so I held it. For even longer this time. 

But that story, it's one of those stories I mentioned above, the kind that, as a writer, stays with you. That haunts your mental drawer, taking on new shapes, refining itself, the edges sanding away.

And those edges sanded away because I changed, too. I became a husband and a father. I became 10 years older than the main character of that story. I came to a place where I could see both the characters a little more clearly. I looked at the world and was scared by what I saw.  And all those things, finally, brought me to a place where I understood what the story was actually about. And when I understood what the story was about, when I rewrote it and reshaped it and pulled on the edges it make it better, I still held it. Because I understood what it was about wasn't something to be taken lightly. That feeling was back. The gut feeling. The one that said, it wasn't a story to be placed wherever. That I had to be intentional about it. So the story sat, no longer changing or refining itself, but instead waiting for the right home. 

That home came in the form of Meagan Lucas. I've followed Meagan for a long time, and read a good number of her breathtakingly beautiful short stories. And I've followed her magazine, Reckon Review for as long, always impressed with their stories and the obvious care they put into the work. But I'd never submitted there, in part, because of their Appalachian / Southern focus. My friends who published there were almost all from the South, and their stories are usually set in the South. I just didn't think it'd be likely they'd be interested in a gothic noir set in Nebraska. In other words, I self-rejected. Continuously. But, while reading submissions for Rock and a Hard Place magazine, I read Meagan's story, "The Stillness at the Bottom" and knew, instantly, that not only had she written one hell of a story, but also that she was the home my story had been waiting for. 

My concerns about regionalism were still there, but if anyone would be moved by the story I'd written, if there was anyone who could feel the things that had animated the story of a young man back home, helping his father cover up a grisly deed, an intimate act of shattering violence that still holds the power to shock despite how commonplace it is in our world, and the motivations and generational trauma that drive that character's willingness to help, it would be Meagan. So I sent it, hopeful that I could finally be free of this story that had haunted me for so long, and, thankfully, she accepted it. 

The story was published on Monday this week, and I am beyond thrilled. Not because I finally have a story at one of the best journals out there. Not because I have another credit. I'm thrilled because it feels right. Because I know the story doesn't just have a home, now, it has the right home. That it's finally arrived at the place that was waiting for it. 

If there's one thing to take from my experience, I think it's that. Publishing stories is a wonderful thing, and I still believe that, especially when you're starting off, you should try to publish as much as you can. But publishing isn't the only thing. Sometimes, you'll have something, and you'll know it's got a special kind of power over you (but maybe no one else!). And when you have that, you need to hold on to it. You need to trust your gut. You need to make sure you get the story right, no matter how long it takes, and you need to take care it ends up in a place that treats the story right. That cares about it just as deeply as you do. 

"The Color of Bones" is now available at Reckon Review. I'd be thrilled if you checked it out. 

Here in the Dark: Stories by Meagan Lucas is now available for pre-order at Shotgun Honey. Trust me, you'll want to buy this. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Live by the Pen, Die by the Knife

Over the weekend, which was one of gorgeous late spring weather in New York City, warm but not quite hot, sunny, cloudless, with no humidity, I got it into my head to watch Rene Clement's 1960 film, Plein Soleil, or Purple Noon, starring Alain Delon, again. It's based, of course, on Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Delon playing the Ripley character, and I think the reason I had a yen to watch it is because so much of it takes place under a cloudless, sunny sky like the one we had over the weekend in New York.

When I saw the film's credits, I realized I'd forgotten that the screenplay adaptation was co-written (along with director Clement) by Paul Gegauff. He and Clement, in fact, received an Edgar Award for their script for the film. But Gegauff is probably best known for the 14 films he collaborated on as screenwriter with director Claude Chabrol, who is often referred to as the French Hitchcock for the large number of twisty thrillers he made over the course of his long (1958-2009) career. 

A prime example of Gegauff's work is the script to the Chabrol-directed Une partie de plasir, from 1975. In it Gegauff, an actor, not to mention a novelist as well as a screenwriter, stars opposite his former, then divorced, wife, Danielle Gegauff. The story has them playing a married couple living a fairly happy, middle-class life with their young daughter until the husband says they should add a charge to their marriage by going to bed with other people and then describing their sexual escapades to each other. This is the 1970s, after all. It's not a shock that things go quickly wrong with their adventures, primarily because the husband can't deal with them and gets extremely jealous over the pleasure his wife derives from the extra-marital couplings. In the end, tragedy results, and the once solid bourgeoise family is destroyed. How much of this is based on actual experiences the Gegauffs may have had is not known, though it should be noted that their real-life daughter, Clemence, plays the daughter in the movie. 

Gegauff was a talented guy, no question, but all the stories about him make clear that while he had a strong and colorful personality that made quite an impression on his French New Wave director friends -- Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and company, besides Chabrol -- he was also an inveterate womanizer and just all-around son-of-a-bitch. He drank a lot and apparently never held women in high regard; it's safe to call him an obnoxious and misogynistic personality.  As his frequent collaborator Claude Chabrol said, "When I want cruelty, I go off and look for Gégauff. Paul is very good at gingering things up…He can make a character look absolutely ridiculous and hateful in two seconds flat.” This was a guy who was a bastard in real life and could write them well in fiction.

With all that said, Gegauff did get the death he deserved and perhaps craved. In the year 1983, he was living with his second wife, a woman much younger than him named Coco Ducados, from Norway. They had met in 1979.  By 1983, Gegauff's drinking had only increased, and there must have been a considerable amount of tension between them. For Christmas, the two were in a cabin in Norway, and one of their arguments broke out. Whatever else was said, Gegauff threw in the lines, "Kill me if you want, but stop bothering me"  To which Coco obliged, stabbing him three times with a knife.  That marked the end of Paul Gegauff, on Christmas Eve 1983, to be exact.

Gegauff's list of screenwriting credits working with many directors is long and very impressive. He was the superb writer as quintessential toxic force, though in this case what you might describe as just desserts was served to him. And it was served extremely cold, through a sharp blade, with no more meals, or anything else, required for him to indulge in ever again.

Addendum: I can't seem to find out whether Coco Ducados ever went to prison for killing Gegauff, but she did go on to work, in Norway, as a screenwriter and dramatist.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Review: A Truffle Load of Good Writing (And Dogs)


Unfortunately doesn't have scratch-and-sniff, but is otherwise perfection.

By Claire Booth

I’ve never had a truffle. I’ve never even wanted to try one. But I was on board instantly with Rowan Jacobsen’s Truffle Hound, an effervescent, sensorily spectacular unearthing of the world’s truffle industry.

My bedtime reading is always nonfiction, and I go through dozens of books a year. I read them as ebooks, a switch I made for only my nonfiction after dropping Ron Chernow’s three-pound Grant on my face multiple times as I needed off. My ereader thankfully doesn’t cause as much injury, and it comes with a very nice benefit. I can download the first pages of a book before buying it. And I always do, because—and I’m going to be brutally honest here—I need to see the writing. The book could be about a topic I love, but if the writing isn’t good, I can’t do it. That said, it’s actually rare that a sample completely fails with me. Most fall in the middle, are worth committing to, and turn out to be good-to-great reads. But it’s only once in a great while that something grabs me from the first page and has me pledging to follow the writer anywhere.

“It was hardly a food scent at all. It was more like catching a glimpse of a satyr prancing across the dining room floor while playing its flute and flashing its hindquarters at you. You think, What the hell was that? And then you think, I have to know.” 

Yes, I do.

So I followed the James Beard Award-winning Jacobsen to Italy, France, Bosnia, Hungary, Spain, and both coasts of the U.S. And enjoyed every minute. But aside from some late nigh back-room dealing in expensive fungus, what does truffle hunting have to do with crime fiction? A lot, if you write like Jacobsen. His book is a master class in the art of the character sketch. He introduces you to people all over the world in delicately perceptive, big-hearted strokes. The resulting portrayals are so vivid you feel like you know them—which is what every fiction writer aims for, isn’t it?

“Voldemort picks me up in Budapest, buys me an espresso, and we drive south in the early light,” he writes of a Hungarian truffle hunter whom others have warned him about. “Istvan Bagi has a sharp nose and a black goatee and would actually make a decent bad guy on TV. He’s soft-spoken and focused in a way that can imply either spiritual advancement or supervillainy.”

Or this one:

“Ivana’s boyfriend, a strapping young Croatian with a black beard and ample tattoos, loads four dogs into the back of a Citroen minivan. When I ask him his name, he says, ‘Call me Ban, it’s my last name, but you can’t pronounce my first.’ (It’s Hrvoje, if you want to give it a shot.)”

Plus, he’s so clearly obsessed with his topic that me-the-novelist thinks he would make a great mystery character.

Truffle Hound: On the Trail with the World’s Most Seductive Scent with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs



And for more of his journalism:


Saturday, May 27, 2023

What Are You Going To Do With the 99 Days of Summer 2023?

Veteran writer Dean Wesley Smith dubs the summer months the Time of the Great Forgetting. It’s that point in the year when the good intentions of New Year’s Resolutions made in the depths of winter fall by the wayside in bright light of hot summer days when the pull to do just about anything other than writing draws writers away from their keyboards. It’s only in later summer and early fall when writers remember their annual goals and either charge full-stream ahead and barrel to the end of the year, desperately hoping to achieve their milestones, or just give up and do something else.

He speaks the truth.

But I’ve come to see the summer months as an almost perfect time capsule to get things done, including writing.

Bookended Time

Starting with Memorial Day and ending on Labor Day in September, summer has a definitive beginning and ending. The only span of time that rivals this is Halloween-to-New Year’s Day. Unlike the holidays—which a chock full of known events and Christmas pageants visits to friends and family—the summer months are largely unstructured. School’s out, vacation season is in, and we all get to collectively breath deep for a few short weeks before we do it all again in the fall.

The summer vibe is looser. We wear different types of clothes. We read different kinds of books, the beach reads if you will. And we watch certain types of movies. I’ve already seen one of my favorite movies of the year—Fast X, a rollercoaster in a movie theater—and canNOT wait until both Michael Kenton’s Batman and Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones share the multiplexes for the first time since 1989. 

The clearly marked beginning and ending of summer also is the perfect time to do something creative, including writing. There are 99 days this summer—97 if you don’t include Memorial and Labor Day. Just imagine what you can do. Write a 99,000-word novel if you write 1,000 words per day. Or maybe two shorter works of, say, 45,000 words each. In the 14 weeks we get this year, you could write 14 short stories. Writing is merely a habit, and if you get into the habit of writing, it will be difficult to stop it.

Just imagine, come the Monday of Labor Day, the tremendous sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you look back over Summer 2023 and marvel at what you’ve done. It’s just like your New Year’s Resolutions but for a shorter period of time.

Your Summer Resolutions

Come to think of it, why not think of them as Summer Resolutions. Or your Summer Goals List. 

So spend some time this weekend thinking about what you want to write or accomplish this summer. Make a list—on paper—hang it on the fridge, and look at it everyday. Then, each day, when you open the fridge, ask yourself if you have moved the needle forward on those goals. When you do the incremental daily work, the end result will be greater than you could imagine.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Martin Amis and Elmore Leonard

When news came of Martin Amis' death, I, like many, thought not only about his fiction but of how good his non-fiction writing is. In this vein, the first thing that popped into my mind, of all things, was the review he wrote on May 14, 1995 of Elmore Leonard's Riding the Rap for the New York Sunday Times Book Review. This is a review I read at the time, on that Sunday, since in those days I bought the physical edition of the Sunday Times nearly every week and read the Sunday book review regularly.

You can't improve on what Amis says about the book, so I'll quote him a little bit, talking about Leonard's thirty-second novel: 

"LET us attempt to narrow it down. Elmore Leonard is a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers. He belongs, then, not to the mainstream but to the genres (before he wrote thrillers, he wrote westerns). Whereas genre fiction, on the whole, heavily relies on plot, mainstream fiction, famously, has only about a dozen plots to recombinate (boy meets girl, good beats bad and so on). But Mr. Leonard has only one plot. All his thrillers are Pardoner's Tales, in which Death roams the land -- usually Miami and Detroit -- disguised as money.

Nevertheless, Mr. Leonard possesses gifts -- of ear and eye, of timing and phrasing -- that even the most indolent and snobbish masters of the mainstream must vigorously covet. And the question is: How does he allow these gifts play, in his efficient, unpretentious and (delightfully) similar yarns about semiliterate hustlers, mobsters, go-go dancers, cocktail waitresses, loan sharks, bounty hunters, blackmailers and crime syndicate executioners? My answer may sound reductive, but here goes: The essence of Elmore is to be found in his use of the present participle.

What this means, in effect, is that he has discovered a way of slowing down and suspending the English sentence -- or let's say the American sentence, because Mr. Leonard is as American as jazz. Instead of writing "Warren Ganz III lived up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County," Mr. Leonard writes, "Warren Ganz III, living up in Manalapan, Palm Beach County." He writes, "Bobby saying," and then opens quotes. He writes, "Dawn saying," and then opens quotes. We are not in the imperfect tense (Dawn was saying) or the present (Dawn says) or the historic present (Dawn said). We are in a kind of marijuana tense (Dawn saying), creamy, wandering, weak-verbed. Such sentences seem to open up a lag in time, through which Mr. Leonard easily slides, gaining entry to his players' hidden minds. He doesn't just show you what these people say and do. He shows you where they breathe."

I remember reading this in 1995 and finding it such a sharp look at Leonard. It's admiring, of course, but doesn't just talk in semi-vagaries about "Leonard's great dialogue" or "Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing", but analyzes what is at the crux of all novels no matter what type of fiction the author writes, regardless of what genre the author navigates: language.  How the author uses language is where everything in writing starts, and it's surprising how often conversations about fiction and writing touch on everything related to writing except this core thing.  Anyway, I hadn't known before reading this review that Amis was such a Leonard fan, and if you want to read the full piece, you can Google it easily.

Also worth checking out is a co-interview Amis did years ago with Leonard, a most interesting talk between two writers who are so different, working toward quite different aims, but who so strongly value how they use language. The interview, perhaps unfortunately, is on the old Charlie Rose program, but you can't have everything. The draw here is Amis and Leonard talking writing.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

It’s an Easy Choice: Don’t Wait a Year to Read Falling by T.J. Newman

By Scott D. Parker

Look at that cover. How cool is that? For me, it stopped me in my tracks last year when I saw it for the first time. Isn’t that what a cover’s supposed to do? Well, mission accomplished. I promptly put that book on my To Be Read list.

And a year later, finally got to it.

When I finished the debut novel by former flight attendant T. J. Newman, I chastised myself. Why did it take so long to pick up the book because it was a good one.

The premise is a great example of an elevator pitch: on a transcontinental flight from LA to New York, veteran pilot Bill Hoffman is given a choice: Crash the plane or his family back in LA will die. The proof: a live video feed of his two kids and his wife held hostage in his own house. Both his wife, Carrie, and the kidnapper/terrorist wear bomb vests.

Oh, and if Bill does not make a choice, well, there’s someone on the plane that will force him to choose. Needless to say, the terrorist commands Bill to tell no one about the situation because if he does, his family dies.

You get all of this by the time Chapter 3 is over and there are still 39 chapters left to go.

Normal People in Unusual Circumstances

It is a hallmark of thriller and suspense stories to have a common main character just going about his or her life and then is broadsided by outside events. That fits this story to a T. It naturally makes you ask what you would do in a similar situation. What I particularly enjoyed about Falling is how logical (given his predicament) his choices are. The same could be said for his allies (come on; that’s not a spoiler). Given Newman’s background as a flight attendant you didn’t think they wouldn’t play a role is how this story plays out, did you? Of course not.

Flashbacks Deployed Judiciously

I listened to this book as narrated by Stephen Weber and the story just flew by. The rare pauses occurred when Newman would give us a flashback to an earlier scene in order to given Bill’s actions greater context. It’s a time-honored trope as well but it is a trope for a reason, and they work here. They didn’t bother me a bit and, just as Newman wanted, it deepened Bill and the choices he was being forced to make.

The Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and the ending actually sparked an emotional response. I rarely get those from books. In fact, the most recent one was 19 years ago with John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Newman may be a debut author but she knows how to spin a yarn. Her latest book, Drowning will be published this month and you can be sure I won’t wait a year to read it.

T. J. Newman's Encouraging Open Letter

In reading about Newman, I discovered her recently published open letter to fellow storytellers over at Deadline. It's a Must Read.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Using AI to write today's DSD post

By Steve Weddle and AI

I've been busy as hell watching YouTube videos on the best sling bags for travel, so I asked Chat GPT to write a 250-word essay about how to come up with a series character for a detective novel. 


Developing a captivating series character for a detective novel requires a careful balance of creativity and relatability. The protagonist should be someone readers can connect with, while possessing distinct qualities that set them apart. Here are some key steps to creating a compelling series character:

1. Define the Character's Background: Start by crafting a backstory for your character. Consider their upbringing, education, and any formative experiences that shaped their personality and worldview. This foundation will help you understand their motivations and provide depth to their actions.

2. Establish Unique Traits: Give your character distinguishing features, such as a particular skill set, a personal quirk, or an intriguing past. It could be a photographic memory, expertise in forensics, or an obsession with crossword puzzles. These unique traits add flavor and make the character memorable.

3. Create Internal Conflict: A series character should have inner struggles and flaws that humanize them. These conflicts can range from personal traumas to moral dilemmas, adding depth and complexity to their personality. This internal struggle will make the character more relatable and provide opportunities for character growth throughout the series.

4. Craft a Compelling Personality: Determine the character's demeanor, sense of humor, and interpersonal skills. Are they stoic and serious, or witty and sarcastic? Develop their emotional range to make them multi-dimensional and capable of resonating with readers.

5. Design a Memorable Appearance: Consider the character's physical appearance, including their clothing style, grooming habits, and any distinctive physical attributes. This visual description will help readers form a mental image of the character and contribute to their overall appeal.

6. Allow for Evolution: Remember that characters should grow and change over the course of a series. Give your protagonist room to learn from their experiences, develop new skills, and adjust their perspectives. This ongoing character development will keep readers engaged and invested in their journey.

Creating a series character for a detective novel demands a balance of intrigue and authenticity. By following these steps, you can construct a dynamic and relatable protagonist who will captivate readers throughout your series.

Art from and essay from

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Two Enjoyable Private Eyes

Some reading I did recently reminded me that a lot of the pleasure that comes from reading private eye novels lies in how enjoyable it is to just spend time with an investigator with an interesting personality.  Don't get me wrong.  A PI novel always benefits from a strong plot, dextrous writing, evocative scene-setting, and so forth, not to mention the need for compelling secondary characters. But the enjoyment that comes from sort of hanging out through an investigation with a PI who has a distinctive voice and personality can in itself be a strong one, and this was certainly true of two books I zipped through last month.

The Old Dick, by L.A. Morse, as its title might indicate, is something of a parody of a PI novel.  Published in 1981, it is told by Jake Spanner, a 77-year-old retired private investigator living in Los Angeles. When we first meet him, he is living modestly in his small house, spending his time reading bad PI novels and trying to avoid a widow next door whose cooking is atrocious.  Soon enough, he gets lured against his better judgment into some intrigue by a guy about his age who he once helped bust and who is just out of jail.  What ensues after that is a funny semi-misadventure of a detective tale that gets, in the classic tradition, more and more complicated as it goes along. The plot is solid. But what most carries the book and keeps the reader turning the pages is Spanner's voice, crotchety and often self-mocking, somewhat cynical and jaded, but still engaged with life enough to care about things like the truth and perhaps even justice. It's a book sort of in the vein of what Robert Benton did with The Late Show and Art Carney's Ira Wells character. Without tipping over into farce, the book parodies and yet does full justice to the PI novel form, and I just liked spending a few days with Jake Spanner and seeing the world through his aging eyes. Fun book. 

Charlotte Carter's Rhode Island Red, published in 1999, is the first of three books about Nanette Hayes, a young saxophone-playing street musician in New York City who gets caught up in a murder that takes place in her apartment after she takes in, for a night, a fellow apparent street musician.  In this book, the plot is pretty good, nothing spectacular, but Nanette is a complex and highly entertaining main character, conversant as she is in jazz music, Arthur Rimbaud, Jean-Luc Godard and cinema in general, and a number of other things. She is sexually active and likes to drink. She never does not speak her mind. As a musician and poetry translator scraping by in New York, hanging on barely to her tiny apartment, she is resourceful and even cunning when need be, and though she is not, strictly speaking, a professional investigator, she takes on the role of the amateur PI without missing a beat in her life. I have to say, too, that as a New Yorker, this picture of a time not too long ago in the city but far enough back to be a different era has its nostalgic value for me. To be a bohemian and able to survive in NYC; it never was easy but was it once a bit more possible than it is now?  Whether it was or wasn't, Rhode Island Red makes it seems as if it was, and Nanette Hayes is your compelling guide through a particular music-obsessed underworld. I'd follow her other places and certainly intend to finish the series. I should add that there's a superb in-depth piece about Charlotte Carter and the peripatetic life she has led by the estimable Michael Gonzalez that was written a few years back and that you can find here: It's definitely worth a read.

Jake Spanner and Nanette Hayes. Two very different people investigating crimes who I had a great time accompanying as they poked about in dark and mysterious places.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Season 2 of Perry Mason Continues to Reimagine the Characters


Scott D. Parker

The second season of Perry Mason played more or less like how the original series television show used to: introduce some characters you don’t know, witness a crime (but conceal the culprit), and bring in our main characters. There will be a courtroom scene and there will be a confession of the real culprit on the stand in front of…

Okay, so the analogy only goes so far, and that’s why I am really enjoying HBO’s revamping of Perry Mason. I say revamping because it many ways, it’s not an update, but a throwback. The TV show was broadcast in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the stories were all contemporary. The original books started in 1933 and went all the way up to 1973. As far as I can suspect, author Erle Stanley Gardner kept Mason up to date with the times.

The HBO show is set in 1933 and serves as Mason’s origin to be attorney and man we know him to be. What makes this show special is that the creators do not attempt to press all the existing characters into the existing boxes we all know. Mason is a divorced dad, Della Street is studying to be a lawyer (and not just Mason’s secretary) and is a closeted homosexual. Ditto for district attorney Hamilton Berger, character traits that are explored and exploited. Private investigator Paul Drake is African-American so race comes to the fore often. 

When I think of this modern Perry Mason, I think about the Sherlock Holmes TV show Elementary. Unlike BBC’s Sherlock—which merely updated the old Conan Doyle stories to the present century—Elementary reimagined Holmes and Watson and changed their story. Same with HBO’s Perry Mason. And I have zero issues with it. If I want something traditional, the old TV is airing everyday on MeTV and I can go watch an episode. Or I can pick up one of Gardner’s books. I don’t want a warmed up retread. I want something new. That’s what this show is.

The writers of season 2 do take a page from Gardner’s often intricate plots. Brooks McCutcheon, son of a wealthy father, who has some shady dealings along with his philanthropy and driving desire to be Major League Baseball to Los Angeles. He is the one murdered in episode 1 of this eight-episode season. The accused are Rafael and Mateo Gallardo, poor Mexican-American young men who live in one of the Hoovervilles. (Historical note: I loved the use of “Hoovervilles” among the characters but none of them felt compelled to have an “As you know…” aside.) 

As with any good Gardner story, the more Mason digs into a case, the more oddball things crop up. This one has a few, but the highlights of this series are the individual moments that serve to mature and grow the characters. Mason, trying to make up for being an absent father really tries to be a part of his son’s life and ends up dating one of his teachers. Della meets and falls in love with a rich screenwriter and sees what it’s like not to have to live in a boarding house and be able to go to nightclubs that cater to lesbians. Paul’s story is not as happy, as the case compels him to do things he doesn’t want to do, putting pressure on his marriage and his living arrangements with his wife’s brother. 

Like the intro to this post, a key feature to any Perry Mason story is his courtroom theatrics. There are some in this show that are really good, including one fantastic one, but you’ll have to watch the show to see it because I’m not spoiling it here.

When you get to the end and the culprit is revealed, it will likely cause you to reflect on the entire series and think back to moments and if the writers telegraphed the ending. I’ll leave that up to you, too, but I’ll say that it makes sense. 

With the TV show, by the time you got to the end of an episode, there were clear winners and losers and the end result was as black and white as the film used to make the show. But we’re in the 21st Century now and few things are crystal clear. Both seasons of Perry Mason mirror the era in which we find ourselves living, and I’m perfectly fine with that, too. It’s more real, more nuance, and harkens back directly to a quote Mason heard in season 1 and repeats in season 2. 

I have grown to really like this series and it hangs on a point where a potential season 3 could show us the modern version of the old TV show. Boy, I hope we get a third season.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Two-a-Day Writing Sessions to Speed Up Your Writing

By Scott D. Parker

For those of us with a day job that is not fiction writing, we have to choose to carve out time in our day to write our stories. But there’s never enough time, is there?

Optimizing one’s time becomes crucial in our day-to-day writing experiences. You want to ensure you are making visible progress despite wanting more time to write and not having any.

I’m pretty sure most of us know what a writing sprint is. You set a timer for any length of time and then you go, go, go and write until the timer sounds. Fifteen minutes is cited as a good number, and, depending on how fast you type and how quick your imagination is, you can reach 500 words.

I fell out of the timed-sessions habit mainly because I type fast and my imagination’s on the ball. But I’ve been bumping up against a number of obstacles recently and decided to return to the sprint. With a new wrinkle.

Okay, so it’s not really a wrinkle, but it sounded good in my head so we’ll just go with it, okay?

Two-a-days is a concept usually associated with sports. The athletes practice in the morning, wait hours and then practice a second time in the afternoons. It’s designed to give the body rest and, when it’s time to practice, you give it all.

This past week, I’ve been doing two-a-day writing sessions. In the weekday mornings, I know I can get at least fifteen minutes of writing done before I have to stop and get ready for and commute to work. In nearly every instance, I am not finished with a scene, but the timer’s beeping and the clock on the wall’s telling me I have to get ready for work.

So I close the laptop and do that.

Then, later on at my lunch hour, I open the laptop up again and do another fifteen minutes, picking up right where I left off.

But here’s the actual wrinkle to this process: even at my lunch time, when I have an uninterrupted hour to write, I still do the fifteen-minute bursts. When that timer sounds, I stop typing, stand up, and walk the conference room. I look out the window and soothe the mind. Sure, I might mull over the next line but for the most part, I don’t. That’s the rest time, usually a three-minute span. What that three-minute timer goes off, I sit back down, reset the phone for fifteen minutes, and go.

With this concentrated focus time of three writing sessions in a lunch hour, I can get 1,000-1,400 knocked out in an hour. For my work-from-home day, I do this process in the morning before my work day.

The progress I made this week was eye opening, so I think I’ll keep on this “workout” until this book is done. Our imagination is a muscle, so give it a good workout twice a day and see how far your book will go.


Thursday, May 4, 2023

Eryk Pruitt on what he reads, writes, and owes

“There are storytellers who seem to come to us fully formed. Bards who create worlds and characters that captivate us instantaneously. Eryk Pruitt is such a storyteller, and Something Bad Wrong is such a book. A kaleidoscope of Southern Gothic traditions seamlessly combined with an incredible murder mystery, all told with Pruitt’s unique, indomitable style. Something Bad Wrong is some very, very good writing.”
—S. A. Cosby, bestselling author of Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland


By Steve Weddle

So, like many of you, I've been reading Eryk Pruitt's work for years. Something Bad Wrong, which published from Thomas & Mercer this week, is what everyone will now refer to as his "breakout" novel, and with good reason. It's fantastic. 

As I type this, this book is in the Top Ten for police procedurals and, by the time you're reading this, it might be in the top 100 or top 10 overall books on Amazon. 

It's no wonder, then, that his publisher has already snapped up the next book in the series.

But we're here to talk about Something Bad Wrong. (We'll talk about the next one next year.)

To catch the killer who eluded her detective grandfather fifty years ago, a true-crime podcaster must contend with outdated evidence, ulterior motives, and the dark family secrets that got in the way.

True-crime podcaster Jess Keeler has returned to Deeton County, North Carolina, to pick up where her grandfather left off. Sheriff’s Deputy Big Jim Ballard, her grandfather, was a respected detective—until it all came crashing down during a 1972 murder investigation.

For Jim, solving the murders of two teens should have been the highlight of his already storied career. Instead, he battled his own mind, unsure where his hunches ended and the truth began.

Working from her grandfather’s disjointed notes, Jess is sure that she can finally put the cold case—and her family’s shame—to rest. Enlisting the help of disgraced reporter Dan Decker, Jess soon discovers ugly truths about the first investigation, which was shaped by corruption, egos, and a family secret that may be the key to the crime.

Told in a dual timeline that covers both investigations, Something Bad Wrong explores human folly, hubris, and how sometimes, to solve a crime, you have to find out who’s covering it up.

Eryk and I chatted last week over email. 

Steve Weddle: You know, I'm starting to get the feeling that Lake Castor might not be such a fun place. The setting for some of your other novels plays a role here. What, if anything, should readers know about Lake Castor and the area across the state line?

Eryk Pruitt: Lake Castor is a very fun place for the right people, especially those carrying a copy of Things to Do in Lake Castor Before You Die. It's had a hell of an evolution. When we first meet it in DIRTBAGS, it is a dying mill town, where the June River Fabrics had left years earlier, which dramatically reduced the population and many opportunities. This results in people resorting to crime in DIRTBAGS and my second novel, HASHTAG. In HASHTAG, the town's sole deputy is allowed to commit some crimes due to the remoteness of the outpost and the fact that the police department had been decommissioned. WHAT WE RECKON's protagonist had left Lake Castor, only to return by the book's end. Half of the short stories in TOWNIES are set there, and it's a lot of fun to revisit in SOMETHING BAD WRONG, because the dual timelines allow me to feature when the mill was still up and running and Lake Castor was the jewel of the region (1972) and later, (Present Day) when revitalization efforts have led to a rejuvenation in the former mill town.

SW: You worked on a true crime podcast a couple years ago and have now written a "true crime" novel. This isn't just a novelization of your podcast, of course, so how did one lead to the other?

EP: My experience working on THE LONG DANCE enabled me to see firsthand how a so-called "cold case" investigation takes place, as well as the role of a citizen journalist. My previous stories and novels featured the experiences of criminals, because at the time, that's all I knew. However, I was fortunate to work with Major Tim Horne of the Orange County Sheriff's Office for 2.5 years as I observed him pursuing leads on a 50 year old case. That offered me insight on law enforcement, which I hadn't previously experienced, and it enlightened and informed my writing. There were several things in my own investigation as a citizen journalist that I found dramatic and entertaining (the monkey cage scene was based on a real life experience that still gives me goosebumps) but it was also very interesting to have access to the notes of original investigators and to be frustrated with how differently murders were investigated in the 70s as opposed to now.

SW: You have two timelines in this story -- the present and 1972 -- but more than two POVs. Was that always the case? Why did you decide to tell the story this way instead of simply staying in 1972?

EP: During the writing--and later the editing--process, I tried many things. I believe my first draft was told in two parts, where all of 1972 was laid out, and then we jumped forward to present day for the back half. Later I alternated it in blocks. Then we interspliced. I always knew the questions would remain unanswered in the 1972 version, much as these cases remain in real life. My own experiences plus the current zeitgeist of true crime podcasts meant that the ability to look back from the vantage point of fifty years later would come into play in SOMETHING BAD WRONG. I was hoping the audience's frustration from knowing more than the present day protagonist would be palpable in my telling of it.

Eryk Pruitt
SW: What are some of the good scenes or characters you had to cut from this book because they didn't work for this story? Do you keep these in a folder for later use?

EP: I had an entire subplot featuring an overambitious ADA who wanted a piece of the main villain and would stop at nothing to get it. He teamed up with the laser-focused Jack Powers to falsify evidence against the main villain, which would later trouble our protagonist in the future. This was based on something that happened in real life, but just like in real life, it required some leaps of faith. Overall, the book was already coming in long, so somewhere in the early drafts, that story was lost. But yes, I'd love to revisit. Who knows?

SW: Who are some authors writing today making you a better writer, either when you read their work or when they read and comment on your work?

EP: I've always been a fan of yours, Steve, and COUNTRY HARDBALL is a forever reread. I swallow up anything written by Tana French, William Gay, Chris Offutt. Lately I'm on the lookout for whatever Lisa Taddeo and Danya Kukafka write next. And I'm fortunate to have Jordan Harper, SA Cosby, Rob Hart, Kathleen Kent, and Jamie Mason on speed dial so that when I finish reading what they write, I can call them up and stan them for hours.

SW: You've based this book on real places, real crimes, real people. What, if anything, do you owe those people and places?

EP: This is an important question. When I wrote this book, I had two readers in my head. I hoped, of course, that other people would read it, but I only truly cared about the reactions of two people. I dedicated the book to them. They trusted me with their stories and they always told me "This would make a good movie." So, as a gift to them, I took their stories and gave them an ending that they were denied in real life. When I got my ARCs, I took them to dinner and gave them the book. I had never been more scared in my life. I have no idea how it must have felt to have someone translate their stories the way I have, but I can testify to the pressure one feels when trying to do that. All I thought while writing this book was that I wanted to be honest by them. I wanted them to understand that I respected their experiences wholeheartedly and I hope every day that I might make them proud to have trusted me.

SW: Where do you, as a reader, hear about good books to read?

EP: I really appreciate the "Best Of" lists at the end of each year, as well as the award nominations. I am very busy with my own research and reading in my own lane. I have a great fascination for contemporary Irish crime fiction, as well as works from the American South. I am grateful for those lists because, after an entire year of vetting books, they are presenting you with what they think stands above the rest of the crop and I can choose them, ride outside my lane for a bit, then (silently) agree or disagree with their tastes. Also, there are people whose tastes align with mine and I read their articles or even get a text sometimes with a recommendation, like Jed Ayres of HARDBOILED WONDERLAND, or the ATLANTIC's Sophie Gilbert, etc

SW: Without spoiling anything, of course, what scene in SOMETHING BAD WRONG was the toughest to write?

EP: The "connective tissue" scenes are hard for me because we have to lead the audience to a scene with the right amount of buildup and emotional stakes so that we earn whatever big moment we are preparing to unveil. There are several scenes throughout the book that are designed to break your heart or give you a moment of victorious joy, but I have to build to those. So this means a scene written here or there to connect the dots, or, a worse word might be "filler." I hate those scenes. They are hard and all I'm wanting to do is get to the tough one. There is one near the end of the book which is our past timeline's protagonist's emotional arc and I probably wrote that in ten minutes, even though it is a difficult scene to read and one that often gets labeled as "heartbreaking." It was the building to that moment and the earning of it that was twenty times more difficult than writing it.