Friday, September 24, 2021

Not All Darlings Need Killing. By Josh Stallings

 Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.




“There is nothing quite like the cold taste of gun oil on a stainless steel barrel to bring your life into focus.”


That is the opening line of my debut novel, “Beautiful, Naked & Dead.” It remains the favorite opening I’ve written. The next paragraph is;

 

“I was six years old the first time I honestly considered suicide, not as some cry for help, touchy huggy bullshit. No, for me death was a gift, an escape. Like those vests divers wear that fill with air from a CO2 cartridge and pull them to the surface. At night while the Monster roared through the thin walls of our bungalow, I would pull that thought up and let it comfort me like a warm blanket.” 





Moses McGuire, the dented and rusting knight errant is the narrator of the McGuire hard boiled trilogy. His power rests in the simple idea that no one can be harder on him than he is on himself. How do you threaten a man who welcomes death? He becomes vulnerable only when he starts to care for others. Starting with a bull mastiff.


Side bar ramble: Hard boiled and noir get jumbled together when they are close to opposite world views. 





Noir is bleak, it has been described as “things start bad and get worse.” It is a nihilistic view, proposing that we are all screwed. Ken Bruen is the reigning king of modern noir. His Jack Taylor books are a study of one man’s often self inflicted descent into hell. Every time you think it can’t get worse, it does. They are painful, and real. Bruen writes so tightly and without apology for the world he exposes to the reader.




Hard boiled, is chivalric and romantic in the medieval sense. Chandler’s Philip Marlow is a day drinking skirt chasing detective, he is broken but fighting to bring order to a chaotic world and live by his own code. Beat him down he just keeps getting up and stumbling forward. Chandler and James Crumley are two of my favorite hard boiled writers. Both end their stories with their main characters bruised and battered, and the world incrementally better than it would’ve been had they not been there. 





What, in name of words, does noir vs hard boiled have to do with my “darlings?” Sub genre dictates a book’s world view, and to some degree this dictates the author’s voice. Noir demands non-sentimental and unadorned prose. Brutal cleanliness.


Hard boiled asks the writer to be more poetic even when presenting a bleak view.


Pulling out onto the highway I noticed a stone pillar commemorating the Donner Party. They were a true testament to the American spirit, push forward at all costs and eat the dead when necessary. Wasn’t that the American dream in a nutshell.  - Beautiful, Naked & Dead


After the McGuire trilogy I wrote a disco heist novel. Moving away from hard boiled I aimed at a lighter tone. Almost like Westlake’s Dortmunder books if they starred teenage thieves in a sexually fluid time and place. The hat trick here was to deliver the late 1970’s without clobbering the reader or slowing the action.


“One hundred feet past the Humboldt County line was a liquor store/ gas station. She did not buy skunk weed from the kid selling it out of his wizard-painted van. She did make a phone call.” - Young Americans


Dialogue is also used to deliver time and place. 


“Time to di di mau up North and start putting heads on pikes.” Valentina from Young Americans.


In Tricky there is a line that delivers the depth of Cisco’s moral dilemma, I love it’s simplicity; -


“I must be a bad man if my mother hates me… Right?” - Tricky





The longer I write the more I am drawn to ideas and away from the poetry of their delivery. Tricky is about who we are at our core. Are we the sum of our past behavior? Can a bad man become a good man or are scorpions doomed to strike the frog and drown.


I have the next three books mapped roughly out. I know what I’ll be writing for several coming years. When they are finished I may return to hard boiled if only to dip my pen in the purple ink once more. A friend keeps saying he’s waiting for me to write a hard boiled western. I might, who knows, I sure as hell don’t.


And once again I have stumbled way off the path of the question. So I’ll leave you with a darling that I killed recently. I like the thought behind it. But, it didn’t fit the novel that is taking shape. Two girlfriends are talking, Haley has been graphically describing a woman Villalobos was having drinks with. 


Villalobos says, “The male gaze has nothing on you.”

“Oh, Babe, not even close to the same deal. I was appreciating not appraising her ass.” 




Thursday, September 23, 2021

Lustrous Darlings (sarcasm), by Catriona

Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.



A: Oh goody. My favourite: blowing my own trumpet. 

Well, I'm not going to and you can't make me. Instead, I'm going to show a typical bit of my own work, i.e. a bit that took five or ten goes to get into publishable shape.

Note, I’m writing this before I’ve looked for one. That’s how sure I am that finding an example won’t be any trouble.

(10 minutes later) Found one

In this scene, what’s happening is Helen is serving tea to her mother and another woman. But what this scene is doing (it’s from early in chapter one) is telling us what Helen looks like, what her mother looks like, and a bit about the strain of having a posh visitor on a Sunday afternoon, in 1948, before refrigeration. That’s not a major theme or anything. It’s just the kind of detail that makes setting in time, place, and social class work.  

 

Draft 1

If Helen hadn’t the tea things to deal with, the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there in her mother’s big room (what does it look like?), still in her church clothes (what do they look like?), might have stopped her dead.

Helen, concentrating hard, managed to set down the tray at Greet’s elbow and take a seat without colouring. Like Greet, anytime she got through an awkward moment without blushing she was happy. (Two “withouts” – yuk.)

“And do you take sugar?” Greet said, in a grating dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flush after all.

“Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,” Mrs Sinclair said. (Is this enough to convey the point?)

 

Draft 2

If Helen hadn’t the tea things to deal with, the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there in Greet’s big room, still in her church clothes, might have stopped her dead. She was a large woman, her hair teased out in the style of her youth with a hat perched on top of it all, and she dressed herself to look impressive rather than attractive. (Is this enough?)

Helen (didn’t need to repeat this. Or did I? Would we know who “she” was. Fix!), concentrating hard, managed to set down the tray at Greet’s elbow and take a seat without feeling the surge and tingle of her face colouring. Like Greet, anytime she got through an awkward moment without blushing she was happy. (Still two “without”s. Still yuk.)

So there they were, at three of the four chairs round the gate-leg table in the window (is this enough?), Greet pouring tea and Mrs Sinclair unbuttoning her gloves.

‘And do you take sugar?’ Greet said, in a grating, dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flush after all.

‘Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,’ Mrs Sinclair said.

Greet’s hand shook as she plied the milk jug and her face was a sudden lash of deepest pink, screaming at her hair. (Is it enough now?)

 

Draft 3

If Helen hadn’t the tea things to deal with the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there in Greet’s big room, still in her church clothes, might have stopped her dead. She was a large woman, her hair teased out in the style of her youth with a hat perched on top of it all, and she dressed herself to look impressive, not attractive, with wide shoulders and box pleats, a fox fur even on a summer’s day. (This is enough)

Helen (yuk), concentrating hard, at least managed to set down the tray at Greet’s elbow and take a seat without feeling the surge and tingle of her face colouring. Anytime she got through an awkward moment without blushing she was happy. (Still two “without”s but slightly different rhythm. Modified yuk.)

So there they were, at three of the four chairs round the gate-leg table in the window, looking at each other through the polished leaves of the aspidistra (is this enough?), Greet pouring tea and Mrs Sinclair unbuttoning her gloves.

‘And do you take sugar?’ Greet said, in a grating, dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flush after all.

‘Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,’ Mrs Sinclair said.

Greet’s hand shook as she plied the milk jug and her face was a sudden lash of deepest pink, screaming at her hair.

Helen felt a moment of glee, but then seeing her mother bend to check the cup for flecks, and even take a quick sniff, sobered her again. (Is this too much?)

 

Draft 4

If she hadn’t the tea things to deal with (are you sick of this yet? welcome to my world), the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there still in her church clothes, might have stopped Helen dead. She was a large woman, her hair teased out in the style of her youth with a hat perched on top of it all, and she dressed herself to look impressive, not attractive, with wide shoulders and box pleats, a fox fur even on a summer’s day.

Concentrating hard, Helen (The two counts of “Helen” are now buried in the middle of sentences, so they don’t chime) managed to set down the tray at her mother’s elbow and take a seat, doing it all without the unwelcome surge and tingle of her face darkening. Anytime she got through an awkward moment like this one and didn’t turn as red as a poppy (ditched a “without” – yay) she was glad of it.

‘And do you take sugar?’ Greet said, in a grating, dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flame after all.

‘Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,’ Mrs Sinclair said.

(removed the rest – thought it was too much)

(Wait though – I’ve lost the description of the room)

 

There are more drafts. I’m missing out what happened when my agent read it, and then when my editor read it, and then when I read what my editor said, and then when she read what I said, and said more, and then I read what she said . . . but here is the same page as it heads off to the copy-editor – let’s see what she says! – taken from a file that is now called “1948 Book submission draft FT edits CMcP comments FT feedback CMcP comments2”. That, believe me, is a working title.

 

Ready for copy edit

If she hadn’t the tea things to deal with, the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there still in her church clothes, might have stopped Helen dead. She was a large woman, her hair teased out in the style of her youth with a hat perched on top of it all, and she dressed herself to look impressive, not attractive, with wide shoulders and box pleats, a fox fur even on a summer’s day. (That was enough.)

Helen picked her way through the good furniture – so much of it that the place felt more like a saleroom than a home: the chenille-covered table with the thick, turned legs and the four chairs that didn’t quite fit under it; another two on either end of thon behemoth of a walnut sideboard that was filled with tureens and decanters, never used since they’d been unpacked thirty years before for a present show. (Nothing I had done was enough, even before I deleted it.) Concentrating hard, she managed to set down the tray at her mother’s elbow and take a seat, doing it all without the unwelcome surge and tingle of her face darkening. That ready darkening was the bane of her life. She had got her colouring from Greet, white skin if she could keep out of the sun, freckles else, and orange curls that neither brush nor pin could tame. (Finally! This is what Greet and Helen looked like all along in my head. Pro tip: you need to put it on the page or no one knows.) Anytime she got through an awkward moment like this one and didn’t turn as red as a poppy she was glad of it. (“Without” pile-up gone and forgotten.)

So there they were, at three of the four chairs round the gate-leg table in the window, looking at each other through the polished leaves of the aspidistra (it’s back. More is more), Greet pouring tea and Mrs Sinclair unbuttoning her gloves.

‘And do you take sugar?’ Greet said, in a grating, dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flame after all.

‘Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,’ Mrs Sinclair said.

Greet’s hand shook as she plied the milk jug and her face was a sudden lash of deepest pink, screaming at her hair. (It’s back.) Helen felt a moment of glee, but then seeing her mother bend to check the cup for flecks, and even take a quick sniff, sobered her again. (This is back too.) Mrs Sinclair had a cold cupboard out the back of her kitchen with slate shelves and a wet floor. Helen had seen it many times as she helped out at children’s treats, fetching lemonade. All right for some. (And it wasn’t enough. So here’s more.)


If anyone is still reading, here is an example from the other extreme. 

“Lustre.” 

That one word sentence opened the prologue of draft one of my first novel, AFTER THE ARMISTICE BALL, and it was still there in the published book. (I was describing a party held in 1918, for which the attendees get their jewels out of the bank and at which they give it laldie.) To the best of my recollection 20 years later the rest of the first paragraph went like this:

“Lustre. That was what had been missing and was suddenly back. The Duffys’ armistice ball was lustrous in a way thought to have been lost for good.”

And now let me check:

Not bad, right?

The fact that I nearly remembered a line I wrote in 2001 is why I don’t really believe in the concept of darlings. By the time a book is ready to go, the writer has read every word dozens of times and no prose in the history of literature could escape its author’s disenchantment on those terms. I still remember the heartsink of opening my file every morning and seeing that word. Ugh. I’ve never used “lustre” again.

Cx


Wednesday, September 22, 2021

EARLY PUBLICATION DATE NEWS...vs 'Show and Shine' by Cathy Ace

Please forgive me for ignoring this week's question - I'm keen to show you something else!

I wanted to take the chance to share with you the cover of, and some exciting news about, my forthcoming novel, THE CORPSE WITH THE GRANITE HEART. This will be the eleventh Cait Morgan Mystery, and this time Cait and Bud are in London, just before Christmas. The cover was recently revealed with a fanfare, thanks to Dru Ann Love who also interviewed me here: author interview 

The book is now available for pre-order: CLICK HERE FOR PRE-ORDER LINK 

The link is for the Kindle version, though the book will also be available through Kobo etc. and there will also be a paperback, but no pre-ordering is available for that format, sorry. You can find the ISBN numbers on my website to allow for bookstore/library ordering.

As those of you who follow this blog will know, my plan was to only write one book per year going forward, so that Husband and I could spend more time doing things together, now that he's retired. However, since we haven't been able to travel this year, I put my head down and wrote another Cait Morgan Mystery.

This one has given me the chance to take readers to a city I lived in for almost twenty years, of which I have many fond, and some bittersweet, memories...as does Cait, it turns out (funny how that happens, eh?!) Oh - and it gave me a chance to indulge in my love of all things Shakespearean, too! So if you love the way The Bard manages to heap tragedy upon tragedy, while taking you to a special place, inhabited by dysfunctional characters (you know the sort of thing I mean, right!?) then this Cait Morgan Mystery might well be your cup of tea (or should that be 'poisoned chalice'?).

Here's the blurb... 

THE CORPSE WITH THE GRANITE HEART 

Welsh Canadian criminal psychologist Cait Morgan, and her retired-cop husband Bud Anderson, are in London, England, to meet their friend John Silver’s freshly minted fiancée, the daughter of a recently deceased Shakespeare aficionado, and captain of industry. The trip is supposed to be filled with art galleries, good food, and Christmas spirit. However, an untimely death at a posh dinner party threatens to send shock waves through the upper strata of London society.

Cait and Bud’s desire to seek out the truth is blocked by a shadowy figure who’s been tasked with keeping the incident hush-hush, but – as the body-count rises – the investigation develops a dreadful momentum.

This is the eleventh Cait Morgan Mystery, and it finds our usually unstoppable duo running up against the immoveable machinery of power…with tragic consequences.

I hope you like the sound of it!

The other BIG announcement is this: the launch date was scheduled for 29th November, but (and this is a bit of a heads-up, in case you weren't aware) there's a MASSIVE problem in the publishing business at the moment: there's a lack of paper, print, and delivery capacity, so it's going to be a real problem getting print books during November and December...which has led to some delays in publication dates. Being independent means I've been able to negotiate with my editors, and that means the publication date for this book HAS BEEN BROUGHT FORWARD - TO NOVEMBER 5TH 2021. 

If you've already pre-ordered, thank you so very much - because that makes a HUGE difference to all of amazon's algorithm thingies - and you don't need to do anything else, because the book will magically appear on your device on the earlier date.

It's not easy to launch a book when life still is anything but "normal", so this will (once again!) be a challenge...but I hope it manages to find a place on some gift lists! (Yes, self-gifting is allowed.) Fingers crossed!

Meanwhile, if you haven't joined Cait and Bud on all their adventures yet, there's still time to catch up. Find out more at my website: http://www.cathyace.com/

Apologies that this post is all a bit "look at me" and shouty - but I am excited about this book, and am doing my best to make sure it gets some attention :-) 



Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Guest Post from Jim Doherty

Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.

From Frank


I'm turning my slot over to Jim Doherty today to show some of his "dah-lings" that survived getting killed during the revision process. Check out Jim's new short story collection The Big Game and Other Crime Stories.

Take it away, Jim!

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

(Many thanks to my brother cop, and fellow mystery writer, Frank Zafiro, for loaning me this spot.)

 A ROOKIE COP AND AN ASPIRING WRITER LEARNING THEIR CRAFT

By Jim Doherty

It turns out he killed her in Oakland.

            Which means I really shouldn’t have been involved.

Mickey Spillane once suggested that the most important chapter of a novel is the first.  “The first chapter sells your book,” he said.

If the first chapter sells your book, it follows that the first line of the book sells that chapter.

The excerpt above was the opening of my first novel, An Obscure Grave.  I was rather proud of it.  It raises questions I hoped the readers would want answers to.  Who is “I?”  Who is the “her” who was killed?  Who is the “he” who killed her? And why should it matter to “I” that she was killed in Oakland rather than anyplace else? To find the answers to those questions, the reader will, hopefully, be led to read the rest of the chapter, and, in consequence, the rest of the book.

“I” is Dan Sullivan, who’s been investigating the disappearance of “her.”   “Her” is DeeDee Merryweather, a Cal student whose disappearance has been getting national headlines.  “He” is Chris Bridges, her violent boyfriend.  And, since Dan’s a Berkeley cop, her having turned out to have been killed in Oakland means she’s no longer any of his business.   

An Obscure Grave was the first novel to feature Dan.  But years before it appeared I’d been developing him in a series of short stories.

 *

“673 is 11-99 in Ohlone Park! Shots fired! Officer down!”

I took a deep breath, keyed the mike again, harder this time, as if increased pressure could somehow improve my damaged radio’s performance, and, trying to keep a note of panic out of my voice, repeated the distress call once more. But after twenty or thirty attempts in the last quarter hour, I knew it was no use.

Those were the first lines I ever wrote about Dan, for a short story called “Second Chance” recently reprinted my in my collection The Big Game and Other Crime Stories.  It was based on an armed encounter I had with a homeless Vietnam vet in a small park in Berkeley’s Marina.  Again, I was rather proud of it.  It finds the hero in a dangerous situation, wounded, and unable to call for help.  Hopefully, a reader, sympathetic to his plight, will be pulled in.

 *

It takes as much time to book a common drunk as it does to book an ax murderer.  In fact, in the not unlikely event that the ax murderer already has a record and the drunk doesn’t, booking the drunk will take a lot longer.  Which is why, all things considered, I’m a lot more likely to drive drunks home than to take them to jail.

“Second Chance” was the first story I ever wrote about Dan, but it was the second actually published.

The first one I wrote to reach publication was “Unmatched Set,” also reprinted in The Big Game.  The opening line expresses a bugaboo that every cop has.  A hatred of pointless paperwork.

 *

The morning of the Big Game dawned crisp and clear.

            Don’t worry.  You haven’t accidentally picked up a copy of an ancient dime novel featuring consummate Yalie athlete and all-around good sport Frank Merriwell.

            Nevertheless, it was the morning of the Big Game.  And it did dawn crisp and clear.  Just as though it was a Frank Merriwell story.

            Of course you already know what the Big Game is, right? 

            The traditional college rivalry that is nothing but the single most important game of the season.  The gridiron classic that casts all other games into insignificance.  Win the Big Game, and the team can regard itself as having enjoyed a winning season, even if it lost every other game it played.  Lose the Big Game, and even winning the National Championship counts as merely a pyrrhic victory.

Berkeley’s a college town, and college means sports, and sporting events mean police problems.  Cal’s football rivalry with Stanford over on the other side of the San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto is one of the oldest in college sports.

The title “The Big Game,” the anchor yarn in The Big Game and Other Crime Stories, evoked those old-fashioned sports stories of halcyon days that featured virtuous athletes like Claire Bee’s Chip Hilton, John Cooper’s Mel Martin, or, especially, Burt L. Standish’s Frank Merriwell of Yale.  I thought an opening that evoked the same kind of story was appropriate.  From that opening, Dan segues into a short discussion of famous “Big Game” rivalries generally, settling in on the Cal/Stanford rivalry specifically, and finishing by talking about what a pain in the neck such events are for the cops who have to keep everything running smoothly.

 *

There’s an urban legend that a man’s eyes will tighten when he’s decided that he’ll fight instead of surrender.  I think it might derive from that line John Wayne says close to the beginning of Red River when he tells the kid, the one who’s destined to grow up to be Montgomery Clift, that he knew when an adversary was going to draw, “By watching his eyes.  Remember that!”

Well, I was too far away to see Bradley’s eyes clearly.  So I stayed focused on his right hand.  I think I would’ve even if I’d’ve been able to see his eyes.  Based on my vast experience of one whole gunfight to that point, I was reasonably sure that nobody draws his gun with his eyeball.  “Look at the eyes” sounds terse and masculine and even kind of mystical, but I was keeping my eyes on his right hand.

This is the build-up to an action sequence that climaxes my story “Cap Device.”

Dan and several other officers have ordered a phony cop out of a car. He’s in full uniform, and he’s armed, but they know he’s a phony because the badge he’s wearing is reported stolen. They’re now trying to get him into a prone position so he can be disarmed safely.  Will he cooperate or fight?  And, if the latter what are the “tells” that indicate he’ll mount a resistance?  Cops aren’t taught to watch the eyes.  That sounds good in old westerns.  But cops are taught to watch the hands.

This sequence also gives a little insight into Dan, who’s depicted in the series as being a movie buff, one who often references movies when he’s dealing with situations on the street.

Dan’s a young cop, still learning his craft.  Another series character I’ve been developing recently, itinerant Texas peace officer Gus Hachette, is a long-time cop with decades of experience.  In the first story I ever wrote about him, “The Lord of LaValle,” set late in his career, a few years after WW2, he’s called out of retirement to handle one last case.  He and his partner face a group of armed thugs who mean to keep him from serving a search warrant. The story appeared in Low Down Dirty Vote – Volume 2, edited by Mysti Berry.  Unlike Dan, who’s only got a few years on the job, and still has much to learn, Gus handles the situation like the old pro he is.

 *

“My friend here’s Ranger Ramon Martín. . . . My other friend is that little article Ray’s carrying.  Name’s Tommy.  He shoots 1500 .45 calibre rounds per minute.  Last time I took on several armed felons all by my lonesome with nothing but a handgun was back in El Paso, ‘bout twenty years ago.  Don’t know if I could pull that off a second time.  But with ol’ Ray and Tommy here, I don’t have to.  They’ll hose you all down in a few seconds, and anyone left alive’ll be tried under the Felony Murder rule and executed.  So what’s it to be, boys?  Y’all want to git your names in the history books?  Or y’all want to just git?”

The riflemen looked much less confident.

“Any of you fellas ever actually shot at a man?” asked Hachette.  “‘Cause if y’haven’t, I can tell you it ain’t all that easy.  ‘Specially if he’s shooting back, which Ray and I both plan to do.  And gettin’ shot at, well that just flat-out rattles some folks.  But if you feel, having taken on a job of work, that you’re obliged to face two experienced, armed men, one of ‘em holding a Thompson, with nothin’ but some lever-action Winchesters, well, let’s get to it.”

This is a short bit from “The Unforgiveable Sin,” another Sullivan story in The Big Game.  Dan’s just discovered another cop shot to death, apparently by his own hand, and has phoned his sergeant to report.

 *

            And you’re sure it’s suicide?”

            “His snubbie’s gripped in his right hand.  There’s no entry wound that I can see, but there’s blood below his lower lip and some of it’s dribbled onto his chest.  There’s a big exit wound on the back of his head.  I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.”

            The inference was clear.  He’d shot himself through the mouth.  At the moment of death, the gun hand froze over the grip in a cadaveric spasm.    It was such a common method for suicides by cops that there’s even a slang expression for it.

            Eating his gun.

More often than any of us like, cops have to deal with entitled assholes who are, inevitably, dismayed to find that those cops don’t simply melt into a puddle of piss when told how important the person they’re dealing with is.  This line from “The Big Game” is Dan’s response to an “Assistant Dean” demanding to be allowed onto a road that’s closed.

 *

“I don’t give a damn if you’re Jesus Christ straight off the cross and you’re taking a shortcut to the Tang Med Center’s Urgent Care Clinic to have your five wounds tended to. You’re not going down this road.  And I happen to be a very devout Catholic, so if He’s not getting any special treatment, what chance do you figure you have?”

If that line sounds familiar, it’s freely adapted from a piece of dialogue from Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script for The Hospital.  Which film buff Dan admits when asked.  It also hints at Dan’s devotion to his faith.

I’ll close with one final sequence from “The Big Game,” in which Dan, dealing with a hostage situation, notices something that gives him and the two cops backing him an insurmountable advantage.

 *

“You’re not going anywhere now, Williams.  And I’ll tell you what.  You’re not going to kill this girl, either.  You don’t believe we can stop you?  Then go ahead and try.  Squeeze the trigger, asshole.  I dare you!  I double dare you!  In fact, I double dog dare you!  Hell, I triple dog dare you!”

            Figuring he was dead anyway, he squeezed the trigger.  And nothing happened.

            “It’s single action, dipshit,” I said.  “You have to cock it first.  Now, what do you suppose is going to happen if you so much as think about moving your thumb toward that hammer?  Yeah, that’s right.  All three of us’ll open fire and we won’t stop shooting ‘til we run dry.  And we’re all aiming high-capacity semi-autos at you.  You’ll be dead about forty-five times over, and you won’t even have the satisfaction of having killed your hostage with a reflex shot.  One dead bad guy.  One rescued innocent bystander. And one empty slot on FBI’s Top Ten.  And all of that on top of Cal winning the Big Game.  A great day all around.”

Aside from another example of his penchant for lifting movie dialogue (this one from A Christmas Story), Dan, though still well short of Gus Hachette’s expertise, displays a level of experience, skill, and self-reliance that he hadn’t yet developed in the earlier stories.  In that sense, The Big Game collection tracks the professional development of a young cop from rookie to veteran.

And maybe the professional development of a writer, as well.

Monday, September 20, 2021

A Darling Teenager Stole My Heart

 Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.


-from Susan

 

Ask something hard, why don’t you? Set us up to shoot us down. Expose our fragile egos, thank you. In addition to that kind of uncomfortable question, there’s something else lurking for me. Which series? Which book? Which character? “Tell me, Ms. Shea, which of your children is your favorite?”

 

Okay, then. Maybe this shines for me because this character in LOVE & DEATH IN BURGUNDY won my heart as she bloomed on the page. A sweet, wayward teenager coming of age, protected by her innocence and, ultimately, by the people around her. This is most of the last paragraph in the novel. Not a word changed in this scene from the original manuscript I submitted to Minotaur. If you read the whole book, this scene might make you smile, or sigh with pleasure. It would certainly give you a fuller portrait of what the NYT called “an interesting character, a 14-year old thief with personality.”

 

 

 

From her perch in the pear tree, Jeannette saw Michael smile at Katherine, a wide smile that made him even handsomer than usual. She could hear accordion music wafting from Emile’s house next door in the cool night air of early autumn, and saw the cheese-making couple walking hand in hand toward the café. She picked a late pear, realizing as she bit into it that it was too far gone. She put it in her pocket rather than toss it. She wouldn’t want her friend Katherine to think she had been spying. As she shimmied down, she narrowly avoided stepping on the yellow cat, waiting under the tree for the humans to open the kitchen door and let it in for the night, to safety, a last meal for the day, and a soft place to sleep. 






 

 

 

 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

We Are Not A-muse-d

 by Abir

Do you have a muse? Or a happy place that gives you inspiration? An ideal reader, perhaps. What gets you inspired to write?


Interesting question this week.

 

I’ve always thought of muses as something that poets, playwrights and painters have. A beautiful, vivacious creature who breathes life into the soul of the flinty, shrivelled up husk of an artiste. Crime fiction writers – now we’re cut from a different stone; granite or maybe obsidian. We’re tough, no-nonsense types. We like our drinks neat and our crosswords cryptic. Our creativity comes not from the spark of another individual, but from the wellspring within (and sometimes from prescription meds from the drug store). And indeed who actually want to be a muse to a crime writer? Can there be anything worse than being the muse to a bunch of semi-literate drunks, inspiring them to greater, more gruesome and more ingenious ways of murdering people in novels? I think not.

 

Alas, I do not have a muse, which is just as well because I couldn’t afford one anyway. If I were to have a muse, they’d be an unpaid intern and have to work part time as an au pair for the kids. I’ve could try advertising the position: 


      WANTED: MUSE/AU PAIR - MUST BE WILLING TO WORK FOR FREE


but since Brexit, when all the hard-working foreigners left, it’s been difficult enough to find a competent plumber round here let alone an intellectual inspiration/domestic help, so it’s probably a forlorn hope.

 

Moving swiftly on. Do I have a happy place that gives me inspiration? I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I seem to have all my best ideas while sitting in the sauna at the gym. Only the sauna, mind; not the steam room. I don’t know what it is about the sauna. Maybe it’s the dry heat, or the temperature being just right (I find the steam room less than conducive to creativity as it’s so hot in there, that after three minutes my shorts feel like they’re on fire). I’m not even joking about this. Ideas and plot twists do come to me in the sauna. Alas, I haven’t been in a sauna since before lockdown so don’t expect any good ideas from me before I renew my gym membership.

 

On a more mundane note, I prefer to write where there’s light. Up in the top floor of our house, in our loft conversion suits me best. I don’t know why that should be, but light tends to help my creativity. I’ve tried working in the basement but it’s not the same, and besides there are spiders down there, some as large as a small dog.

 

Do I have an ideal reader? Well yes, in the sense that my ideal reader buys everything I’ve ever written – in hardback, paperback, e book and audio – but in the sense of: do I write for a particular person – then no. My wife is my first reader, but I don’t write the books for her. I guess I write them for me. Isn’t that what all writers do? We are, after all, just a bunch of egotistical maniacs.

 

So what is my inspiration to write? I guess I have to agree with my learned colleague Mr. Jim Ziskin – it’s just an urge to put pen to paper; to make sense of the narrative that flows within my head, sometimes rushing like a damn deluge, at other times little more than a trickle, but always there, whispering. Sometimes it’s just a particular line or phrase, half of which I’ll forget before I even reach for a pen to write them down; at other times it’s grand ideas: the scope of whole novels, stretching like a landscape painting before me. I’ll do my best to sketch the details of these grand visions but what I note down are always pale imitations of what I saw in my head.

 

I’ve never suffered from writers block. What I have suffered from is nerves; a lack of self-belief; a fear that I was not - am not – up to the task of writing. Those black moods can last days. When they come on, I find the best thing to do is not to fight them. I just try and do other stuff (and believe me, there’s always other stuff - a mountain of it that I’ve been too lazy to do – like paying bills, responding to e mails and writing this blog). Maybe I’m just kidding myself and it’s all just procrastination, but sooner or later, the clouds will lift and I’ll be able to write again, doing what I love, and what I’m lucky enough to do for a living. 

 

And that’s how I see writing. It’s a job: one that can be incredibly frustrating at times and incredibly rewarding at others. Crime fiction writers on the whole, are, I think, not the type to be precious about what we do. We just get on with it. We don't need muses, and while I suppose a muse would be nice, an au pair or a housekeeper would be better.

Sing, O Muse from James W. Ziskin

Do you have a muse? Or a happy place that gives you inspiration? An ideal reader, perhaps. What gets you inspired to write?


It’s so easy to put off writing. I often find myself tempted to watch a TV show or read a book. Or take in a football game. Writing’s hard work, after all. Why do today what you can put off till tomorrow? 

Deadlines, that’s why.

1. Deadlines are one of my most powerful muses. When you don’t have the luxury to procrastinate, you get it done. This is why I don’t believe in writer’s block. The decision not to write is either laziness or distraction. I’m certainly guilty of those two from time to time, but not when I’m on a deadline. 

2. Another muse? My drive to create. I want to write books. I want to write stories. And while it’s true that sometimes I’m burnt out and don’t feel like writing, it’s not as if I couldn’t get into the spirit of things if I actually applied myself. With me, inspiration usually comes after ten or fifteen minutes of staring at the screen. Sure, I may begin in fits and starts with each new writing session, but soon enough, things get moving. This is why it’s so important to park yourself in your chair and give it time. I used to undo my belt and strap myself into the chair with it. That way I had to surrender and admit my failure if I got up to do something other than writing.

I no longer do that, mostly because my current chair has nothing I can strap myself to. Ulysses used this technique to avoid succumbing to the sirens’ call. It works. Try it.

3. Another of my muses is atmosphere. This doesn’t work everyday or for every project. But, sometimes, creating the proper mood can help me get going. I find weather particularly inspiring. When writing Bombay Monsoon (December 2022, Oceanview)—a book set during monsoon season in India—I listened to hours and hours of rain videos on YouTube as I wrote. You’ll find so many weather sounds there to help you set the mood. Maybe you’ve got a hankering for rain on a tent? On a tin roof? Lots of thunder and lightning? Or perhaps you’re writing a locked-room mystery in a ski lodge. There are plenty of blizzards to be had. Crashing waves, too, howling winds, or just crickets. No problem. Everything’s available at the click of a mouse.

(Helpful hint: these videos might help with your insomnia too. I fall asleep most nights listening to rain or blizzards on YouTube.)

4. I also find great inspiration to write in tracking my word counts. Using spreadsheets, I record my progress everyday. This practice pressures me to produce even when I’m tired and not in the mood. Again, no such thing as writer’s block. It’s a choice not to write, just as it’s a choice not to work out. I hate to work out, but it’s not a block. It’s a preference to avoid unpleasant/difficult work. And that’s why I’m not a bodybuilder; I’m a writer.

5. Scotch. Yes, I enjoy a beverage or two when I write. It relaxes me. Of course there might be negative effects in the morning, but we’re talking about inspiration, not bitter, crushing regrets. However, I don’t drink when I’m editing. Creating can be sloppy and slurred, but editing needs to be tight and coherent.

6. Time. How much time do any of us have have left? I’m far from finished, but there’s no infinite store of minutes and seconds I can tap into to accomplish everything I’d like to do. So I work hard at creating the best work I can as quickly as I can.

7. Sleep. I find ideas when I’m unconscious. If only I could remember them all. And some of those that I do recall from the dead of night don’t always sound so great in the morning… Still, it counts as inspiration.

8. Reading. No, I don’t steal ideas from other writers, but sometimes something I read suggests an idea to me. And from there I take the baton and run. Read. Read and write. They go hand in hand, and one inspires the other.

8. One last muse? Greed. Maybe the next book will be the big one. Maybe its success will satisfy my dreams of success, both critical and financial, and I’ll spend my golden years in a villa on Lake Como. Maybe people will remember me as a good writer, and my heirs can feast on the proceeds of my labors. From beyond the grave I’ll resent them, lazy bloodsuckers.