Sunday, February 28, 2010

Location, Location, Location

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

Is there any setting that I really want to write about but haven’t? I can’t believe I’m about to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld (please do not tell my mother) but there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns and setting is the unique opportunity to explore both. Let’s start with the know unknowns and the settings I would like to write about.

Have you ever been to Savannah, Georgia? Land of heavy, scented Magnolias and narrow streets with antebellum manors, mostly restored, peering out from behind willows draped in Spanish moss. When we were kids, we went on a car trip every year and my mother would give the first one of us to spot the heavy strands of Spanish moss a dollar. Not a lot of money but enough to keep our competitive juices flowing without allowing them to turn into fisticuffs in the back back of our Chevrolet station wagon. Savannah was like no place I’d ever experienced. Women in hats sat on porches sipping lemonade and fanning themselves. The entire world slowed down with the molasses drawl of the locals and the blanketing weight of the humid air. Insects buzzed but instead of bringing out the assassin in me, it sounded like a local choir. You just knew, or I did even at the tender age of nine, that this place had stories. Hundreds of them. Some passed down from generation to generation with a rebel yell, others an isolated refraction of a polarized society just outside its city limits. Sherman marched through Savannah but while Atlanta burned to the ground and remained scorched aflame in our collective history, Savannah remained awash in genteel ritual and afternoon juleps. John Berendt did it justice in“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” but my gut tells me that Savannah has many more secrets to share. I’m not just talking murder and mayhem, either. I can feel the generational saga, the local character bedtime story and the ghost in the attic tome complete with unexplained drafts and middle of the night laughter.
Now, Savannah is my known unknown. I’ve been there a couple of times. I can imagine myself taking a small cottage for a couple of months and writing while I watch real Savannites meld into unforgettable characters. I can feel the moist touch of the still air on my face and taste the grits which would feed my body as my new stories feed my soul. It’s a setting both tangible and as yet unknown, secret and alluring.

I haven’t travelled as much as I might have liked but if I’m seeking out the totally new setting, I’m at the Hague in the Netherlands. I’ve been to Holland as the locals still refer to it numerous times. I’ve seen the airport, the hotel and our local office, all during the winter without so much as a tulip or a wooden shoe. Not that any work I set in the Hague could be set to the Little Dutch Girl rhyme. For me, the Hague is strictly international geopolitical thriller. It’s the seat of power for the War Crimes Tribunals with their heart-wrenching tales and beasts bigger and scarier than anything Stephen King could invent. The Hague has high finance, diplomatic back channels, global crises and the thinkers, movers, money-men and mercenaries drawn to the high wire. I don’t think I’m at much risk of falling into the net when I guess that it is spy central. Talk about upping the risk element in a book. And while I may think of it as mostly thriller territory with occasional amazing human interest stories in the mix, I know that this setting is the crossroads between fiction and non-fiction. The actual intersection of reality and imagination. What a spot to stop and write a book.
The Hague is my unknown unknown both because I’ve never been there and because so much is alien about it. Different language, culture, world view. It is my challenge setting. For me, it’s like the new planet populated by new species envisioned by George Lucas or Frank Herbert’s post-apocalyptic time jump in Dune. I may not know what’s there. I may not even know “there” is there but what a place to ponder.

No one asked me, but I might also want to add I’ve got a healthy list of settings in which I’d like to write. Most of them are warm and sunny, with fruity drinks, endless ideas and good friends to share them with but I can’t really write about them. James Hilton already did it in Lost Horizons. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t visit.

Thanks for reading.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Oh, the places you'll go...

When I moved back to Virginia, a lot of people asked me if Lydia McKenzie, the sleuth in my books POSED FOR MURDER and DEAD IN THE WATER, was going to move to Virginia, too. They had forgotten something important, though. Lydia is not me. Lydia loves New York down to her bones. She is single and still hasn’t cracked the art world. She would never in a million years pick up and move. And writing about her in my old neighborhood gives me a reason to keep one foot back in the old hood, and keep visiting friends to keep my knowledge of Brooklyn current.

So where else would I like to set a story besides Williamsburg, Brooklyn? I’m a little uncomfortable with writing about somewhere I’ve never been. As the daughter of a historian, I’m hesitant to dabble in another time period (I think I’m too nervous about getting something wrong). Luckily, I’ve done quite a bit of traveling in the United States and Europe. I’ve also lived in England, Paris, the south of France, Pittsburgh, Washington, DC, New York, the Berkshires and Virginia—so I have more than a few compelling places to set a story.

The world of television and film is another interesting setting that I would like to write about. I wrote and directed low-budget indie films in my twenties, and the work was both grueling and exciting. We would work long hours to get a project done, without knowing if anyone would ever see the end product. We often begged and borrowed our locations and equipment, and no one was paid very much (if at all). I loved the teamwork and the energy on the set. But after awhile, I got tired of having to rely on others to get everything finished. That’s when I knew I wanted to write more than direct. Now I have only myself to blame when I’m behind schedule.

Perhaps someday I’ll set a book in Virginia or write about life on the set, or even invent a whole new place. It’s so fun to daydream about, and a great excuse to do some more traveling.

And speaking of terrific settings and exciting books, our own Michael Wiley's book Bad Kitty Lounge launches on March 2. Congrats Michael!

Friday, February 26, 2010

I'd Write in Silly Underwear ...

Today's question:
Where would you want to write?

By Shane, with apologies to Dr. Seuss

Yes! I would write in a box.
Yes! I'd write with chickenpox.
Yes! I will write anywhere.
Yes! With verve and flash and flair.

I'd write in England, London, France.
I'd write in lacy underpants.
I'd write till ink ran from my nose.
I'd write in leather lederhose.

I'd drive to Texas, cowboy up.
I'd drink absinthe till I threw up.
I'd shed my clothes at nudist camp.
If I could write while wearing lamp.

I'd write while eating eggs of green,
While Pop is hopping on my spleen.
I'd write while petting that big cat,
Who wears the funny little hat.

I'd write in cabins big and small.
I'd write at gargantuan mall.
I'd write a romance very brave.
I'd write a book and name it Dave.

I'd write at North Pole, freezing ass.
I'd write buried in succotash.
I'd climb a mountain, run a hill.
I'd write while planting daffodils.

Yes! I would, I'd write in Hell.
I'd write prose with stink and smell.
The Devil'd kick me out tuite quicks.
So I'd go write with gnarly chicks.

I'd write in Maine and Pakistan.
I'd write inside a coffee can.
I'd visit lower Khazikstan.
And write while shouting "Ay, kazam!"

I'd write inside a missile cone.
I'd write while hearing lovers moan.
I'd write while choking on a bone,
And telling medics, "Hold the phone ..."

Yes! I'd write while cooking ham.
Yes! I'd write deleting spam.
Yes! I write with flim nor flam.
And that's because ...

I'm Shane I Am.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Time in a Bottle

By Kelli

This is a post from the road, so to speak--though I'm not traveling over the desert, I'm traveling over a lot of bridges in the Bay Area, and tonight I have an event at Book Passage, one of our fabulous indies. So please forgive my (un)usual brevity! :)

What era would I write about, given the chance?

Easy. Like Syd on Tuesday, I'm writing about the era I most resonate with: the 40s. I've always felt at home there ... so City of Dragons is, in many ways, a celebration and a homecoming of the time I feel most comfortable in. Plus, it allows me to visit other decades that also draw me (in flashbacks): the teens, the 20s, and of course the 30s.

My first book and series is set in Roman Britain, and I enjoy that period immensely--plus, it puts my graduate degree to good use. But there's something about the 40s that speaks to my soul.

I'd love to continue writing Miranda all the way through the Cold War. Curiously, I start to feel out-of-touch with history right around the time I come into it ... I was born in '64, and the late '60s hold no allure. I don't get sentimental over the bell-bottoms and Donny Osmond posters of my childhood in the 70s (and TV shows like Shields and Yarnell--yikes!) ... loved the 80s (I was young and in college and finally--no dry look hair and boffo mustaches, Cyndi Lauper made clothes eclectic and fun again and Joan Collins was around to bring back shoulder pads. Plus, the music was excellent. Yup, I did love the 80s ... but still wouldn't want to write about them.)

On the other hand, I do want to write a few contemporary tales--albeit in places without a lot of ultra modern conveniences, like Humboldt County, where I grew up. There's a Redwood Country noir thriller in me, waiting to germinate ... just needs time and a bit of bourbon, the necessary ingredients for story growth. ;)

Back when I was writing screenplays, nearly all of them were contemporary. One was, I suppose, urban fantasy, though to me it was just an old-fashioned romantic drama with comic highlights and a time-travel theme. Too long for the elevator pitch, though, so I guess urban fantasy fits. The other was a romantic comedy; and the first was a chick flick drama. So maybe, for me, it's easier to write in today's world when I don't explore crime--perhaps--and I'm just playing self-psycho-analyst here--writing crime fiction in the past is an attempt to, well ... keep it there.

On the other hand, the past has always beckoned ... three out of four of the screenplays dealt with the past in some fashion, some more prominently than others. So it's always been there for me, rumbling through, the Oz of my imagination.

The Elizabethan era is one of my favorites ... but so far no plans to write a crime story, though the murder of Christopher Marlowe is always fair fodder. :)

So for now, I've got first century Roman Britain--and plans for Humboldt County. And most of all, the early 40s and late 30s with Miranda. I'm keeping my time in a bottle ... of Old Taylor bourbon. ;)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is there anywhere I'd like to write about but haven't yet? Yeah - tons of places - some I don't even know about yet. (I mean lets be honest - I only have one book out - it'd be pretty sad if I said nope - I'm good.)

Only question I have is - what comes first the location or the story? Probably story for me and then once I'm figuring out where the story can go I kind see what I can work in. But sometimes it can be the other way around - in many ways thinking about location can be a great ice breaker for writers block.

Black Rain takes place mostly in the Amazon, with other action taking place in a snowed in Washington DC.

Funny thing is, when I was first writing it I kept checking the weather reports for D.C. and everything I found said "not a lot of snow there" I decided to bury them anyway - poetic license - and now look what happened.

So story first that time. But when I got around to beginning the second book I had to put the heroes in new places. And in trying to find them a few exotic locations to work from, a whole set of new ideas were sparked and a new villian was born.

In the Black Sun - the coming sequel - our heroes face off against a competitor from the hyper-kinetic, cutting edge technology meets brutaly Darwinesque, survival of the fittest world that is today's Hong Kong. The villian's quest and his actions were kind of modeled on that no-holds-barred city. Thus instead of a state operative, my new villian became a stop at nothing billionaire, one who's dying and desperate to find a way to prevent that small problem. Having come up from the streets and having done whatever it took to get off those streets, he has no other perspective - and in his fight for survival he's going to be pretty unmerciful to anyone who stands in his way. No-holds-barred - survival of the fittest

So it kind of flows back and ofrth - setting to story: story to setting.
Stictly speaking - I like writing about places that are hard to get to - not that you couldn't write an awesome book about the Woodrow Wilson rest stop on exit 7a of the New Jersey turnpike - a fine rest stop if ever there was one, you can get some good trucker food there by the way - but the secret halls of the NORAD command center, the famous Grotto at Hugh Hefner's place, or the wastes of the Gobi or Sahara Desert are the places I want to visit - and if I can't go there for real then I can do research and put them on paper.

Now - I am looking for a research assitant on that Grotto thing. Anyone interested? Buler? Anyone?

No takers? Alright, looks like I'm going to have to take care of this one myself. Oh the burden of this work - let me tell you.

Graham Brown
Author of Black Rain

Anywhere But Here

by Sophie

Any setting you really want to write about and haven't?

Uh, yeah.

Everywhere I haven't already written about.

I've got this little curiosity problem. Or maybe it's a focus problem, I'm not sure. What it really is, is just a variation on the grass-is-always-greener effect that essentially makes you believe that the next story is going to be far more captivating, more brilliant, and a better use of your voice and talents than the one you're working on, the one you signed a contract for, the one the editor is expecting.

And if you can just put it, you know, someplace else, so much the better.

I write books set in rural Missouri. First my Stella Hardesty series, and then the young adult novels that followed - they take place right in the heart of my home state, populated by characters I remember from my growing-up years, ringing with the voices inscribed on my memory. I didn't travel much as a kid - aside from annual trips to the Pennsylvania grandparents and a memorable family oddysey to Our Nation's Capitol when I was 12, my world stayed very small. i went two states over for college, but that didn't get me out of the midwest, and frankly small-town Indiana isn't all that different than small-town Missouri.

I've taken a spin or two around the globe (well that's putting it a bit grandly; I've made it as far as Europe, plus an ill-advised spur-of-the-moment Tijuana run during a long wedding weekend - not mine, thank heaven) and visited a fair number of states, but I still usually feel like the rube, the bumpkin, among my well-traveled friends. Since most of my friends are writers, I have a big old case of setting-envy when they go building beautiful tales set in exotic locales. (hrrmm hrrmmm becky hrrrrm.)

A number of years ago I wanted to enter a contest that stipulated that stories had to be set in Australia. Australia! I knew next to nothing about the place - only travel-poster impressions. I went into the cave for a long weekend and researched my ass off (something I hardly ever do) and wrote a story I am still very proud of.

I'd like to do that again, but in longer form. I kind of liked how that worked, where the location wasn't up to me, where it felt like a gift. In fact, it would be okay with me if my next book contract worked something like the Price Is Right Showcase Showdown....where I pass on the first Showcase (everyone knows you have to pass on the first showcase, which is going to be a dinette set and a year's worth of hamburger helper and a trip to the Wisconsin Dells) and then Bob Barker - the young Barker, the man of my memories - comes out and says "Heeeeres...your....NOVEL!!" and the pretty ladies come out holding a giant tourist photo of...Madrid. Or Greenland. Or Tennessee. Or anywhere, really, than I haven't been.

Meanwhile, I'll just keep building my fictional small Missouri towns. Which is nice in its own right - they know me there.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ein Herz Fuer Wien!

Today we get a glimpse into another pivotal European city: Vienna. Since so much of twentieth century history was shaped here, we're lucky enough to have an expert guide: J. Sydney Jones, long term Viennese resident and writer of the Karl Werthen mystery series set in Vienna at the turn of the century. The starred Kirkus review for the second mystery in the series, REQUIEM IN VIENNA, gushed "Confident prose and mastery of historical detail, woven into a convincing narrative, make this sophisticated entertainment of a very high caliber."

So, Syd, is there any setting you really want to write about but haven't?

The short answer is NO.

Here’s the long answer. I have set my book-length work in locations all over the world, from England to Colorado, from the Central Asian steppes to Central Europe, from Crete to Washington, DC, from Ireland to Oregon, and most particularly in Vienna, Austria. And you know what? I have found my home; the grass is no longer greener elsewhere.

Vienna 1900--that is my fictional home; that is where I stake my claim and build my fictional edifice. How come?

Well, I was raised on the coast of Oregon before it was chic to live by the ocean. We were all about logging in the winter and tourists in the summer. Fishing and crabbing were year round. The logs are long gone; ditto the fish and crab. Tourists tend to linger. But the provincial Oregon boy was bowled over by his first big city experience: Vienna. Like many of my generation, I had my first taste of Europe via a junior-year-abroad program. I picked Vienna out of a hat simply because it had no language requirement. I fell in love with the place. This was during the Cold War--the Russians had just crushed the Prague Spring movement--and the city was most definitely Central European with the ambience of a much earlier time. Faded elegance best describes Vienna during that time. For a young man who loved history, Vienna was a living museum. I stayed on for almost two decades after my student year.

But Vienna was more than a second home; it was my personal laboratory. I became a writer there and I found a theme there, as well--the exploration of the amazing artistic/cultural/intellectual renaissance of Vienna 1900. Vienna in the two decades before World War I created our modern sensibility through the works of such seminal artists, writers, and thinkers as Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, Otto Wagner, Loos, Schnitzler, Mahler, Freud, and Wittgentstein. At the same time, Vienna 1900 was also the breeding ground for such future tyrants as Trotsky, Stalin, and Hitler. In my mind Vienna is every bit as important to the history of the twentieth century as are St. Petersburg (home of the Bolshevik revolution) and Berlin (home of the Nazis).

I thus found my setting in both a geographical and temporal sense. My first books using that setting were nonfiction, ViennaWalks and Hitler in Vienna, 1907-1913. Finally I adapted Vienna 1900 to a fictional series, the “Viennese Mysteries,” each featuring a luminary of the time: the artist Klimt is suspected of serial murder in the first, The Empty Mirror, while the composer Mahler is the target of an assassin in the second just-released, Requiem in Vienna. My fictional lawyer and private inquiries agent, Karl Werthen, teams up with the real-life father of criminology, Hanns Gross, to solve these crimes or prevent catastrophe in books that are a blend of historical whodunit and literary thriller.

Home is where the heart is. No, I vow to no longer go a wandering. I am quite content at home in Vienna 1900.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Give me wide open outer spaces…

Space… The final frontier… These be the voyages of the starship Fortune’s Fool. Arrr five-year mission be to explore new worlds and plunder their riches, to be the most feared band of pirates in the Andromeda System, to discover the dirty bilge rat what be stealing arrr rum and keel-haul ‘em, and to boldly go where no pirates have gone before!

This week I be –- ahem -- I am talking about a setting I’d love to write about but haven’t…yet. As you may have guessed, I’d love to write a novel set in space. But not just any space novel. I want to write about pirates in space. Think Star Trek meets Pirates of the Caribbean.

Why would I want to write something like this? Well, first of all, it would be a lot of fun. I enjoy the process of world-building and a space pirate novel would give me the opportunity to literally create worlds.

Second, and this may come as shock to some, I like pirates. However, I have an extreme phobia of large bodies of water. (So naturally I live on the Gulf Coast. Yeah, I’m still trying to figure that one out myself.) My phobia would prevent me from ever writing a novel based on the high seas. Space seems a logical alternative.

Third, it would be a challenge. In my other works, such as BLOOD LAW, even though my main character is a vampire, she is bound by certain laws of nature -– mainly gravity. In space, gravity takes on a whole new role. Some planets have less where as some have more. Stars create various levels of gravitational pull. Black holes are the universal bullies. Years of research have been conducted on black holes. If I were use one in a novel, I’d have to be certain the science (for the most part) is correct. If not, I’ll be facing a mutiny of epic proportions.

Then there are the actual ships to consider with regard to science. Do they have gravity? If so, how is it generated? If not, what are the long-term effects of zero-gravity and how might a humanoid race evolve in such an environment? Are the pirates recognizable as humanoid or are they completely alien? The possibilities are infinite.

For me, setting is playtime but is also one of the more important aspects of the story. It’s vital to get it right. When discussing setting, it’s often easier to refer to films simply because of their visual natural. Would Bladerunner be just as cool if it were set in the Old West? What if True Grit played out against the backdrop of feudal Japan? Would Darth Vader’s famous line deliver the same punch if he told Luke he was Luke’s father atop the Empire State building instead of the bowels of Cloud City?

I don’t think so. Setting, as in real estate, boils down to location, location, location. Some of us just choose more exotic locales than others. So drink up, me hearties –- yo ho!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Who, Me?


And I'm in a hotel in Stony Brook LI, feet on the coffee table, typing on a cranky laptop, having just finished a terrific booksigning at the fabulous Best Bargain Books in Centereach--and seeing some stalwart pals who were lovely enough to give up a sunny Saturday to attend! Reed Coleman and Roseanne, Ellen Meister and Emma, Kathleen Ryan, Edie Embler and her dear husband--you are truly good friends, and I'm very grateful. So wonderful to see you! And to all thoswe who came to chat--thank you so much!

So, I wave a fond goodbye to my reign as GM on CM--it's been truly hilarious. (The next GM is gonna be so thrilled to get all the secret stuff, and see all the secret photos. More I cannot say.)
Thank you so much for inviting me.

And time for one last question--from the charming Gabriella: (Oh, will I see you at Malice? Did I tell you I was nominated for two AG..--oh, I guess I did mention that...)

As a reporter, credibility is the coin of the realm in getting sources to share what they know but I imagine it's not always quite enough. What is the most creative, crafty, sneaky thing you've ever had Charlotte McNally do to get a source to spill? Is there anything in her repertoire she hasn't had to pull out yet? Anything you really wanted to try as a reporter that Charlotte is freer to employ?

HANK: Gabriella--Crafty? Sneaky?Reporters? Puh-leeze. Just like a good detective, we'll use psychology, negotiating skills, bluff, perseverance, tenacity, bluster, pleading, browbeating and power plays to try to get the most info we can.

It's an interesting balance. When you're working on a big story, that's the ONLY thing you care about. Every moment of the day, every cell in your brain is working on the story. How to get it, how to do the research, how to shoot it, how to write it, how to produce it.

Think of it--it's exactly like making a little documentary.

But the relationship with sources is -complicated. Because a reporter is so focused on the story, they may talk with a source many times a day. Getting info, checking facts, looking for documents, tracking down leads, making sure you're heading the right direction.

Sometimes the source has been wanting to talk for months, weeks--and finally finally, someone is listenining to them. ANd they can get very dependent on you--this is attention they've wanted for a long time, and often they are doing something very important, and certainly life-changing for them, as well as others.

All good.

But then the story is on the air, and over, and suddenly the reporter isn't calling anymore. Right? And suddenly, this source, who is used to talking with you every day--may feel--abandoned. And thats why the reporter has to be really careful to keep a strong line,a careful distance, so the source remembers you're not their friend, you're a professional doing a job. It's very very difficult.

So a crafty, and probably not-too-profesional reporter--not Charlie, of course, and not me--can pretend to be a friend. ANd that's--terrible. I would never have Charlie do it. A not-too-professional reporter would--promise something they can't deliver. Say a source could okay a script--when that woud never happen. Give a list of questions in advance. No way. Become a personal friend. No. Very dangerous.

The iffy part comes in undercover work. If I have a source who tells me someone is--say, fixing tickets at city hall. I need to find out if that's really happening. If I walk up to the ticket window as ME, and see if I can get someone to fix my ticket, that ain't gonna fly, right?

And since if it's not on video, it didn't happen, I've got to get it on tape. So pretending to be someone you're not is standard practice for an investigative rpoerter. ANd even that's a thin line. I'm not going to pretend I'm someone I'm not--I wouldn't say I'm--the inspector from the water company. Or your son's math teacher.

But in an undercover situation, I don't have to say I'm HPR, reporter from Channel 7. If I'm sitting next to you on the subway, I don't have to announce I'm a reporter.

And what Charlie does undercover, in AIR TIME and in DRIVE TIME is absolutely authentic and genuine. (And it's pretty much been-there-done-that. Except for the big shoot out in the end.)

Hey, guys! This has been a wonderful week! You are all absolutely stellar, and I've had a great time. Thank you for the eclairs and the brandy, really, beyond the call of duty! Any time you ever need anything, please call on me...and I'm wishing you all the best.
**************The last contest! A signed copy of the Agatha-nominated (can't resist) AIR TIME and QUARRY, the anthology the inclues the Agatha-nominated (!) short story "On the House." The week's winners all in the comments today!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Let's Twist Again!

Happy Saturday! I'm in New York today, Centereach Long Island to be exact, doing a signing at Best Bargain Books at 3pm! Come join us! I'm still floating about my two Agatha nominations (did I tell you that I...Oh, I guess I did.)

But here at CM, as my week as Grand Master (cue the GM music) comes to an end--and thank you so much for inviting me! The food is great, and I love what you've done with the place. And, oh, no, really, I could not drink one more drop of champagne. Well, maybe if you insist..but first, Michael wants to talk about--ice cream cones?

Thanks for joining us, Hank! In your books, you write about the wonderful investigative reporter Charlotte McNally – clearly a character who draws from your own experiences. On your website, though, you start off your biographical sketch about these life experiences by writing, “Here's what most people don't know: As a result of a summer job at the Dairy Queen, I can make an ice cream cone with a curl on the top.” So, bringing these two sets of experiences together, I wonder how much of telling a good story (whether as an investigative reporter or a novelist) involves putting the “curl on top.” What’s your sense of the importance of flourishes, of final twists (or curls), of the artificial moments that make a mystery look explicitly like a mystery?

HANK: Yes, the Dairy Queen twist. And that’s what makes that particular cone special, and recognizable, and unique. And you’re so right, Michael…I think those twists are what makes a mystery special.

But I’ve always wondered if SAYING there’s a twist is a good thing. In PRIME TIME, the promo material said something like “and a twist of an ending will have readers going back to see all the clues they missed!”

Which is true, there was a great twist (more on that in a minute.) But if the author is telegraphing WATCH OUT FOR THE TWIST—don’t you read the book differently? Or watch the movie differently? (Instant case in point: the Sixth Sense. Oh, and what’s the one with the soccer player? ONE tiny bit of info and you’re doomed on those. ) Isn’t it more fun NOT to know something unexpected is about to happen?

So I’m reconsidering the value of SAYING there’s a twist. It’s cooler, probably, to just have own, or two, or three. And let the reader come upon them on their own. THAT”S a twist. If you have to say so..then that’s the artificial part.

Twisting, for me, started with HH Munro, I think. The Saki short stories? (Oh, did I tell you, my short story “On the House” is nominated for an AGA--oh, I guess I did tell you. Anyway, you can sample it HERE.)

And then, Perry Mason. When I was a little girl, with a lawyer for a step-father, when Perry was on, there were rules. Like: total and absolute silence. My little sister and I were not allowed to ask things like—who’s that guy? What’s embezzlement? Why is she crying? If we wanted to watch Perry on our 17- inch Philco (or whatever it was) we had to be very, very quiet.

Even my dad was quiet. But my 12-year-old brain began to figure things out. Like—the pattern. Of course, you had a head start with Perry. His client, except for that one famous time (what was the name of the case he lost? Anyone?) was not guilty. And the most obvious second choice didn’t do it either. The twist was--it was always the third person, kind of the guy who was not in the forefront until abut two-thirds of the way in. And soon, I could always guess. And I was always right. Of course, I was never allowed to say it out loud.

((“Foreshadowing!” I say, all grown up now and on my own couch. “See the river in the background? Someone’s going to drown.”))

Figuring out Nancy Drew was a snap, even though I loved her. Sherlock Holmes? Yeah, even Arthur Conan Doyle had a pattern. I realized that after devouring every Holmes story I could find. It was kind of—a rhythm you could tap in to and figure out the end. Like Law and Order, right? They’re fun to watch. But get the rhythm, and you get the bad guy. (Tum TUM)

In DRIVE TIME, I struggled with that, too. Put in the twist ending? Take it out? Put it in? With it out, it was a really good story. (Um, if I do say so myself.) With it in, it was also a really good story, but kind of amazingly, a completely different story. Which his how a twist works. But was it too much? I finally decided…well, you’ll just have to see.


Contest today! In honor of twist endings--or not--one lucky commenter will receive a copy of the AGATH--oh, I told you that--AIR TIME! And a t-shirt from the Boston Book Festival that says: ASK ME WHAT I'M READING.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Breaking News! and breaking news


I'm so happy to report AIR TIME has been nominated for the AGATHA for Best Novel of 2009.

And my short story "On The House" (in QUARRY from Level Best Books) is nominated for the AGATHA for best short story!
How do I feel about that?

Thank you, everyone..I'm thrilled and honored and delighted. (The other nominees are beyond stellar--look for them here--and congratulations to all.
We now return you to our regular programming.

If it's Friday, it must be Shane!

SHANE: Television writing demands brevity, because so much information has to be conveyed in just a few minutes of air time. A novel, on the other hand, can go on forever. Was it difficult to make the transition?

HANK: One of my very first news directors—he’s the same one who told me “videotape will never last” but that’s another story—actually had some wonderful advice, which he gave me my first day on the job as a TV reporter in 1975. (Here's my official photo from back then....)

He said—the hardest thing about this job is knowing what to leave out.

And you know, whether it’s for TV writing or novel writing, that’s exactly right.

You’re sent out on a news story, and you’re madly writing everything down in your reporter’s notebook, all the stats, all the history, all the description, all the names and relationships and background and quotes and thoughts and the weather and how many firefighters there were and how often the same thing has happened in the past and ..pant pant pant.

You get back to the station and bang—your story is on the air in an hour. If you’re lucky.

How are you going to do that? You can’t just—empty your notebook into your script. (And you’ve heard news stories where the reporter does that. They start telling everything they know about whatever it is—and what’s our reaction? You’re thinking—all right, already, we GET this. Just GO ON.)

So the key in writing a good and successful TV story is to ask yourself—what does this mean? Of course, you need who what when where, etc…but what does it mean? Is why the story matters.

A bedroom can have a thermostat reading 40 degrees. And that could be true, and correct reporting. But what it means is—a little boy will sleep in his coat, and in his mother’s coat. And maybe it means someone didn’t pay a heating bill? Or someone—who?—didn’t fix the furnace? And maybe it also means the city’s health codes are not being followed. And maybe that means health inspectors are being—bought off by landlords? Who knows.

Sue Grafton talks about “because.” That in a good mystery, everything happens because of something else. And that’s what makes it realistic and interesting. And the same with TV reporting.

But the key is: in TV, you may have one minute and thirty seconds to tell it.

And I always tell interns—pretend you and I were having lunch. And you say to me: You’ll never believe what happened across the street! There was a fire! And then I say—now. Just tell me what you would say, what you would REALLY say, if you were just telling the story to a pal. Because you’d tell the friend why it’s important, and why you care, and what’s going to happen as a result. And then? Write that. Don’t try to be clever, or innovative or reporter-y. Just—tell a good story. And only the parts that are the story.

Now. In answer to your question. (Finally!)

Transition, for me, to writing novel length? I must say, no, I had no trouble with it. ( I was more worried, I must admit, about being able to make things up. After 30 years of reporting exactly what really happened and only that, I wondered how my brain would do if given the opportunity to say whatever I wanted! And my brain loved it. )

When I’ve got a big groundbreaking investigation, I might be allotted five minutes for it. I can write it that way. If my news director said yikes, we’ve got an news emergency ,we can only take a minute-thirty for your story—first I argue, then I argue some more, then I cut. You write the best story you can for the amount of time you have. And there’s a skill for writing five minutes, and a different skill for writing 90 seconds.

And a skill for writing 90,000 words.

What's more, of course a novel can’t actually go on forever. It can only be as long as it’s supposed to be. We’ve all read novels that you know you could just cut huge chunks out of, right? It’s just like a reporter emptying their notebook into a story—when fiction writers do that, it’s also a big mistake. But I’m still just trying to tell the story, the best way I can, in the amount of time that I’m given. Whether it’s a-minute-thirty, or 300 pages.

SHANE: Also, how do you keep your fabulous looks--what is your SECRET, so I may adopt it for my own?

HANK: Shane, you’re hilarious. Thank you. Clearly, looking at the photo from 1975 above, and the newer one here, the key is to go blonde. So? You gonna do it??


Prize of the day? Why, the newly Agatha-nominated AIR TIME, of course! And also the newly Agatha-nominated On The House, in QUARRY! Just leave a comment to be entered in the random drawing!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Then you can start, to make it better, better, better!

Thursday! And the box with my CM/GM tiara must have blown off my front porch. Fine. I can handle it.

In real life, I'm working on a big story that might air Friday if the powers-that-be agree.

In book life, I'm back here to answer more questions. Graham's turn. And thank you for allowing me to take over your day!

GRAHAM: Working on my second book and living daily with the sudden realization that there is always more to learn about writing, I wonder if you could share a little on how your writing has changed/evolved on this latest book?

HANK: Book two. That's the one, I think, where you figure out if you can really do it. If you can make it through book two, and be thrilled, you've conquered a big hurdle. I was intimidated by book two, I must say. And I know FACE TIME is different from PRIME TIME. You realize--you're a writer. And it's work. It's your job. And it's--exhilarating.

More to learn. More to to learn. You’re so right—and I think we’re lucky. In television, you get a new job by sending out resume tapes, you know? (Now everything is on DVD, but it’s the same thing. ) You pick your best stories, whatever you think showcases your reporting skills, writing, interviewing, presentation, all that, and make a composite to send to potential news directors.

The goal in TV, of course, is to get to a bigger market. You start in, say, Ames, Iowa, which is market—what, 150? Then move to Buffalo, say, then Indianapolis, and then Philadelphia, then market one, New York, and then the network. And then you win the TV nomad game.

Anyway. A few years ago, a TV pal and colleague was looking at his resume tape, trying to see if it was still good to go. I walked by his viewing station and said something like, oh, isn’t it so frustrating, looking at your resume tape? When I screen mine, I always see all the changes I could make! What I should have said, should have asked, should have written, how I SHOULD have done the story. I can always think of a million tweaks.

And my friend looked baffled. Well no, he said, I was just thinking about how good this was.

See, that’s amazing to me. I can always find something to fix. Something to make better.

When I first wrote PRIME TIME—the very first draft was 723 pages long! Whoa. So I had to cut 400 pages. 400 PAGES! And I must say, it was the most educational experience ever. I saw my repetition, my crutch words (like "just" and "so" and "shrugged"), my rhythm patterns, my redundancies, my unsuccessful cuteness, my flabby verbs… and that was so helpful in writing my next books.

Writing a short story was also a good education. I knew it had to be no more than 5000 words. So that made me choose every word very carefully. Why did I care? Why did I need that particular word? Was it the strongest best verb possible? Now, I do that in writing my novels, too. Because again, every word has to be the best possible word it can be. And every word counts.

Finally—(whew). I’ve also learned to be more careful about going the easy way. It’s hard to explain—but some phrases just come out as I’m typing. And then I think—why did you say that? Why EXACTLY that?

In DRIVE TIME, I examined each word. Each sentence. Each scene. Did the story need it? If not, it was a thrill to cut it out.

Book two is when you get to realize you've done it. And now people are waiting to see if you can do it again.

Kelli's home from the road! For a while at least! Yay, and congratulations, Kelli.

Just in time for a question.

KELLI: Hank, you’re an Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter and an Agatha-award winning author, superb at each of your twin careers, and constantly busy! How do you do it? Can you share some time-management secrets with us?

HANK: Ha. I wish. Kelli, my dear, it’s out of control. I said to Jonathan the other day—you know, I’d like to formally announce I’m in over my head.

Sleep was the first thing to go. Then vacation. Then fun. (We haven’t been on vac for five years or so, and the movies we saw at Christmas time were the first we’d seen in a theater for—a year. My movie experience in the last several years has encompassed falling asleep in the middle of Netflixes.) Cooking, too, not a chance. (I’m a good cook, but we now have a lot of carry out salmon. Jonathan is so patient.)

One thing I’m deciding—to do one thing at a time. Just do that ONE thing. Trying to multi-task—which I used to think I could do--results in headaches, mistakes and not accomplishing anything very successfully.

I’m happy though! Sometimes I’m running down the stairs the TV station—and I think—wait, where am I going? What was I doing? And then I burst out laughing. It’s what I always wished for, right?

So my absolute advice? Don’t forget to enjoy it.

What can we give away today? In honor of the virtue of short stories, how about two wonderful anthologies: Boston Noir, edited by Dennis Lehane, and QUARRY, the new New England Anthology from Level Best Books, which contains my short story "On the House." One lucky commenter will win both! Plus a copy of the TIME book of your choice!

(And thanks to Kara Delahunt for the great newsroom photo!)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Too Wacky for TV?

I love this Grand Master thing! Thanks CMers, for inviting me. (And look for today's contest giveaway below!)
Rebecca wants to know:

What's the wackiest thing that you reported on that is simply too crazy to use in fiction?

HANK: Oh, every day there's something where I wonder: could I put his in a book?(The constant and never-ending test.) And so often the answer is : no way. Most often, it has to do with coincidences--someone being at the same place at the same time as someone else.

Sometimes it's people's personalities or lifestyles that are too out there (so far) to put into my not-really-violent mysteries. The man who was convicted of first degree murder for killing his wife, cutting out her lungs and heart, and then putting them in his back yard with a stake through them. There was another convicted murderer who said he had to run over a jogger with his car, just HAD to, because he said he'd gotten a message to do that from a candy bar wrapper. Sad, maybe. Scary. But certainly not book-usable. It's just too--weird.

Recently I got a call from a viewer who told me he had the scoop on why a certain building exploded in a Boston suburb. I said, okay, great, that's interesting , tell me more. Why did the building explode? (It was a big story, everyone covered it, and finding the reason would be a nice scoop.)

It had a big underground laboratory , he told me. And what's what blew it up.

Huh, I said. How do you know that? (I'm thinking--well, sounds unlikely, I suppose that could be true.)

He said--"An organization I work with does inspections of companies like that, and we've found underground laboratories are common in that kind of industry. "

Okay, I say, still hesitant. I mean, it's probably not true, but if it is, and it winds up on channel 5 instead of on my channel 7, I'm doomed.

So I say, Okay, sir, what organization is that?

And he says: The Ashtar Intergalactic Command.

Okey dokey then. Not going to go into the next Charlie McNally Mystery. (No offense to those of you in the Command, really, I'm sure it's all wonderful and you do a great service.)

Although you've got to admit--it's pretty amazing that one of the key mysteries in DRIVE TIME is all about dangerous recalls.

Sophie asks:
Hank, your series protagonist Charlotte is in a fast-paced job, with a high-profile life, and the books' pace is breakneck. How do you build a series character arc against such a thrilling backdrop?

Well, thank you! (Readers tell me they miss their stop on the subway because they're reading the books--that's a huge compliment.)

And in writing a series, of course, the main character, say Charlie, can't get her heart's desire or learn the biggest lesson at the end of book one, because then there's nowhere to go.

And in fact, I started writing PRIME TIME as a standalone. When I realized it was a series (about halfway through, it crossed my mind: FACE TIME! AIR TIME! and there I was...) I had to go back and rethink the story, considerably, to take out the nicely wrapped up big-picture ending.

They all must have satisfying endings, of course, but just like real life there's a tomrorow and a future. I love that, I must say.

The character arc--again, it's because I had no idea what I was doing, as we were chatting about yesterday. In TV news, as in fiction, the main character of a story has to be someone you care about.

In fact, I work with a station executive, who will remain unnamed, who's always asking "Why do I care, why do I care" when anyone pitches a story.

And that person is so right. If you don't care about the character, it doesn't matter how good the plot is. (Does it?) You're not going to want to be on the train with the person. And you're going to get off at the next chapter. Or even before.

So I just try not to try--you know? I want to make the story evolve from what the character is thinking and doing and caring about and wanting..and the plot and action develops from there. Just like what would happen in real life.
Even if it's the Ashtar Intergalactic Command calling.
PRIZES! Your choice of the TIME books! Plus a cool black canvas tote bag. And to honor one a TV pioneer, an autographed copy of Barbara Walter's book, Audition. Winner's name will be chosen at random from the comments!

It's A...Whaddaya Call It

Question for Hank Phillippi Ryan from Joshua:
"In writing a series which firmly adheres to two genres - romance and mystery - do you ever find yourself creatively constricted by the expectations those genres set?

HANK: This is one of those times when it helps to be naïve.

Digression. I got my first job in broadcasting the same way. By having no idea what I was doing.

It was 19—70 something. Maybe 71. And I was about 20 year old. I had worked in a political campaign in Indiana, and we were valiant but utterly defeated. When the election was over, I was out of a job.
So I went to he biggest radio station in Indianapolis, my home town, (WIBC fifty thousand watts of power!) and got myself an interview with the news director.
"I want to be a radio reporter," I told him.

Hmmm. He replied. And I do think he kind of looked like Lou Grant, although that may be my memory making the moment more interesting. I do remember he constantly jangled the change in his pocket.
Anyway, he said: Do you have any reporting experience? Even been a reporter? Hey, ever take any journalism classes?

Drat. No, I had to admit. I hadn’t.
But, I persisted. I’ve just worked in a political campaign and I know what reporters want. I’ve lived in Indianapolis for years, and I know where the streets are and who knows who and how people got where they are and how Indy politics works.

Then I paused. Plus, I said, this station’s license is up for renewal at the FCC, and you don’t have any women working here.
The next day I had my first job in broadcasting.

So. It shouldn’t have worked. But it did, because I was so young and naïve, I didn’t know enough to be afraid.
Now. It’s been along time since I was a new kid, that’s for sure, after now more than 30 years as a TV reporter. But as the new kid in writing mystery fiction, again, I didn’t know enough to be afraid.
So mixing two genres, Josh, as you ask, mystery and romance? The clash of the expectations? Let me admit that I had no idea about the “expectations” those genres set.
I did know about the “expectations” in telling a story. After all, I write stories for TV every day!
So I had my own expectations, and, just like writing for TV news, they had to do with writing a compelling, interesting, unique, and original story. A NEW story. With a great character who you cared about. And an important problem. And getting justice in the end.

But now, after several years in publishing–world, I finally now see the critical importance of how a book is branded. Is it a mystery? Or is it a romance? I get emails from readers, saying things like ”I found PRIME TIME and FACE TIME in the romance section of the bookstore, FACE TIME in mystery, and DRIVE TIME in new fiction. What’s up with that?”

So yeah, what’s up with that. And are mystery readers put off by the faint scent of romance? Are romance readers put off by the mystery-puzzle? Ah, I wish I knew.

But was it Nora Roberts? (Do you all know?) Who said she doesn’t think of her books as romance or suspense or mystery—they’re just good stories. So I’m with her. It just might make them tough to find.
(That's Nora in the flowered dress at the Harlequin party at RWA. On the other side of me is the fab Barbara Vey from Publishers Weekly.)

But from the beginning, I thought of myself purely as a mystery author. No idea about romance. But in learning about the romance writers world, I was introduced to an amazingly talented group of people, who, to my delight, seemed to love the books. So now I’m living, happily, in both realms.

I’m just as likely to appear and speak at a romance convention as a mystery convention…and you’ll also see me hanging out with the thriller writers. As I’ve said for the past 30 years in my role as a TV journalist, I’m always just looking for a great story to tell. And that’s the same, no matter what you call it.

PRIZES TODAY!! Let's see--how about a signed copy of DRIVE TIME, and in honor of the topic, a copy of Nora Roberts' HIGH NOON. Both will go to one lucky commenter!