Friday, August 30, 2013

In Defense of Rocks

This past week a reader posted a review on Amazon for one of my Odelia Grey novels. In the review she called Odelia "dumber than a box of rocks."

L-O-L!  No, really. My first response was really to laugh out loud.  My next response was to make this part of my blog post this week, because, frankly, Odelia's purse is like mine - pretty normal and boring.

So back to the rocks ...

First of all, what does this reader expect? All fictional amateur sleuths are a bit off their rockers (pun intended). They purposefully put themselves in harm's way in pursuit of justice. If they acted like normal, real people they would simply call the police and be done with it.

Oh yeah, now there's a best seller in the making - right?

If the amateur sleuths found in the pages of novels were really smart, they wouldn't go trekking after killers, clues and motives, and we wouldn't be having this conversation because I wouldn't be a writer of humorous crime fiction. Without proper training, these everyday, nosey faux detectives are simply stumbling around hoping to catch the killer or killers before they get whacked themselves. 

As for rocks themselves, let me remind you that rocks are far from stupid. Depending on their origin, they can be loaded with valuable minerals and information. They are historians and storytellers, chronicling the evolution of their location, including animals that once thrived there and weather and events that changed it forever.

There are rocks that decorate your garden. Rocks that provide a home for your fish. Rocks that you drive hundreds of miles out of your way to visit on vacation, including Mount Rushmore, one of the most famous rocks.

We carve sayings into rocks and give them as gifts of love, support and encouragement. We even use them to mark and honor the graves of our loved ones.

Remember the Pet Rock? In 1975 this simple item hit the marketplace selling 1.5 million units and making its creator/owner/lucky stiff thinker-upper a millionaire.

Doesn't sound too stupid to me!

Oh, and let's not forget The Rock. One of the cutest of cutie pies with a rock-hard bod and killer smile, and a genius at self-promotion.  Have you seen his commercial for milk? He could sell the stuff to someone with a severe lactose intolerance problem.

As for Odelia's purse, like I said, hers is a lot like mine (seen here):

Kindle, cell phone, makeup, wallet, several pens, hand sanitizer, one large key ring with keys to my apt. security door, car, mail box and gas tank, another key ring with keys to my office, business cards, nail file, gum, ibuprofen, cough drops and tissues. 

Boring, yes. Dumb, no.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

And one sink (kitchen)

What a great question!  I've never, in all my list-making, floor-plan-drawing, map-copying, outfit-sketching obsessiveness ever actually thought about what Dandy Gilver carries in her bag.

I know she has little notebooks, because Alec Osborne - her Watson - ribs her about them and lately she's taken up a propelling pencil too.  She has a cigarette case and a box of matches, a lipstick and powder compact, a handkerchief - white lawn, some embroidery, a purse (= US wallet) with bank notes, coins and postage stamps, and a nail-file.

I know she doesn't have any keys because her house is never empty.  If she wants to get in, she rolls up the drive and waits for someone to open the door.  I can't see her with locks of baby's hair or photographs of her husband either, somehow.  Maybe she'd have a scrap of leather from Bunty the Dalmatian's first collar, but even that is a bit mawkish for Dandy.

I imagine it would be quite a small plain thing and easily decanted into an evening bag without a lot of triage.

I, on the other hand . . . here's a run down as of  28th August 2013 in order of excavation: 

promotional postcards for Dandy Gilver
promotional postcards for AS SHE LEFT IT
reading sunglasses
reading glasses
another pair of reading glasses
ibuprofen (I've had a cough)
Strepsils (ditto)
paracetamol (ditto)
another phone
baby wipes
Tigi Bedhead
glasses case
three blue Bic Cristals
skeleton bunch of only three keys and three keyrings because away from home
large pink hanky (was white and my dad's until a laundry incident)
five earrings
toothpaste I bought yesterday and forgot was in there
1UKP off The Guardian coupons from the Edinburgh Book Festival (expired)
wallet containing skeleton staff of only nine cards because away from home
lucky 2 dollar bill
receipts (various (for tax))
receipts (various (for no reason whatsoever))
four business cards from the Crimewriters' Association lunch last Friday
two dead batteries
twenty nine Christmas cards

And the thing is that I only bought this bag a month ago - here it is, isn't it lovely? -

so it's still building up its foundation layer.  There are whole pockets in there I haven't even assigned yet.  There are no wedding favours with happy memories that I can't throw out, no orders of service from funerals that I can't throw out, no 3D specs from films I've enjoyed and can't throw out, my bike lock and front light aren't in there, not a single packet of seeds, no CDs, no unrelated CD cases, no charger cable for either of the phones . . . why it's practically empty.  I could almost be fictional with a bag as empty as that.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

At The Deep, Dark Bottom...

So what would my characters keep in their purses? Whatever it is, it would be at the bottom, mingling with change and the wrappers of candy eaten long ago. Maybe in the slightly torn lining so whatever they need is nearly impossible to find. At least that's where things are in my purse, at the bottom, under stuff, just out of reach. Much to my annoyance.

I like to think that Nell Fitzgerald, my main character in the Someday Quilts Mysteries, would be more organized. She's an art student, a quilter, the Nancy Drew of Archers Rest, her small hometown in upstate New York (a nickname she hates despite its accuracy). In her purse, along with a much used Archer Rest library card, Nell would have a hand sewing project in a zip-lock bag. Probably something of her own design. She'd also have a half-filled sketch pad and pencil for those drawings on the go she likes to do. She'd have a lipstick in case she runs into Police Chief/boyfriend Jesse Dewalt. In one of the pockets, she'd have a frequent customer card for Jitters, the coffee place across from Someday Quilts, the shop where she works. Nell likes to stay caffeinated so that card gets a workout. And, because Nell never met trouble she didn't want to get into, she'd have a digital tape recorder, a smart phone with the camera ready, and a nail file that could pick a lock in case she got locked in, or out, of a crime scene. Oh, and the ladies of her quilt group on speed dial, because they're her partners in crime solving.

Nell lives in a world of what I like to call "step over the body" mysteries - where murder may be serious, but it doesn't spoil the mood for romance or friendship. That's a bit different from the heroine of my Kate Conway Mysteries where the deaths hit hard - and sometimes close to home.

Kate's a TV producer of true crime shows, lives in Chicago, and is still dealing with the death of her husband, Frank. And there's Vera, the woman Frank left her for, who wants to be Kate's best friend. (Yeah, Kate hates the idea). Kate doesn't want to solve mysteries, spend time with people, or frankly, do anything but watch TV and eat take-out, but things don't work out that way.

Her world isn't as kind or easy as Nell's and her purse reflects that. She's got too many credit cards with balances on them. A smart phone with the numbers of dozens of production companies, police officers, lawyers, and various contacts from the shows she's produced. She's also got a burner phone, so if she interviews criminals she has a number to give them that won't be traced back to her. She's got receipts that need to be expensed, and reminder notes from her sister about family events Kate would prefer to miss. And in the small, zippered pocket at the back, a photo of she and Frank from happier times. Kate doesn't look at it, but she likes having it there. Most importantly, she has snacks for her favorite camera crew - Andres and Victor. There's nothing more important to a producer than a happy crew.

Except a paycheck. That, sadly, she doesn't have in her purse. Not until she finishes the show she's working on. The one in which a murder just happened.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What's in Clare Vengel's Handbag?

Cigarettes, fake ID, and a cell phone registered to the same alias.

As an undercover cop, Clare's job is pretending to be someone else. While she may not be a rock star in some ways her superiors would like—she sleeps with suspects, doesn't follow orders, and gets into dangerous situations because she doesn't think things through—Clare excels at slipping into a new skin and being accepted as one of the locals.

In Death Plays Poker, she's undercover as Tiffany James—trust fund fashion princess with more bankroll
than skill, playing poker with a crowd happy to smile at her while they take her money. Inside her Coach purse, Clare's cell phone has a glittery pink cover (which she hates) with a Lady Gaga ringtone (“Poker Face”). She has expensive mineral foundation and other makeup her handler has taught her to use.

In Death's Last Run, Clare is undercover as Lucy Lipton—a granola crunching, craft beer drinking, snowboarding slacker. She doesn't have a handbag: she totes her things in the many pockets of her purple ski parka. Her wallet is ratty, she wears minimal makeup but probably carries some lip gloss for the cold mountain air. Her cell phone is in a plain, beaten-up case with some worn stickers with sassy slogans, like I think therefore I'm single. She carries Rizla rolling papers in case any of her new friends needs a spare.

In all cover roles, she has cigarettes and a lighter. But she's growing up, so maybe that will change.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A War Waged in Code

By Reece Hirsch

My protagonist Chris Bruen does not carry a man-bag per se but, like a lot of lawyers, he does carry a laptop bag that doubles as his satchel.  On the laptop are fragments of computer code and clues to the identity of the latest hacker or cybercriminal that he is pursuing on behalf of a client.  In THE ADVERSARY, the hackers that Bruen is pursuing have threatened to unleash a sophisticated computer virus on an undisclosed U.S. city in seven days.

THE ADVERSARY is inspired by the very real threats posed by the new generation of computer viruses exemplified by the so-called Stuxnet virus.  Stuxnet is a computer worm, or virus, discovered in 2010.  The Stuxnet virus was specifically designed to target the centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment center, causing the delicate machines to speed up or slow down and then explode like so many expensive shrapnel bombs.

Unlike a bomb that is destroyed upon detonation, however, the code that makes up a weapon of cyberwarfare like Stuxnet remains out there in the world after it has been deployed.  Stuxnet was designed to erase itself after it achieved its purpose, but the code malfunctioned and the virus was spread via the Internet, thus bringing it to world's attention.  THE ADVERSARY considers what might happen if the code for such a dangerous, state-sponsored virus came into the possession of black hat hackers who retooled it into a weapon of cyberterrorism that could be turned back against the U.S.

When I began writing THE ADVERSARY, I was basing my story on oft-repeated rumors that Stuxnet had been created by the US and/or Israel.  As I was finishing the book, those rumors were confirmed in a June 1, 2012 article in the New York Times in which David Sanger reported that Stuxnet was indeed part of a joint operation of the NSA and Unit 8200, its Israeli counterpart, dubbed “Olympic Games,” which was begun under President George W. Bush and expanded under President Obama.  The Times further reported that the Stuxnet virus may have set back the Iranian nuclear program by 18 months to two years.

The Lurker virus that is central to THE ADVERSARY is closed modeled on Stuxnet, including the way it operates by taking control of the programmable logic controllers (PLCs).  PLCs are digital computers that govern a vast array of mechanical functions, from manufacturing assembly lines to traffic lights to the electrical grid.

The creation of new viruses like Stuxnet has stirred a new debate about what constitutes warfare between nations.  But this is clearly not warfare in the traditional sense.  It can be conducted anonymously and by small groups of individuals.  In traditional warfare, the identity of the adversary is usually apparent, in the form of a plane dropping a bomb or an invading army.  Sophisticated, “smart-bomb” computer viruses like Stuxnet could pose threats to our critical infrastructure, like the electrical grid, chemical plants or nuclear facilities, but the barrier to entry is much lower than what is needed to develop a nuclear weapons capability.  And the enemy could be virtually anyone possessing the necessary technical expertise.

THE ADVERSARY explores the scary prospect that we may be entering a new age of cyberterrorism.  Computer viruses are no longer merely the harmless annoyances that muck up your home computer. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Dark Corner

by Gary

A few years ago toward the end of ’07, I began writing an online serial called Citizen Kang on The Nation magazine’s website.  The Nation is a venerable lefty institution founded in 1865.  Citizen Kang (and yes, there’s a Simpson’s episode with the same name but way different story) was a political thriller that begins in an office above Lennox Avenue in Harlem.  My protagonist, the early forties, smart, hip, bisexual (rumors about her sexuality play a role in the plot) California Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia Kang observes the horse drawn gold coffin of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, passing by down below.  

Soon thereafter her mentor in politics, the former Speaker of the House Grish Waller is found dead, an apparent suicide.  But like the Vince Foster mess during the Clinton Administration, suspicions arise as to did Waller really kill himself or was it murder due to his involvement in a nefarious scheme having to do with the mega corporation Fallenbee, owners of among other holdings the nationwide discount chain, Dollarville.  Heh.

At the end of each week I turned in an installment as the real politics of the presidential race of 2008 unfolded.  Writing the “chapters” like that I was able to keep the story timely and capitalize on current hot button issues – at least incorporating references to them as background. I got myself entangled in more than one corner with not only what was the big conspiracy dogging Kang but the sub-plots involving her wayward brother, her chief of staff and so on.  I was working from an outline, but found myself spinning too many plates in an attempt to keep the reader engaged.  Always one for intertwining the lives of seemingly disparate characters, doing this without having much of a road map got too whacky. 

It was like those old movie serials of the 40s, the hero is knocked out and placed unconscious in his car, the vehicle is set in motion and rams into a gas station.  The car going up in a ball of flame as it ignites the gas pumps.  Only when we return next week, we’re in the car, the hero rouses himself, and tumbles out of that bad boy before it hits.  I was always retconning what had gone before.  Yeah, you read it, but what you read wasn’t exactly what happened,.  Rashoman-like, I kept retelling parts of the story in different ways.

By the time I wrote my second serial, the Underbelly on the fourstory site, I’d learned a few things from writing CK  Again working from an outline, this time I kept notes as I wound into sub-plots.  It helped too that while the story was timely, about a sometimes homeless Vietnam vet’s search for his disabled friend who has disappeared from Skid Row set in a gentrifying downtown L.A., I wasn’t compelled to incorporate current news stories.  This time writing about my vet Magrady, I did write my way into a few corners but it was more deliberate.

Putting your character in a tight spot and sweating how to extricate them makes me go deeper into their skin.  Given what I know about them, what would they do to resolve the situation?  If I introduce a twist in the story or unveiled a reveal about this or that character, I better have foreshadowed it in some way.  Seeming asides aren’t asides.  Stories to me work best when they loop back on themselves.  A woman on page two seemingly loses her tube of lipstick in the crease of a couch.  Only on Page 99 it turns out that tube is really a bug left to eavesdrop on the people going in and out of that room.

If I’ve learned anything from getting in and out of corners, of trying to make this organic to the story as a whole, as the now departed Elmore Leonard observed, “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.”

Don’t overwrite but write enough.     

Thursday, August 22, 2013

I Should’ve Zigged Instead of Zagged

by Alan

How often do you write yourself into a corner and how do you escape?

I rarely write myself into a corner, mostly because I’m an outliner.point a to point b

Of course, I outline myself into a corner all the time.

But the great thing about word processors is their cut-and-paste function. So I play around, adding scenes, deleting scenes, rearranging scenes, trying to find the best fit or testing out new sequences and new ideas. Different, more compelling, paths to the final destination. If I like the new order, or some variation of it, then it stays.

If not, I hit DELETE, and try again.

When it comes to the actual writing, I don’t slavishly follow my outlines, so I have been known to go astray (once or twice or several hundred times). Usually, I’ll just plow ahead, knowing that certain subplots or threads or tangents will need to be changed. I’ll make a note in the figurative margins, or I’ll highlight a scene in a different color, so that when I go back for the next draft, I’ll know I need to fix things in order to have my story make sense.

In other words, I usually address all the disjointed stuff when I work through the revision process. (After all, they (whoever they are) say that a good book isn’t written, it’s rewritten.)

In the first draft, I have one goal—to get it finished. BICFOK*, all the way!

Full speed ahead!


*Butt In Chair, Fingers On Keyboard

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Writing Past the Wall

Tracy Kiely

I am a list maker. I scribble various versions of “Do This” and “Pack This” and “Buy This” on anything I can find. I have even been known to write down a task that I have already completed, just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing it off my list. Sadly, none of this makes me the organized person I long to be. Half the time I can’t find the list within minutes of making it, and I never actually complete all the tasks. But I keep making them, if for no other reason than the brief moment of order it affords me. 
That said, it will come as no surprise to learn that I plot out my books ahead of time. In fact, the idea of sitting down and just writing without an outline makes me faintly nauseous. Years ago I took a mystery writing class in which we all took turns reading our opening paragraph. One woman had an opening I’ll never forget. Her omnipresent narrative told of a small kitten wandering into a bathroom where a man was taking a shower. The man in the shower was singing. The kitten sees another set of feet enter the bathroom. The man in the shower suddenly stops singing and collapses into a pool of his own blood. The wife of the dead man calls out that breakfast is ready. The killer picks up the kitten (!) and then puts it back down. The kitten traipses through the dead man’s blood before heading downstairs. The scene ended with the killer hearing the wife scream at the sight of the kitten covered in blood.
I’m not doing it justice, but we were spellbound. It was a great opening.   Someone in the class asked the writer a question about the kitten, and she kind of shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know who is in the shower let alone who killed him.” I was in shock. The idea of not knowing SO MUCH made my head hurt.
Then, to make matters worse, the WOMAN NEVER CAME TO ANOTHER CLASS!!!
I still think of that bloody kitten and that maddening woman. That kind of off-the-cuff writing is alien to me. I have to know who did it and why. I have to know what clues the protagonist picks up that leads to the discovery of the murderer. I know there are some authors who can just sit down and write and see where it goes. But then I know there are some people who grow their own tomatoes and bake their own bread.
Of course, even the best plans go awry, and despite my outline, I’ll find myself with a plot point that simply won’t work. When that happens, a loud expletive can relieve some stress, but it doesn’t solve the problem. I find that if I focus on something else for a while, my mind will clear (well, as best it can) and the solution will slowly rise to its murky surface.  Going for a bike ride, watching an old movie, or re-reading a favorite mystery are my preferred methods to clear the fog, but when that doesn’t work I will turn to a fellow writer for help. (I have, however, learned not to have these conversations in public.  I’ve found that serious conversations about how the body ended up in the basement tend to alarm others.)
But whatever method I choose, I just have to jot it down on my list first.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Trust Yourself

How often do you write yourself into a corner and how do you escape?

By Vicki Delany

With my 13th book (A Cold White Sun) just being released, I have some experience with this.  And the one thing I have learned is to trust myself as a writer.

Many beginning writers give up as soon as they find themselves trapped in the soggy middle or written into a corner. So they start another book, and then give up give up as soon as they find themselves trapped in the soggy middle or written into a corner, and so they start another book.  And the pattern continues.

I now trust myself to get out of the corner or to wade through the soggy middle.

Case in point. In Negative Image (Constable Molly Smith #4) there is a subplot about a spate of break and enters while the homeowners are away. All of the places being broken into have to have something in common.  I wracked my tiny brains trying to come up with something. But it couldn’t be something obvious, something the police would immediately think of. So that eliminated children all going to the same school; putting their dogs in the same kennel; using the same housesitter etc etc.

I was well into that book, approaching the climax and beginning to panic.  

I couldn't come up with anything that wasn't blindingly obvious, yet once the character thought of it would leap off the page as ‘of course’.

Not being able to come up with something credible would mean back to the drawing board and rewriting the subplot.

Out walking one day, I saw a poster on a telephone pole.

And that was it.

I knew it when I saw it.  I trusted myself as a writer to be able to solve my dilemma. And going for a long walk probably helped too!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Escaping from writing traps

by Meredith Cole

How often do you write yourself into a corner and how do you escape?

I used to be afraid of dark places and writing myself into corners. I tried to outline my books to the nth degree so I wouldn't be caught without all the tools I needed to escape. But it didn't always help. I would write myself to a certain point and then I wouldn't know what to do to get out.

So how do I escape? Here are a few of my coping strategies:

1) Make a list.  I love lists. They're so organized and satisfying. And they can be a great tool to come up with viable options. I'm even turning this blog post into a list!

Anyway--quickly write down as many possible ways as you can think of to escape. Don't censor yourself and let the options be ridiculous (UFO sweeps down and rescues them) and practical (hero always carries a knife in their boot...). Write as many as you can and then read them over. There might be something you can work with there.

2) Take a walk. I seem to write myself into a corner every time I attempt a short story. The only solution is to set it aside and let it percolate for a while. Sometimes months. But if I have a deadline (blog post is due Monday!), a walk outside can sometimes help. The act of moving around helps me get some amazing insight that helps me escape.

3) Read something. See how other very talented writers get their characters out of jams. Don't copy but allow yourself to be inspired by their brilliance.

And if that doesn't work, I just keep reminding myself that there's always a way out. I go back to taking some time to let the writing sit and repeat all the above steps. Or I do a major rewrite on the scenes that got me into the jam in the first place.

Happy Writing!

Friday, August 16, 2013

An Unconscious Start

The Bobbsey Twins
When I was first trying to get published, I wrote general fiction. My manuscripts were well received by publishers but never sold, so my then agent suggested I try my hand at writing mysteries. The problem with that suggestion was that I never read mysteries or thrillers outside of the occasional Sue Grafton novel. Period. That was it.

Trixie Belden

Over the course of the next fifteen years I not only wrote and was published many times over in the mystery field, but became immersed in the genre, reading them by the boatloads. Although, I confess, my educational background in the genre is still severely lacking many of the masters in the field.

Cherry Ames
Looking back now, I realize that I was probably destined at a very early age to be plopped down in the middle of literary mystery and mayhem. Before being published, I may not have read many mysteries as an adult, but as a youngster I did read quite a few. I had just forgotten until I had my memory jogged by conversations with readers who still re-read many of their childhood favorites.

Pictured are my favorite mystery series as a kid.

 As a rule, I don't re-read books, but the two books which made a huge impact on me as a young teen and which I have re-read are The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Both of these books I read on my own long before they showed up on my school reading list.

And no trip down my childhood reading list lane would be complete without mentioning The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  A book I still treasurer to this day. When I was about 11 or 12, I tried to check this book out of my middle school library and was refused because the librarian thought it was beyond my age level.  When I told my mother this, she immediately wrote a note to the librarian saying I was allowed to check out any book in the school library, no matter what the book was.

Thanks, Mom!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

No Ballet for Catriona

Funnily enough, I'm answering this question in my childhood bedroom, in the house where I was born, where my three big sisters taught me to read, playing at schools every day (I can't remember not being able to read; certainly I was well away by the time I got into my first real classroom with a non-sister teacher).

And in the bedside cabinet is ... pause to look ... Five Go To Smuggler's Top by Enid Blyton (1945).

I must have read it a fair few times, along with the other stories in the Famous Five series.  In each one, a group of cousins (four of them) come home from boarding school for the summer, shake off the grown-ups (Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny) and disappear off with their dog (the fifth one) on a hike, in a caravan, after a circus, to a treasure island . . . there to be posh, solve crimes and eat picnics.  Hogwarts food was pretty much Famous Five food and Scooby-Doo will give you an idea of the plotting.

Much, much better than these though was Ballet for Drina by Jean Estoril (1957) and five of its ten sequels.  No, wait - hear me out.  Okay, Drina is an awkward little shrimp of a girl, orphaned, living with her grandparents, who blags her way - Billy Elliot style - into ballet classes and, predictably, becomes a ballerina.  But besides the clichés, there are friendships, passions, secrets, betrayals, concern for social justice, wrongs righted, triumphs, disappointments and some the best Mean Girls ever. 

As well as all that, once Drina knows her arabesques from her elbows, she starts to tour with the corps de ballet and, an intrepid Londoner, she takes Paris and New York in her plucky but dainty stride.  Then she goes to the Edinburgh Festival.  That story was my first experience of reading a book set in a place I knew - having resisted Walter Scott and being too young for Jekyll and Hyde - and the detail was enchanting.  I had been on those streets and looked at those views.  It made me want to see how accurately Estoril had depicted London, Paris and New York too. 

Luckily, it didn't make me want to be a ballerina.  I was five foot eight at the age of twelve and could trip over the pattern in the carpet.  But the reason I can't take a quick phone picture of Ballet For Drina is that it's not here; all six books are in my house in California in the glass-fronted bookcases where the treasures stay.  I've read them many times and I still reach for them when life gets the way life does.   If anyone else has read them - sssshhh! (There's a massive plot twist at the end of book 1) - but let me know if you too love them.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Few of My Favorite Things...

What are your favorite books from childhood and/or your most re-read. What makes a
book one that you return to?

by Clare O'Donohue

I was an odd kid. I know, shocker. Okay, truth be told I was a mostly normal kid. (Completely normal being an unreachable, and I think, undesirable goal.) I did all the other things that kids in the pre-internet dark ages did, like playing outside and using White-Out on homework assignments. But when it came to reading, I separated from the pack. Even my closest friend, Peggy Gibbons, saw my literary choices as a little strange. And as all psychiatrists can tell you, it was my mom's fault.

My mom was an English teacher. She taught Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Dickens... She quoted Yeats at the dinner table, and at breakfast she would (and I'm really not kidding here) re-enact the fall of Rome using salt and pepper shakers. We didn't have Nancy Drew in the house, or Hey God, It's Margaret, or whatever that book is called. We had Henry V, Red Badge of Courage, The Fall of The House of Usher. So, from when I was old enough to read, that's what I read.

One of those books was The Great Gatsby, which I first read when I was ten. I'm guessing I didn't understand most of it - affairs and parties and drinking etc... But I knew it was poetry written as prose. It made me feel sad and hopeful, angry and hurt. It made me want something un-nameable. And it made me wonder if, maybe, I could do that too. If I could made someone feel so much with just words on a page. It was a seed that planted in me, and made me excited not just about stories, but about being a storyteller. I re-read it as a freshman in high school as part of an assignment, and remember feeling that the teacher, in dissecting it to death, had lost what made it special. I mourn for all the readers who find this book that way.

Later, much later, I'd forgotten my fanciful dreams of being a novelist and I'd become a TV producer who spent a lot of time on the road. I happened to be in an airport when I found myself out of reading material. (Pre-Kindle. I've lived through some dark times.) I came across a paperback re-print of James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss - a hard boiled detective novel, a brilliant, suspenseful page-turner, written in a style that made me want to read each line for the language, the rhythm of it. Reading it in the uncomfortable seating of a non-descript airport lounge, waiting for yet another delayed flight to board, an old dream of being a storyteller emerged. Only this time I wondered, "Could I write a mystery?"

It took a few more years for me to answer that question, but I know that Fitzgerald and Crumley are two of the reasons why I decided to try. I've re-read both over the years and re-read passages from both. Each time I'm inspired not just by the story, but by the words. I'm still working toward being the kind of writer that has that kind of effect on a reader. It's a goal, like being normal, that may be unreachable for me. But in the meantime, I'm grateful for all the other authors, past and present, who do.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Babe Ruth, Baseball Boy

by Robin Spano

I found this book when I was four. I was exploring around my dad's office. He worked for a construction company and there was a room of stuff—furniture, art, books, etc.—that they used to stage houses.

I wasn't into sports, but I was hooked by this story—written for kids—about a 7-year-old boy from a rough background who ran wild through the streets of Baltimore until his parents made the tough call to send him to an all boys residential school.

I probably shouldn't admit to taking the book home. (I didn't realize I was stealing from my dad's employer.) But I stayed glued to the pages and probably no one thought to ask where I'd picked up the book.

At St. Mary's school, George (Babe Ruth's real name) found a mentor who helped him focus. I loved the life
lessons from this era (things like “sloppy work doesn't pay—it costs you time in the long run when you have to go back and fix your mistakes”). They were both simplistic and profound, and they were told in a way that my four-year-old mind could digest. I felt like I was learning about the world along with George.

Ultimately, it was a story of triumph. I read this book over and over again, and I never failed to be excited when Jack Dunn recruited George for the Baltimore Orioles, and when George set the world home run record for a season, beat his own record a few years later, then beat it again with a record that stood for 34 years.

After this, I read biographies of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and others. I started rooting for the Yankees, collecting baseball cards, and going to games whenever I could. But at least once a year, until I was twelve or thirteen, I cracked open Babe Ruth, Baseball Boy and read it again from cover to cover.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dog Eat Dog

By Reece Hirsch

In my last post, I talked about one of my favorite childhood books, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this Way Comes, so for this week's question I'll discuss the book that I reread most often.

I think most writers have at least one book that they keep returning to as a sort of Platonic ideal of what a great book should be.  For me, it's Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone.  I recently reread the book and found it to be just as good as I remembered it.

When I first found the book at age 15, I was too young to fully appreciate it.  I was impressed by the ecstatic reviews, the National Book Award and the cool cover of the paperback with a soldier carrying a hypodermic needle instead of a rifle. But even at first reading I was captured by the breathlessly paced story of a journalist who brings a shipment of heroin back to California from Vietnam and quickly gets in way over his head.

The book is more than just a tale of a drug deal gone bad and a chase from Berkeley to L.A. to the California desert near the Mexican border. Robert Stone is a writer who has never lacked for swing-for-the-fences ambition.  Dog Soldiers is a knowing portrait of failed Sixties countercultural ideals in the guise of a relentless and harrowing crime story.

The story works so well for me because it never reduces itself to a "statement."   Dog Soldiers is like a rocket that achieves enough velocity to carry a fairly substantial payload.  And that's what I like best about the book. For me, it demonstrates how much can be conveyed in a fast-moving, exciting story.

Of course, it's not always easy revisiting your Platonic ideal.  I reread some or all of Dog Soldiers every few years, and sometimes even I have to admit that the book has its shortcomings.  Sometimes its unstinting bleakness is hard to take, depending upon the frame of mind that I'm in at the time.  But, in the end, the book always wins me over because Stone is doing so many things so amazingly well -- sharp, funny, elliptical dialogue, consistently strong descriptive writing, believably screwed-up characters and a great story with echoes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

If Dog Soldiers were published today, it might have been considered a crime novel ... but then it probably wouldn't have won a National Book Award.

THE ADVERSARY UPDATE:  The first episode of my new novel THE ADVERSARY was released by Thomas & Mercer on August 6!  The book is being published initially as a Kindle Serial, which means that for $1.99 (, you receive a total of eight weekly installments delivered to your Kindle.  THE ADVERSARY is the first in a three-book series featuring Chris Bruen, a former DOJ cybercrimes prosecutor who is in private practice helping clients combat hackers and cybercriminals.  If you'd like to sample the first two chapters, they're available here (