Friday, July 31, 2009

I Write Naked. Doesn't Everybody?

By Shane Gericke

I write naked.

Not literally. If I did, and you saw it, you'd run away screaming, like those crowds fleeing Godzilla as he chews through downtown Tokyo.

Rather, naked in that I use no outline when I write.

(Alright, alright, the naked stuff was a cheap ploy to get you to read my blog. My partners in crime already did such a great job dissecting outline vs. no outline vs. short outline vs. long outline, that if I didn't throw in some fakey nude stuff, none of you would have made it this far. But now you're here and not snoring, so we can go back to our tale.)

I hate to commit to anything when starting a new book. My characters reveal themselves through the act of writing, not through the act of outlining. I need the total freedom to let them take the fork in the road that leads through the briny swamp, if they so choose. I need to go commando. (All right, that's the last faux-nudie bit, I promise. Or, is it . . .)

So to unleash those creative forces, I picture exactly how my book will open, and how it will end, down to the smell of the air and sound of the sirens. All the rest I leave to whimsy, coffee and fingers. In MOVING TARGET, which launches next summer, for instance, I knew the story would start with death in a howling thunderstorm, would close with death in a howling thunderstorm, and the major players would be changed forever. The rest came as I wrote. div>

That's the ideal for me: writing without a map.

Problem is, it doesn't work for purposes of selling idea to your publisher. Editors understandably need to know what you're going to turn in, and with some detail; they have to sell your book to their bosses, their sales and promotion people, their designers and artists, their bookstore buyers, and the other parts of the vast team that actually gets your book into the public's hands.

In the argot, it's "commercial vs. creative." Well, my argot, anyway, mostly because I love the word "argot" and use it when I can.)

So, when I'm ready to go with a new book, I write a two-page story summary, telling my editor the beginning, end, major plot twists, and major characters. She accepts or rejects the idea based on that document (plus helpful author inputs like, Aw, pretty please, let me keep the bus full of decapitated corpses, pleeeeeeeeaseeeeeee . . . )

Once she accepts the outline, I start writing, and see what happens.

Fortunately for me, my editor is patient and kind and allows me the freedom to go off track--sometimes, um, considerably off track--as long as it's in the realm of what we agreed upon. If I promise a serial killer novel and deliver a traditional police procedural, I'll be pulling three to five in Rewrite Penitentiary. But if my outline promised that the serial killer would do X and wound up doing Y instead because Y is much more interesting, then we're good.

If I've done my job well, the commercial and the creative ends of the business dovetail neatly, and everyone is pleased.

If I don't, well, see morgue photo below . . .


John Dillinger lies extremely dead in the Cook County Morgue after cops ventilated him outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Back in the '30s, anyone who wanted to gawk at a gen-u-inely dead criminal-type could walk on in and do so. Also pictured are the Colt Army Special (with Timothy O'Neil, the cop who used it to plug Dillinger); the Remington double derringer; and a typical wanted poster of Dillinger from the era.

Talk about your double-barrel crime news: Two guns used by the infamous John Dillinger have been sold for nearly as much loot as he got by sticking up banks.

The Colt Army Special revolver that slew Dillinger outside a Chicago movie house ("slew" is almost as cool as "argot," don't you think?) sold for $36,400 in a Chicago auction, more than three times expected value. The second gun, a small Remington .41 double derringer that Dillinger carried, went for $95,600, or more than twice estimated value, in a Dallas auction.

Dillinger was carrying the Remington in one of his socks when he was arrested in Tucson, AZ, 75 years ago. (Socks were tougher back then, apparently. Our sissy socks of the modern era can't carry a piece of twine without sagging.) It was the beginning of his end--the notorious Roaring Twenties bank robber was killed six months later, on July 22, 1934, by federal agents and local policemen outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, after being fingered by the infamous "Lady in Red." (Little remembered is that her dress was orange; it only looked red in the street lighting of the time. "Lady in Red" sounded more tabloidish to the newspaper writers of the time anyway, so that's what they went with.)

East Chicago, Ind., police Capt. Timothy A. O'Neil is credited with the kill. He and a partner had arranged for the Lady in Red (who undoubtedly was naked under the dress) to point out Dillinger as he and Miss Red left the theater after watching "Manhattan Melodrama." The cops and three FBI agents plugged Dillinger when he came out. O'Neil's descendants sold the famous Colt to a museum. An anonymous "member of a prominent Tucson family" sold the Remington to an anonymous L.A. collector.

All I can say is, the sellers should send big wet kisses to Johnny Depp, because his bravura turn as Dillinger in the new movie "Public Enemies" undoubtedly kicked up the bidding. Maybe Dillinger should have gone into show biz. He'd have made a lot more money.

And, sigh, yes, since you insist, I'll tell you . . .

He is nekked under the sheet.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More Mad Rush, Please

By Sophie

Are you an outliner or do you wing it?

Like many of the other Criminal Minds, I've tried both. Early in my writing development, I had these binders I would fill with timelines and tables and character sketches and pictures torn from magazines. I went to workshops where I learned to color-code my prose, to put it on notecards, to use software to organize scenes, to "interview" my characters, and so on.  

One of my favorite traditions from that time was one that my friend Lisa and I started. We both had young kids back then, so we had art supplies lying around the house, including a roll of butcher paper and about ten thousand colored markers. Whenever we started a new book, we used to tear off six-foot lengths of paper and spend a day plotting out our work-in-progress, annotating with post-it notes and drawing all kinds of arrows and diagrams and notes in the margins.

Those were fun days. Sometimes we'd go on a weekend retreat and pin those charts up on the walls of the cabin or hotel where we were holed up, and from time to time we'd get up from our laptops and go track our progress against the chart. Looking back on that phase now, I think that - for me - the chart was more of a confidence builder than anything else. It was tangible proof that I had my story under control, that I could reduce it to a flow chart with a beginning and an end and a middle.

I often say that fear is the writer's greatest enemy, and looking back I think I had a lot of fear back then. I was not convinced I could write a full and balanced story, and sketching its skeleton into an outline gave me confidence.

Nowadays, the outline - what there is of it - lives only in my mind. I might make a few pages of notes, but these are very free-form and unstructured, closer to the mad scrawlings of a fevered dreamer than an engineer's careful schematic. That's because I've found something even more addictive than the feeling of holding the reins of my story - and that's the feeling of letting go.
Somewhere between ordinary world and dream world lies this meta state that is a place of intuition, a conduit from the soul to the page, and being in that state is like standing in the violently swirling mist of a thunderous waterfall. You're of the process even if you aren't driving the process - and if that sounds a little organic-voo-doo-y, sorry, I plead guilty.
It's a mad rush, and I could no sooner exist in that state all the time as I could exist on whisky and black coffee, but it's exhilarating as all hell, and it has its place in story creation. It's the place of broad strokes, of first drafts, of shadows of characters whose details can be added later during the painstaking revision process.
I can't say I'll never write from an outline again. I know less and less about the process of writing as time goes on - or rather, it grows more mysterious to me, the more I attempt to learn. But for now, winging it suits me just fine.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Process serving

Outline or wing it? Both.

There. Done. My shortest blog post ever.

More details? It won’t be pretty.

Don’t tell my editor, but I write the first 50 pages blind. I have no idea who the characters are or what they will do. Because I write historical fiction, I know when and where they’ll be, and have researched the era and place for hours and hours and hours and…you get the picture. I have some ideas of cool or truly awful historical events and facts I want to look at, but that’s all.
After I finish those 50 pages I read them to see if they might actually be part of a novel. If not, I pitch them and write another 50 pages. If so, I start to outline. I outline the whole book, beginning to end.

Then I write another 50 pages. At the end of those I discover that my outline is wrong. The outline is wrong both going forward (i.e., things I haven’t written yet) and going backward (i.e., things I have written that weren’t in the original outline). More outlining. I write another 50 pages and…you get the idea.

Looking at it put down here, it seems totally crazy, but it is my process. After having sat through many classes on “the writing process” I’ve discovered only one truth: Your process is your own. Figure out what your process is and honor it. If you think outlining sucks all the fun out of writing, don’t make yourself do it. If the thought of embarking on a year long journey of novel writing without any damn idea of what you’re doing gives you hives, by all means write an outline. Neither approach is wrong, despite what you may hear.

When I’m all done I match up the outline to the actual book I wrote so I can keep track of what happens in the book. Rewriting starts. I rewrite tons as I’m one of those weird writers who writes too little and always has to add new scenes (as opposed to the writers who write too much and have to delete scenes).

There it is: the good, the bad, and the ugly. My process.

What’s yours?

Friday, July 24, 2009

When Art Imitates Life Too Closely . . .

National Geographic photo

By Shane Gericke

Fiction is never too dark for me.

Life, sometimes, is.

I mention this because a good friend just died for bad reasons, and it hurts.

His name is Mark. His wife--it's too difficult right now to say "widow"--is Bev. They were high-powered educators till a couple years ago, when they retired. They had life licked. Their pensions were strong. The assets were many. Their health insurance was covered. Their love was strong. Their disposition was like the sun coming up in the morning . . . so many things they were going to do with all their freedom from the brutal work schedule. So many travel plans, so much time to spend with loved ones.

Then, he got what all the doctors thought was Parkinson's Disease.

A crummy way to go, Parkinson's. It shuts down your body little by little till there's no "me" left. But it’s a slow mover compared to many, a turtle crossing the Plains, so it can take decades to get to the bitter end. Victims have time to adjust. Do the things they want without too much adjusting, particular in the early stages. Mark was doing well with the various therapies, and the doctors were optimistic. He worked his butt off and fully intended to live his--their--life. So they figured they had plenty of time.

Turns out they didn’t.

Several weeks ago, Mark fell apart. Violent shaking. Brutal loss of hearing. Blurred vision. Wild, deep hallucinations. Swallowing so completely shut down he had a feeding tube installed. He could hardly talk. He could barely walk. He couldn't do anything physical without close supervision.

Friday night, he began vomiting like a sewage pump.

Saturday morning, he died.

Now the doctors believe it wasn't Parkinson's after all. They think it was a variant of mad cow disease-- the kind that lurks within some people's genes, and when triggered, hits them like a Mack truck.

A Mack truck driven by a infected serial killer.

It's called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. It twists the proteins in your brain into cruel little scythes that cut holes in adjoining cells. Every hole wreaks havoc somewhere in your body. Too much wreak-age and you die. There is no cure. There is no hope. Once you have it . . .


So Mark is dead and Bev is alive and she profoundly wishes she wasn't but she'll come back little by little with her remaining loved ones' help and it won't be easy but someday she'll just . . . be.

And so will we.

So no, dark doesn't matter to me in fiction. As long as it makes sense, bring it on, the darker the better.

But in life, dark stinks.

Every damn bit of it.

(For more on CJD: )

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Only the Darkest Shades of Gray

By Sophie

How dark is too dark for you?

I used to think I didn't have an outer limit for dark. I mainline bleak like other people put away Ben 'n Jerry's or fresh air or right-wing talk radio - which is to say hungrily, immoderately, addictively.

I don't merely appreciate flawed characters, I crave them.

Part of my problem is that I'm a natural-born envelope-pusher. A rebel, a contrarian. I don't like being told what to do. Everyone knows, for instance, that good needs to prevail over evil; that altruistic impulses ought to be rewarded; that everything happens for a reason.

Only, what if it doesn't?

I mean, isn't it kind of interesting to set aside what we know about fictional humans, and reach into the grab-bag of our observation and imagination and work with whatever deeply flawed character we pull out? Do so and you get to work with questions like these:

  • Think of the most horrific crime you can imagine - is there ever a circumstance where it's justified?
  • Could you love a child who lacks a conscience?
  • Is there a man or woman alive who cannot be tempted to abandon everything s/he holds dear?
  • Is addiction a curse from the gods, or a necessary expression of a particular corner of the human soul?
  • Is true forgiveness possible?
  • Is it possible to determine the exact moment when a tortured soul crosses over into irredeemable? How close can you drive your narrative to that cliff's edge without going over?
  • How profoundly can you taint romantic love before you turn it into something else entirely?

Yikes, I tossed those off in mere moments. And I could keep going and going. Oh be still, my heart - I'm getting all excited just thinking about all of these possibilities...horror and perversity and violence get my blood pounding.

I am absolutely aware that a great many readers - a majority, in fact - prefer lighter reading. They want their heroes to be good and their villains to be bad, their justice served cold and their love stories to be firmly in the happy-ever-after camp.

But my own restless mind wanders when I try to write in that territory. A dear friend frequently insists that fiction ought to be pure entertainment. I don't disagree,'s just that I find the darkness way more entertaining than the alternative.

As it turns out, even I have my limits. A friend recently introduced me to a work that I wish I'd never seen, proving that I do have a bit of marshmallow left on the inside. Frankly I'm glad to know that's the case - I'd like to hang onto the possibility I might go soft someday.

Incidentally, I like other stuff too. Sometimes you're just not in the mood for soul-gouging, you know? I own books that make me laugh and romances that make me dab at my eyes with a hanky, and I'm quite fond of them. I own a Bible and, until recently, about two hundred books about quilting. I own cookbooks and trail books and guidebooks, and they all have their place.

But when I'm in the mood for dark, please don't drop me off in the suburbs - drive me straight to the seething heart of it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

It Matters

From Becky, on the road ...

Sorry for the brevity. Am thumbing this in on my iPhone on my way to my book party at The Web in Manhattan tonight (Monday)at 7:30. It's "check your pants at the bar for a free drink night." Not like a traditional bookstore event, as there will be gratuitous nudity!

I can deal with gratuitous nudity, but not gratuitous violence. If I feel like the people are just fodder for the plot or humor, then I'm done with the book. Death matters. All the time. Fictitious or otherwise.

Thinking otherwise is too dark for me.

Back next week with more to say. Promise.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mother Nature, Murderer

By Shane Gericke

The death came from thin air.

It was almost mine.

Emphasis, almost. The lightning bolt hit all of us. Me, not quite hard enough to kill. Him, though . . .


I still think about the impossibly young man who saved our even younger lives.

But I can't remember his name.

So Him, it is.

I was 14. I was at Rainbow Council Boy Scout camp outside Chicago, on acres far enough from civilization that Scouting could afford a few hundred of them to put up a summer camp. A group of us kids was there one early summer weekend, practicing for an upcoming backpack through the mountains of New Mexico.

We'd been working doggedly, hiking hills and trekking woods. It was hot, and we were tired and sweaty. So at the end of the afternoon, the young man who ran the waterfront--supervising swimming, canoeing, rowing, lifesaving, all that--said, "Hey, why don't you guys jump in. I'll keep an eye on you." Being 14, we said, "Cool," and jumped in. He was an adult, but only relative to us--he was 21.

So we're swimming in the river, and he's climbing into the guard shack, an elevated platform made of stout wood, with a metal roof to keep off the rain. It's a clear blue sky, not a cloud around. Hotter than hell, but delightful in the water, which, being part of a reclaimed strip mine, was brownish with the occasional green bloom. Didn't matter. We're having a great time. He's listening to music on a small radio. Probably WLS, the rock giant in Chicago back then.

All of a sudden he blows his whistle. Being kids, we start griping and moaning.

He jerks his thumb.

"Out," said he.

"Why?" said we.

"Heard a little crackle," said he. "On the radio."

"We don't see anything," said we.

"It's time to go," insisted he.

So we left the water and started walking up the riverbank. Me and my best friend Terry were twenty, thirty yards from the shack. A handful of our buddies were at the base. "Him" had shut off the radio and was preparing to come down the ladder . . .

A single bolt of lightning slashed from the Wedgewood sky.

Hit the shack.

Flashed over.

Punched us all to the dirt.

I hit with my knees. Then my face.


Terry and I got up first. It didn't seem like we'd been knocked out, but we must have been, given what came next. We ran to the shack. Our friends at the base were groggy and rolling, but alive.

Him was still in the shack.

On the floor.


We scrambled up the ladder.

Him was green.

I'd always thought death was blue.

"Uh?" said my look to Terry.

"I think yeah," said his look back.

We immediately started working on him. Heart compressions. Breathing. Screaming silent messages to wake up goddammit you'll miss supper if you don't.

Nothing worked.

The older kids at the base finally got up, came up the ladder, took over.

As they thumped and breathed, I ran back to the camp and told the real adults, who called in the alarm to the local volunteers. They gave me a resuscitator tank and I ran it back to the shack.

It didn't work. This was pre-camp, and things were being fixed and replaced for the season. Things like air tanks of resuscitators.

I ran back to the office. They gave me a bulb resuscitator that you squeeze to shoot air into lungs. I ran it back.

It didn't work either. Dry rot.

By this time the sky was blackening and the wind was whipping. Rain was coming down in buckets. Fire hoses. Name your cliche. Water was rising, roads were flooding out.

Ambulance delayed.

Ambulance delayed.

Ambulance delayed.

We kept working on Him.

The camp nurse, a pretty young woman who was really nice to us kids, came up the ladder and started working on Him. One of the adult camp directors followed. We stood back and watched.

The wind whipped this way and that.

Flipped her white nurse's dress up to her shoulders, exposing her nylons, which were tan, and her panties, which were purple or red or some other exotic color.

A man was dead. His face was green. A storm was pounding. Lightning was shooting. Lives were in danger. We were 14.

We stared at the pretty lady's panties.

The adult caught it. Blinked as if to say, "Boys." Pulled down her dress with one hand and worked on Him with the other.

Ambulance delayed.

Ambulance delayed.

Ambulance delayed.

But Him was dead, so it didn't really matter.

Finally the ambulance arrived. One of those old Cadillac models, staffed by a couple of guys whose body language seemed to say, We got in, might not get out.

Turns out they were right. They couldn't get out, and neither could we.

Everyone to the dining hall, the highest point on the property.

We slept the night--well, laid there wide awake but pretending, anyway--on dining room tables as the storm writhed and danced. Him was stored gently in the walk-in cooler in the kitchen next door. Maybe the ambulance guys snuck Him out later when the storm tailed off. It's thirty seven years now and I don't remember.

Before we went to "sleep," the adult leaders explained what happened, even though we'd all been there. They were very choked up. One was crying, just a little, but not too much, so not to scare us. Back then, adults really did have stiff upper lips. They said he was a great kid, and he saved all our lives.

They were right. He was a kid. Just like us. And he saved our lives.

That's when I knew I'd be a writer some day. In second grade I'd already decided that's what I wanted to be. But this is what proved it. I knew someday I would write about a death.

Of a hero.

In a small town.

In the middle of nowhere.

Who I'll always remember as Him.

And thank for saving my life.

And giving me the chance to write these words for you today.


I was at ThrillerFest all last week. For those of you who haven't been, Tfest is the annual gathering of 600-plus thriller writers, readers, editors, publishers and other industry folk at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, under the auspices of International Thriller Writers Inc. It was a blast. I got to hang out with some of the best people in the world, among them our very own Criminal Minders Sophie, CJ, Rebecca and Kelli, and drink any number of glasses of J. Walker's finest Black Label. Had lunch one-on-one with two of my favorite writers, Lee Child and Joseph Finder . Traded writing tips with Robert Dugoni, who's working on some deliciously cool books right now. Even got to hang out at a karioke bar in the Village one night with a few writers and readers, staying till nearly three a.m. I murdered "Ring of Fire," but since Johnny Cash sings worse than I do, I felt like Sinatra. Tfest will be there again next July, and I highly recommend you attend if you like thrillers and their authors. Maybe we can do Drinks with the Criminal Minders for our fans! More at

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I Was a Priest's Love Toy

By Sophie

Anything criminal about your road to publication?

 My road to publication was dauntingly long. Like so many people I’ve been writing since I could compose a sentence, but when my first child was born (nearly seventeen years ago) I turned up the dial on my efforts as I cut back to part time work and later quit my job entirely to stay home with the kids.


As any stay-at-home parent will tell you, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a spare moment when you’re raising kids. Still, I did find an odd moment here and there, and while the kids were toddlers I managed to write and sell a number of magazine articles and short stories.

I wrote two kinds of short stories in those days. There were the ones that The Atlantic and New Yorker and Granta and Ploughshares and Missouri Review rejected…and there were the ones that True Confessions and True Love and True Romance accepted with alacrity. Not to brag, but I sold every one of the two dozen or so confessions I wrote back then. Some of my favorite titles:

I Was a Priest’s Love Toy

Our Hair Is Gray, But Our Love Is Red Hot

I Slept With My Husband’s Best Friend To Save My Marriage

 I also, over the course of the next decade or so, wrote eight novels. I have been a member of the immensely supportive Romance Writers of America for fourteen years, and they were instrumental in helping me work on my craft during those early books.

Some were awful. Some had cute hooks, but the writing suffered. Later, I improved my writing skills, but forgot to include a hook. I have rejection letters to prove I made every writing mistake that can be made. You know how Goldilocks goes through all those bowls of porridge, and none of them is quite right? That’s how it was with my later efforts – at least that’s the impression you’d get from my rejection letters.

 By the time I was getting those “almost-there” letters (you know the ones – “I found your work fresh and compelling. Unfortunately…”) a curious thing happened. I think I might have had a stroke, or maybe I was bit by an exotic spider or struck by lightning when I wasn’t looking. Whatever the cause, my brain chemistry was fundamentally altered: my caution and reason lobes atrophied to nothing while my medulla kick-ass-imus replicated out of control. Or perhaps it was just that my kids – then twelve and fourteen – suddenly decided that their mother was a drag and that any activity at all was preferable to spending time at home.

I had time. I had determination. I wrote like hell.

The rest is just a fast-and-furious version of the cycle most published authors experience: write submit reject revise submit.

Now it's blood-deep, however. Guess what I did last week, in between sessions at Thrillerfest in New York?  I wrote my ass off.  Guess what I'm going to do today, in between sessions at RWA in DC? Write my ass off.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Crimes of the past

Not having an actual criminal past that I am willing to admit to on the Internet, I decided to talk about the crimes that started me down the road to publication.

When I was on Spring Break near Munich, I skipped out on Oktoberfest and went to Dachau. Wind moaned through the open wooden barracks. I shivered in my 1980s fashionable black leather ankle boots, transfixed by pictures of some of the greatest crimes against humanity ever perpetrated. One wall held a row of colored triangles: yellow, red, green, blue, purple, pink, brown and black. Above, thick black letters spelled out the categories: Jewish, political prisoner, habitual criminals, emigrant, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, gypsies and asocials (a catchall for murderers, thieves, and those who violated the laws prohibiting Aryans from having intercourse with Jews).

Even though I was just a teenager, I’d read enough to know what the Nazis did to the Jews, the Communists, and the gypsies. But I’d had no idea they’d imprisoned people for being gay.

I stuffed my hands deep into the pockets of my too light coat (with rolled up sleeves and the collar up in the back, because it was 1985) and thought about my host brother. He was the same age as me and we often went clubbing in Berlin until the wee small hours of the morning. The subways stopped running around midnight, and if you missed that last one, you were out until five. My brother had perfectly style 80s blonde hair, an extravagant fashion sense, and he was gay into the marrow of his bones. Forty years before he would have gone to the camps for it.

All the way back home I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s been twenty five years and I’m still thinking about it. I wrote my senior history thesis on it, where I discovered that when the Americans freed the camps we sent the pink triangles straight to prison. Because it was still against the law.
Hard to find a bigger crime than the Holocaust, and that’s where my road to publication led me.

* * *

Fun fact for the week: My next book opens with a zeppelin-jacking, so I got to do a lot of research on zeppelins. I’m willing to bet that in terms of miles traveled, zeppelins were far safer than the airplanes of the day. Anyone know where I could track down that statistic?

Images from:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Lucca Brazzi Sleeps With the Fishes

By Shane Gericke

"Leave the gun, take the cannoli."
"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse."
"It's not personal, it's business."
"They shot Sonny on the causeway."
"Lucca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes."
And the headless horse in the bed.

It's The Godfather, and it's my all-time favorite crime movie.

Unlike most crime movies of the era, where the criminals were vicious, heartless, flat, and completely without depth, the Corleone family had a deep soul and a big heart. You couldn't help but like and sympathize with them, even as they committed crimes most brutal. With career performances from Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James, Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, and direction by Francis Ford Coppola, everything in this 1972 movie, from the dialogue to the symbolism to the lush photography and incredible score, worked perfectly.

It was based on a 1969 novel by Mario Puzo. I've read the book a few times and seen the movie a bunch. My wife Jerrle is a Godfather fanatic, having seen it twenty or thirty times, starting when she was a teenager and continuing today. We both believe the book enhances the movie and vice-versa, which isn't always the case with novel-to-movie translations.

Plus, it has all those quotable lines!

Other crime-iny I adore:

--The Godfather II. The only movie sequel that's ever matched the brilliance of the original, it continues the story of the Corleone family, and tells you why and how Vito Corleone became Don Corleone. Al Pacino is Michael Corleone, Vito's dad, and the new godfather of the family. Godfather III isn't worth discussing. It wasn't awful, just so far below the standards set by I and II that I won't watch it any more.

--Goodfellas. People called it a modern Godfather (God was set in the 1940s and 50s). I disagree--they resemble one another as much as rain resembles weeds. But each is brilliant in its own way. God was a romantic movie at heart. Goodfellas was a hard look at modern gangsters, and just how damn unromantic, and incredibly dumb, they could be. Remember when the babysitter/narcotics runner wouldn't fly without her lucky hat? Dumb brilliance! This movie was a dark comedy as well as a drama. It starred Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, and Joe Pesci, all of whom acted their hearts out, and was based very loosely on a true story about the Spilloto brothers of the Chicago Mob.

--Casino. Another modern mob movie, this one set in Las Vegas and starring Robert DeNiro and Sharon Stone. (And Pesci.) As with the others, the casting, writing, and production values were first-rate.

--Scarface. Al Pacino in his most wonderfully over-the-top role ever as a Cuban drug lord come to America to ply his trade. Chainsaws, cocaine, machine guns, romance, incredible violence. What's not to like?

--Bob LeFlambeau. To leaven Scarface, I present this gentler, but no less effective, offering. This movie is (a) French, and (b) much earlier than the period we're discussing, since it came out in 1955. But it was a sterling crime caper, all in French with subtitles, and I enjoyed it immensely for its look a a casino heist in postwar France. It's kind of a transition from classis noir to modern heist films, with a lot of character development. Plus, big cars, bleak French landscapes, and black-and-white photography. Another French movie of that era I enjoyed was Alphaville.

There are more, but I'll leave them for you to tell me about!


--I'm a little short of SHANE-O's this week, cause I'm at ThrillerFest in New York. (I'm deputy director, so it's a working trip, meaning no time to log on to the ol' computer and write y'all.) But I did finish James Rollins' thriller AMAZONIA, and it met every expectation I had hoped when I started it in last week's SHANE-O. Tremendous tale with sparkling writing, set in the lush Amazon with a really ruthless bad guy ... and a naked witch who enjoys killing people and shrinking their heads to wear as necklaces. Who can beat that? Two thumbs up fer sure.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I Heart Max Cady...

By Sophie

Favorite crime movie of the past thirty years?

Oh, how I love Cape Fear – the remake, not the 1962 original. (Yeah, everyone tells me the original is better. Know what? I’m not going to find out. I love the 1991 version and I don’t want to dilute my experience of it.)

As you might guess if you’ve been reading my posts, I like to experience things in an undiluted fashion. It’s not that I can’t appreciate subtlety – oh wait, maybe it is, actually.

Cape Fear is undiluted from go. Whatever the mood of the scene - smoldering, giddy, furious, resentful, ripe (and that's just in the first few minutes) - that mood is so big that it takes up every corner of the room.

This movie contains the single creepiest scene I’ve ever seen – when the terrifying psycho played by Robert DeNiro confronts an unsuspecting fourteen-year-old Danielle (played by Juliette Lewis) into the empty high school band room and engages her in a twisted seduction. The contrast of all that concentrated evil and Danielle’s pre-erotic innocence is absolutely chilling – and get this: that scene was totally ad-libbed by De Niro and Lewis, and done on the first take.

But even without that scene, this movie’s off-the-charts terrifying:

1. There’s that score. Evidently it borrows heavily from the original. Hell, if I had that to work with, I'd borrow heavily too. Those few aggressive french-horn-note (I think it's horns anyway) bars lay it out plain - trouble ahead.

2. Robert DeNiro…enough said, almost, except even I had forgotten how he prepared his body for that role...the hard-guy muscles that have nothing in common with pretty-boy posturing. He also did his own research...did he get into the role? Well, he's the one who suggested the biting scene, so I guess he did.

 3. Jessica Lange doing her soft angsty southern chick thing…she perfectly captures a mature woman's rage sublimated under layers of frustrated ennui.

4. Really creative harassment techniques. The things DeNiro does to his targets are truly remarkable.

5. Dialog: raw. Unapologetic, even when it's heavy-handed.

Best part of the movie: DeNiro laughing and then speaking in tongues and then drowning - how can you argue that this isn't his finest role?

Worst part: Nolte. Can't stand that guy. Actor? Uh, if you say so.

Shameless cheating

I’ll repeat the question here: What is my favorite crime movie of the past thirty years?

By my count, fellow panelists, that means any movie made since 1979. Unfortunately this leaves out a big pile of my favorite movies, including The Third Man (1949) with an earnest Joseph Cotten and a mysterious Orson Welles. Poor Holly Martins searches through post-war Vienna for his friend’s murderer and discovers that gunslingers are hopelessly outclassed when pitted against black marketeers and the British military. And don’t get me started on the love story.

What about M (1931)? It’s the movie that launched Peter Lorre’s career and also doomed him to playing oily, creepy villains. The views of 1931 Berlin are wonderful, the acting eerie, and it’s a great use of sound. You know who the serial killer is, the suspense lies in watching him get caught by other criminals.

By now it’s obvious that not only am I cheating by mentioning earlier films, I’m going to keep on cheating by having multiple favorites.

So, for modern crime movies, my first favorite is Gloomy Sunday (1999). It’s set in Budapest in the 1930s (hey, there were no rules about when the movies were set, just when they were filmed). It starts with a death in the 1960s, then travels back in time to show a pre-war Budapest where a lovely waitress named Ilona is courted by a compassionate innkeeper, a passionate musician, and a German invader. Lives are saved. Lives are taken. By the end of the film, I was rooting for the murderer.

Gloomy Sunday has a gorgeous sound track. The movie is named after a song called “Gloomy Sunday” that supposedly was so sad that it triggered suicides every time it was played. The cinematography is splendid. The characters are complex and so, well, 1930s European.

My second favorite crime film is Brick (2005). A high school student investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, a quest that takes him into a dangerous high school criminal ring. It’s not just the complex plot and the great acting that made me pick this film. It’s the use of language.

Any time you get a movie that successfully tries to re-invent English, I’m there. How can you not love a modern movie where teenagers spout lines like: “But I bet you got every rat in town together and said 'show your hands' if any of them've actually seen the Pin, you'd get a crowd of full pockets” or “You've helped this office out before” with the response being “No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.” Love it, love it, love it.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Hydra-Headed Writer

This is a genuine shrunken head, from the Jivaro Indians of the Amazon jungle. No, it's not a gratuitous photo to fill space so Shane doesn't have to write as much. It's germane to our story. Details below in Shane-O-Grams.
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Question of the week: Do you think like the villain, or the hero?


I'm a serial killer, sawing out the heart of a kidnapped cop.

I'm the kidnapped state trooper, screaming on a table as the whirling Skil-pendulum swings closer.

I'm the rookie detective who squeezes the life out of the saw-killer in the last paragraph of the last page.

I'm the detective's steelworker dad, dishing life advice. I'm the detective's lawyer mom, brushing her chestnut hair. I'm the detective's best friend, a doll-size blonde who's also an Army sniper and police SWAT commander. I'm the best friend's nine-year-old daughter, kidnapped by a drug lord to sell into sexual slavery. I'm the cop who rescues her, even as he betrays the girl's family to save his own daughter from death.

And I'm the kid who delivers the pizzas. Extra cheese, no anchovies.

So, do I think like the villian, or the hero?

The only good answer is, Yes.

I write in third person. (Or, to use the technical publishing term, third person close attachment w/side of pasta.) It's the only way to keep track of the multiple characters and locations that populate--some might say infest--my thrillers. But my characters use all their senses. They don't just see something; they feel, hear, smell, taste and touch it. They rage and love. Hate and cry. Kill and rescue. In other words, they act three-dimensionally, just like we do.

To accurately translate that for a reader, I have to make those feelings my own. So I attach myself like a 240-pound leech and see the world as they do. I smell their air, hear their music, taste the person they're kissing, feel their black rage vomit out. When I'm done, I can write the scene, not with the authority of the Writer, but of the character. Which is the whole point of writing fiction--to make you believe those figments of our imaginations are real, flesh and blood that could walk through your front door at any given moment, chuckling.

Method writing, if you will.

Some of what I find in my "explorations" is repulsive--what but a monster could saw out another human being's beating heart? Some is ennobling--who but the bravest could put her life on the line to take out a madman, instead of cowering behind an army of blue uniforms with guns and pepper spray and armored vehicles?

Everything I find is utterly fascinating.

I also think that's why I put more than a dozen characters in my books. Having only a protagonist, an antagonist, and maybe the goofy brother-in-law for comic relief wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

Before I became a thriller writer, I spent 25 years in the newspaper business. I loved it. The reason? I ran into new characters every day. Some were big--Muhammed Ali, President Carter. Others were small--coworkers, bosses, panhandlers, PR people. All were interesting. I had the chance to size them up, feel what they felt, see what they saw, and then transfer their essences to words. In what other business but Riter Guy could I interview Liberace (in person) and Louise Mandrell (by cell, on a tour bus) on the same day, and tell stories about their habitation of entirely different universes?

Now, I get to do it for my own characters.

What a rush.

Which do I have more fun writing? Bad guys, of course. They get to do things most sane people would never, ever dream of, but in our secret hearts, have thought about more than once. Like driving fast without getting tickets.

And, uh, other stuff.


I started a thriller last night that's so compelling I stayed up way past bedtime to finish a few more chapters. It's from James Rollins, and it's called AMAZONIA. Basically, the good guys trek the Amazon jungle to find a wonder drug that could save humanity, facing horrible risks from animals, insects, indigeneous tribes, bad guys trying to steal the drug, and a woman who chops off the good guys' heads and shrinks them for fun. (See, the photo at the top was germaine.) Rollins is a wonderfully evocative writer, with a knack for making the science stuff thrilling. I can't wait to see how this turns out.

Before I leave this topic, here's a few words on head-shrinking. In a nutshell, the headhunter lops off the victim's head, peels away the skin as you would a chicken quarter, tosses the skull and insides into the garbage, boils the skin and hair to preserve it (also making it dark brown), and fills the empty cavity with hot rocks and sand. The heating process makes the skin shrink like jeans too long in the dryer. The headhunter shapes everything as he or she goes, and in a week or so of heating and shaping and shrinking, a tiny little head emerges. I think of it as leather crafts for whack jobs.

Here's a great line I wish I'd written: "The thought of the Nixon gang in the White House still infuses me with a pure and undiluted hatred and makes me consider throwing up things that I don't even remember having eaten." From Christopher Hitchens in

I'm going to ThrillerFest! Hope you are, too. It starts Wednesday morning at the Hyatt Grand Hotel in Manhattan, and runs till the bitter end of Saturday night. I'm deputy director, so I'll be gadding about, helping out. If you see me in the halls, please say hello. I'd love to meet you. If we've already met, we'll renew our friendship. If you've never been to ThrillerFest, think about attending in 2010. It's a great party for readers of the high-energy books all 7 of us Criminal Minds like to write. More at

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Mirror Universe

There's a classic episode of Star Trek (original series, natch--the episode is called "Mirror, Mirror") in which Kirk, Spock, and the Federation are, well, villains ... brutal, sadistic, murdering thugs. (Well, maybe not the Mirror-Spock--his was a logic-based villainy, of course).

So what does this have to do with the CM Question of the Week?

Putting aside the fact that Star Trek is central to most life lessons, "Mirror, Mirror" was one of my earlier indoctrinations in the idea that certain "heroic" behaviors--or at least, characteristics that are associated with leadership--are just as likely to be used in nasty ways. Sometimes more so, in fact.

Take, for example, Becky's Tuesday mention of Ernst Rohm. A courageous and brave soldier and successful leader of men ... and a Nazi.

Strong man or bully? Patriot or traitor? Savior or terrorist? Just a few of the questions that can surround the actions of real people and fictional characters, questions whose answers depend on the POV and ethical and moral fulcrum of the narrator. The fact that successful criminals of all stripes can possess traits that are usually considered admirable--strength, loyalty, determination, tenacity, honor--makes the process even murkier.

Fortunately, I'm a double Gemini, which--if you believe astrology--makes it easier for me to get in the heads of different personalities, even those who commit actions that are personally, morally and ethically abhorrent. Writing to me is like acting--and sometimes I play people I wouldn't ride a bus with.

My goal is always to treat characters as people, as human beings. Not as labels, not as plot mechanisms.

I believe most human beings nurse a pushing place. A point of no return, when behavior and personality guidelines snap and moral boundaries fall away and definitions of good and bad don't matter. Under those circumstances, "heroes" can become "villains", and vice versa.

Consider the femme fatale. Noir in general has been and still is a boy's game, a chest-thumping exercise of broken machismo, where a man's weakness is inevitably great sex with a beautiful woman. Think Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers ... think Samson and Delilah. The beautiful woman who recognizes her allure and uses it to get what she wants ... eternal temptress, eternal genre villain.

Uh ... no. I don't think I've ever met a woman--of any generation--who hasn't had the experience of feeling like prey. Who hasn't been hit on, messed with, harrassed. Who hasn't had the consciousness of her own sexuality forced on her from at least the time she hit puberty.

So I decided to write a different kind of noir. A noir that deals with a beautiful woman who recognizes her allure and uses it to get what she wants ... and instead of the femme fatale villain, she is the protagonist--the author--of her own story, her own life. Her own mythology.

That woman is Miranda Corbie. She's the protagonist of CITY OF DRAGONS. And that's one element of what shaped the novel.

Is she a hero? Is she a villain? She's Miranda. She's something in between ... a human being.

The only category I think like.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Put On the Damn Suit

By Sophie

Do I think like the villain or like the good guy? Easy – I’m thinking like whoever has the most to lose in every scene.

My point-of-view characters are usually my protagonists – the good guys – so I spend a lot of time in their heads because it’s their character arcs that figure most prominently in my books.

But a villain must be well-motivated or they’ll bore your readers, and so they must have three-dimensional arcs as well. Their screen time may well be far less, but they must seem real.

I’m wrapping up the third book in my Stella Hardesty mystery series, so at this point I’ve set Stella up against three major villains (and a variety of ne’er-do-wells).

Each time I’ve had to spend some thinking time exploring the thoughts I would think and the acts I would commit if I was that villain.

That’s an awkward sentence, but it’s also accurate. As a writer, you don’t “become” your character. You consider – in a hazy, free-associating kind of way – all the impressions and memories and facts you know about all the people and events that resulted in the composite who is your villain and then step into the suit that is the result. From that unique vantage point, you write what you (now) know.

I wrote a story a while back about a frustrated, indulged middle-aged executive whose misgivings and self-doubt goad him to violence. I have little in common with him, but I know this guy well; he’s a composite of people I’ve known or worked for or talked to at cocktail parties, and his frustration and insecurity aren’t so different from the garden-variety I’ve experienced plenty.

So when he picks up a Sur La Table meat pounder and contemplates using it to kill, I was, for the moments it took me to write that scene, in a mind-meld with the guy.

I like that character. He’s creepy and believable, but I was only able to write him that way when I put on the Suburban Malcontent suit. (Luckily, I took it off again when I was done writing or who knows what sort of havoc I might have wreaked.)