Friday, January 31, 2014

A Moveable Inspiration

Who do you count as your early-on writing inspirations when you were getting started. Has that changed over time? How? Why? 

by Paul D. Marks

My writing inspirations are all over the place. Initially, I aspired to be a latter-day Hemingway, sitting on the Left Bank, sipping absinthe, chatting with my literary buddies. I wanted to live the romantic, adventurous life that Hemingway describes in A Moveable Feast. Yes, I liked his clipped and concise writing style, and his philosophy of the clean, well-lighted place, as well as the eponymous story, but I also loved the idea of that writer's life and lifestyle – so his influence is, or was, as much about the writer's lifestyle as his writing style. But when I tried it, drinking and writing, I just wanted to play – got no work done. Along with Hemingway comes Fitzgerald. Stylistically different, the two just naturally fit together, at least in my mind. One of my favorites stories is still Hemingway's short story, Soldier's Home, which I read every year or two.

But my writing influences don't only come from books and authors. I've always loved movies, uh, films, since before I could walk. And a lot of my writing has been influenced by them. I saw anything and everything I could, especially on the big screen. And though there's been a lot of influence from the movies in my work, from Frank Capra and screwball comedies to Alfred Hitchcock's suspense tales, and more modern directors like Martin Scorsese and even John Dahl, the thing that's stuck with me the most is film noir. I think I'm addicted, intervention needed.
I'm also one of those people who, while everyone else is leaving the theatre, is standing there, craning my neck around them, to see the credits. I've always been interested in who wrote a movie and, if it was based on a book, who wrote that.

So from this jumping off point, I began reading James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and other writers whose works were turned into noir or mystery movies. One of my favorites is  David Goodis (right), whose novel Dark Passage, was made into a movie with Bogie and Bacall. Having watched and liked that movie, I began reading Goodis, starting with the book that that movie was based on. But my favorite Goodis is Down There, made into the movie Shoot the Piano Player by Francois Truffaut. I have to say, though, that I'm not a fan of the movie, but the original book is terrific if you like down and dirty noir stories. Goodis has been called the "poet of the losers" by Geoffrey O'Brien, and his stories deal with failed lives and people who are definitely on the skids. They're often people who weren't always in this position though and the interesting part is seeing how they deal with their downfall – not always so well.

Along with film noir, the early hardboiled writers (though there is some crossover) have influenced my mystery-noir sensibility: Chandler, Cain, Hammett, Dorothy B. Hughes, etc. Along with these writers comes John Fante, although I'm not sure Fante would fit either the noir or hardboiled categories. Nonetheless his thinly disguised autobiographical tales of a struggling writer's life in early 20th century L.A. made enough of an impression on me that I wrote to him shortly before he died.
Later on I was drawn to Ross MacDonald with his psychological insights and James Ellroy with his corrupt and sultry grittiness. But for me Chandler, with his elegant descriptions, metaphors, characters, depiction of the mean streets and his ville fatale relationship with Los Angeles, will always be on top, as high above everyone else in his field as the Beatles are in theirs. They are sui generis, in classes by themselves.

What draws me to these writers and the noir and mystery genre in books and films is that they're about the other side of the American Dream. There's an inner core of darkness and corruption in society, a feeling of fear and paranoia. There's a moral ambiguity in the writings of most of these writers and in these films. They are the equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting (another major influence on my writing) with its cold light and shadows, filled with a sense of alienation and angst.
In much of noir and some hardboiled writing (and there is often, though not always a difference between the two) there's no sense of redemption, but much betrayal. No good guys, just bad guys and worse guys. The hero is flawed. People's own flaws and weaknesses create their fallibility and ultimately lead to their downfall. I think this appeals to me in the sense that it's a realistic, though often pessimistic and cynical, view of society. And in my own writing, both in my novel White Heat and many of my short stories, the characters are flawed, the situations ambiguous.

And now to throw a monkey wrench into the works, my two favorite books of all time are not hardboiled or noir, but both have influenced me in many ways. They are The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham and The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas. The former because I relate to the character of Larry Darrell on a lot of levels, his disillusionment after the war (WWI), and his search for peace and meaning in life. And the latter because it's the ultimate revenge story and revenge is so satisfying, served cold or otherwise.

As to whether or not my inspirations have changed over time, the answer is not really. The old ones are still there, but new ones get added to the list all the time, everyone and everything from Walter Mosely, Carol O'Connell and Michael Connelly, to movies like Ghost World and Pulp Fiction.
And finally, the other early – and continuing – inspiration for my writing, as much as any writers or movies, is the City of Angels itself. I remember it well enough from when I was a kid that it still resembled Chandler's L.A. And later, my friend Linda and I would drive around the city, heading out in all directions, searching out the old buildings and the ghosts of old L.A.

L.A. is my own ville fatale. She is my mistress and a harsh mistress, indeed. But she is also my muse. But that's a whole 'nother story for the sequel.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The five books that made me a writer

I read a lot from the age of three or four when my big sisters taught me.  For instance, I read my entire introductory reading book walking home from school after the first day. But I read as a reader.  I didn't know there was a man behind the curtain and I didn't wonder about him. 

Then, when I was eighteen and in my first year at university, feeling completely out of my depth with Ben Johnson and W.H. Auden, I got a hold of a copy of Gone With The Wind and devoured it in one sitting, in my student flat, in my pyjamas, missing classes.  For some reason, it struck me for the first time that day that someone had sat at a desk and done this. Interesting.

We also studied Persuasion that year.   Which was okay.  So I bought and inhaled Pride And Prejudice.  Which was mind-blowing!  That taught me that I didn't want to study literature; I wanted bathe in it, dive into it and drown in it.  And - this was a very tentative dream - make my own.

So when, maybe six months later, I read Catch-22 I can remember laughing with exhilaration at finding out that you could do that in a novel.  Be that tricksy, play those games, have so much FUN!

The next year I switched to studying linguistics and also read John Irving's The Water-method Man which had all the fun and games of Heller, but real people, in a world I recognised (with real, baggy, messy, silly relationships), and was full of jokes about the kind of epic Norse poetry I was parsing in my history of language classes.  Another lesson: you can take what you've got and do whatever it pleases you to do with it.

So far, so slightly giddy, right?  I think what saved me from plunging, hysterical and unprepared, into pastiches of Irving and Heller was Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle.  It's another big, warm-hearted book that builds a whole world around its characters, but it's also about writing.  About learning the craft and finding your own voice.  And about the fact that sitting all alone in a room trying to write can be a trap-door to mental collapse.

So I learned one of its lessons, but managed to ignore the other.  I'm very glad of that.  I finished my linguistics degree and a PhD and even taught in a university for a few years, but writing is home. I'm so lucky that these five books were there pointing the way.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Writers Who Inspire Me

Two names came to mind as first responses to this week's question, and I’m going to start with them although I don’t think they’re what the questioner had in mind.

Mary Travers’s Mary Poppins (and no, I’ve never seen “Saving Mr. Banks” or the movie of  “Mary Poppins”), specifically the mystery of life itself in some scenes. The most breathtaking for me was the plotline about a baby language in which little ones can communicate clearly with non-humans, and the ineffable sadness when a baby grows out of it. To be able to create and hold me in the belief, to let me feel for myself the nuanced loss –  as a child, I felt great writing when I read it.

E.B. White, whose Stuart Little charmed the pants off me. He was such a strongly defined, heroic little guy, so dapper and so loyal to his family. And as a New York kid, his playground was my own. I loved him, he was real to me, the best kind of real – living full inside the covers of a book. I wanted to be able to create my own story like that.

Skipping a few decades, I gobbled up Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin novels and their very formulaic nature helped me understand how to build a puzzle. It’s both harder and simpler than it looks, but his snappy style and lead characters gave me the courage to try.

John D. MacDonald was an inspiration, not only for the long-running series, but because I won a San Francisco Examiner contest to finish a serialized story he wrote for syndication, which gave me courage. I also found myself pulled into the San Francisco chapter of Mystery Writers of America as a result and that was a huge incitement to do more than tinker with crime fiction.

I fooled around for a long time after that, concentrating on my day job and my personal life. But I did go to the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference one year near its beginning, and sat next to Sue Grafton at lunch. In that down home way she has, she told me to get down to it, not to sell myself short, to know every writer has horrible fears of failure but not to listen to those nasty voices in my head, and to let her know when my first book came out. As if I were a real writer.

It was at the same conference, I think, that Steven Saylor stood up and said he’d come to the conference a year before, had gotten so much help that he found a publisher, and he was now in print, or about to be. The details are hazy, the inspiration memorable!

Dorothy Parker’s ability to stand outside of the crowd and see it for all its foolishness has always made me laugh, as has her wry, self-directed humor. And my favorite writer on the follies of human nature and the pretensions of human society is clear-eyed, witty Jane Austen. I could not write without the example of Austen to inspire me.


Friday, January 17, 2014

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?

Have you ever killed off a character you loved?

by Paul D. Marks

Before I respond to this week's question, I'd like to thank Sue Ann Jaffarian for recommending me to 7 Criminal Minds and I'd like to thank all the Criminal Minds for having me.

Let me introduce myself. I'm Paul D. Marks. My novel White Heat won a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America a few months ago for Best Indie PI Novel. And I've had thirty-plus short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, including some award winners. I write in a variety of styles, everything from noir and straight mystery to satire and even some mainstream fiction. And yes, it is true, I pulled a gun on two LAPD officers and I lived to tell about it. But I'm a lot more mellow these days... You can read more about it on my website (

Paul D. Marks, MGM Backlot #2, European Street
In a previous life I was a "script doctor". But there's little glory in that and less screen credit. So both to be able to show my parents what I do and for my own ego, I started writing stories and novels. I also have the distinction, dubious though it might be, of having been the last person to film on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for condos. According to Steven Bingen, one of the authors of the recent, well-received book MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot: “That 40 page chronological list I mentioned of films shot at the studio ends with his [Paul D. Marks’] name on it."   

Okay, have I ever killed off a character I loved?

Well, I've certainly wanted to kill off a lot of 'characters' I've come across in my life, but we're talking fiction here. The answer is yes, several times. Killing off a character that you like is never easy. We all love killing the bad guys, seeing them get their just desserts. But when you kill off a sympathetic character, a character that you and your readers like and, who is a good guy and good friend to your protagonist, well, that's another story. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do for the sake of the plot and the story and a dash of realism.

  Sleepy Lagoon sheet music d1
Gaby, a character in my short story Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, set around the time of the Zoot Suit Riots during World War II, is missing. He's a friend of Bobby's, the story's main character. And someone who knows Bobby's deepest secrets. But knowing them, he is sympathetic to Bobby and a friend to him. So when he goes missing, Bobby wants to find out what happened. And it isn't pretty. And though Gaby meets an untimely end, I liked the character. So when I wrote The Blues Don't Care, a novel that "stars" Bobby in the main role, I resurrected Gaby to return in that story, which is set previous to the time of Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne. So, sometimes through the magic of fiction you can bring back a character that you like. (This novel is not yet available.)

My short story Free Fall starts off with the main character, Rick, free falling to his death from a high-rise apartment in L.A. So I'm not really giving anything away here. This was an interesting experiment for me as both the writer and reader know the main character, the narrator of the story, is dead from the beginning. As the ground comes screaming towards him and in those few seconds before hitting, we get his story. Having started this story off knowing my main character was going to die, I didn’t have time to become too attached to him, at least initially. But, as I wrote his backstory, I started to like him and empathize with him and I think that gave the story a little more depth and interest as we realize all the events that led up to him taking this ultimate final step.

Spoiler Alert -- Don't read this graph if you're planning to read White Heat: Probably the most heartrending death of a character both for whiteheat_pauldmarks me and my readers was the death of a dog in this novel. It's ironic because just a month or two before I got this question I read something that said you never kill a dog in a cozy. Well, this book is about as far from a cozy as you can get. Still, it was hard on my audience and I got a lot of feedback on that. Some people couldn't even read those parts. And it was hard for me to kill him off. But it did make people hate the bad guy even more -- after all, who kills a dog? I don't like the idea of hurting a dog anymore than anyone else. But you do what works for the plot. And in this case I thought it would jolt the reader into connecting with the characters in a more real way. Suddenly the bad guy is really evil and the hero more sympathetic. Is that manipulative -- maybe. But isn't all writing? Still, it hurt to write those scenes and you just feel it all well up inside you as you write. It was also hard on me because the real-life dog that the dog-character was based on was a dog I'd had as a kid. Luckily that rascally dog lived to a ripe old age. End of Spoiler.

Killing off the characters in the three cases that I mention above worked for each particular story. And you do what you have to do to make the story work. But that doesn't mean you don't regret it sometimes. In one particular screenplay of mine, that was optioned over and over but never produced, I kill off the main character's sidekick buddy. But I really liked that character and since it hasn't been produced, well, maybe it's not too late to save his ass.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The only body that counts

Have I ever killed off a character I care about?  Let me see.  In publication date order in the DANDY GILVER books: one, two, mmmm - yes three, oh god four, a strong yes on five, six and a bonus seven, eight, but actually the corpse in book nine doesn't bother me that much.

I've been thinking a lot about cozies lately for an article I'm writing and apparently in cozies the victim is supposed to be someone who's got it coming.  (A point of view of justice that doesn't seem all that cosy to me, I must say.)

So I'm one-ninth of a cozy writer.  But that's all about to change.  Because an unbreakable rule of cozies, I learn, is that you can't harm children or animals.  Fictional ones, I mean.

And that leads me on to my clearest piece of writing advice.  (Imagine me gripping your arm with my claw-like hand and whispering this urgently into your ear.  At a wedding, say.)  If your series is going to progress in real time, a book a year, do not give your sleuth a dog.

Bunty the Dalmatian was six in 1922 in AFTER THE ARMISITCE BALL.

but it's 1931 in the book I'm writing now and it's time for some tough decisions.  In the last one, THE REEK OF RED HERRING (not out yet), she had a step stool to climb up and sleep on Dandy's bed and during the case she stayed inside whenever it was raining - in Aberdeenshire, in December; she was inside a lot.

The thing I can't settle is whether to let her die quietly between books and bring on a puppy in her place or - shark-jumpingly - to let her go out in a blaze of glory, saving Dandy's life.  Any thoughts, dog lovers of the crime-reading world?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Time to Mourn

Terry Shames, author of A Killing at Cotton Hill and (just out) The Last Death of Jack Harbin, is my guest today. Her books are set in small-town Texas and feature ex-chief of police Samuel Craddock. Terry lives in Berkeley, CA and is Vice President of Norcal Sisters in Crime and on the board of MWA Norcal.

I’m happy to have a chance to do a guest blog for Criminal Minds for author Susan Shea. The topic Criminal Minds is addressing this week is whether as an author I’ve ever had to kill off a character I love.

The short answer is no, but that isn’t saying much since my second novel just came out, giving me only two novels to draw from. I have, however, read several books in which characters I loved were killed, and I think there is a right way to do it. When a best-selling author killed off a character I loved, a few years ago I felt betrayed. Asked if she had any remorse about it, the author said absolutely not. The long-term arc of the series demanded a dramatic change and someone important had to go. I understand her reasoning, but understanding was cold comfort.

The first time I ever read a book in which the main character was killed off was To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. She wrote the book in a response to the anguished loss of a whole generation of men in World War I. The book brought home how wrenching it is to suddenly have a loved one disappear. In Woolf’s case, although I was shocked, I didn’t feel cheated.

Why did I feel betrayed by one writer and not the other? Both writers had good reasons for killing off their characters. Maybe the answer lies in an interview I read recently. Author Mark Pryor said of his third novel, The Blood Promise, “I know some people are going to be upset by this, but one of the major characters doesn’t make it. I’ll be asked, I suspect, why I’d kill off a major character but the truth is, that’s how the story unfolded. And believe me, Hugo will battle with the sadness and distress of that event as much as anyone.” The italics are mine. In Woolf’s novel the reader has the second half of the book to mourn with the characters left behind. In the mystery novel I mentioned earlier, the death happens suddenly at the end, leaving hardly any time for the reader to process the distress of the event. In a way, it feels like a contrivance. Those who watch TV series have gotten used to having a key character die or disappear because the actor’s contract has run out. It’s hard to avoid the feeling those disappearances are contrived.

In my books, several of my characters are “geezers.” Sooner or later I’m going to have to let somebody go. In the third book of my series, which I’m currently writing, one of the characters is starting down that path. Even though the character doesn’t have much going for him, I feel a certain amount of affection for him, and want to give him his proper due before I send him off. It’s the author’s choice how to kill off a beloved character, but when I’m up against it, I’ll remember my feeling of betrayal, and give readers a chance to mourn properly.