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

HemingwayLoeb 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.

Angels-flight-LA (1)

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.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Books & Writers Who Inspired Me

by Clare O'Donohue
Cinderella by Mother Goose (aka Charles Perrault)
I was four. My sister read Cinderella to me over and over, so eventually I memorized it. But I didn’t like the ending. I didn’t like that Cinderella had to be made pretty before the Prince could love her. I wanted the Prince to love her as she was. I was, apparently, a baby feminist. And a stubborn one. So whenever my sister would get to the part where Cinderella was transformed with a ballgown and glass slippers, I changed it. I eventually abandoned the book altogether and would tell my version of Cinderella with no fancy balls or ill fitting shoes or ugly stepsisters. Then I moved on to telling my sister my own stories - about the people who lived under the bed and other characters I made up. It’s funny to think of it now, but before I could read I’d become a writer. 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I read this book when I was in the 5th grade. My mother was a high school English teacher so in our house we had Steinbeck, Hemingway, Shakespeare... I read The Great Gatsby because I was bored and looking for something to do. Four kids, one television. I didn’t always understand the story, but I fell in love with the words. I fell in love with the emotion that someone could convey in just a line of dialogue. I wanted to do that too. After that book I started writing stories and quietly imagining that someday, maybe, I could be a real writer.

Junior Year Abroad by Judy & Rosamond du Jardin
When I was about 12, I was given this second hand book that had been written years before. It was a kind of hokey romantic memoir about a college student spending her junior year in Paris, but it awakened in me a passion to travel. I began to study world maps and make lists of places to visit. I was from the South Side of Chicago being raised by a single mom, so the whole idea of being a world traveler seemed nearly impossible. But eight years later, I spent my junior year in London. It was no small feat to get me there. I worked 40 hours while going to school and my mom took a second job in part to help pay for it, but it was amazing. I’ve been traveling ever since. A few years back, a friend said he knew my favorite place in the world. I was surprised there was such a place, so I challenged him to name it. “Away,” he said. “You love being away.” This book was the first time I ever imagined such a magical place as “away” existed.

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
I was in an airport a long time ago, no idea when, but I was wandering the bookstore looking for something to read, and the title caught my eye. I hadn’t read a lot of mystery yet but I was open to it. Once I read this book – forget that – once I read the first few pages, I was in. At the time I was a newspaper reporter on a small weekly with no plans to write a novel, but I remember thinking then that if I ever did write a novel, I’d want to write about crime.

God Save The Mark by Donald Westlake
I had started to make my way through mysteries, reading the classics and the contemporary authors when I stumbled upon Donald Westlake. I loved that he wrote funny and he wrote tough. I loved that each book was different, but always good. God Save The Mark is probably my favorite of his, but it could tie with twenty others. What I learned was that if I wanted to be a mystery writer I didn’t have to choose between hard and soft. My two mystery series are very different from each other, and I often feel I got permission for that from Westlake.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Who Inspired Me To Murder

My writing influences when I was getting started: Elizabeth George and Jonathan Kellerman

Elizabeth George's Playing For The Ashes was the first mystery I read as an adult. I was a Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon addict as a child, but I abandoned them for Sweet Valley High as a tween, and “serious literature” as a teenager and twentysomething. Then one day I was sick, and I picked up Playing For The Ashes because I wanted distraction in the form of a light read. I was floored. Yeah, sure, it's genre fiction. But it's also damn good writing. She gets deep, she has unconventional yet relatable characters, and the plot had me hooked. What impressed me (and what I try to emulate in my own writing) was the different points of view. She gets right into the head of these wildly different characters so you see the same story from dramatically different perspectives.

Once I knew I liked mysteries, I took my grandmother's recommendation and went to Jonathan Kellerman next. What I loved was his spare use of language, his fast pace, and how deep he gets with characters in very few words. What I learned from him was dialogue—how to punch and play and reveal a lot in a few words. And his plotting is addictive. When I open one of his books, I'm lost to the world until I close the last page.

My current influences: Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott's Dare Me is the kind of novel that surprises you with each new word. Nothing conventional for these characters—even though they're high school cheerleaders. They are full-on real life people, and they pop off the page. Her writing is stellar—no word is out of place. And her plot is a can't-put-it-down-until-your-eyelids-seal-themselves-shut kind of deal. Writing like this inspires me to challenge my self that much harder, pore over each word that much longer.

And Gone Girl, even for those characters we all hate so much, was as gripping and as real-to-life as any late night conversation I've had over wine with close friends. What I loved most: how Amy is at once detestable and everywoman. Of course I saw myself in her—I think many readers did, and that's what gripped us so much. She's not just everywoman, she's everywoman's dark side. She's the part of us we shut out, we deny exists. (And thank God we do; we'd have a pretty awful world if we all indulged our dark sides.) But oh my god, she inspires me to be more honest with my writing.

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 24, 2014

"Questions 67 & 68"

Before I get to this week’s question—my first blog post for Criminal Minds!—I want to thank everyone here for letting me join the panel and give special thanks to Alan Orloff in particular for inviting me to come aboard.

Now to the question at hand: “What’s wrong with asking ‘Where do you get your ideas?’”

The first thing that came to mind here was a PEN/Faulkner event with Doris Lessing a few years back. During the q&a, a woman stood to ask whether Lessing wrote on a computer or used a pen or pencil, and after a withering gaze and a long pause, Lessing replied something along the lines of “Why on earth would you ask such a thing?” I don’t recall the exact words there or the diatribe that followed, but I do remember feeling terribly glad I wasn’t that poor woman in the audience.

Even though I’ve never felt vehemently against that pencil/pen/computer question, I also don’t see much value in it. But I do understand what prompts it, and I think it comes from the same place as the question at hand here: a reader’s interest in knowing more about a favorite writer or about the stories behind the stories; an aspiring writer’s curiosity about even the most mundane details of the creative process (sometimes with an eye toward picking up tips and tricks of the trade, as Meredith hinted at on Monday); our shared fascination with creativity in general. I’ll admit my own fascination with photographs of writer’s workspaces (one of my own favorites is E.B. White’s, shown right), though I certainly wouldn’t try to fashion my own desk like his or anyone else’s. And while I’ve loved various writers’ tips about finding story ideas—Read the local police blotter! Eavesdrop on conversations! Follow writing prompts and see where they lead!—I’ve never been much good at putting those tips into practice myself, at least not profitably.

My real trouble with the question is that I’m not sure how to answer it satisfactorily. The honest response is that different ideas come from different places. My stories “A Voice From the Past” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine) and “The White Rose of Memphis” (Needle) both started with me writing down dreams I had. The EQMM stories “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut” and “Rearview Mirror” (recently reprinted in the anthology The Crooked Road) were both inspired by trips I took to New Mexico and in North Carolina, respectively, and “Rearview Mirror” actually got its first nudge from a photo in a Washington Post fiction contest. Of my two stories for EQMM last year, “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants” emerged from some vague musings on betrayal and cruelty—sparked by the situation of a man wanting to shake hands with the fella he’s cuckolding—and “Ithaca 37” came out of a Facebook conversation: I mentioned having seen the Michael Caine film Get Carter, a friend commented on the gun Caine was holding in the movie poster I’d linked, and somehow the whole story fell out of that small detail.

Some of that may be anecdotally interesting to readers, like the trivia in those pop up videos on VH1 (and with about as much weight). Some of it may add a little depth to someone’s enjoyment of a story, though you’d likely be bored to tears by a full slideshow of our photos from the Southwest. And in other cases, the story behind the story has no connection to a published piece of writing. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” for example, came to me in the middle of a Chicago concert my wife dragged me to. I was underwhelmed, my mind wandered. That’s all there was to it, and no reader of that story is going to gain anything fresh or useful from knowing that background. (In fact, I apologize if you’ve read this far!)

As for any aspiring writers who ask that question about “ideas” with an eye toward finding your own, I won’t go all Doris Lessing on you, but…. Trust that the best ideas don’t come from some special place, but just from keeping a writerly eye on all aspects of the day—pulling the interesting parts together, building something new from it all. So don’t keep a dream journal (if you don’t already keep on) or take long trips (unless there’s some place you want to go) or watch more classic movies (unless you enjoy them). Don’t start reading the police blotter or eavesdropping on strangers or doing anything that’s not already part of what you do and what you love and what makes your day complete.

Oh, and despite the Chicago reference in the title of this post, don’t go to one of their concerts, OK—not under any circumstances. I'm serious about that. — Art Taylor

Thursday, January 23, 2014

No Stupid Questions, Only Stupid Answers

by Alan

What’s wrong with asking, “Where do you get your ideas?”

First, a little explanation about the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

If you’ve never been to a writing conference or convention, or a book festival, you’re missing out. They’re great places for meeting other writers, meeting readers, learning about books, learning about writing, and learning about the hotel bar. One of the staples at a book event is the “authors panel,” which brings together four or five writers to talk (ostensibly) about a certain topic.Malice panel from Sasscer

When I’m on a panel, my goal is to be entertaining (read: funny). I don’t always succeed, but I do try (that’s me in the photo, as panel referee, er moderator, at Malice Domestic, calling some sort of penalty on Sasscer Hill). After the panel discussion is finished, the audience generally gets a chance to ask some questions of the writers, and invariably someone will ask where we (writers) get our ideas.

It happens so frequently that it’s become an “inside joke” among the writers. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the question—in fact, I think it’s a pretty good question. I just wish I had a better answer.

Because I DON’T KNOW WHERE I GET MY IDEAS. They just pop into my head, when I’m sitting in my car, taking a shower, reading the newspaper, daydreaming, watching TV, eating, cooking, shopping, sleeping (yes, I once woke up with an awesome idea). My problem is not a dearth of ideas; it’s a lack of time to write about them all.

Remember, as my grade school teachers used to say: there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Just my stupid answer.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What’s Wrong With Asking Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

By Tracy Kiely

To be honest, I don’t mind this question probably because I’ve asked it myself on numerous occasions. I enjoy hearing what sparked a particular idea for a mystery. I think the answers can help a writer look at events and relationships in their own world a little differently and see the potential for inspiration. I had one teacher who told a story of a huge storm that had blown through this sleepy little southern town. Power lines were down and massive trees were uprooted. She passed by one house where an ancient oak tree lay on its side, its roots exposed and spilling all over the yard. She then had a sudden image of skeleton partially uncovered amidst the roots. She next thought of a family gathered on the front porch staring in horror at this discovery – all except for one. In her mind’s eye, she saw an elderly, frail woman, dressed all in black, her expression calm in the face of this gruesome discovery.   
One of my all-time favorite authors, Elizabeth Peters, once told how she came up with the idea for her book, Be Buried In The Rain. She was driving along a back road in rural Maryland and came upon a large black trash bag that had been dumped along the side of the road. What kind of person would dump a bag of trash along such a scenic road, she wondered? She thought about it as she drove and soon came up with her story, which involved a lonely road and the grim discovery of the skeletons of a mother and child.

Ideas are all around us, if you are open to them. But, obviously a good story is more than just the idea. As everyone else has said, it’s what you do with the idea that matters. Let’s say you have eggs, sugar, butter and flour. Will this make a good cake? Who knows? It’s how you put together those ingredients that maters.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It’s not the idea!

By Vicki Delany

I have a great idea: I’m going to write a book about a young man, orphaned, who is taken under the wing of a powerful man, and ends up becoming the savior of his world.

What a great idea.  But of course there’s not the slightest thing original about it.  King Arthur, Star Wars…

It’s not the idea, it’s what you do with it.

Meredith hits the nail on the head in her post of yesterday. The work is in developing the idea, not coming up with the idea.

As well as the immortal, “Where do you get your ideas” most of us have been told “I have this idea.  I’ll give it to you, you write it and we’ll share the profits.”

My forthcoming book, UNDER COLD STONE, the seventh Constable Molly Smith novel from Poisoned Pen Press (April 2014) was inspired by something that happened to me

I had a very minor altercation with a couple of young men at the airport in Turks and Caicos when I told them not to butt in line.  

End of story.

But, what if, I thought, I had been Lucky Smith, Molly’s mother, a somewhat stubborn woman.  What if Lucky ran into those men later? Who might one of them be to make it interesting? Why, the estranged son of her new partner.  What if Lucky is not in her home town surrounded by friends and family, but on a vacation with that partner?

And what if the son calls his dad - a police officer - for help that night. And disappears. Only now do we have a book. 

The original germ of the story – the idea – is a minor part of developing an entire novel.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The magical mystical writing process now explained

What's wrong with asking, "Where do you get your ideas?"?

 by Meredith Cole

There is a moment at every book signing when the audience is asked if they have questions. Inevitably someone gets up and asks the dreaded question, "where do you get your ideas?"

The question really shouldn't be dreaded. I mean, most authors have some idea where they get their ideas for stories. They can tell you that they read a newspaper story that got them thinking, "what if?" Or they started to think about someone they knew and wonder what would have happened if someone like that were a murderer... And so on.

But I think the question is dreaded because we know that the asker is hoping for an easy answer. Perhaps they've always wanted to write but they don't like the idea of actually typing. They what to know how to skip ahead of everyone else with the real secret to writing and just cash a James Patterson sized check. If they could know how to tell a good idea for a bad idea, and knew where they could find a million amazing ideas--what would be stopping their career?  But we all know that the secret is... that there is none. And we hate to be the one to bust their bubble.

The truth is we all have great ideas--and bad ones. But a great idea does not magically morph itself into a great book. It takes a lot of energy and talent to write a great book, good idea or not. And there are no short cuts.

So where do I get my ideas? From dreams... From the newspaper... From overheard conversations... From somewhere in the magical mystical writing process. Where do you get yours?

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?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Gone, but definitely not forgotten.

by Clare O'Donohue

Have you ever killed off a character you loved?

Yes, and the odd part is, I didn't start loving him until after he was dead.

In the first book of my Kate Conway series, MISSING PERSONS, there is a death very early on - Kate's estranged, philandering, underachieving husband, Frank.

Good riddance, right? Kate would be suspected of having some hand in it, plot complications would ensue, and it would be all tied together with a fun subplot about Frank's mistress wanting to be friends. Lovely.

Except, here's the thing. As I wrote about Kate, not quite a widow, not quite an ex-wife, Frank changed. Kate was dealing with the realities of his death - from planning his funeral to giving family heirlooms back to his parents. She was angry, she was hurt, she was sad, she had regrets.... and somewhere underneath it all, she still loved him.

I found that as I wrote, a more nuanced Frank emerged. A man of passion, with amazing talent, great dreams - and, okay, zero follow-through. Like all relationships, theirs became complicated, with blame on both sides, and good memories that somehow, nearly, made up for the bad. Frank become someone I wanted to protect and, at times, punch in the stomach.

But I couldn't. Frank was dead. He is dead. And even though I've never met him - I killed him off the page - I sometimes, honestly, feel sad about that.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Love The One You Kill

This week's question: Have you ever killed off a character you've loved?

Answer: Yes and no.

In the first two novels of my Clare Vengel detective series, I didn't feel much for anyone who died. Dead Politician Society was political satire; the victims were politicians who had virtually no page time until their corpses showed up in the news. In Death Plays Poker, victims were poker players whose morals had been corrupted long before the story opens. So while sure, each victim had some redeeming qualities, I didn't feel like their deaths were especially tragic.

But with Death's Last Run, I found myself more attached to the victim. The death that sparks the story is a girl in her twenties who is fighting her own revolution and has lost her way. In one sense, she's culpable in her own death, but I also see her as a brave and interesting person who could have given the world a lot had she lived.

So while I didn't love Sacha when I killed her, the process of exploring who she was and why she died led me to feel deep regret for her death by the time I'd finished writing the story. As a result, I think this third installment is much richer than the first two in the series.

Going forward, I think I'll love the ones I kill.

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.