Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Why a writer?

by Dietrich Kalteis

I missed out on the question why I became an author a couple weeks ago, and since this week’s a free for all, here’s my chance.

Being a writer had been a dream since I was a teenager and penned a draft of a novel in longhand. That one never got past the shoebox of handwritten looseleaf pages stuffed under the bed, and it took quite a bit more time for me to get a novel published and to take myself seriously as an author. I’d talked about it off and on for years, but real life kept getting in the way. It was my wife who encouraged me to actually do it.

There’s been a love for books and stories since before I could read, starting with the brothers Grimm. When I started to read it was The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. As I grew, I moved on to swashbucklers and westerns. And I loved the classics by Hemingway, Steinbeck and Salinger. I don’t know how many times I’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and To Kill a Mockingbird. Eventually, I got got my first taste of mysteries with the Hardy Boys. 

I do read other genres. I love the books by Patti Smith, and Hunter S. Thompson, and the beat writing of Jack Kerouac. So, I’m kind of all over the map, except to say I love reading a strong voice.

There’s something about the suspense in a good crime novel or thriller. And a great voice to take me on a journey, painting scenes of times gone by, and places I may never see, not to mention things I would never do. While I’ve mentioned them before, greats like Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, George V Higgins and James Crumley have been both an influence and an inspiration — a kind of a benchmark for me, something to reach for in my own writing.

I started writing short stories and a few screenplays, trying different approaches and genres to see where I fit. Early on, if I was happy with what I wrote that day, I usually hated it when I reread it the next morning. I sent some stories out and some were published and that was very encouraging. After several screenplays and a number of short stories, I wrote a piece that was a scene of dialog, and when I reread it the following morning I didn’t hate it. It was about an insurance investigator checking into a scamming housewife, trying to cheat the company he worked for. And I expanded on the idea, and although it changed quite a bit, that was the beginning of Ride the Lightning, my first novel. 

Aside from the suspense and pace, I love a sense of levity in a crime story. Often it appears in dialog or in a particular character’s dumbness. But it’s great when it’s done right alongside the natural tension in that kind of book.

Since I’m influenced and inspired by what I read, I want to mention some that I’ve read over the past few weeks that I think are worth passing on to anybody looking for a good book: Emily Schultz’s Men Walking on Water, George Pelecanos’ Drama City, The Drop by Dennis Lehane, Tough Guys Don’t Dance by Norman Mailer, Sideswipe by Charles Willeford, Sam Wiebe’s Invisible Dead and William Deverell’s Sing a Worried Song.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

How Much is Too Much?

By R.J. Harlick

This week I get to write on whatever topic I want to write about.

I had intended on writing on a completely different topic until I finished a book last night. It was a recent book from William Kent Kreuger’s Cork O’Connor series. I won’t say which one, so as not to spoil the ending. I had hesitated reading this book, primarily because of a concern over too much violence. A number of years ago I had picked up a much earlier book in the series, thinking it was my kind of book. And it was until I reached the ending.  Kreuger could have ended the book by a perfectly legal take down of the bad guys. Instead he chose to do a vigilante massacre of all the bad guys. I was so turned off by this, I vowed never to read another Kreuger book, until my ebook seller offered me one at a price I couldn’t refuse.

I was thoroughly enjoying this latest book. But when the ending loomed into view I prepared myself for a barrage of flying bullets and a pile of bleeding bodies. Instead I was pleasantly surprised. Cork, instead of reaching for a gun, grabbed a baseball bat. It turns out after retiring from being a sheriff he gave up his gun out of concern over too much violence.  I am going to assume that this is the author’s view being voiced.  Without actually talking to him, I suspect that Kreuger had reached a point in his writing where he felt he had to cut back on the violence. It had become too much.

I have been reading mystery books for as long as I have been reading. Apart from grizzly body descriptions and weapons being used to apprehend the bad guys, I don’t recall much violence in the these relatively early books of the genre, books by Dorothy Sayers, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, John D. MacDonald, Colin Dexter, Dick Francis, Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler and the like. And when violence was used, it was used because there was no alternative. But as the genre has matured, violence has increased in ever greater frequency.

There are authors I avoid because I fear they are too violent for my tastes. I am one of those people who believe a book is far too valuable to be thrown away. I either keep it for later re-rereading or I give it away. But twice I have ended up tossing books into the garbage instead of giving them away because the violence was too great to be passed on. It was violence for violence sake and nothing else. Both books by the way were by Canadian authors.

As more and more violence has crept into crime fiction, so too has it in movies and TV shows. There are now a number of TV shows I refuse to watch because of the high rate of violence.

And as modern society has become increasingly more violent, I can’t help but wonder what role crime fiction, films and TV play.  Though the stories we tell are fiction, often readers and viewers adopt the mores our characters espouse as the norm.

I ask, do we creators have a moral responsibility to temper what we write about or do we keep pushing the boundaries in the interests of artistic freedom or pursuit of the almighty dollar for I suspect violence brings in sales, and let the reading and viewing public determine how much is too much?

I would appreciate your views.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Feeding Creativity

At 7 Criminal Minds this week we are picking our own subject. I’m writing about feeding creativity.

A few years ago I was working on a book and got totally stumped. I couldn’t move forward, but I couldn’t give it up, either. Finally, I realized that I had holed up and worked on the book to the exclusion of other activities. My creative brain had gone stale. I knew it was time to get out and about and feed my creative side. In this particular case, I went for a long walk. But not just any walk—not a mindless ramble. I focused. I promised myself to really look at everything around me. I noticed the beautiful red bark of the manzanita tree that I often passed without paying attention to it. I stopped to take in the incredible variety of the color green on a hillside—every shade from silver-green to deep jade, to the soft green of new shoots. I noticed that intricate patters of tree trunks:

Several years ago, I started taking painting classes. I have no “talent” at painting, and no illusions that I would burst onto the art scene. I thought it might make me better able to see the world. I’m not a natural at “seeing. I’m more tuned to hearing the world around me. Learning to really look at things turned out to be more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. I learned about the important of light and shadow and how difficult it is to replicate the colors of nature.

In my writing, it made me able to open up to description. I always had trouble describing scenes. I was of the “just describe everything in the room” writer. Nothing, it turns out, is more boring than reading a checklist of what’s in a room. From painting, I learned the art of picking out the important visual cue. I don’t see a tree trunk anymore. I see the roughness or smoothness of the bark, the way the trunk twists, the visible roots on the ground. Is see the intricate details of flowers:

I have learned over time to feed my creative side in all kinds of ways. One of my favorites is to go to art galleries. Did I say I was more tuned to hearing than to seeing? I realized several years ago that when a piece of visual art really speaks to me, I often hear a soundtrack with it in my head.
Here’s a photo I took while strolling through Bouquets to Art at the DeYoung Museum, a yearly exhibition in which floral artists interpret art in the gallery: Can you hear the music that goes along with it?

Bird-watching expeditions are a wonderful way to see the world afresh. In the Bay Area, we are lucky to have places to observe shorebirds, woodland and forest birds, as well as free-ranging raptors. Birds are around us every day, but “seeing” them requires being still and really looking for the subtle colors, watching the way they feed and preen, the way they fly and interact with each other and their environment.

Sometimes it isn’t nature that fulfills, but other arts. Going to a movie or to the theater can stir your imagination and set you buzzing with a new idea. Music: The symphony or the opera, or any kind of music. Rock, folk, jazz.

And of course, sometimes what works best is reading. Not just reading mysteries, but reading outside sometimes reading outside your comfort zone. I just read the brilliant Lincoln in the Bardo, not knowing what to expect. It reminded me that literature can take you out of your everyday experiences and fling you into a new way of seeing the world.

How do others feed their creativity? Do you work on your car? Cook? Rearrange your furniture? Take photographs?

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Story Behind the Story -- Guest Post by Laura Brennan

Every week we answer a set question. This week you have the opportunity to write about whatever you want to write about as long as it has something to do with the intent of our blog.

by Paul D Marks

Since today’s post is an open question, I thought I’d have Laura Brennan pinch hit for me. Laura’s eclectic career includes television, film, theater, fiction, and news. Her weekly podcast, Destination Mystery, features interviews with mystery writers of every subgenre. Her short story, “Driving Dead Daisy,” is available on Amazon, while other stories have appeared in anthologies such as “Hell Comes to Hollywood” and “Live Free or Ride.” On screens large and small, Laura has lopped characters’ heads off and fed them to dinosaurs. But it’s not all blood and guts: her web series Faux Baby explores the lighter side of motherhood. And if the faux baby loses a limb here or there, well… No, actually, she has no justification for that at all. Laura talks about many of the authors and stories she’s been exposed to since she started interviewing authors a couple of years ago. So take it away, Laura:

The Story Behind the Story

by Laura Brennan

Two years ago I started the podcast Destination Mystery. I did it because I love mysteries and wanted an excuse to interview authors, and also because, as a newbie mystery writer myself, I wanted a way to be part of the conversation.

But over two years and sixty-plus interviews, I have learned so much from my chats with other writers. Some of the highlights:

1) We all write from our own life. Like her heroine, Dr. Ellen Kirschman is a therapist who worked with first responders and their families. Leslie Karst has restaurant experience in both the front of the house and on the hot line, bringing authenticity to her Sally Solari mysteries. And Kellye Garrett was broke in Los Angeles when she saw a billboard offering a reward for information on a murder. She didn’t solve the case, but Dayna Anderson, the heroine of Kellye’s debut, Hollywood Homicide, did.

2) Mystery writers tend to have experience with law enforcement. Criminal Minds’ very own Paul D. Marks told me how he pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell the tale (a story you can check out here: Jessie Chandler, who writes capers, is herself a former police officer, while S.M. Freedman worked for a decade as a private investigator. Living the dream!

3) Other crime writers have had what Denise Swanson calls an “encounter with evil.” Denise stumbled across a satanic cult that was abusing children and became a target of them herself. Jane Kelly lost a friend to a murder -- a loss that had a direct impact on her writing. And of course, true crime writer Holly Tucker, while not herself directly touched by tragedy, was inspired by real life events: an epidemic of poisoning in the court of Louis XIV.

4) Writers grow and change -- and so do the books they want to write. Cozy author Ellery Adams has been pushing against the confines of the genre for a while and made a clean break with her new series, The Secret, Book & Scone Society, which she calls suspenseful women’s fiction. On the opposite side, Olivia Matthews comes from a background of romance and romantic suspense while her new series is squarely cozy -- and her protagonist is a Catholic sister!

5) Finally, everyone has themes that they return to again and again. This one worries me a little, because I can see a theme in my own writing -- one of unreliable narrators and moral codes that are just a little outside the norms. Not quite sure what that says about me!

But I can’t fight it. It seems impossible to escape our obsessions, at least on the page. Jenny Milchman writes thrillers about women who find the strength to recover from betrayal and learn to trust themselves. Steph Cha’s Juniper Song mystery novels are a modern take on LA Noir, infused with Raymond Chandler’s sensibility. And Kwei Quartey’s traditional police series is set in his native Ghana; in each Darko Dawson novel, Kwei ties a wider social issue to the very human and personal motives for murder.

Destination Mystery has exposed me to subgenres I would never have picked up on my own: Pirate Noir, anyone? While Steve Goble’s The Bloody Black Flag introduced me to that genre, I’ve learned about the Great Fire of London from Susanna Calkins, Joseph Haydn (Nupur Tustin), and growing up during the Civil Rights Movement (Valerie C. Woods). But best of all has been the chance to chat with fantastic authors about the struggles, inspirations, and successes in their careers.

Mind you, I’m still a bit worried about that unreliable narrator theme of mine…


Thank you for stopping by, Laura. And I hope people will check out Destination Mystery at 


And now for the usual BSP:

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