Friday, June 14, 2019

Criminal Minds Think Alike

Do you read different stuff when you're writing from when you're not? Why?

by Paul D. Marks

Another Two-fer today. I’ll respond to this week’s question and also talk a little and post some pix from the California Crime Writers Conference that took place last weekend. The CCWC is a two-day conference that lately’s been taking place every other year in Culver City/Los Angeles at the Double Tree Hotel. It’s worth it just for the cookies they give you when you arrive.

It’s put on by the Los Angeles chapters of both Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America. I’m on the board of the latter and have been on the board of the former (a long time ago). That sort of helps in determining whether or not to go 😉. However, I would go anyway. This is one hell of a good conference. And it’s local – well fairly local for me. And that helps.

Our own Catriona was one of the keynote speakers. The other was Tess Gerritsen. Unfortunately, I could only be there on Saturday so I missed Catriona’s Sunday keynote speech, but on Saturday she also gave a workshop called “Deep in a Bowl of Porridge,” about how to plant clues. I did catch Tess’s keynote on Saturday. Her speech was short but pithy and to the point. She spoke about something that writer’s rarely talk about: what not to do.

My panel was Bringing the Past to Life. Panelists were Anne Louise Bannon, Jennifer Berg, Rosemary Lord, Bonnie MacBird, me, and moderated by Amanya (“A.E.”) Wasserman. We discussed writing mysteries set in the past and how we do our research for them. Everyone on the panel has a book or books set in the past, covering everything from the 1870’s to the 1990’s. My books White Heat and Broken Windows are mystery-thrillers set in the 1990s, the first during the Rodney King riots, the latter during the Proposition 187 debates about illegal aliens, much of which is still in the air today. I also have a new novel coming out in 2020, The Blues Don’t Care, that’s set on the Los Angeles homefront during World War II. And let me tell you, it was easier to research that than the 1990s books, where the era is still fresh but one has to be careful about what was and wasn’t around then since it was very similar to today…but not the same. Everyone on the panel had interesting things to say about how they went about researching the past.

Audio of this and other panels are available from and you can see a list of them at

I also ran into Criminal Mind Terry Shames, and it was nice to chat with her for a while.

So that’s the abbreviated version of my weekend at CCWC. I hope you’ll be able to join us there in two years.


And now to this week’s question: No, I don’t really read different “stuff” when I’m writing. The problem, if that’s the right word, is that I’m always writing. Always working on one thing or another. So either I wouldn’t be reading or I might as well just read what I normally read.

Sure, maybe we can be influenced by what we read. This applies to TV and movies as well. It’s impossible to avoid the buzz in the air...or over the air.

Does it mess with my own writing? I don’t think so. In fact, I’d say just the opposite. Since ideas can come from anywhere—we just pluck them out of the air, a newspaper, TV, a snatch of conversation—we can also be inspired by what we’re reading. Of course, we don’t want to borrow something directly, and that’s not what I’m referring to. But a line, a turn of phrase, a character, an incident, etc., from something we’re reading, might inspire us to get over a hump in our work-in-progress.

But, from the Great Minds Think Alike Department, the frustrating thing for me is that sometimes I might be working on something and find similarities in something else that already exists, even though I hadn’t seen it or read it at the time of writing my project. That just happened to me. I’ve been working on a novel and it’s been going well. But I heard there was something that was similar to it. I debated if I should watch it or not, but decided maybe I should. And sure enough, there’s a couple of characters with the same names as my characters. Some incidents that are similar to mine, though I had written several early drafts before seeing this show. So I’ll change the character names, but the events might stay the same since I came up with them on my own. Still, it’s frustrating. But I guess writing about certain subjects one tends to write about similar things that others might have because we’re exploring the same experience.

Sometimes, when reading something by an author you admire you get inspired by them, not to copy or steal, but to take their inspiration and spin it in a different direction or take it to another level. Like reading Ross MacDonald and wishing I could dig into the psychological depths the way he does or being envious of Chandler’s descriptions and metaphors. I think reading some of these great authors has helped me to become a better writer.

James Ellroy doesn’t read fiction anymore (though that was a while ago so maybe it’s changed). But I like reading fiction and crime fiction in particular. It’s a good escape. Often the world comes out better in the end than in real life.

The worst part is finding the time to do the reading. Seems I used to have tons of time for that, but not so much these days. But when I do read I read all sorts of things, from various non-fiction subjects to literary/mainstream and crime fiction. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy, YA, things along those lines. To each his/her own, right?

And I suppose the question can be applied to almost any activity, even just sitting in a café listening to people. Inspiration and ideas, whether for a whole novel or just a snatch of dialogue can come from anywhere, so why limit ourselves? Sure we want to create something from whole cloth, so to speak, but even if we were to shut ourselves off in a hermetically sealed room we’d still be influenced by things we’ve read, watched, seen and lived. So there really is no “escape” from having things “mess” with our writing.

So there you have it. What about you? Do you read different stuff when you're writing from when you're not?


And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I don't have a picture of the cover yet, but the issue should be available at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: Hope you'll check it out.

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my


Dietrich Kalteis said...

I agree with you, Paul, inspiration can come from anywhere. And that sounds like a great conference.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dieter. Maybe you can make it down for the conference some time. As for inspiration, it's there for the grabbing. The hard part is putting it down in some form that makes sense and makes people want to turn the page.

Terry said...

CCWC is one of my favorite conferences because it's short and to the point, and it's a working conference. That doesn't mean there aren't fans, but they tend to be writers as well. I think Socal MWA and SinC do a fabulous job of organizing it. The panels are meaty, and the conversations are often serious, and about the particulars of our crazy publishing world. It was nice to have more than a "he/bye" conversation with you, Parl.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Congrats on the publication of your latest short story in AHMM.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to The Blues Don’t Care. If oyu need a beta reader, count me in. I'm glad there's an audio of the conference. As for reading, I read just about anything, although I steer clear of pedophiles and psychopaths.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Terry. I agree with you about CCWC, short and to the point. And it was great to have time to chat with you. Hope we can do it again, soon.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. The issue was supposed to be out on 6/13, but I don’t think it is yet.

Paul D. Marks said...

I don’t blame you for steering clear of pedophiles, Maggie. Some things are just too unpleasant. But psychopaths I guess I can deal with…at least on the page. As for The Blues Don’t Care let’s talk in private. And glad to hear you’re looking forward to it :-) .